As portraits go, it was undeniably arresting: a strong-jawed man in profile wearing a regal Native American war bonnet.
But the man in the headdress was singer Pharrell Williams, who is not, last time anyone knew, Native American.
When that picture appeared on the July cover of fashion magazine Elle UK, which was published June 5, the backlash on social media was instant. Much of the criticism on Twitter used the hashtag “NotHappy,” a snarky reference to the “Happy” singer’s monster hit.
Before the outcry, Elle UK bragged on its website that it persuaded the singer to “trade his Vivienne Westwood Mountie hat for a Native American feather headdress in his best ever shoot.”
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Williams quickly apologized. “I respect and honor every kind of race, background and culture,” he said. “I am genuinely sorry.”
Headdresses have deep spiritual and cultural meaning for Native Americans. But lately a lot of people — from hipster festivalgoers to runway models and musicians — have been playing dress-up in them, reigniting a longstanding debate about cultural misappropriation.
In the age of social media, the ire lights up faster and with more passion.
“Social media of native people, even though we’re only 2 percent (of the U.S. population), is so strong and so valiant, that our presence is making change,” said Native American journalist Vincent Schilling. “For decades the only voice we had was to go out and hold up a sign and say we’re frustrated. But now, for the first time, the native voice is being heard on social media.”
Now, transgressions go viral, as in June when headdresses made headlines during a San Francisco Giants baseball game, on Native American Heritage Night. Stadium security stepped in after a Native American man and woman approached a group of non-native men who had brought a fake, plastic headdress to the game.
After the mainstream attention and online discussions, the Giants added “culturally insensitive” garb to obscene language, abusive behavior and other misdeeds that can get fans thrown out of the stadium.
And the Bass Coast Electronic Music and Arts Festival in Merritt, British Columbia, took what Native American activists call an unprecedented step by banning concertgoers from wearing feathered headdresses.
Enacted at the request of the performers, the festival warned on its Facebook page that “our security team will be enforcing this policy.”
Schilling, who is Akwesasne Mohawk, saw so many recent examples of headdresses being used inappropriately that he made a YouTube video last fall called “What Is Native American Misappropriation?”
He begins: “What we’re seeing now is a pretty big influx of what people are calling native hipsters. And seeing these young people in headdresses and poetic fashionable poses … it’s really upsetting a lot of people.”
Schilling is the co-founder and owner of Schilling Media, a Virginia media company that deals with Native American issues. He also writes for Indian Country Today Media Network and co-hosts an online radio show, “Native Trailblazers,” with his wife, Delores Schilling.
In an October 2012 interview with O, The Oprah Magazine, Pharrell Williams suggested that he has Native American ancestry. So critics wondered: Wouldn’t he have known better than to wear a headdress simply for fashion?
“Just because someone is part native doesn’t give them the right to wear them,” said Dennis Zotigh, a cultural specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.
The feathered war bonnet, worn mostly by Northern and Southern Plains tribes, is the headdress that many people typically associate with Native Americans. It’s the one sold with Halloween costumes and worn in Western movies.
“It was their symbol of leadership, and each of those feathers was earned and shows their position of leadership,” Zotigh said. “So not everybody had the right to wear these. And they were only worn for special occasions.”
So when Tom Spotted Horse sees a Native American wearing a war bonnet, “that tells me this person has met a specific level of distinction,” he said.
“I have seen them recently given to young soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. And, of course, some tribes still have a chiefs system and a chief has the right to wear one because he has taken on the responsibility to look after his people.”
Spotted Horse, who is the supervisor of residential housing at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., said his great-great grandfather was buried with his war bonnet.
“This is very analogous to the modern warrior who earns a medal for their service during wartime,” Zotigh said. “So for a person to wear a war bonnet who didn’t earn it would be the exact same thing as somebody wearing a Purple Heart or Medal of Honor who did not earn it.”
Dana Warrington, a 34-year-old dancer from Keshena, Wis., who is half Potawatomi, half Menomini, doesn’t think it’s right for non-natives to wear headdresses. But he tends to give celebrities like Williams and others a pass.
“I don’t think they do it in such a disrespectful way,” said the artist, who is the owner of Native Expressions Quillwork. “I don’t think they do it with that intention.
“I think if they were more educated on it maybe they wouldn’t do it. But I don’t perceive it in such a negative way as most natives do. I don’t see the point of getting all worked up over something. And (Williams) apologized, and that should have been good.”
Spotted Horse doesn’t get worked up either over incidents like the Williams photo because he’s seen it before and believes it will keep happening.
He looks at the situation with “bemusement because, let’s face it, as Native Americans we are living in a dominant society, a society dominated by non-natives, and it’s going to be like that for a long time.”
He just thinks non-natives in headdresses look silly.
“I’m not trying to belittle that person, because … they don’t know what I know,” he said.