In her article “Hey, You in the Headdress? Do You Know What it Means?” on the “Indian Country” website, Chelsea Vowel argues against the appropriation of cultural symbols such as Native American headdresses by those outside the culture. Her argument rests on the distinction between restricted and non-restricted symbols:
• In some cultures, some items are off-limits. Examples from Canada and the United States would be: military medals, Bachelor degrees (the actual diploma), and certain awards representing achievement in literature, music, or other fields.
• These items cannot be legitimately possessed or reproduced by just anyone, as they represent achievements earned according to a specific criteria.
• Yes, some people will mock these symbols. However in order to do this, they have to understand what the symbols represent, and then purposefully desecrate or alter them in order to make a statement. They cannot then claim to be honouring the symbol.
• Some people will pretend to have earned these symbols, but there can be serious sanctions within a culture for doing this. For example, someone claiming to have earned a medical degree (using a fake diploma) can face criminal charges, because that ‘symbol’ gives them access to a specialised and restricted profession.
• Other items are non-restricted. Flags, most clothing, food etc. Accessing these things does not mean that you have reached some special achievement, and you are generally free to use these.
• If you do not use these items to mock, denigrate or perpetuate cultural stereotypes, then you can legitimately claim to be honouring those items.”
Putting Native American items such as headdresses in the first category, she makes a strong argument against their use by outsiders lacking cultural knowledge:
“So unless you are a native male from a Plains nation who has earned a headdress, or you have been given permission to wear one (sort of like being presented with an honorary degree), then you will have a very difficult time making a case for how wearing one is anything but disrespectful, now that you know these things. If you choose to be disrespectful, please do not be surprised when people are offended…regardless of why you think you are entitled to do this.”
In my reading this argument particularly targets fans of the Chiefs, Braves, Redskins, Indians, and other sports teams who dress up for games.
I agree with her point, but I also see the distinction though as being somewhat malleable. In particular I wonder about religious symbols. Where does a Christian cross fit into this distinction? I would think unrestricted. Then again what about a bishop’s mirter? Along those lines, what are the limits to what San Diego Padres fans can wear? Certain clothes can only be worn by actual members of monastic orders. Can a sports fan appropriate them? If there were a team, say the Juneau Jews, could the fans wear yamulkas or phylacteries even if they were not Jewish? Could fans of team called the Sacramento Sikhs wear turbans and symbolic daggers even if they were not Sikh?
So many possible permutations…but in the end Vowel’s point is a good one. Do not take another culture’s valued symbols and reduce them to a props.