Source: Elle UK via

Oh, Pharrell Is Part Native American? Here's Why It Doesn't Matter


The internet is a wonderful place for people who don't really know what they're talking about to openly speculate and confuse those who'd really like to understand the issues—that's not news. But with the latest cultural-appropriation scandal, involving Pharrell Williams wearing a feather headdress on the cover of Elle UK, Pharrell fans and self-appointed experts are pushing back by citing a detail buried in an article on the O, the Oprah Magazine New Zealand site:

"The young man whose name is derivative of his father’s (Pharaoh) and who says he has Native American and Egyptian heritages..."

Bloggers, Facebook pundits and even journalists are speculating that this claim may dull the outrage over the image—but does it work that way? Does some American Indian DNA in Pharrell's double helix make the headdress fashion choice OK? In a word, no. Here are four reasons why:

1. Not All Indians Wear Feather Headdresses

While the feather, specifically an eagle feather, is a sacred symbol in many Native American cultures, the "war bonnet" style headdress Pharrell is wearing is very specific to Plains tribes. An article at cites the figure of 12 tribes; this is a very small number considering that there are 566 federally recognized tribes and innumerable others that either aren't federally recognized or simply gone due to assimilation or genocide. Some of the feather-headdress-wearing tribes are large and well-known—the Lakota, the Crow, the Cheyenne—but saying that all Indians wear feather headdresses is—to use a very superficial example—like saying all Europeans wear lederhosen.

RELATED: Hipster Headdresses at Coachella: Yep, It Happened

2. Feathers Are Earned Over the Course of One's Lifetime

Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations explains this nicely in her oft-cited "But Why Can't I Wear a Hipster Headdress" post:

"Eagle feathers are presented as symbols of honor and respect and have to be earned. Some communities give them to children when they become adults through special ceremonies, others present the feathers as a way of commemorating an act or event of deep significance. Warbonnets especially are reserved for respected figures of power."

3. "Part Native American" Doesn't Cut It

A lot of people who don't self-identify as American Indian have some American Indian heritage. Many of them don't even know it. Others have a vague idea of Native heritage—there can be a grain of truth to family lore or even the "my grandmother was a Cherokee princess" cliché. But having an American Indian ancestor or relative isn't a license to use that relative's culture spontaneously and without context. Here's another way of looking at it: Many of the people who are appalled by this image are deeply connected to their Native culture and live it every day. If they say the picture is hurtful, it's hurtful, and a Cherokee grandmother doesn't change that. (By the way, the Cherokee did not have "princesses" and did not wear feather headdresses—these are two topics covered in the FAQ at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.)  

Having a Native ancestor doesn't get you off the hook if you don't bother to do the homework—and if you bother to do the homework, you will not wear the headdress, and there will be no hook off of which to get... Q.E.D.

4. He's Not Paying Tribute to His Culture

For the sake of argument, say some of the above points didn't hold up. Say, perhaps, Pharrell's Native ancestor was from a Plains tribe that wore feather headdresses, and that he had studied the culture and it informed his daily life, and he had been given the feathers for accomplishments. The headdress remains a sacred ceremonial item, to be worn on special occasions. There's no tribute in wearing the headdress on the cover of Elle UK, flanked by "The Secret Life of Keira Knightley" and "All Natural Hair: 23 Products to Try Now." This is a spiritual item; on the cover of Elle UK it becomes secularized, trivialized, accessorized. Those who hold the headdress sacred might well say this is the opposite of a tribute.

We said it before: You really should have stuck with the mountie hat, Pharrell.

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Waabooz Biboon's picture
Waabooz Biboon
Submitted by Waabooz Biboon on
I don't think non Indians intend to be hurtful. They know nothing of the Indian experience and are like children playing with toys. I believe many non Indians wear Indian garb or jewelry as a tribute not an insult and just getting angry with them won't solve the information deficit gap. They want to make contact but don't know how. They need to be taught, educated by native people as to what is the appropriate attitudes and behaviors. Practice Red Path patience and tolerance while instructing. Lead the way. Be teachers; impart knowledge and wisdom. You're dealing with kids who don't know any better.

HontasF's picture
Submitted by HontasF on
Your points 1-3 are all WRONG. Here is why. 1.) While not all natives wear a feather headdress many FAR beyond the Lakota do. Two examples that come to my mind are the Mattaponi of Virginia (note the headdress of their late chief Custalow, ), and the Prairie Band Potawatomi ( The Prairie band adopted the material culture of the Lakota and other Plains peoples lock stock and barrel once they reached Kansas in about 1840. They did so to make a living. If this is purely a matter of culture, then seeing eastern woodlands tribes, using imagery of the plains should also bother you. It should be OK for any one of any degree of NDN heritage to explore all facets of all our cultures. His photo was insensitive to the Lakota. However many comments on this go to far and attack all assimilated mixed bloods, and by extension, the tribes of the east which are more assimilated and more mixed. In short culture is a living thing. It grows and changes by cultural exchanges. i.e. native American hip hop ( 2.) Feathers are earned. No question about that. Is war really the only way to earn them. Many tribes and bands will award feathers for graduation from high school, college, and getting a MS, PhD. or MD. (Note the gentleman, who I believe has walked on a couple years since, in the link above was a MD as well as a chief. A healer not a "warrior".) 3.) Being part Indian alone would not justify wearing a full chiefly headdress... However in the larger argument yes being part Native does cut it for embracing one's full identity. For one thing, outside of the most isolated reservations of the west, and Amazonia, most NDN's in the Americas are mixed with something. "Full blood" is more of a paper status. I know this because I found supposed "full blood ancestors, who 4-5 more generations back had some mixture they apparently did not know of. The more important point, treating NDN identity like this special thing which one must earn and which is easily washed away plays right into the hands of those who wish to destroy us. The old idea of the "disappearing NDN" If one drop of black once made one 100% Zulu, why can't 1/16th of NDN make one at least 1/16th NDN and proud of that?

Ray Max Montoya
Ray Max Montoya
Submitted by Ray Max Montoya on
This guy is an Idiot. Alot of people say they are Native to justify the idiotic things that are done. As for waabooz biboon, we do try to educate you all but you all think that you know it all and dont want to listen. We as a Native community still are dealing with racism and bigotry. I always like it when others try to tell us about our culture. When someone like pharrell wears a head dress and still tries to say that they are Native then he needs to go to a medicine person and learn before he does anything. Yes following the Red Road requires patience and tolerance but it is hard to be both when we got people telling us how and when to act. Why dont you all check yourselfs and start treating Natives with respect, just like you started doing to the blacks.

Cassandra White
Cassandra White
Submitted by Cassandra White on
At least things like this bring to light the "full-blood vs. mixed blood" mentality that continues to divide us. Blood quantums are a white construct, just as they would also favor light skinned Native Americans over darker skinned ones. It saddens me that the blessing of retaining your languages and traditions is too often used to exclude those who don't have the right "papers" or strong enough phenotype to "look Indian". That attitude effectively excludes those whose oral histories are accurate about their Native heritage, and those who have the documentation but don't "look the part". Who do you resemble when you ridicule, dismiss, deny benefit of the doubt (the headdress was done in ignorance, not malice), divide, and fail to find ways to educate with love those who obviously sought to honor their heritage. A heritage they have just as much right to embrace and develop and grow from as anyone else. Life is not a series of steps set in stone. The "red way" should never include the worst elements of the "white way". Instead of schooling others on headdresses; work on your own house and be more loving towards those of us who are members of a federally recognized tribe, but don't look the part to someone's arbitrary standards that has it's roots in racism. Don't tell us to "learn the ways", then look at us crazy or like we are impostors when we do. Don't criticize us for blending our experiences and heritages; because we shouldn't have to deny any part of who we are. And don't be so arrogantly dismissive towards people whose only histories are oral histories because of the white man's actions towards us. The "red way" needs to evolve, educate, and be humble enough to accept that they too have things they must learn.

Sharla Laurin
Sharla Laurin
Submitted by Sharla Laurin on
Maybe this is off topic, but also, I think it is related. 566 recognized tribes is such a misleading number. So many recognized tribes are actually made up of many different tribes who were pushed together onto shared reservations, sometimes as friends, but often also as unfriendly or even hostile neighbors. When talking about the cultural histories of different tribes and nations, using the U.S. recognition system as a counter is really a failure to acknowledge the diversity and individuality of so many more cultures than 566. That number though, the 12 the referenced article mentions... I have some personal pictures of Columbia Basin men from early 1940s wearing tailing bonnets for ceremony. I guess I'd always thought eagle bonnets were also a part of some cultures in that region as well, the Nez Perce, the Yakama, Spokane and others as well (there are so many different bands and tribes from this region). But they are not mentioned. I do not think they were wearing them for tourists, as they were within their own ceremonies and not in areas where 'let's stare at exotic indians' was a particular thing (not that I know of anyway.) Perhaps there is more to this story. As for people not understanding the sacredness of the feathered headdress, if a feather in a headdress sometimes represented a life, perhaps one taken, perhaps one saved - either action is from a very sacred place, and it doesn't seem people should have trouble understanding that is not something to goof off with, nor how incredibly inappropriate it is to do so. I hope the style and entertainment people get this soon.

zorroxtein's picture
Submitted by zorroxtein on
I don't like "Cultural Appropriation" term, I see it more like Cultural Celebration. limit someone for their heritage, is not racism?

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
It's not really too difficult to determine if you're offending anyone if you look at it this way. The War Bonnet is like a Purple Heart to a soldier. It's given because of great deeds of bravery and each feather represents a significant accomplishment. There are many different types of soldiers, but not all of them can wear the Purple Heart. Most soldiers would frown upon someone who was NOT wounded in combat wearing this medal of distinction. Most people who are related to or friends with a military person who was awarded a Purple Heart would take offense if someone who had not earned wore it. Simple, see. If you didn't earn each and every one of those feathers through some sort of unselfish act that benefitted your tribe, you shouldn't wear a headdress. If you're a woman (yes I'm aware that this varies from tribe to tribe), you shouldn't wear a headdress.

Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
Ignorance is something that can be cured if the offender is willing to listen & learn from their mistake(s). However, willful stupidity has no cure, but DOES have a punishment: Isolation at times & being a laughing stock when one comes into a room. ......................................................................................................................... I hope this young man learns from this matter & changes his ways so as to not be offensive to those of us out here who DO know our cultures, traditions & religious beliefs & practices. ......................................................................................................................... Ignorance should not be an excuse to offend, but rather, an opportunity to learn from ones mistake(s) & evolve in ones life towards living in a good way & being a better human being while we are living in this realm.

Hilda Whitson
Hilda Whitson
Submitted by Hilda Whitson on
Actually, I think it's okay for Pharrell to wear that, but not because he's part Native American. Because people are allowed to wear ANY DAMNED THING THEY DAMNED WELL PLEASE. SO sick of this crap.

builds-the-fire's picture
Submitted by builds-the-fire on
Chwe’n, Are deserters honored? Are their children ever forgiven? Can they ever sit at a table that their fathers left thinking—mistakenly—that it was a means to survival? If you know anything about the East Coast of the U.S. where Pharrell is from, you know that there is no such thing as a “full-blood” NDN. Slavery and assimilation made sure of that, but some purposed to endure and to remain with their tribes. I choose to forgive and honor them all—those who remained with their tribes despite assimilation and those who felt that they could not—and learn. By my estimate, I have at least 1/16th Native American blood in me (using only my mother's side of our family). But as recently as March 2014, someone asked me "What are you mixed with—are you Native American?". I responded that my mother was part NA. I have yet to say “yes” to that question—and feel comfortable doing so. One oral history story in my family is that at least one of my NA relatives left the white man's way of life to go back to NA ways because he "couldn't live like the white man". He lived in an assimilated NC community of NA and AM who had no choice but to live “like the white man”. Well, his last contact was through a VA lawyer leaving an inheritance to my GGF. (He was living in the area near where Pharrell is from.) My GGF refused his inheritance, but his wife, my GGM, wouldn't let the family forget my GGF’s father. I believe because of what had happened to her own father. All that to say: Some of us cannot get away from the question of "what tribe do you belong to?". And in this electronic age of fast knowledge, I think that those of us who can’t, are “realizing” that it’s OK to not be ashamed of our heritage, and make the trek back to our tribe, even though we are making mistakes along the way. Pharrell comes from an area near where I grew up in VA that I’ve come to understand can only be described as some outside that area describe themselves now: African Native American. ANA because we can not ignore any part of our heritage. The area has changed, but I don’t think Pharrell wore the War Bonnet to be hurtful, or disrespectful. It ended up looking that way to those who were able to remain with their tribes, but I for one, don’t think it was meant to be. When I began my quest in college to take a minor in African-American studies despite the disapproval of my adviser, I argued back that it was my choice and my opportunity to learn more about my ancestors. Oddly enough, while waiting for the rain to subside after one of my AM history classes, I struck up a conversation with someone who I felt "I knew", but of course, I didn't. I learned she was NA, and she learned I was, too. I'll never forget the hurt in her eyes when I said (ignorantly and probably arrogantly) she didn't "look" it--she looked white to me. And though I can't remember her exact words, I'll never forget the gentleness and the meaning of the words she spoke: I may not look like what others think a NA should look like, but I am. During our conversation, I learned that her family had remained with the tribe. She never challenged my own heritage. I've come to look at it as, yes, my own relative couldn't take the heat so to speak, deserted, and went to "live like the white man". But he isn’t me, and what he did, he did for the survival of his family to the extent that he left an inheritance. I can’t ignore that fact. He thought he was right. I can’t hold it against him, but that also means I HAVE to hear the voice of those who remained with their tribes, and honor that voice. Wearing the War Bonnet outside of its purpose is disrespectful. Not taking the time to learn about your heritage—especially when you probably have the time to do so--is ignorance in action. Another way to look at it for me is the dishonor and misunderstanding of other races towards the role and purpose of the Griot—the only person in an African tribe MADE to wear shoes when nothing should come between your feet and God’s creation: the Earth. Finally, I could look at some of the comments towards “DNA” “Ethnic” NA as hurtful and disrespectful, but I’ll be the first to say that I don’t think that they meant to be so. We are not children needing to be taught, and “blacks” are not “respected” by many of the majority race. These are colonialistic and divisive attitudes. What Cassandra White said bears re-reading. It’s no coinkidinki (I spelled it that way on purpose) that both groups—NA and AM—are (still) dealing with some of the same issues even now at this point in history. Or that their Census numbers remain stagnant despite the growth that this country has seen. I am still “looking” for my family’s tribes but in the meantime, I will respectfully say Nyeahweh.

Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
Ms.Whitson, I have to say with respect, that you are 100% wrong. Those of us who ARE Native people who KNOW OUR histories & our ancestors find it VERY offensive with your words. This young man is being very disrespectful & also shows he knows nothing of OUR ways, cultures & beliefs. Each eagle feather was an award & honor for bravery in battle. This young man has done nothing in any war & certainly hasn't been awarded an eagle feather for anything. He shows his ignorance of OUR native cultures & brings disrespect to any tribal nation &/or clan he claims heritage too. ......................................................................................................................... With that all said, this young man CAN redeem himself & show sincerity by actually learning about his people he claims kinship to. Apologies & words are cheap, but sincerity can be shown by his future by his actions. ......................................................................................................................... Do yourself a favor & we Native folks one as well & actually get educated about us Native peoples & OUR cultures, traditions, histories, etc. It will be a journey well worth your time giving YOU knowledge about things you have no idea about. ......................................................................................................................... May the Creator open your eyes & bring compassion & understanding to your mind.

Catfish101's picture
Submitted by Catfish101 on
Here is another example of the racist indians. Reason #5 he is black and raps. Hollywood bs is all that it is. Quit crying about your sensitive feelings. You have you reservations and pow wows. Everyday life doesnt have to conform to your heritage.

Adam Deskins
Adam Deskins
Submitted by Adam Deskins on
Look for offense and it shall be found!Can we not see we are all being manipulated by others unknown to create hatred in a world where all hatred is disappearing?I do not like my american culture being referred to as Indian,german or irish, I am american.I am from a place they call the melting pot, a place where things like this should not matter.All americans regardless of their perceived bloodline should have the right to american culture!

idk's picture
Submitted by idk on
Please, if he had a slightly lighter complexion with those same facial features, no one would even be questioning his Native American identity. HontaF noted that this article is biased toward full bloods, but I would say it is even biased toward part Native American part non-black people as well.