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.