Understand What You’re Buying
Due to the fact that mainstream public pays little attention to Indigenous roots, it’s not a surprise that cultural appropriation is such a common issue today. Here is some information to heighten your knowledge about Indigenous culture:
FACT: The real Pocahontas, whose given name was Matoaka, was abducted as a teenager, forced to marry an Englishman (not John Smith), and used as propaganda for racist practices before she died at the age of 21. But let’s take Anne Frank for example. It would be highly criticized if someone dressed up as Anne Frank for Halloween. Or even worse, if Disney tried to romanticize her diary by aging her into a young woman with a love affair with a Nazi officer and a happy ending. Pocahontas is essentially the same thing as if a Disney movie was mainstream culture’s primary reference for the Holocaust and if it was marketed to Germans, who were told that the historical figures who oppressed the Jewish people were their country’s heroes.
FACT: Eagle feathers are presented as symbols of honor and respect and have to be earned, such as commemorating an act or event of deep significance. They represent various achievements made by the person who is presented with the feather. As a matter of fact, they are restricted symbols in many Indigenous cultures and many will receive only one in their lifetime, of perhaps never. Because of the significance of the eagle feather, Indigenous peoples wouldn’t display feathers they haven’t been honored with. Therefore, when individuals wear eagle feathers that are unearned, it cheapens the symbols earned by others and makes it easy to forget that it means something very important and significant.
FACT: Headdresses and war bonnets are reserved for respected older male figures of power in Indigenous communities. They are traditionally worn as a sign of leadership or spiritual significance. However, most pictures show women sporting headdresses. This is essentially just as bad as running around in a pope hat and a bikini, or a Sikh turban cause it’s “cute”. Wearing it at festivals undermines the value that the traditional headdress represents and perpetuates stereotypes about Indigenous tribes, as not all even wear headdresses.
FACT: Tā mokos are sacred Maori tattoos that have specific symbolic representations of relationships (often kinship relationships) and have designs with restricted, important meaning. When non-Maoris started copying these tattoos, a decision was made to promote kirituhi. Kirituhi designs are similar to tā-moko but without the specific important meanings. These are not restricted and are specifically designed to accommodate interest in the style of tattoo without violating the meaning of the tā-moko.
Why It’s A Problem
Non-Indigenous artists selling Indigenous merchandise hurts their communities. It’s their number one source of private direct revenue into their communities; thus having a large economic impact. It’s also just like wearing blackface, you’re pretending to be a race you’re not, and are drawing upon stereotypes to do so. Most importantly, it spreads mass lies and undermines the value of Indigenous art, iconography and adornment, as they are being possessed in careless ways. When many people run around with copies of a restricted symbol, there may never be widespread understanding that the symbol ever meant anything.
What You Can Do
Support Indigenous designers and artisans rather than corporations who profit while promoting stereotypes. For example, it’s fines to wear moccasins, but you need to give credit to Indigenous designers. Additionally, make sure you understand the significance of the items you purchase, as there are stories behind everything that’s created in Indigenous design. It is also important to avoid taking culturally significant or sacred clothing and items out of its context.
“We’re the only population that is exposed to invidious discrimination in sports and in the automotive industry. If there’s something called a Zulu pickup truck, there would be a race riot in this country. People are driving around in our viable living Indian nation cultural names and no one notices. No one notices. We are the invisible population and discrimination against us is invisible. It places us in the past tense as if it’s alright to appropriate our names and the names of our nations because we’re dead, gone, berried, [and] forgotten. We have to bring ourselves into the modern era in the sensibility of the American public. – Suzan Harjo, Native American rights activist