Playing Indian at Stanford Powwow, Year 2

In blackface, feather hair clips, playing indian, racial drag, stanford powwow by Adrienne K.8 Comments

Last year about this time, I posted about some local high school girls who decided to dress up and play Indian at Stanford’s powwow. The post caused a huge ruckus, I ended up getting “legal threats” from the girls’ parents, and a lot of people hated me for a minute. But since the internet has a memory of about 2 weeks, if that, it blew over and everyone forgot. But being the person that I am, I’m stirring the pot again, and have a couple of offenders from this year’s powwow.

First we’ve got the guy above, all decked out in his floor length chicken feather headdress, warpaint, and a serape (equally opportunity appropriator–pulling in the south of the border Indigenous peoples). Spotted Friday night by a couple of the undergrads, and gladly posed for a picture with them.

Then this girl, taken on my cell phone, so much of the effect is lost. But she had multi-colored feathers in her hair and warpaint on her face, and right before I snapped the picture, was war whooping (hand over mouth, other hand in the air) to her friend across the way (who was also wearing feathers and paint). There were a couple more I spotted, especially out in the dance circle during inter-tribals (where everyone, including spectators, is invited to dance), including a guy wearing a poncho/serape with a cowboy hat, and beating a hand-drum, and another guy with an entire coyote or puma or something (very dead) draped over his back.

In the grand scheme of powwows, Stanford powwow tends to have a lower ratio of wannabes “liberally interpreting” Indianess (i.e. creating an image of what they think an Indian is based off things they read on the internet and supplies they can find at a craft shop) than some powwow’s I’ve been to, but it still makes me angry.

I still don’t know why people think it’s ok to don feathers and warpaint and come to a Native community cultural event. I still maintain that it would be exactly the same as donning blackface and wandering into a Black community event. These people are dressing up as a race other than their own, based off of egregious and racist stereotypes from hollywood and other forms of pop culture. All they have to do is look out in the powwow dance circle to see that they look nothing like “real” Indians. But the American narrative of “playing Indian” is so ingrained, people don’t seem to see it as taboo, the way blackface remains today.

The other big trend that everyone was sporting were these (really unattractive) feather hair-clips, which unfortunately I didn’t get a picture of, but they were kinda like this:

(if you really like it, you can buy it here for $9.50. Or you could go for a walk in the woods for the feathers and pick up some string and plastic beads and make it for less than a buck…if you like the look of dirty woodland feathers and cheap twine in your hair.)

The vendor booth of people who were selling them was overflowing the whole weekend. They came in a bunch of colors, and had more feathers and were (if you can believe it) more unattractive.

The feather clips don’t inherently bother me, much like these feather hair extensions that are all the rage right now don’t bother me as-is, but it’s the whole aesthetic that the powwow goers were buying into that bothers me. I can bet you anything that those people would not have been nearly as interested in the feather clips if they were at the Stanford Mall instead of the Stanford Powwow. They see it as a “safe” way of playing Indian–though most of them would say “oh, it was just pretty!”–I think it really runs a lot deeper than that.

So, clearly, the idea of dressing up as an Indian at a powwow is still alive and well. Excuse me, I think I’m going to go put on my blonde wig and pearls and go crash a WASP-y cocktail party. What? It doesn’t work that way? ::shakes fist:: Damn you, white privilege!!!

and for a more detailed look at why wearing a headdress is wrong: But why can’t I wear a hipster headdress? 

Earlier: When non-Native Participation in Powwows Goes Terribly Wrong

  • gaawwdd.. so wish we could have PW Committees and/or PW Security to remove or ask these peeps to leave.. but then again you would hear them bantering about having a Princess in their fam or something to that effect.. It does seem to be more predominate at University PWs though – wich is a little bit of an oxy-moron considering it is a place of “education” …

    as always.. good post!

  • CC

    I get those “legal threats” all the time too. But just because they threaten legal action doesn’t mean their behavior is right. “Damn you, white privilege!!!” is right. Keep doing what you are doing. You have a right to voice your feelings on things like this.

  • you got legal threats for pointing out that someone was doing something stupid and inappropriate?!


  • ugh, I just read through that old thread…. stupid fucking privileged…. blah.

    Anyway, thanks for all the work you do. You rock.

  • Keep up the good work!

    I saw a picture of a friends friend at a Halloween party dressed up as an “Indian,” and of course he was a white dude. If I was there or any party for that matter in which someone was dressed up as an “Indian” I’ve constructed something I can say to them. I can ask, “so you are dressed up as me for Halloween?” If they go off in their mind of how I am mixed blood, which many of us are, I can say, that I am Native and connected to my tribe and community.

  • Why not show up to a ritzy WASPy party in exaggerated costume and walk around going, “Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii…!”? Just target your event well, like a big graduation party or some other white cultural rite. Only way to appropriate dominant culture is to magnify and mock it.

    I mean, the only reason not to is the high road. But whoo, I’m sure it would make a point.

  • It’s like they think a powwow is a toga party? IDEK.

  • OK, One of the many reasons I tend to avoid Pow Wows is the confusion about who is who. Being very light skinned, with brown hair, the only Native thing about me is my face. (I might carry a tobacco pouch…..)I just don’t want to hassles of being misidentified.