It’s halfway through the summer—prime music festival season—and yet again, we can expect to see white people donning Native American headdresses as a fashion statement. However, several festivals in Canada are taking a stand after an uproar over a photo posted on social media of one white woman wearing a headdress and some kind of attempt at aboriginal face paint at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. Several hours after it was posted, the festival issued a statement that denounced this example of cultural appropriation and insisted that the organizers ban the wearing of First Nation headdresses in the future.
Several other festivals followed suit, including the Edmonton Folk Festival, which posted an announcement on their Facebook page that they would prefer their attendees to respect First Nations culture and refrain from wearing any type of headdresses during the festival. They also announced if any festivalgoers arrived wearing headdresses, they would “be confiscated by festival security.” The Osheaga Festival, a three-day music and art event that draws crowds of up to 40,000 people per day, has also banned headdresses as an attempt to “respect and honor” First Nations people.
Caroline Audet, manager of PR at Evenko, Osheaga’s sponsor, has stated that the overall response to this decision has been positive. This year, the festival will feature A Tribe Called Red, a First Nations electronic group out of Ottawa, so this ban on headdresses is “even more important….out of respect for them.”
While this isn’t a huge leap, it’s a big acknowledgment of cultural appropriation that goes mostly unpoliced. There will always be the people complaining and asking why they can’t wear a headdress as an indigenous person can wear one without any issue. They will say that they are celebrating indigenous people’s culture. Or there will be the people with a weak attempt to make a point, saying that if they can’t wear headdresses, then Native Americans shouldn’t wear European clothing.
To those people, I will say that the headdress is sacred and ceremonial, worn only for specific occasions. It isn’t a costume or something to be worn for fun. As Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, head of the Department of Native Studies at the University of Mantoba says, “A headdress is bestowed to a person in a leadership position…Each feather in the headdress represents a relationship that has been forged by that leader or a relationship that leader carries within the community and outside the community. A feather has thousands of little strands and they all represent different relationships. That’s what a leader carries: those relationships.”
If you’re still unsure about why it isn’t acceptable to wear a headdress because you think “it looks cool”, or if you’re just looking for a good resource to explain to others why cultural appropriation is harmful and racist, check out this blog and read her post, An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdresses. She also provides a wealth of resources on information and issues related to indigenous people.
This ban won’t stop people from wearing headdresses, but it will serve to educate them.