While the misappropriation of American Indian cultures and imagery by western society has persisted for decades, there’s been a gradual uptick in the misrepresentation of Native peoples in the past several years. “Tribalism,” a mainstream trend largely based on false, stereotypical notions of who indigenous people are, has become a pop culture phenomenon. Celebutantes, pop princesses and hipster wannabes have been donning gaudy, exaggerated war bonnets and headdresses, wearing “war paint,” and playing dress up in Native American “inspired” costumes in record numbers. The perpetuation of stereotypical images of Native peoples is unacceptable and discriminatory for a myriad of reasons.
Non-natives who wear American Indian costumes are pretending to be someone of another race. Just as wearing blackface is repugnant, appearing as a stereotyped caricature of an American Indian is patently offensive. Those who play “dress up” by wearing an American Indian costume, headdress or war bonnet are not only failing to acknowledge the existence of over 500 recognized native nations, each separate and distinct from one another, they are making light of centuries of suffering, oppression and genocide endured by the indigenous people of this country. Enforcing racial stereotypes of Native peoples as savages in nondescript feathers and fringe also perpetuates the myth that American Indians are not active members of modern society and questions our very existence.
Perhaps the most deplorable version of stereotypical American Indian ensembles is the “sexy Indian” costume, a.k.a. the “Pocahottie.” Such costumes, like the one Paris Hilton wore last Halloween, depict Native women as sex objects to be desired by non-native men (and perhaps women). Considering that American Indian women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other race of women, that one out of three of all American Indian women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and that as many as 4 out of 5 of these acts of sexual violence are committed by non-native men, the very idea of perpetuating the image of Native women as a sex object is reprehensible.
Not all American Indian Tribes include war bonnets or headdresses as part of their traditional regalia. Of those who do, headdresses and war bonnets were worn by men, and have nothing to do with fashion or the sexual objectification of women. Each eagle feather contained in a war bonnet is individually earned, often bestowed upon the owner through ceremony, and represents a significant event or acknowledged act of bravery, leadership, or self-sacrifice. War bonnets are specifically worn by powerful, respected American Indian men with a history of valor who are leaders in their Tribal community. In other words, the only people who should be wearing war bonnets are chiefs or well-respected warriors, like Tatanka Iyotanka, Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota—not Chloe Kardashian, or the pop star Ke$ha. Can you imagine the outrage if a celebrity was featured in scantily clad photos with a Medal of Valor or a Silver Star or the Congressional Medal of Honor that they didn’t earn? Such an inconsiderate display would be akin to the wearing of a war bonnet by someone who hasn’t earned it. This disgrace should be included in the Theft of Valor Act.
Natives have made repeated efforts to educate the public on American Indian identity, as well as explain why stereotypical depictions of Native people are offensive, yet willful ignorance pervades. Instead, we are met with defensiveness and told that we should feel honored. Those who perpetuate false, negative images of Natives are unwilling or unable to grasp the concept that honoring Native people does not involve making Natives into insulting caricatures. Furthermore, stating that the misappropriation of our cultures and identities isn’t important is an attempt to diminish Natives who are against such misuse.
Still, there could be more to this pop culture phenomenon than meets the eye. Many western countries, including the United States, are in the midst of wars, social upheaval, dwindling resources, and economic uncertainty. People, especially the young and disenfranchised, are looking for something sacred. Sociologists have theorized that the decline of mainstream culture and its institutions, along with a breakdown in social structure, would cause people to embrace nostalgia for that which the world now lacks, while seeking out social networks to fulfill a need to belong. This movement has been coined, “Neo-tribalism.”
I sympathize with the lost westerner who is searching for the sacred, who only wants a Tribe to call their own. However, these individuals need to recognize that stolen images based on inaccurate, offensive stereotypes of ancient cultures that they have made no effort to understand will not give them the fulfillment they seek. As Native people, we do not belong to you; therefore, we are not at your disposal or available for your misappropriation. Befriend us, don’t insult us. If you listen to us, we’ll show you the ways of Earth. In the process, you might uncover the sacred that was within you all along.
Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is a writer, a pro-bono tribal attorney, a science professor, and a columnist for the Indian Country Today Media Network. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org