Recently, I was wasting time on social media when I came across a photo that a friend shared. It a beautiful photo of her and her son. In it, both of them were crowned with gorgeous Native American warbonnets in vibrant shades of blue, white, purple, and black. Gorgeous. But, right away, it rubbed me the wrong way. I was looking at clear and obvious cultural misappropriation. It is one thing to see people with no brain cells wearing this beautiful garment of honor, but it is totally another thing to see it on the head of an educated, opinionated, witty, generally wonderful woman.
Here's a little more about her: let's call her 'Roxy', because she rocks! Roxy is a great person and is qualified in a field populated with great minds. Roxy is full of creativity and talent. She creates numerous works of art from paintings to visual pieces featuring words strung together in hilarious combinations. She is quite the comedienne and would call anybody out on anything. You'd like her. She is the type of person whose writing would go down well here. When I saw this photo, knowing who she is as a person, I was incredibly taken aback.
Is she attracted to the warbonnet simply because it photographs well and is full of beautiful colors? Is it the fact that she is a rockin' babe and the range of colors in the feathers look stunning against her complexion? (Honestly, the blue in the warbonnet she wears in the photo perfectly matches her blue eyes.) Is she attracted to the warbonnet because she likes to go to outdoor music festivals and everybody wears them there so that makes it okay?
Honestly, I just didn't know what to say, but I knew I HAD to say something.
I have a special affinity for NOT culturally appropriating. My family's cultural history can be simply explained by just asking someone to grab a map of the world and then just scribbling on it haphazardly with a marker. That's how mixed we are. Because of this, I can offer a perspective that covers not only the ethnic viewpoint but also the viewpoint of a "white person" because most people assume, based on my light skin, that I'm of European descent.
I've never had anyone automatically guess I'm Māori, and when I tell people I am part-Māori, they act shocked. Growing up part-Māori, I saw a difference in how people were treated. I saw how I was treated better than others simply for being part-European, which is pretty awful to admit. I know how it feels to have your people be treated with less respect because they are perceived as "other." I have seen people being treated disrespectfully simply for being more Māori than me.
And for that reason I think the taonga, a Māori word meaning the treasure of a culture, should rest with the members of that culture themselves. The warbonnet, as all of you know, is a garment of great honor to the Native American people and it is a garment that is required to be earned only by men. Knowing and feeling all this, I sat at my computer for a bit, pondering what to say in a comment on her photo. I couldn't say nothing nothing because my silence would condone her appropriation. Eventually, I threw caution to the wind and typed up something.
"But warbonnets are just for dudes. You need to grow a penis to make this okay... hehehehe ;)"
After it was all said and done, forty-one people liked that photo. Four people commented on that photo. Nobody liked my comment. Nobody acknowledged that Roxy was misappropriating the treasure of a culture. I was the only one who said anything that remotely drew attention to the fact that wearing a culture like a costume was unacceptable and frankly, I was flabbergasted. What was the deal? Why do intelligent women still think it is appropriate to culturally misappropriate? Is it because the media, music festival goers, and fashion brands still promote this practice as acceptable accessorizing?
After the lackluster response to my comment, this article poured out of me. Before I sought to publish it, I decided that if I had the nerve to write about a friend, then I ought to be brave enough to send it to her first. That's exactly what I did — I chucked a draft of this article into an email and sent the whole thing to her with a gentle introduction that would (hopefully) ease Roxy into the idea of being the focus of a piece about bad social media behavior: "okay so this might make you LOL but I wrote an article about YOU." After reading the whole piece, Roxy's response was as follows:
BECAUSE THEY ARE ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS.
Indeed they are. The warbonnet is a stunningly beautiful treasure. But is it okay to wear a warbonnet just because they are incredibly beautiful? No. There are many reasons why you should not and it all boils down to one thing: wearing it is the act of taking something that is not yours; the very thing indigenous communities all around the world have struggled with and are still struggling with today.
If a person wants to appreciate the beauty that is Native American culture, there are inoffensive ways to do just that. You can source and purchase genuine Native American art from Native American artists and craftspeople. Display the work proudly in your home, enjoy the beauty of the work each and every day, share the art with your family and friends, and, most importantly, educate people on the importance of it. Doing this gives Native American people their power back so they can choose which parts of their culture they share on their own terms and can profit from their incredible artistic talent.
If you find yourself appreciating the depth of color and beauty in a warbonnet, then you will absolutely love Native American art. Have you ever seen a Navajo sandpainting? They are incredible. I'm a fan of the artist Virginia Tyler who belongs to the Navajo Tribe, and I am particularly in love with a piece of hers called "End of the Trail." I also love the Zuni artist High Elk and one specialty of hers in particular, a style of pottery. She makes traditional double-spouted wedding vases in a wide range of shades. Then there is Harlan Coonsis. Harlan creates incredible jewels combining silver and a wide variety of shimmering stones — they are bold, they are graphic, they are chunky, and they are beautiful.
There are ways to appreciate without misappropriating and we should all take part.