The wearing of American Indian regalia by non-Indians, particularly the feather headdress or “war bonnet,” is a vexing issue in Indian country. It’s stirred up a lot of controversy in recent years as a hipster fashion trend, but it’s been with us for decades. Still, many people of all races wonder, what’s the big deal?
Adrienne K of Native Appropriations writes that a non-Indian casually wearing an Indian headdress “furthers the stereotype that Native peoples are one monolithic culture, when in fact there are 500+ distinct tribes with their own cultures. It also places Native people in the historic past, as something that cannot exist in modern society. We don’t walk around in ceremonial attire everyday, but we still exist and are still Native.” She also draws attention to the deep spiritual significance of a headdress and maintains that when a non-Indian wears one “it’s just like wearing blackface.” In a post at mycultureisnotatrend.tumblr.com the author writes of wearing the headdress: “Unfortunately if you’re a woman, you’re thumbing your nose at our culture which explicitly disallows you to wear the headdress. … If you’re a man, it’s still not appropriate to wear one, unless you’ve actually earned it, according to your tribe (no, you cannot pretend you’ve made a new tribe etc.)”
We won’t pretend that every single Native would agree with these statements—Indians are not a monolithic culture—but certainly many, perhaps even most, would say they dislike the headdress’s status as a gimmicky costume or hipster fashion accessory. But non-Native musicians seem particularly enamored of it—here are a baker’s dozen who’ve donned the feathers:
British band Jamiroquai gets its name from tacking “jam” onto (slightly misspelled) “Iroquois.” So lead singer Jay Kay obviously digs the Indians in his own jammy way. Although perhaps he does not dig them enough to do the research.
Outkast’s performance at the 2004 Grammy Awards may be one of the most detested cultural misappropriations, largely because of the Poca-hottie dancers filling up the stage, but the buckskin getups worn by Andre 3000 and Big Boi certainly didn’t help. But it is the DJ (possibly Mr. DJ, Outkast’s go-to spinner) who really takes the cake, wearing a giant headdress as he scratches. Get down with your bad self, Chief. Suzan Shown Harjo, writing for Indian Country Today, described the costumes as “Indian drag” and remarked of her Grammy-watching experience, “I felt like I’d been mugged in my own home.”
3. Karen O
With this adornment the lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs begs the question, “is a feather headdress sacred if it’s not made of feathers?” Karen O’s is made of hand-shaped fabric cutouts—they’re clearly meant to suggest American Indian garb (as are the rainbow-colored tennis shoe-moccasins), but has Karen (or her designer) “done enough” to distance this from a true headdress?
4. Ted Nugent
Ted Nugent probably thinks he can get away with anything he wants because he is crazy as a loon, and except when he suggests he might kill the President he pretty much does. So it’s little surprise that he busts out this enormous gag headdress whenever he can. It’s ironic that the man who wrote “Great White Buffalo” in praise of Native American lifeways could be so clueless about the significance of this headdress.
5. Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater
Chicago blues man Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater doesn’t have any known Native heritage, but he does have a hat. He often wears it on stage; like many of the musicians here he probably doesn’t see any harm in it. Now, naming one of his albums Reservation Blues—that was pushing it a bit, we thinks.
Even those who have no interest in American Indian culture gave this outfit a hearty whaaaa…? when Ke$ha wore it on American Idol. And then they proceeded to rip her showmanship. Newsday blogger Jamshid Mousavinezhad wrote a post titled “Kesha Annoys Us All on American Idol“ in which declared it “a train wreck of a performance.”
7. Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner is a bass player who’s worked with Erykah Badu and Snoop Dogg, and has been the touring bassist for Suicidal Tendencies since 2002. You might for a moment think he’s going all in on the pretendian thing with the name Thundercat—but he’s not. It comes from the ’80s animated series about cat-like space warriors.
9. Steve Aoki
Producer/DJ Steve Aoki wears it at the beginning and end of this video for “Cudi the Kid (ft. Travis Barker and Kid Cudi)”—he probably thinks the cultural mashup of a Japanese guy in a feather headdress looks cool. Not as cool as the burning clowns and psychotic nuns we see later in the clip, but still, not bad. Sacred regalia can’t really compete with burning clowns, but then, what can?
10. Juliette & the Licks
The Indian headdress was a favored accessory of proto-hipster Juliette Lewis during her run as the lead singer of Juliette & the Licks. For some artists, though, the goal is to be offensive, and all there is to do is congratulate her on achieving it.
11. 1910 Fruitgum Company
Sometimes an album cover doesn’t directly relate to any of the music on the disc—sadly, that was not the case with Indian Giver, an album by bubblegum popsters 1910 Fruitgum Co. Actual lyrics to the title track included “Indian giver, Indian giver / You took your love away from me. / Indian giver, Indian giver, / Took back the love you gave to me.” With a song like that, you might as well go whole hog and Skin it up on the cover. They’re mixing their metaphors here, though — Pocahontas (Eastern), feather headdress (Plains), and cigars (wooden).
12. Dr. John
In his early days, Dr. John performed as Dr. John the Nite Tripper, and wore a feather headdress that has some American Indian styling to it. However, Dr. John has always been fascinated with voodoo, so its possible that the real target of his disrespect is Haiti, with only a glancing blow struck against American Indians.
13. The Dirty Diamond
Here’s some not-bad psychedelia from a group that clearly worships at the altar of George Harrison and Ravi Shankar. You have to wonder, though, why nobody on the set thought to tap lead singer Sam Babayan on the shoulder and whisper in his ear, “Dude, wrong kind of Indian…”