Cultural Adoption & Meaning: The Indian Headdress as a Symbol
Posted on September 03 2014
Headdresses have long been part of ancient cultures from around the world—1. they are traditionally worn on ceremonial occasions, festivities, or aesthetically, for fashion. Headdresses are usually distinct from hats or helmets as they do not generally serve a functional or protective purpose. In most cases, a headdress is attached with religious significance or attribution (e.g. a catholic nun's headdress).
Similarly, the native American chief headdress has been imbued with cultural (almost religious) importance as history would have it. 2. War bonnets were worn primarily for ceremonial occasions. They were not worn mainly to beautify (or as a fashion accessory) but it was also believed that they have inherent powers to protect the wearer.
The Historical and Cultural Significance of the Native Headdress
While we may not have the full knowledge, nor do we claim to have much—like that of a natural born native American—of the chief headdress' symbolic meaning, people from different races (who know of and admire the aesthetic value of this object) have long attributed courage, strength, valor, honor, and leadership to the headdress. Noble characteristics often ascribed to native Americans themselves as well.
It is believed that the native American tribes of the great plains regions created what is considered the traditional Indian headdress historically—chief headdresses with long trailers or straight-up feathers. Thus, people would usually associate "feathers" with Indians (native Americans). But these feathers were not merely aesthetic components to the headdress. Each feather was supposedly "earned by a warrior" each time he did a brave or heroic act as considered by the tribe he belongs to. This "feather reward" was only seen as a native boy's initiation to adulthood. Tribes would award the feathers in elaborate ceremonial occasions. The highest honor would be when a warrior earns enough feathers, his friends and family can then bind these into a headdress. Their most prized feathers came from the "golden eagle" (natives consider this eagle as God's messenger) and were only earned though hardship, loyalty, and an impressive show of strength.
Adopting the Traditional Indian Headdress' Symbolism and Meaning
Most recently, there has been a growing protest (by some native Americans) against the much debated "cultural appropriation" of the traditional Indian headdress. Natives are outraged with what they think of the use of the headdress in modern fashion (by white people) as an act of spiritual desecration and racism against their culture and peoples. Social media is abuzz with heated exchanges of arguments and accusations from both sides.
While we have tremendous respect for our native American friends (and their history and culture), we see the outrage is something uncalled for. For one, cultural symbols (or any object association to one's beliefs or traditions) simply cannot be owned exclusively by one race or people. We live in a very much globalized world today and cultures have long been diluted whether we accept it or not. One's right to protest that which offends him/her ends with another one's right to freely choose any object to symbolize his /her creative expression.
However, we strongly condemn acts of desecration on anyone's religious symbol. Desecration is when one intentionally or purposely uses another religious symbol (not his own, or even one of his own) in a manner that devalues or scorns that symbol's meaning and degrades a person holding on to that symbol's significance to him /her. So with "cultural appropriation".
Why We Believe Cultural Exchanges is Beneficial and It's not Wrong
The exchange of art, religious symbols, music, fashion, beliefs, and so forth between peoples (and cultures) has been ongoing for centuries. All ancient cultures (including our own) borrowed from other races through trade and travel such that some have adopted other cultural artifacts completely that people cannot tell anymore which artifacts originated from or how.
We respectfully believe that adopting the universal meanings attributed to the native headdress—such as the noble characteristics of courage, bravery, hard work, and so forth— by owning an Indian headdress is not necessarily harmful, nor should it be outrageously offensive when we do it in a conscious, thoughtful manner. In fact, we believe that cultural exchange is beneficial in this day and age, and that sharing these symbols or artifacts between cultures can actually lead to interesting conversations and greater mutual understanding…
What do you think? If you love these Indian headdresses, share with us your thoughts in the comments below :)
1. Jessica Ellis, “What is a Headdress?,” Wise Geek, August 21, 2014, http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-a-headdress.htm. 2. “War bonnet,” Wikipedia, current version from July 3, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_bonnet.