With all the fuss over Johnny Depp's crow-headed portrayal in The Lone Ranger, the presence of a Native reference in the film that won the box office derby for the long weekend — Despicable Me 2 — went nearly unremarked.
While Depp's Tonto headdress is fairly laughable, being based on a misinterpretation of a non-Native artist's historically inaccurate painting, the feather headdress worn by one of the Minions in Despicable Me 2 is clearly based on authentic Native regalia.
Well… it's based on the regalia as worn by Felipe Rose, a member of the Village People. Rose, of Puerto Rican and Lakota heritage, has worn a feather headdress for decades as part of the Village People's shtick. Other members of the group dress as a policeman, a construction worker, a cowboy, a soldier, and a man clad in leather (a look associated with gay leather subculture). Rose is an active member of the Native music community, a NAMA-winning artist whose charity work includes the American Indian College Fund and HIV/AIDS advocacy. Without a doubt, Rose is an influential and respected Native musician.
But he is also one of the Village People. When he performs in his feather headdress, he is entertaining as a disco performer, not participating in a sacred ceremony. But does that matter?
In 2010, Vi Waln was moved to address (to some extent) Rose's headwear in the Lakota Country Times. She had witnessed a young, female high school basketball fan wearing a feather headdress as part of a group dressed as the Village People. "Since he has Lakota roots I see nothing wrong with Rose’s choice to wear a headdress," she wrote. "However, I do wonder if he understands the meaning behind the regalia. A headdress is not something one dons for just any occasion."
Waln goes on to describe a heated discussion on Facebook regarding not Rose, but the girl in the headdress. From her account, the general feeling among Natives was outrage. To quote one participant:
"To see a young girl standing there with a headdress on mocking what our ancestors wore to represent us as a tribe – that is very offensive to our tribal leaders and to our ancestors. A headdress is something earned; it is for those men who protected and guided us through the many wars, the many fights, the many dealings with the government. If you can’t understand the feelings we have as Native Americans to constantly see the disrespect and prejudices within our spirituality, then that is something you probably don’t have respect for your own culture. We are humans, with a human heart; we are tired of this mockery!"
What's striking is how much the headdress-wearing Minion from Despicable Me 2 resembles a headdress-wearing character that was dropped from a McDonald's Happy Meal marketing campaign in France just three months ago. That culturally-insensitive misstep earned a profuse apology from McDonald's. Should Universal Pictures, Despicable Me 2's distributor, have to do the same? Is spoofing the Village People, including Lakota performer Felipe Rose, the same as spoofing Lakota customs and spirituality?
The Minion based on Felipe Rose appears in this teaser clip: