Pharrell Williams is wearing a cheaply made feather headdress on the cover of Elle magazine this month. The headdress is constructed from what appears to be dyed turkey feathers, giving the appearance to the untrained eye of eagle feathers, and a lot of people are upset. As they damn well should be. I don’t know about anyone reading this blog, but I don’t have very high confidence that Williams is either secretly the hereditary chief of a Plains nation of indigenous people, or a medicine person who has inherited the responsibility of seeing fallen warriors into the spirit world. This event gives the entire world (Elle promises delivery anywhere around the globe) a very concrete example of cultural appropriation, which in turn provides an opportunity to understand what this means and why it is important. I’m seizing upon this opportunity to address white people in particular, in the hopes that perhaps just a few are spared in the future from the regular and all-too-tempting trappings of exploiting racist stereotypes of people of colour (but especially of Black people) to rage against appropriation in “solidarity” with indigenous people.
An eagle feather headdress represents an important tradition among many Plains peoples. It is considered sacred, and is an exceptionally rare honour to give or to receive. It is, however, not an important symbol among peoples to whom this is not a part of their ancestral traditions (e.g., coastal peoples of the Pacific Northwest, in whose territories I currently live as a guest and a settler). As an outsider to all indigenous cultures including Plains cultural traditions, I cannot possibly express an adequate gesture of exactly how important an eagle feather headdress is. All I can say is what I was told after the first time I was honoured with a gift of eagle parts: some people pray for a single eagle feather for their whole lives, and never receive it. A single eagle feather is a sacred privilege, connecting the recipient to one of the most revered and worshipped animals on earth and one of the most powerful birds in the skies. The eagle is even said to be closest to the great spirit of the atmosphere, carrying our prayers for us to the creator. I express these things, not as a “teaching”, as I am not an elder and this medium is completely inadequate as a vehicle for that knowledge anyway; but to do my best to convey a mere glimpse of the tradition being spat upon by that cover of Elle magazine this month.
I personally do not know with great confidence how long this tradition has existed among Plains peoples, but I do know that upon first contact with European settlers approximately 500 years ago, the headdress was instantly and irrevocably interpreted by the white gaze as a status symbol, and its wearer assumed to be chief of their people. Despite the fact that chieftanship doesn’t work in indigenous peoples’ cultural traditions the way white people assume(d) it does — that is to say, traditionally, the role of chiefs was and is to ensure everyone was taken care of and lacked nothing, even if it meant giving away everything they personally possessed; whereas white people assume(d) the role of chiefs is analogous to our own monarchy or even a fascist dictator — the stereotype of a top-down power dynamic has endured since contact, as has the bullshit name “war bonnet”, which intends to refer to eagle feather headdresses (picture this: I’m going into a mental state completely liberated from any fears of my own death, ready to swing bone and stone implements in close range combat, or running into the face of an onslaught of obsidian arrows, and I’m going to do it wearing the single most important piece of labour and honour I have ever received, which is made of feathers? I don’t fucking think so. Not for a goddamned minute.) And despite the fact that feather headdresses were (and generally still are) constructed for completely different reasons than white people assumed while constructing their own interpretations of the role of chiefs, and the visual identification of chiefs, the stereotype of an eagle feather headdress representing unquestioned authority and status has also persisted since contact. I will happily continue to leave it up to indigenous peoples themselves to speak to the bigger truths behind these false mythologies.
In the mean time, a lot of people jump to argument by analogy to prove how well they understand the problem, and to empathize in “solidarity” with indigenous peoples by trying to frame the issue in a way that cuts to the very core of identity for a person in Williams’ shoes, the way it cuts into people of Plains nations heritage. People who should be ashamed of themselves resorted to exploiting anti-Black racial and homophobic slurs to try and form an analogy that is intended to hurt Williams as much as Williams has hurt others. Williams not knowing many of these individuals from a hole in the ground, the only people they are hurting are those people of colour, gays, lesbians, queers, and their allies, who are closest to the instigators of these tasteless attempts to “argue” by stepping neck-deep in spontaneous displays of racism and homophobia. But let’s be realistic. Someone who harbours that kind of hostility towards Blacks and people who are marginalized by virtue of their sexuality isn’t going to be ashamed of themselves any time soon. They are too busy projecting their hatred externally to take a cold look at where it comes from within. As for everyone else, who are at least trying to be somewhat decent human beings, favoured analogies include a wide* range of cultures associated with Black identities.
* mostly hip-hop, ratchet, rap, and probably eventually Rastas too, because white people can’t resist bringing up Rastas when talking about Blacks, so that was basically sarcasm
I would like to openly challenge white people to think of their own culture(s) for a change, instead of grasping at a superficial understanding of the problem, or blurting out analogies that radically minimize the scope of it (i.e., all of the favoured “Black culture” analogies have a history shorter than the past 100 years, and are actually examples of subcultures — I assure you that Blacks everywhere have roots in a history much older than that). And since I’m not going to ask anyone to do anything I myself am not prepared to do (or have already done), I am going to provide a few examples.
Speaking as someone with hidden Jewish heritage, it actually pisses me off that the custom of infant male circumcision — which, ethical concerns aside, originally signified a blood covenant between the parents of the child and the God of the chosen people, as well as a blood covenant between the child himself and the God of the chosen people — has been so systematically appropriated and its meaning trampled all over for the past couple thousand years, that now it is done by all sorts of people who are neither ethnically Jewish nor culturally Jewish, simply because people think an uncircumcized penis looks “ugly”. And it pisses me off just as much to see non-Jewish people calling Jewish rabbis child batterers or even pedophiles for carrying out this sacred duty within their own communities (again, ethical concerns aside, because it is the responsibility of the community to discuss, not to have dictated to them by outsiders). And it pisses me off just as much to see the same non-Jewish people railing in anger and terrorizing non-Jewish religious devouts over this issue, as if organized religion is the sole reason for non-Jewish infant male circumcisions, and not a complete lack of either cultural sensitivity or grounding in education concerning our own peoples’ histories. I wasn’t circumcized shortly after I was born—instead, I was raped by my own parent for ten years. I’m angry about it, as anyone who had survived similar would be, and as this is unquestionably wrong, but I’m not weaponizing my anger against entire cultural groups or their religious institutions as if that will somehow solve the problem that I can’t undo without a time machine.
Speaking as a person of Slavic ethnic heritage (i.e., Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish), it pisses me off that my peoples’ literally ancient custom of spending hours painting intricate and ornate eggs in the middle of the night has been so systematically appropriated that every Easter, and for at least a month ahead of time, every retail business on the continent of North America bursts forth with hundreds of half-assed mimicks of my peoples’ pysankas. And they have the sheer audacity to call them “Easter eggs”. My people were making pysankas long before Christianity even existed. They represented powerful connections to our higher powers, in much the same way that eagle feathers still connect indigenous people to their most revered and worshipped animals. My peoples’ pysankas were used in several important ways (some similar to and some different from customs around eagle feathers). The more I learn about this custom — which, due to the intergenerational effects of the Holocaust on my entire family, was never passed down to my generation — the more anger I actually feel when I see non-Slavic people misattributing the Christian tradition of “Easter eggs” to elaborate plagiarism of other non-Slavic pre-Christian traditions. “Easter eggs” aren’t a convoluted plagiarism of ancient Egyptian religion or Celtic Pagan beliefs around fertility symbols. They are a very direct, quite literal plagiarism of a traditional custom spanning all across Eastern Europe, that has been systematically diminished from a sacred rite passed on from mother to daughter, into tacky shit that gets nailed to the wall once a year with a brass tack, but which means essentially fuck all.
Speaking as someone of Viking heritage, don’t even get me started on that horse shit melodrama on History channel of the same namesake. It’s bad enough that despite an overwhelming abundance of evidence to suggest that the era of Viking expansion was not a spontaneous wave of raping, raiding, pillaging, and enslaving vulnerable people all across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia; and that all the raping, raiding, pillaging, and enslaving is a narrative written by the Holy Roman Empire, which was expanding in the same time period in the same territories, following the fall of the Roman Empire; somehow Vikings are still to this very day depicted as barbaric, blood-thirsty, baby-eating, wife-stealing savages first—and maybe sort-of-clever nautical navigators later (the very reason they were called “Vikings” in the first place is because of their journeying across rivers, seas, continents, and oceans). Just never mind that Vikings arrived and settled all across Turtle Island, from both sides of the continent, nearly 500 years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, who wouldn’t have even known there was land here if it weren’t for Vikings reaching it first. Never mind that our stories, oral histories, and even our clan names have survived to this very day (I was born with one). Never mind, because despite changing the face of Northern European culture after nearly a millenium of occupation by Latin- and Germanic-speaking peoples, Vikings are only important as a punchline now. I cannot even adequately gesture at how deeply this cuts into me, every time it happens.
And finally, speaking as a person of Scottish heritage, it pisses me off that conflation of the Scottish and Irish for a similar sort of punchline is normalized. It pisses me off that most peoples’ idea of a Scot falls somewhere between green beer, a leprechaun, and Willy from The Simpsons — loud, angry, hard to understand through a thick accent spoken in spittles, drunk, and ignorant, with a side of “up your kilt, lassy!” It pisses me off that my paternal grandmother, from whom I inherited my Scottish heritage, is and always has been so ashamed of her heritage that she embraced British nationalism in an attempt to bury it. It pisses me off that the attempt to revive our tartans since they were all but lost once criminalized by the English (who were once our own people, for the sake of peat), appears most prominently in pornography bordering on normalized pedophilia—wait, no, not even bordering. Once the words “school girl” factor into any sexually graphic depiction of a woman wearing an absurdly short “kilt”, you’ve officially crossed the line into normalizing sexual fixation on very young girls. Something once so sacred to my people that weavers would spend exorbitant amounts of time I am only beginning to form an understanding of, to weave tartans which conveyed our very identity, as the colours were determined by the local plant life that sustained us, has become systematically diminished into a mere prop for the perverse.
So, I guess what I’m saying is, fellow white people? I get that you desire to empathize with people who, as a result of the Othering they experience, are targeted for cultural appropriation, and often by our own people. I get that you may or may not even be motivated by a sense of guilt stemming from a place of your own past ignorance towards the nature or scope of the issue, or even a previous mistake you made from that very kind of ignorance, which you are clearly working to amend if that’s the case. I understand wanting to be on the right side of history. I understand not wanting to be a bad person or a part of the problem, and instead seeking to be a part of the solution. Let me tell you something, then: always look at yourself first—because if you don’t, you’ll step knee-deep in racism against another people. You will never be able to empathize if you are never able to relate someone else’s experiences to your own.