Native Americans gaining ground in their quest to educate public about traditional headdresses

08/05/2014 7:00 PM

08/10/2014 12:33 PM

As portraits go, it was undeniably arresting, a strong-jawed man in profile wearing a regal Native American war bonnet.

But the man in the headdress was singer Pharrell Williams, who is not, last time anyone knew, Native American.

When that picture appeared on the July cover of fashion magazine Elle UK, which published June 5, the backlash on social media was instant. Much of the criticism on Twitter used the hashtag #NotHappy, a snarky reference to the “Happy” singer’s monster hit.

Before the outcry, Elle UK bragged on its website that it persuaded the singer to “trade his Vivienne Westwood mountie hat for a native American feather headdress in his best ever shoot.”

Williams quickly apologized. “I respect and honor every kind of race, background and culture,” he said. “I am genuinely sorry.”

Headdresses have deep spiritual and cultural meaning for Native Americans. But lately a lot of people — from hipster festival-goers to runway models and musicians — have been playing dress-up in them, reigniting a longstanding debate about cultural misappropriation.

But in the age of social media, the ire lights up faster and with more passion.

“Social media of native people, even though we’re only 2 percent (of the U.S. population), is so strong and so valiant, that our presence is making change,” said Native American journalist Vincent Schilling, who tweets at @VinceSchilling.

“For decades the only voice we had was to go out and hold up a sign and say we’re frustrated. But now, for the first time, the native voice is being heard on social media.”

Now, transgressions go viral, as in June when headdresses made headlines during a San Francisco Giants baseball game, on Native American Heritage Night. Stadium security stepped in after a Native American man and woman approached a group of nonnative men who had brought a fake, plastic headdress to the game.

In the aftermath of mainstream attention, online discussion and campaigning by Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, a Native American social media activism group, the Giants added “culturally insensitive” garb to obscene language, abusive behavior and other misdeeds that can get fans thrown out of the stadium.

And last weekend the Bass Coast Electronic Music and Arts Festival in Merritt, British Columbia, took what Native American activists call an unprecedented step by banning concertgoers from wearing feathered headdresses.

Enacted at the request of the performers, the festival warned on its Facebook page that “our security team will be enforcing this policy.”

Schilling, who is Akwesasne Mohawk, saw so many recent examples of headdresses being used inappropriately that he made a YouTube video last fall called “What is Native American Misappropriation?”

He begins: “What we’re seeing now is a pretty big influx of what people are calling native hipsters. And seeing these young people in headdresses and poetic fashionable poses … it’s really upsetting a lot of people.”

Schilling is the co-founder and owner of Schilling Media, Inc., a Virginia media company that deals with Native American issues. He also writes for Indian Country Today Media Network and co-hosts an online radio show, “Native Trailblazers,” with his wife, Delores Schilling.

He’s been vocal on the marquee issue in his own backyard: the effort to get Washington’s NFL team to drop its name. In June a government agency canceled the team’s trademark registration, a move Native Americans hailed as a victory even though the team’s owner has no plans to abandon the name.

Schilling takes particular offense at “Chief Zee,” the longtime Washington football fan who wears a fake headdress to games and has become an unofficial mascot for the NFL team.

“It’s not like I’m mad at these people,” Schilling said. “It’s just that it hurts. I feel physical pain in my heart when I see these things.”

A “symbol of leadership”

In an October 2012 interview with O, The Oprah magazine, Pharrell Williams suggested that he has Native American ancestry. So critics wondered: Wouldn’t he have known better than to wear a headdress simply for fashion?

“Just because someone is part native doesn’t give them the right to wear them,” said Dennis Zotigh, a cultural specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

MTV News contacted Zotigh after the Williams controversy for a piece called “Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Wear a Native American Headdress.”

High on the checklist was this thought from Cliff Matias of New York City, the director of the Redhawk Native American Arts Council in Brooklyn: What if the pope’s hat became hip?

“I am sure any Catholic people might be disrespected,” Matias told MTV. “So for our people, it is the same way.”

The feathered war bonnet is the headdress that many people typically associate with Native Americans — the one sold with Halloween costumes and worn by actor natives in Western movies.

Worn mostly by Northern and Southern Plains tribes, native people create the regal crown by hand from the feathers of eagles, considered the sky’s greatest bird and believed to have the power to protect the wearer from harm.

Feathers were once collected by capturing young eagles from nests, then plucking the tail feathers when the bird was older. When eagles became a protected species, the government set up the National Eagle Repository in the early ’70s to provide Native Americans the golden and bald eagle feathers they need for ceremonial and religious use.

“It was their symbol of leadership, and each of those feathers was earned and shows their position of leadership,” Zotigh said. “So not everybody had the right to wear these. And they were only worn for special occasions.”

So when Tom Spotted Horse sees a Native American wearing a war bonnet, “that tells me this person has met a specific level of distinction,” he said.

“I have seen them recently given to young soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. And, of course, some tribes still have a chiefs system and a chief has the right to wear one because he has taken on the responsibility to look after his people.”

Spotted Horse, who is the supervisor of residential housing at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, said his great-great grandfather was buried with his war bonnet.

“This is very analogous to the modern warrior who earns a medal for their service during war time,” Zotigh said. “So for a person to wear a war bonnet who didn’t earn it would be the exact same thing as somebody wearing a Purple Heart or Medal of Honor who did not earn it.”

While it might be the most recognizable to the general public, the war bonnet is not the only manner of headdress worn by Native Americans.

“All tribes and all indigenous nations have their particular headdress,” Spotted Horse said. “The Cherokee, the Shawnee, the Ojibwe, the Navajo. They wear everything from basket hats to beaver hats to cloth hats or turbans.”

“This is who I am”

This diversity could be seen on a warm, windy Saturday in early June at the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation’s annual pow wow. Every summer hundreds of Native American dancers and drummers from across the country travel to Mayetta, north of Topeka, for the event.

The dancers’ colorful regalia create a breathtaking scene in the grassy arena of Prairie Peoples Park on the Potawatomi reservation. The leatherwork, beading and quillwork of their clothing is all done by hand. Some of their custom headdresses are worth thousands of dollars.

The wind blew so fiercely that Jancita Warrington left the eagle feather she usually wears while dancing in her car so it wouldn’t get damaged. She received it in a special coming-of-age ceremony when she was 13.

“I take really good care of it and respect it,” said Warrington, 36, a Prairie Band member who is the coordinator of Haskell’s cultural center.

“In my tribe we believe that you have to be given the right to wear feathers. You can’t just wear them. There’s a ceremony that occurs when you’re a certain age, and only a decorated war veteran can give you the right to wear feathers.”

She and her brother were bestowed their eagle feathers by their father’s oldest brother, who received five Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam.

Warrington affixes the feather to the back of her head with a barrette when she dances. It is not considered a headdress; native women rarely, if ever, wear headdresses.

Imagine the shock, then, last fall when Victoria’s Secret sent model Karlie Kloss down the runway in leopard-print underwear and a floor-length headdress, a style only chiefs and medicine men are allowed to wear in certain tribes.

One Victoria’s Secret customer was so livid that she blogged about her intentions to boycott the company: “This Native girl is ready to go commando.”

Warrington considers it disrespectful when Williams and other nonnatives wear native regalia.

“I feel like, human to human, we have to have respect for one other, respect within our communities,” she said.

Chet Eagleman Sr., a Fort Peck Sioux from Montana now living in Lawrence, danced in a headdress called a porcupine roach, one of the most commonly worn among native nations and recognizable because it looks like a Mohawk haircut, which borrows its name from the native community.

Eaglemen has owned his headdress for 24 years. He takes great care with the delicate piece fashioned from porcupine and deer tail hair, first curling it around a rounded piece of wood then swaddling it in Ace bandages after each performance.

“When you put something like this on and you dance, you’re identifying with your culture,” said Eagleman, who is 78. “You’re saying, ‘This is is who I am, this is what we do, this is how we dress, these are our ways.’”

He, too, feels that when nonnatives don headdresses, “they’re trivializing something that is pretty important to us.”

Dana Warrington, a 34-year-old dancer from Keshena, Wis., who is half Potawatomi, half Menominee, doesn’t think it’s right for nonnatives to wear headdresses. But he tends to give celebrities like Williams and others a pass.

“I don’t think they do it in such a disrespectful way,” said the artist, who is the owner of Native Expressions Quillwork. “I don’t think they do it with that intention.

“I think if they were more educated on it maybe they wouldn’t do it. But I don’t perceive it in such a negative way as most natives do. I don’t see the point of getting all worked up over something. And (Williams) apologized, and that should have been good.”

Spotted Horse doesn’t get worked up either over incidents like the Williams flub because he’s seen it before and believes it will keep happening.

“You go on the Internet and you type in ‘war bonnet’ and bam, bam, bam, there’s a market out there. People are buying them. Fortunately they’re not real eagle feathers,” Spotted Horse said.

“To me, when a nonnative or whoever is wearing them, I know in my heart they’re not real war bonnets. They’re the ones you can buy for $300 and $400.”

So he looks at the situation with “bemusement because, let’s face it, as Native Americans we are living in a dominant society, a society dominated by nonnatives, and it’s going to be like that for a long time.”

He just thinks nonnatives in headdresses look silly.

“I’m not trying to belittle that person, because … they don’t know what I know,” he said.

Social media power

Two years ago Gwen Stefani and her band No Doubt ran into a buzzsaw of public criticism when they released the video for “Looking Hot,” a single from their comeback album.

The Wild West-themed video was rife with stereotypes — teepees, smoke signals, headdresses, people playing Cowboys and Indians.

Within hours of the video’s release, Schilling received an email from someone on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Did you see this, the person asked?

Schilling got busy blasting links to the video on social media, joining a hue and cry from many Native American organizations and an equally outraged mainstream Internet commentary. That concerted and loud group effort worked.

The video came out on a Friday; it was pulled on Saturday.

Then add what happened in April.

Native American activist Robert Roche, 67, who has spent decades trying to get the Cleveland Indians franchise to dump its Chief Wahoo logo, stood face-to-face on opening day with a fan wearing fake feathers and his face painted red.

The photo instantly went viral on Twitter, where one person tweeted: “Here’s one of those times when the phrase ‘Only in Cleveland’ is actually an understatement.”

The photo and stories of Roche’s ongoing efforts to convince the Cleveland team that his children “are not mascots” were also spread online by numerous sports blogs.

“Finally,” Schilling said, “it seems someone is listening.”

Social media also made public a nasty war of words over a headdress between Flaming Lips bandmates Kliph Scurlock and Wayne Coyne.

Scurlock accused a friend of Coyne’s of racist behavior after she posted a photo of herself wearing a headdress, something she later apologized for.

Coyne’s friend, Christina Fallin, is the daughter of Mary Fallin, the governor of Oklahoma, a state where Native Americans make up 9 percent of the population.

Coyne countered by posting an Instagram photo of himself, two friends — and a dog — wearing native headdresses. He later issued a mea culpa through Rolling Stone, saying, “I am sorry. I realize now that it goes deeply to the heart of some Native Americans. And I definitely regret it.”

Aside from celebrities looking to create publicity, Schilling gives most people the benefit of the doubt. Many times, he said, they don’t realize that their actions, words and manner of dress are disrespectful.

“If anyone was to tell me something about their culture, even if I didn’t understand it, if they said, ‘That orange hat is upsetting to my culture,’ I would say, ‘Oh my gosh, let me remove my hat,’” Schilling said.

“I’ve been asked many times, ‘Well, why don’t you say anything about the Fighting Irish?’ If you are an Irish person who is offended by that, I will stand right beside you and support you in that.

“When I get upset is when people do it and they’re told about the cultural misappropriation they’re guilty of, and their response is, ‘Well, get over it.’ Then that hurts.”

He knows that the native community is not of one mind on issues concerning racial stereotyping, that some believe issues such as poverty are more deserving of attention and effort.

But Schilling would rather keep moving forward on long-fought issues, such as abolishing the name of Washington’s football team, that seem to be gaining a foothold and audience.

“It’s as if there’s this large ideology set on a column, and one of those columns is starting to crack,” Schilling said. “And when we see that happening, we are going to jump on this. Because if we can take one down it’s going to take the rest with it.

“Yes, it’s a light at the very far end of a tunnel, but it’s a light that maybe we’ve never seen before.”

To reach Lisa Gutierrez, call 816-234-4987 or send email to

“The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky”

An exhibit of Plains Indians robes and artworks will debut Sept. 19 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The show opened in Paris in April and will close in Kansas City on Jan. 11. It will then be moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.


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