The Headdress Thing – Festival Culture, Native Culture, and the Death of Culture

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On many occasions I allow myself the perverse indulgence of participating in public conversations on Facebook. The signal to noise ratio is vast, but it can be managed. Careful attention and a generous sifting of one’s feed can reveal honest, coherent debates like golden nuggets hidden among the shouting and posturing sands.

One topic that enjoys frequent and fervent percolations is the debate surrounding accusations of insensitivity and cultural appropriation among today’s Transformational Festival attendance, particularly in the case of non-natives wearing replicas of feathered headdresses known to be styled after specific arrangements used in the sacred war bonnets of the various Plains Nations that once roamed what is now the central region of the United States.

My particular interest is a January 2012 blog post by âpihtawikosisân, which she abbreviated into a tumblr post that has only just recently floated down my particular tributary of Facebook friends. Almost immediately, two separate links to the tumblr post have prompted approximately a hundred comments each, ranging from shrill to defensive to sarcastic to emotional to everywhere in between. More than other issues, this particular nut has proven difficult for us to collectively crack, and the stalemate holds.

Amusingly, an overwhelming portion of the Facebook debates surrounding the article is covered in the article’s third paragraph when âpihtawikosisân links to and urges her readers to check themselves against this BINGO card of well-tread talking points  before continuing to read. I pause and worry that this amusement is symptomatic of my misplaced faith in the commenters having actually read the article.

Nevertheless, the steadfast arguments that I found myself drawn towards could likely be summarized as “I consider the wearing of any Native garments to be a sign of respect and admiration for the culture” and/or “Natives cannot claim exclusive rights to self-adornment using rows of eagle feathers attached to a beaded headband. This is a purely aesthetic choice that can be guiltlessly claimed by anyone existing outside of these cultures.”

I have little interest at the moment in approaching the categories of conversation labelled “privilege” and “racism”. It seems as if these words, when used in this or any debate really, seem to reliably produce a catastrophic spike in blood pressure amongst all participants. I feel much more comfortable approaching this particular jungle from the roots up.

The culture of the United States has historically been one of a melting pot, and indeed all cultures absorbed by America are literally melting. Cultural preservation, cultural sensitivity and cultural appropriation are all brand new concepts. We have been unconsciously pushing long-standing cultures into extinction for two hundred years, and only now have we realized what we are doing. Only now is it being proposed that something intangible yet vital is being irrevocably lost.

The trajectory of art and culture has brought us to a point at which “all that is solid melts into air”. There is a pervasive mentality in both contemporary art and popular culture that all symbols of all cultures have become “fair game” in a sense. A crucifix in a jar of urine ends up in a high-profile gallery. Sacred art is fodder for pop art. Interpretation and association have been diluted away until the pure, uncharged image remains. The subversion and dispiriting of the meaning-loaded symbol has become a visual language unto itself.

The dispirited appropriation of First Peoples cultures has a lengthy history. For most of the history of the United States, willfully disrespectful caricature of Natives seemed to be the only collectively accepted approach. Slowly and only recently has a sense of reverence and respect emerged into the mainstream as a second option. We absolutely see this process carried out in contemporary “Festival Culture” (whatever that means). There is an unprecedented kind of “interest” in Native Culture among young non-native Americans. Before this interest, there was only either bitter hatred, complete indifference or, at best, a kind of patronizing, cartoonish exploitation. For the first time, there is emerging a widely held imperative for respect.

The significance and newness of this development cannot be underestimated. Until very recently, the same gesture of a non-native wearing a headdress hardly ever expressed anything more than “HAW HAW! Lookit ME! I’m an injun cheef! WOWOWOWOWOWOWO”, and no one rushed to cry foul. While it’s true that the gesture has now taken on a myriad of newly individuated meanings, the sight of a non-native wittingly or unwittingly appropriating Native culture has the potential to open for many a raw and real emotional wound regardless of the intentions behind it. Again, cultural sensitivity is a brand new concept.

However we try, we cannot deny the role of history in defining and shaping our contemporary relationships to meaning-loaded symbols. If you believe it’s possible to prevent the sight of a white person wearing a sacred Native headdress as a fashion accessory from being seen as a callous visual reminder of centuries of genocide and exploitation, then it ought to be just as easy to believe it possible for Americans to “roll back” the swastika to being seen only as a symbol of good luck. The flow of history takes up aesthetic arrangements, elevates them to symbols, and then grinds those symbols through successive, highly disconnected generations of interpretation, like a drunken game of telephone. No culture is spared from the handling by so many hands and the trampling by so many feet.

Our relationship to this process, and to art and culture in general, is at a crucial turning point. Many of us have reached the apex of our alienated sense of irony. We have become disenthralled with our own disenthralling of meaning, finally committing the ultimate post-modern ironic gesture. Many of us have begun to circle back to a new kind of sincerity. We are re-examining our motives when it comes to the treatment of the meaning-loaded symbol. Do we really want it all to melt into air? Is nothing sacred, really?

This confounding situation has produced many levels of justification for these alleged acts of cultural appropriation. One level is that of aesthetic neutrality, an interest in mining the style of First Peoples for it’s purely visual appeal: “I wear it because it’s pretty and for no other reason, cultural context does not apply to my isolated fashion choice.”

It’s a fair approach to stick to one’s post-modern guns and declare Native symbols as being just as illusory and worthy of dispiriting as any modern symbol. Some champion the obsolescence of all culture, new and old, seeking to liberate us from supposedly infantilizing systems of tradition, and to instead usher in an era of limitless expression, free of all notions of context and free of history itself! The image is just the image, no culture inherently deserves any respect, and we are free to appropriate, defile, and re-mix however we damn well please!

However, it seems that many who take this attitude don’t take it far enough. To claim this level of cultural anarchy it seems that you must celebrate any and all forms of cultural violence.  It’s possible that you must also reject any notions of the sacred entirely.

“After all, it’s only art. You don’t actually believe that these symbols actually have any power do you? No, no, ancient culture, don’t you see? It’s just lines and shapes. There is nothing special about them beyond their aesthetic appeal. Don’t you know that there aren’t actually any spirits that thrive by the beauty and intention of your people’s work? It’s just dead pieces of fashion. The depth of meaning you feel is an illusion that you project onto terminally dead matter. Your magic is not real!”

Not only have the First Peoples of the continent been subject to displacement and genocide, postmodern non-natives have now claimed the right to drag Native cultures along with them towards the complete abolishment of the meaning-loaded symbol. If we can’t call anything sacred, no one can!

While it’s highly unlikely that anyone pictured in this gallery is going to knowingly claim themselves as a Cultural Anarchist, they are unwittingly celebrating the destruction of the meaning-loaded symbol, and by extension, the destruction of the sacred. This is what we declare when we wander the bazaar and say to ourselves “Oh man these symbols are like totally rad and mystical or whatever. I’m gonna look so good wearing these.”

When we absorb these “pretty” symbols into our personality without caring to know their meaning, we are casting a vote that says they have no meaning. What happens when those votes outnumber the ones that say they do have meaning? What will happen to a world in which all culture is completely dissolved into a spiritually neutral collage of aesthetics, charged with no sacred intention and provoking no reverence? Is this desirable? Is it inevitable?

There are many, particularly in the crowds of Transformational Festivals, who have rejected cultural anarchy, steered away from the cliff of the complete de-sacralization of the image, and are now desperately trying to find their way back to the sacred by any means necessary. Some may be doing so without even realizing it. They are chasing a certain kind of satisfaction for their souls, but the best they can currently manage is attempting to purchase the sacred at the vendor bazaar.

This aimless wandering toward the sacred produces a much more pernicious justification for cultural appropriation. It is characterized by its critics as being willfully shallow, or insincerely posturing: “I wear it because I’m, like, totally into Native American culture and stuff.” To claim to honor a culture without earnestly educating oneself in the nuances of said culture, particularly the nuances that provide context for the significance of sacred garments, is to dance in willful ignorance on the surface. In this case, it is to see thousands of symbols from hundreds of unique cultures as being collected in some nebulous gestalt of Noble Savagery.

This level of justification may have good intentions, but those intentions carry little in the way of substance. “Ah yes, feather headdresses, patterned blankets, horses, dreamcatchers, wolves, wrinkled elders, Natives! All of these images represent respect for mother nature. I respect mother nature too, so I’ll express my values through these beautiful symbols. Plus maybe I’ll look like a total badass at Burning Man.”

When the thinking stops at this point, it betrays a lack of effort to go any deeper than surface appeal, and the claim of honor begs questioning. Those that begin on the surface but then take a more specific interest end up learning of the deep cultural complexities involved in what they had previously understood as just a bunch of mysterious people who were really wise and into nature and stuff. Research is an expression of cultural respect, and those that express their honor through sincere research are more than likely to lose their interest in the unearned wearing of a culture’s sacred headdresses.

At this point, we arrive at the splitting of hairs. What is permitted? If we choose the preservation of the sacred instead of cultural anarchy, and we wish to claim respect for Native Peoples, AND we want to put feathers on our head, are we out of luck?  âpihtawikosisân provides a helpful link to an overview of traditional headdresses. 

Combined with the above link to the ‘Hall of Shame’, it’s obvious that there is a style of headdress that remains charged with meaning for better or for worse: a halo of bound feathers cascading upward and backward from a headband, particularly headbands of patterned beads.

Is this a broad style that covers many headdresses? Yes. Is it the only way to wear feathers in one’s hair? No. Is it fair for a culture to claim exclusive ownership of a meaning of a specific aesthetic pattern? That is for you to decide, but the implications of your choice will ripple out further than expected.

The healthiest choice seems to be a full embrace of the sacred, only this time devoid of appropriation. How is this possible? If you feel resonance with any of the inherited cultures we found waiting for us, go deeply and courageously into them. Honor your resonance by educating yourself thoroughly. If you feel no resonance with existing cultures, but yearn for the sacred, there is an alternative to the surface-level spiritual smorgasbord of appropriation. Gently, set aside your ideas of Mysterious Native Wisdom, set aside your personal roster of venerated ancient cultures entirely. Leave the melting pot behind. More importantly, leave the commercial acquisition behind.

What would happen to our sense of reverence for nature and the mystery of spirit if we each constructed and charged symbols with meaning completely on our own, with no historical reference point? What if you could adorn yourself with symbols and garments that only held special sacred meaning for you and your group of friends? What if we stopped buying feathers or other animal totems and instead started wandering our woods in search of them? What if you invented your own new style of headdress, and instead of selling it to a stranger, you gave it to a friend in recognition of their achievement? What if culture is actually dead, and there’s nothing left for us to inherit? Are we ready to start from scratch?



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