A Comment on Native-Inspired Style

This is a little late to the game, because I write posts early and schedule them out for future post dates, but 2016 has seen this confluence of fashion factors that’s led to a lot of Native American-inspired beauty and fashion products hitting the markets. You’ve got Southwestern patterns on clothes, there are accessories that sport feathers and beads, and there are ‘music festival-inspired’ beauty lines that are very clearly pulling from Native American culture (Yeah, I’m looking at you, MAC – get your act together).

So let’s get into this, because it’s a complicated subject. First things first, I can only talk about my own culture here, and I can only give my own opinion. Natives don’t have some hive-mind, where we all share the same social and political views. Our lives and opinions are just as diverse as that of any other group, which is one of the issues with a lot of festival fashion – it views Natives as a monolith, one single people with one single worldview, which couldn’t be further from the truth and is honestly a pretty dismissive take on any culture. Compare ‘all Natives wear feathers’ to ‘all black people like watermelon’ – if the latter sounds really offensive and rude, the former should too. There’s no reason to lump people into groups by race or heritage; there’s too many people in those groups for them to have all had the same lives and formed the same opinions.

My family is Okla Chahta – we are members of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. There are other Choctaw in the U.S., as well as other Native tribes, and all of them have had different experiences. My tribe was subjected to the Indian Removal Act and walked the Trail of Tears. The Southwestern and Pacific-Northwest tribes weren’t subjected to that, although they’ve certainly experienced their own struggles.

Are you getting some idea of the complicated histories of these various tribes now? There are entire graduate degree programs devoted to Native American studies; you can’t just walk up and say ‘Natives do/look like/think this,’ because an informed person’s response would be, ‘which Natives?’

So when I see white festival-goers wearing Native headdresses (cheap, tacky versions of the war bonnets worn by various Plains tribes, like the Sioux), my first thought is, “What an idiot.” Even if they were Native, and a member of a tribe that has war bonnets as a part of their culture, AND had the tribal standing to be allowed to wear one – they wouldn’t wear it to Coachella.

Native clothing is riddled with history and symbolism; nothing we put on our bodies as far as tribal dress is ‘just a thing to cover us up.’ Before European contact, most Native tribes in the southern U.S. didn’t wear much clothing at all, because those tribes weren’t Christian and had no concept of bodily shame to need to deal with. Clothes were for keeping warm in winter, or keeping the sun off. After European contact, and especially post-Removal, when Native kids were taken from their families and raised in European-style boarding schools (and adults were sent to hell-holes like this) where they were forced to wear ridiculous Victorian clothing and forbidden to speak their native language, traditional clothing moved forward as something Native people could claim as their own. Native clothing was something that honored who they were as they continued to fight for better living conditions and to keep their language and culture from being diluted. Nowadays, that symbolism holds strong, and it serves as a reminder of who we are and how we’re connected to our tribe.

So when I see white people put on random beads and feathers and run around at a music festival getting drunk and high, or when I see a massive makeup brand like MAC going, ‘Noooo, this makeup TOTES isn’t Native-inspired!’ I get annoyed. The drunk festival-goers could have worn literally anything else to watch 21 Pilots perform, and MAC could have brought in a Native designer like B Yellowtail to consult on their line, rather than making a bunch of fake-Native makeup and trying to claim it isn’t that. The problem isn’t that the makeup is ugly or that it’s not Native-looking – it’s that ‘Vibe Tribe’ is makeup made by white people, and marketed to white people, with Native-looking designs and names on it to make it more appealing…to white people. We Natives are left completely out of the equation here, but these products are clearly Native-inspired! Are we seeing the problem yet? Either don’t make products representing other cultures, OR bring those other cultures into the production process so that we benefit from you using our culture. That’s the issue with appropriation: one group of people co-opts another group’s culture, AND the other group doesn’t get any input or benefit from that co-opting. This is OUR culture; it’s not for other people to profit off of. We had quite enough of that in the 1830’s, thanks.

So how to wear Native-inspired clothing respectfully? That is the question, because all these geometric patterns and bright colors are speaking to my heart, and I hope they’re speaking to yours. There’s no reason not to wear beautiful clothing that has ethnic designs on it, but be aware of a few things while you’re shopping:

  1. Don’t accidentally wear sacred clothes for everyday stuff. It’s like the war bonnet thing: those are ceremonial, and really important to the tribes who wear them. They’re not decorations for your sweaty head. B Yellowtail makes some stunning scarves, and much as I would like one, I wouldn’t wear it because I’m not from a Plains tribe. I might put it up as art, something to talk about Native culture with people who see it, but I wouldn’t wear it, because it depicts a sacred ritual for a tribe I don’t belong to. It would be rude of me to look at that and go, ‘This is purdy!’ and then wear it around like the importance of the design doesn’t matter to me, when if you read the description, it’s clearly important to the designer and the people she’s representing. This dress, on the other hand, is a gorgeous pattern that was designed by Native designers specifically to make dresses out of – it was designed to be a fashion piece, not to represent a sacred ritual. Do you see the difference? There’s nothing wrong with wearing Native-looking clothes, but make sure they’re meant to be sold and worn as fashion, not as part of an important cultural event.
  2. Avoid costume/joke clothing. Nothing makes you look stupid faster than slapping on some leather fringe and saying, ‘Look, I’m an injun!’ It’s not funny. It’s definitely not clever. And it’s really not worth supporting the people who make jokey, stereotypical costumes making fun of Native people (or any people). So maybe just skip that entirely.
  3. If you really appreciate a culture, learn about them. Slapping on some clothes or jewelry with no understanding of the influences behind them is just lazy. Instead of taking the clothing at face value, use your purchases as an opportunity to learn more about other cultures and their beliefs and values. Being a more-informed person never hurt anybody, and if you have pretty clothes that now have more meaning for you because you understand and appreciate the cultural influences behind them, then you’re just winning all around, really. And then you can shut down other people when they spout ignorant BS about cultures they don’t understand. We need more people like that in the world.

Please notice that I’m not telling anybody to avoid any of the gorgeous Native-inspired or Southwestern clothing going around right now (although that ‘Vibe Tribe’ thing still annoys me). I’m saying don’t use it as an excuse to act like a moron, or to co-opt something that’s supposed to be sacred and make it your latest fashion find. I’m saying learn about other cultures and appreciate their differences. Own the fact that these designs are, in fact, inspired by Native tribes and cultures, and you the non-Native are borrowing those designs from someone else’s culture because you think they’re pretty. That’s okay – not acknowledging that fact is what’s not okay.

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