H is for Headdress

H is for Headdress

A lot has been written about headdresses, in particular, what is wrong with non-Indigenous people wearing them.
And in French…
For this reason, I had not planned to write much about headdresses as part of my research.  Clearly, the issue has been comprehensively covered. 

And yet…
Despite an overabundance of information on why non-Indigenous people wearing headdresses is extremely disrespectful, the practice continues, seemingly unabated.

But, why? 

A lot has been written about how wearing a headdress is wrong, however, not a lot has been written about why we keep doing it. Dominique Charron notes that we seem to be in this perpetual cycle. A pop star wears a headdress in public: Karlie Kloss, Gwen Stefani, Drew Barrymore, Pharrell Williams… Then, as the image makes its way through social media, critiques are written denouncing the practice. Apologies follow. And then someone does it again…  Why are we so obsessed with wearing headdresses?  What compulsion is drawing us into this vortex?
I think Sophie Durocher of Le Journal de Montréal hit on it when she wrote:
Mais je voudrais leur [les autochtones] rappeler qu’en 2015, dans toutes les cultures, sur tous les continents, plus rien n’est sacré ! Ni les religions, ni les mythes, ni les cultures ancestrales. C’est ce qui caractérise la vie sur terre à notre époque.”
I would like to remind them [Indigenous people] that in 2015, in all the cultures, on all the continents, nothing remains sacred!  Not religions, not myths, not ancestral cultures.  This is what characterizes life on Earth in our era. [Rough translation]
This is quite a shocking statement. But she might be right… at least this is what capitalism would have us believe. Everything is for sale. Everything can be bought. Nothing is sacred except the pursuit of profit. The Dakota Access Pipeline illustrates this clearly, running as it does, through sacred Standing Rock First Nation grave sites. The Oka Crisis also comes to mind, a conflict that pitted expanding a golf course against the protection of Mohawk burial grounds. To say that nothing is sacred, is to give the green light to capitalist expansion.
I ran into a similar argument last year as a speaker on a panel at the local library about Freedom of Speech. Again and again two White men on the panel proudly proclaimed that they had never been offended… ever… that indeed nothing could offend them.  No insult hurled, no image drawn, no icon destroyed would affect them. This struck me as an incredibly impoverished way to live life. Living perpetually un-offended, means allowing nothing to be important, nothing to touch you deeply, nothing to be sacred.  It means allowing the ridicule and derision of everything and everyone.
Leonard Cohen might agree that these are our times.  He echoed much the same sentiment in his song, Steer Your Way:
They whisper still, the injured stones, the blunted mountains weep
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make things cheap
And say the Mea Culpa, which you’ve gradually forgot
Year by year
Month by month
Day by day
Thought by thought
Headdresses are one of the few things that ARE still sacred, still holy. Perhaps that is why we are so drawn to them. No amount of typing by Sophie Durocher can change this. We are fascinated by the headdress because it is denied us. And White people are not accustomed to being denied. Gunn Allen (1998) remarked that the White world undergoes “a nearly neurotic distress in the presence of secrets and mystery” (as cited in Tuck & Yang, 2014, p.233). We see this neurosis in our obsession with appropriating the headdress.
In Chelsea Vowel‘s explanation of cultural appropriation she compares eagle feathers, such as the ones that make up the headdress, to the Victoria Cross.  Both are restricted symbols, to be used only by those who have fulfilled certain criteria. The difficulty with this comparison is that few of us have much of an understanding of the Victoria Cross. (When I took an online Canadian citizenship quiz, similar to the one immigrants to Canada must pass, I got the Victoria Cross question wrong.) So while the comparison may be just, the Victoria Cross is not well understood and does not therefore necessarily help people understand the importance of the eagle feather. Which gets back to Durocher’s point that nothing is sacred. It is hard to come up with an equivalent symbol to the eagle feather or headdress, because we have lost touch with much of what was once sacred.

Vowel also uses a university degree as a comparison.  But we have done a good job of cheapening that sort of achievement with all our participation awards.  My own kids “graduated” three times before arriving in Grade 1 and I often do Grade 3 graduation ceremonies as well. So there may not be a corollary to the headdress in Settler culture. Perhaps Durocher is right in this regard, nothing in our culture is sacred, so how can we understand the sacredness of the headdress?
The closest comparison might be the military uniform itself. In 2014, Franck Gervais falsely claimed to be a decorated soldier during a Remembrance Day ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. One of the medals Gervais was wearing was a Medal of Bravery, which is awarded to heroic soldiers at rare occasions by the Department of National Defense. As it turns out, falsely impersonating a Canadian Armed Forces member is covered under Section 419 of the Criminal Code of Canada and Gervais later plead guilty to this charge.
Maybe we wouldn’t have so many headdress appropriations if we considered the headdress to be a military uniform. Another name for the headdress is the warbonnet as it was traditionally worn only by chiefs and warriors. This piece of regalia was historically part of only a dozen or so First Nations cultures in the Plains region. For these First Nations, feather warbonnets are a sacred display of a man’s honor and courage, not unlike the decorated veteran’s uniform that Gervais appropriated.  Each feather of a warbonnet tells a story just as each badge, sash and chevron does on a military tunic. Indeed there are many similarities between a headdress and a soldier’s uniform. (For more information on headdresses see: Native American Headdresses: Facts for Kids.)
But could you imagine a Remembrance Day assembly in which students dressed up as veterans wearing construction paper Medals of Bravery?  It is inconceivable.  And yet every year, classrooms throughout North America dress their students in headdresses. Teachers tell us this is a way of honouring and learning about Indigenous cultures. However, we would never honour or learn about military veterans in this way. Teachers tell us that they mean no disrespect and that their intentions are good. However, not intending disrespect did not make Gervais any less guilty of his crimes. In this case, what one intends is really beside the point.
A further argument that teachers make is that they have somehow been given permission to do the headdress activity. This permission is often self-given. In the case of the Montreal teachers, the school board spokesperson said the two teachers “specialized in history and anthropology, and are sensitive to indigenous issues” which apparently gave them permission to do this. Sometimes teachers cite insider knowledge, that somehow having Indigenous acquaintances or growing up in “the North” or near a reserve, gives them permission to speak for Indigenous people. Sometimes an Indigenous student is wrangled into granting permission, as if a child can speak for an entire culture. But the concept of permission is neither here nor there either. Is there anyone who could have granted Gervais permission to wear the uniform of a decorated veteran?  I think not. For some things, no permission can be granted. Some things are simply not permissible. And so it is with White people wearing headdresses.
Every day we seem to get closer to the dystopia that Durocher imagines where nothing is sacred and everything is cheap. But we are not there yet. May the headdress become only one of many restricted symbols that we fight to return to their intended significance and their intended owners. And may we say a Mea Culpa for having allowed capitalism to confuse us in this regard.
Charron, D. (12 juin 2013) La coiffe à plumes sur la tête de ce hipster n’est pas un chapeau. mmeh: ma mère était hipster. Retrieved from: http://mamereetaithipster.com/2013/06/12/opinion-la-coiffe-a-plumes-sur-la-tete-de-ce-hipster-nest-pas-un-chapeau/
Durocher, S. (15 juillet 2015) Osheaga perd des plumes. Le Journal de Montréal.  Retrieved from: http://www.journaldemontreal.com/2015/07/15/osheaga-perd-des-plumes
Tuck, E & Yang, W. (2014). R-Words: Refusing Research. In D. Paris & M. Winn (Eds.), Humanizing Research Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities (223-247). SAGE Publications.  Retrieved from: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/557744ffe4b013bae3b7af63/t/557f2ee5e4b0220eff4ae4b5/1434398437409/Tuck+and+Yang+R+Words_Refusing+Research.pdf
Vowel, C. (2016). Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada. Winnipeg, Canada: Highwater Press.