Headdresses and Music Festivals Go Together Like PB and…Racism?

In headdress, hipster headdress, NASA, Sasquatch, sungod, UCSD, warbonnet by Adrienne K.4 Comments

I don’t know what it is about outdoor music festivals that seems to invite headdress-wearing these days, but we saw it at Coachella, and Ke$ha at The Bamboozle, and now at Sasquatch! in Washington over memorial day weekend. The Seattle Weekly Blog posted about the phenomenon (more photos on the site), and questioned the reasoning behind the Native-inspired garb:

We are, after all, in an area of the country rich with Native American heritage, and the outfits du jour at Sasquatch! this year appears to be anything related to the kind of American Indian image painted by white oppressors of Native Americans. I understand we still live in the world of Cleveland Indians and Washington Redskins, but this seems like a step backward, right?

Among the responses I got when I asked those dressed up what the deal was:

“It’s what we’re about.” “Why not?” “Chief Seattle, baby! Chief Seattle!”

I don’t know if it’s a step backward as much as bringing to light something that never went away. These incidences have been happening for years-decades-centuries, but it wasn’t considered to be the ultimate in trendy or counter culture until more recently. To me, the responses when directly questioned show the absolute ignorance of the issues with wearing a headdress. Which is why my friend Ricky is amazing and made this to wear to a music festival recently (not sure if it was Sasquatch! or not):

(click to make it big)
His statements confront head-on most of the issues these people probably never even thought about when they stapled chicken feathers to tie-dye fabric. I am, of course, referring to these people:
Thanks for the stereotypical war whoop face, because it was unclear you were being insensitive solely by your mess of a headdress. 
In addition to Sasquatch!, two weeks ago, UCSD held their annual “Sun God” festival on campus, a big outdoor concert much like the ones above (bit smaller scale, but you get it). The Native American Student Association at UCSD released a statement regarding the number of students who decided to dress up in headdresses/warpaint/etc. Their response is beautifully written, and I recommend a full read here.

On Friday May 14, 2010 at UCSD’s annual Sungod Festival, UCSD students dressed in mock Native American attire, including, but not limited to, painted faces, feathers, and headdresses. This act is disrespectful and degrading to the traditions and culture of Natives as the attire is sacred to many Native American tribes. Acts like this perpetuate negative stereotypes of Native American culture, breeding the insensitivity and misunderstanding that is already plaguing our university…As students at UCSD we should not have to see our cultures mocked and ridiculed during a student sponsored event taking place at our university.

Native American students were forced to witness these acts of disrespect and see their peers mocking and degrading what is considered to be sacred attire in many of the Native American cultures. Though the university was awakened to issues of diversity and campus climate at UCSD in the past few months, based on these numerous incidents of disrespect it is apparent that the university needs to take more action to promote diversity and cultural awareness among the UCSD community (particularly with regard to the Native American community with whom the university has had a long history of discontent).

They go on to note that there the presence of Native students on campus is ever-diminishing (which is upsetting considering that San Diego County is home to 13 Indian Reservations). The “numerous incidents of disrespect” are referring to the “Compton Cookout” party hosted by UCSD students, where guests were invited to dress up like urban/poor/black stereotypes. Clearly UCSD has some major work to do.

Especially when this was the response in the school newspaper, entitled “When Students Cry Cookout” by Alyssa Bereznak:

“…as a Sun God celebrator who peppered her hair with gold feathers the day of, I’d argue many costumed students never intended to emulate traditional American-Indian dress, but rather the aesthetic of the statue itself. The festival’s winged inspiration, after all, was created by artist Nikki St. Phalle’s indigenous handbrush. Even with all artistic classification aside, it’s still a bird splashed in primary colors — perfectly crowned with a row of gold feathers.”

This is the statue that she’s referring to, used in many UCSD publications, and where the name of the festival comes from:

So, ok, maybe YOU were inspired by the feathers on this statue, but what about the war-paint wearing, Indian headdress sporters?

But even if we’re talking about those who did aim to sport some Sioux-inspired gear because they thought it looked cool, it’s unclear why that would be classified as mockery. If students had decked themselves in moccasins and paint and skipped around howling a sarcastic war cry, I’d say we had another Cookout on our hands. But, seeing as they were simply borrowing from the culture’s style because they think it’s awesome, it seems like more of a case of flattery in the form of imitation. America is a melting pot of heritage and tradition; many a white boy has donned a kurta to demonstrate respect for the Indian culture, or a toga for the Greeks. While American-Indians have faced especially violent hardship in the U.S. — which shouldn’t be downplayed — that doesn’t take away a collective right to appreciate their art and culture.

…and there it is. The “appreciation” and “honoring” argument. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there is absolutely no way a drunk guy/girl in a headdress and war paint is honoring, respecting, or showing appreciation for my culture or my ancestors. not. at. all. And a toga is not the same thing as a ceremonial warbonnet. Seriously?

She goes on to say that the Native students shouldn’t “cry cookout” and they should “choose their battles.” The whole exchange makes me so angry. I just can’t understand the level of ignorance that goes into composing an article such as Alyssa’s. If someone tells you, in a public forum, that what you’re doing is offensive to them and their culture, that takes some major privilege-laden huevos to defend your actions.

To illustrate my point, a quick story: I had a hipster-y green and yellow keffiyeh that I bought in the Haight in SF without understanding any of the background or implications of my “scarf.” The SECOND someone clued me in, I ripped it off, apologized profusely, never wore it again. I also continue to spread the word and educate others. The level of shame and embarrassment I felt in that one quick moment was enough to change my actions permanently. That’s (one of many reasons) why I simply cannot understand people who defend their headdress wearing. Don’t you have some level basic level of compassion and understanding?

For all the other reasons: But Why Can’t I Wear a Hipster Headdress?

Seattle Weekly Blog: http://blogs.seattleweekly.com/reverb/2010/05/sasquatch_sunday_anyone_else_a.php

NASA statement on Sun God:

UCSD guardian student response to NASA:

(Thanks Scott, Rob, Ricky, and anyone else who sent me the UCSD article!)
  • A follow up, if you’re interested. One of the headdress girls shown in the photo responded on the Seattle Weekly Post.

    “I am a girl who dressed up like a Native American at Sasquatch – in fact that last picture there is of me and my home girl. SOOOOOOO, pretty amusing I stumbled upon this blog.
    But I must say, after reading what you said, along w/ the other comments, that you are greatly mistaken about our reasons for “dressing up,” our feathers and face paint were not accessories, fashion trends, nor ignorant jokes. We went for the music and we are all naked Indians at heart. Our message and apparel was that of love, truth, beauty with an understanding of our shared earth and our heritage (“CHIEF SEATTLE” AS WE WERE BORN AND RAISED IN SEATTLE) Having Native American heritage myself, I’m sad and sorry you don’t know me or my reasons. But I like the picture! One Love. “

    The all being a “naked Indian” comment was seconded by another commenter.

    They’re not just putting on the headdress to be hip. They’re actually Indians at heart, naked ones. Whatever that means.

  • Wim

    You do realise that a keffiyeh is just an article of clothing? I don’t know who you were talking to, but unless you were wearing one specifically in the colours of hamas or arafat, there’s really no reason anyone should imply differently.

  • I wear my keffiyeh and moccasins and my headdress at the same time. I consider my keffiyeh a extremely functional garment and I wear it almost every day for protection from heat, cold, wind, sunlight and dust and I am grateful for such a simple and elegant design. I see my footwear in the same light. Is cultural sensitivity more important than practicality, especially in a world of such disposable fashion?
    My headdress is made from ring neck pheasant wing feathers and it is unique in that my friend designed it herself and collected the feathers from birds that her family members had hunted. The leather headband is recycled from old leather jackets. This is consistent with our culture as rural residents in Saskatchewan. We hunt, we shop in thrift stores, we come together as a community to enjoy music and food and drink. We choose to represent ourselves by wearing the art and making use of the crafts created by members in our community. Should we be criticized for appreciating the creativity of our peers? The headdresses are meaningful to us in a way that is unique, and the traditional use of actual native headdresses remains sacred and separate from our use of our own. When I wear these items, my intention is not to honour a particular culture, nor to degrade it. I feel that to be a truly evolving community, we must create our own traditions and customs, and we must be willing to draw influence from all aspects of our past. Fostering cultural knowledge and respect is a constant process in any community, and exclusion is the least effective way to engage interest.

  • Eli

    the keffiyeh may be “just an article of clothing,” it is a symbol of Palestine. it was adopted from the lower class in Palestine by mainstream revolutionaries (if you could say that) and has become a universal symbol for Palestine and her plight. Wearing one outside of Palistine has become a symbol of solidarity. One may argue that the wearing and purchasing of a keffiyeh may not be culturally insensitive, but Palestine is not manufacturing the keffiyehs westerns are wearing, they are coming from china. The surge of their popularity has put all but one Palestine manufacturer out of business. (yay cultural appropriation!!!) If you are wearing a symbol of solidarity to a nation, shouldn’t that nation benefit?
    That being said, it is not uniquly Arab, as it has a long, biblical history of being worn by Semitic peoples.