Pretty Girl in a Headdress: Cultural Appropriation Gets Ugly

Dwanna L. Robertson

When Christine Fallin, daughter of Oklahoma governor, Mary Fallin, released a photo of herself wearing a headdress on March 6, she sparked outrage among people who belong to the 37-plus Native Nations established in Oklahoma and across Indian country, in general. To add insult to injury, on March 7, Fallin released a statement—not to apologize—but to justify her actions because of her “deeper connection to the Native American culture,” the emotional “aesthetic” of the headdress, and her “genuine spiritual connection to Native American values.”

It should come as no surprise to Native folk that non-Natives still feel entitled to appropriate, take, and distort sacred indigenous cultural artifacts and symbols. Indeed, from the time of Columbus to now, such acts of racist entitlement has been accomplished by placing those who have been racialized as not-white outside of the moral community. Columbus did this when he judged Native people as culturally inferior because of their nakedness and easy-going natures. Consequently, on three separate journeys, Columbus and his shipmates, with their colonial mindsets of domination and superiority, took Natives captive and then raped, enslaved, sold, and murdered thousands of them.

Over the last 500+ years, the portrayal of Native people as savages, Native women as sexually-permissive, and indigenous cultures as engendering laziness has been used to rationalize the cultural appropriation, resource theft, degradation, and genocide of indigenous peoples. While Columbus’s atrocious record is relatively unknown, indigenous peoples have continued to live under the historical pervasiveness of racist depictions and ethnic fraud of Native identity and cultures for hundreds of years.

Perhaps, it caught some of us off guard because Fallin’s ignorance is so profound. First, most of us (Native folk, at least) know that the sacred headdress or war bonnet was only worn by a dozen or so tribes of the Great Plains. And headdresses are generally worn by men in honor of their specific acts of bravery and care for their people with very specific and cultural exceptions for women. Second, there is no such thing as a “Native American” culture. There is no “Native American aesthetic.” With 566 federally recognized tribal nations and another 250+ state or unrecognized tribal groups, the US enjoys at least 816-plus tribal cultures. Furthermore, these “cultures” include more distinctions, perhaps by clan, band, or geographic location. For example, New Mexico has three bands of Apache and 19 Pueblos.

Third, people have being playing Indian as far back as the Boston Tea Party. Fallin is definitely not the first “woman” to wear a headdress as she implies. How ridiculous! Just type the words “celebrity in Native headdress” or “cowboy and Indian party” into any search engine for thousands of images of women who have adorned their heads with war bonnets. Actually, American children are socialized into playing Indian with Columbus Day celebrations, Halloween costumes, and Thanksgiving reenactments—all of which stereotype indigenous peoples as one big distorted culture.

Finally, the lasting impact of cultural distortion and appropriation appears in today's society of racist mascots and the constant stream of “Cowboys and Indians” rhetoric in movies, books, and songs.
American media and society, in general, still relegates Native folk to racist stereotypes and cultural caricatures. So to be told by the people who appropriate our cultures that they are entitled to them because they do it out of “sincere reverence” simultaneously disappoints, angers, and sickens me. I believe that you may only claim a “genuine spiritual connection,” as Christine Fallin asserts, if your family experienced the extinction tactics and holds the spirits of survival we carry in our ancestral memories.

Yet, my hope grows. We may not be able to deliver everyone from ignorance, prejudice, racism, and individualism, but I do feel the collective rise of consciousness among Native people and non-Native people, alike. We are beginning to recognize how Natives continue to be subjected to cultural ignorance and overt racism in mainstream media. And we’re demanding that it stop. We are breaking the silence and that feels good.

Dwanna L. Robertson, citizen of Muscogee (Creek) Nation, is an assistant professor at Kansas State University, a regular columnist for ICTMN, and a public sociologist.

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