By Lisa Gutierrez, The Kansas City Star
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 was 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.
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. “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.
After the mainstream attention and online discussions, the Giants added “culturally insensitive” garb to obscene language, abusive behavior. and other misdeeds that can get fans thrown out of the stadium.
And 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 the “Redskins” 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 plan 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.”
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.
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 1970s 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, Kan., 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 wartime,” 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 diversity could be seen on a warm, windy Saturday in early June at the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation’s annual powwow. 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.
Dana Warrington, a 34-year-old dancer from Keshena, Wisconsin, 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.
Photo: Thomas Hawk via Flickr
Interested in national news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!