While I appreciate Pharrell Williams’ 15-word apology last week for posing on the cover of Elle UK in a headdress precious to my people, I wonder how is this still happening? How can he NOT know how Native American people feel about the misuse of our culture?
I am shocked that any American handed a headdress would wear it. The headdress represents our leaders who were hunted down and murdered by the U.S. military. It is not a fashion accessory. It is an honor and a symbol of the sovereignty of the Plains tribes and the authority vested in the people to choose their own leaders. It should only be worn in circumstances that a head of state would participate in as a representative of these nations. This headdress should NOT be worn when posing for a fashion magazine cover next to titles screaming out details of Keira Knightly’s love life.
There are photos at the Smithsonian of my ancestor Owl Man wearing his headdress when he met President Andrew Johnson at the White House in 1868. As a Dakota, I would never presume to wear this regalia and even tribal members who have been so honored would never wear it on the cover of a fashion magazine.
And yet, when Native people speak out they are often met by claims of Native ancestry by those who are disrespecting our heritage. Whether it is Washington Redsk*ns fans, Chief Wahoo supporters, celebrities appropriating our culture for glamour shots or hipsters at art festivals, it’s always the same claim: “But I am part Native.” This notion that some fabled Native ancestry allows Americans of all colors some right to our cultural heritage and a voice that exceeds actual citizens of Native Nations underscores so much of the dialogue.
In this case, outrage over Pharrell’s misuse of regalia was met with outcries that he is part Native American, and so it should not be an issue. Even an enrolled member of a tribe who had earned the headdress wore it on the cover of a fashion magazine they would be lambasted for it by their own people. It’s simply not appropriate.
This focus on ancestry reflects the United States’ policy of measuring our blood quantum as a way of reducing our numbers -- another pathway to eventual elimination of the indigenous population. The hope was that we would all eventually have too little “blood” to qualify for citizenship in our own nations and tribes would then disappear and no longer trouble U.S. with claims to the land.
It also demonstrates complete ignorance of our actual political status as citizens of our respective nations -- all 566 of them. These nations are still sovereign and exist within the borders of the United States. They still retain jurisdiction over their lands and the states within whose borders they lay have no jurisdiction over them or right to tax because our nations occupy a status higher than that of states. We are sovereign nations that persist within the United States and much of U.S. policy has been guided by an interest in masking that reality. Some of our nations issue passports that their citizens can travel with internationally.
So, being Native American means being a citizen of a nation that pre-existed the establishment of the United States. You either are one or you are not. There is no “part” citizen of the United States, is there?
The taking of our identity, our regalia, the silencing of our voices, our point of view, is fully inline with the historical nature of the genocide of Native people that is the legacy of Manifest Destiny. This cultural taking also causes great damage to Native people. Our youth have to deal with folks like Pharrell and go through the complicated emotions of liking his music, wanting to feel represented by his art and then distanced by his stereotyping of their culture.
In the age of information literally at our fingertips I can’t believe Pharrell did not look at that headdress being offered to him by a British stylist and say, “Wait a minute. That doesn’t feel right.” And quickly research it on the Internet where in minutes he could find hundreds of articles written on the subject, many by actual Native Americans.