An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdresses


I see you are confused about what constitutes cultural appropriation.  I would like to provide you with resources and information on the subject so that you can better understand what our concerns are.

However, I also want you to have a brief summary of some of the more salient points so that you do not assume you are merely being called a racist, and so that I do not become frustrated with your defensive refusal to discuss the topic on those grounds.

If at all possible, I’d like you to read the statements on this BINGO card.  If any of those have started whirling through your head, please lock them in a box while you read this article.  They tend to interfere with the ability to have a respectful conversation.


  • Some items are restricted items in specific cultures.  Examples from Canada and the United States would be: military medals, Bachelor degrees (the actual parchment), and certain awards representing achievement in literary, musical or other fields.
  • These items cannot be legitimately possessed or imitated 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 parchment) 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 signal 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 stereotypes about other people, then you can legitimately claim to be honouring those items.


For the most part, headdresses are restricted items.  In particular, the headdress worn by most non-natives imitate those worn by various Plains nations.  These headdresses are further restricted within the cultures to men who have done certain things to earn them.  It is very rare for women in Plains cultures to wear these headdresses, and their ability to do so is again quite restricted.

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 other than 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.

Even if you have ‘native friends’ or are part native yourself, individual choices to “not be offended” do not trump our collective rights as peoples to define our symbols.


It is okay to find our stuff beautiful, because it is.  It is okay to admire our cultures.  However I think it is reasonable to ask that if you admire a culture, you learn more about it.  Particularly when the details are so much more fascinating than say, out-dated stereotypes of Pan-Indian culture.

You do not have to be an expert on our cultures to access aspects of them.  If you aren’t sure about whether something is restricted or not, please ask someone who is from that culture. If people from within that culture tell you that what you are doing is disrespectful, dismissing their concerns because you just don’t agree, is not indicative of admiration.

If you really, really want to wear beaded moccasins or mukluks or buy beautiful native art, then please do! There are legitimate and unrestricted items crafted and sold by aboriginal peoples that we would be more than happy to see you with.  Then all the nasty disrespectful stereotyping and denigration of restricted symbols can be avoided, while still allowing you to be decked out in beautiful native-created fashion.

If you are an artist who just loves working with aboriginal images, then please try to ensure your work is authentic and does not incorporate restricted symbols (or perpetuate stereotypes).  For example, painting a non-native woman in a Plains culture warbonnet is just as disrespectful as wearing one of these headdresses in real life.  Painting a picture from an archival or modern photo of a real native person in a warbonnet, or in regalia, or in ‘street’ clothes is pretty much fine.  Acknowledging from which specific nation the images you are using come from is even better.  “Native American” or “Indian” is such a vague label.


It’s okay to make mistakes.  Maybe you had no idea about any of this stuff.  The classiest thing you can do is admit you didn’t know, and maybe even apologise if you find you were doing something disrespectful. A simple acknowledgement of the situation is pure gold, in my opinion. It diffuses tension and makes people feel that they have been heard, respected, and understood.

If you make this kind of acknowledgement conditional on people informing you of these things ‘nicely’ however, that is problematic.  The fact is, this issue does get people very upset.  It’s okay to get heated about it too on your end and maybe bad words fly back and forth.  My hope is that once you cool down, you will accept that you are not being asked to do something unreasonable.

Remember that BINGO card above?  It demonstrates how not to go about the issue.  You and I both know this issue is not the end of the world.  But it is an obstacle on the path to mutual respect and understanding.

Thanks for listening.


This article is adapted from a longer article I wrote previously, but I like the changes here enough that I wanted to ensure this version was also available.
Share this: Google+ Reddit Print

54 Responses to An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdresses

  1. Scott says:

    Thanks, useful article. It can be inobvious even for natives. As a native male from a Plains nation, my father left me his headdress which he earned and told me I could wear it when he passed. Well he did and I wore it on one special occasion but have kept it put away because I grew up off reservation and wasn’t familiar with all the customs, but I instinctively knew it was something of a sacred object, or restricted as you term it. Eventually during a visit to the reservation I asked about it (among many other things) and of course it turns out the rule in our nation is the headdress is only to be worn by warriors, which generally means veteran status, or other notable service. Now as it happens I am among a very small number of modern persons who participated in a war party as a youth with my father and others when we were attacked by an enemy tribe, so according to traditional rules I am entitled to wear it, but I think it would be considered a grey area by some, so I don’t.

  2. Andrea Rosenberger says:

    As the title says “An Open Letter to Non-Native’s in Headdresses”, I would like to expand on the above post…I’ve seen trendy photoshoots of NATIVE women in short dresses or tube tops wearing them and I shake my head at the lack of respect and understanding, just the same as when I see a non-native person wearing one. I often hear “but I’m native…!!” when approaching the topic of appropriation. I wish some of my peers would understand you don’t have to be non-native to appropriate. Lack of respect for sacred items within the native circle is a sad reminder that there has been some success in the assimilation efforts of colonialists, the church, the government, and society.

  3. Pingback: Why appropriating the burqa-clad woman is not cool « A Sober Second Look

  4. Pingback: ihanko oikeesti, jenni?

  5. Pingback: Jack Elmy share… « lapisinthedesert

  6. Torsten says:

    Thank you for this informative and well explained article. Since I am from Europe it is understandably nearly impossible to achieve this kind of cultural awareness unless you intend to inform yourself. It is for example absolutely traditional for children here to imitate the looks of foreign cultures such as american natives on certain occasions like carnival.

    Although I’m certain that no German would be offended if you wore a “Bundesverdienstkreuz”, which is kind of the highest national decoration for remarkable achievements or actions or any other military stuff, because it would be known that you probably had no idea of it’s meaning anyway, I am aware that it is again emotionally different when the act of imitation is related to somebody who is directly involved in your cultural issues.

    Or in other words, it is harder to smile over the ignoramus when they nearly extinct your culture.

    I encourage you to keep up your work on grooming your culture. I hope it will grow strong and healthy again, because cultural diversity is unutterably important for our planet, as the modern civilization is far away from being progressive and collected many design defects on the way.

  7. Pingback: Unsurprisingly, Victoria’s Secret is still racist | Life as Improvisation

  8. Beverly says:

    Thank you for this post. I whole-heartedly agree.

    It bothers me to see cultural appropriation that happens without any regard for the original purpose or culture. What comes to mind is a Tim Horton’s coffee shop in Nipigon Ontario that has a totem pole in its parking lot. As far as I know this location is not owned by a First Nations person from the Pacific Northwest. And while I am aware that a totem pole is not a spiritual object, it does have cultural significance that should not be taken out of context.

    I feel likewise about inuksuit … part of Inuit and Dene heritage that have turned into airport giftshop earrings or tourist rock-piles at the side of the road. Dreamcatchers are similarily produced for retail sales by a wide range of tourist sites that assume it echoes a sense of native “Canadiana”.

    I respect the craftwork of First Nations peoples, as I do that of any culture. I do not support trinket-buying or misappropriation of cultural identity, instead opting to enjoy other cultures as shared with me by those who have the right to do so.

  9. PHguy says:

    Concerns of these symbols remind me of indigenizing trends in pop culture particularly churned out of Hollywood (e.g. Ke$ha). Other than that are slowly-growing Amerindian cultural-fashion memes (e.g. patterns, feathers and beads, “Indian chief in headdress” Warholesque designs) among new generations of non-Aboriginal/mixed girls.

  10. Barbara Jane says:

    “Don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now.” Thomas King

  11. Rex says:

    I am going to try to build my own feathered head bonnet. I really like the concept and it is one I have always wanted to bring to life without relying on anybody but myself. It is often said that great artists borrow from one another – the bonnets are inspiring, but I cannot borrow the spiritual and cultural meaning that they bring to and develop, and highlight within the native communities.

    If I build my own, using materials sourced from planet Earth without harming planet earth, I will wear it and it will be joyful and meaningful to me.

    But if someone says to me “Hey, that’s cultural appropriation” I will say “No, I built this myself, it has my own personal meaning”. It’s ok that they made a mistake, and I’m glad that they are aware of cultural appropriation. They didn’t know that I crafted it myself – and sure – it will look similar to other bonnets they have seen from TV, documentaries, or real life experiences, but I will have purposely used my inspiration to make it suitably different by using dark green colour palette.

    This is all hypothetical by the way – but, as you are very intelligent and knowledgeable about these matters, I think I would benefit greatly from your insight here – and I’d really appreciate it :D

    All the best,

    Rex from Australia.

    • Apparently anything I’ve said or would say to you would be met with “No, I built this myself, it has my own personal meaning.”

      So enjoy your privilege, and enjoy the fact that you get to speak over and ignore indigenous peoples. You certainly won’t be getting a pat on the back for it from us.

  12. Riley says:

    Hello there, I had some questions for you related to this… do you think that recreating a piece of art for educational purposes would be cultural appropriation, if it isn’t feasible to get an aboriginal piece? Or do you think it would be better to just avoid recreation altogether if you can’t have one made by a native craftsman/craftswoman?

    Also, I am going to be going on a mission trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to help with some of the people there. If you were in my position, where would you start on learning about the culture of the Oglala Lakota people(this is coming from a person who has little knowledge of the culture) ?

  13. Courtney says:

    In your hall of shame, you have a lot of traditional tattoo art. It all depicts women in headdresses, but if it’s labeled “traditional”, it doesn’t mean that the culture being reflected in the art is traditional. “Traditional” or “neotraditional” is a style of tattoo art. I also find that wearing things that are sacred and creating art that only depicts sacred things are two separate issues. Art is expression, anyone is entitled to make it. A lot of things offends a lot of people; it’s impossible to make everyone happy. It’s very narrow minded to call art “ugly as christian sin”, as I’m sure you’re finding my comment very narrow-minded. But you’re entitled to your opinion. Don’t try to reinforce your opinion as fact because I do know a lot of people who don’t get offended by art depicting sacred cultural objects who personally DO reserve the right to be offended.

    • Blah blah blah.

      I didn’t bother reading past the first few sentences, since you clearly haven’t put any effort into reading what I wrote about the issue.

      • Sigurd Sigurden says:

        Interesting assumption on your part. You seem to assume that someone who disagrees with you didn’t bother to read what you said. Perhaps that should go on your bingo card.
        I have trouble with the assumption of cultural appropriation – Many different cultures have had similar ‘icons’; stacking rocks have been done by lots of different peoples at different times. Different peoples have made ‘totem’ poles.
        Question – Which on this list do you object to – kids dressing up at Halloween as soldiers with medals, doctors, priests, cowboys, indians, native Americans/Canadians/Mexican/other indigenous people, national costumes from other countries?

        • Here’s why I assume certain people haven’t actually read what they respond to… They completely ignore the substantive points I’ve made and ramble on about freedom and ‘others do it too’, etc.

          That’s very nice that you ‘have trouble’ with something, but I’m not wasting time engaging your ‘points’ when you don’t bother to engage mine. Read the article. Identify which argument you don’t agree with. Lay out where you think it goes wrong and why. Then we’ll talk.

          This is honestly Discussion 101 and if you can’t operate at even that level, I’m not interested in what you have to say. Period.

  14. Anii says:

    Thank you for this article! I found it fascinating – not only because this subject is current, but also because it offered me some new facts, interesting “inside information” ( well, sort of, here in nordic countries we really don’t hear or know anything about native americans ) and some thoughts from a person who actually knows these things.
    I’ve always found your culture very intriguing – so again, thank you!

  15. Eleonora says:

    This is an old post but I had to wrote something. I found this text when I was looking for some headresses for the custom- party, because i find them beautiful. Immediatly after reading I stop looking and decided to wear something else. I want to apologize because i did not know this but now I do so obviesly I will not wear anything like that, ever. I from Finland ( Europe) so these things are not familiar to me but now they are and I will find out even more, because I want to know. My granma is from Karelia and I would not be happy if someone would wear their national dresses. i am really, really sorry.

  16. Irene Witty says:

    I listened to an interview on CBC’s ‘Q’ with ‘A Tribe Called Red’ discussing how they feel when they see headresses showing up at their shows. It was an informative segment for me. Now I read your blog and I understand even more. Thanks!

  17. Cassie says:

    As a very white, uncultured canadian female (even in my own Danish culture I find I’m in the dark), i greatly appreciate this bit of information. I am very inferested and have great appreciation for other cultures. I have always been particularly captivated by the Native culture and have a great respect for your people. Given the chance i would have loved to try on a headdress but now that i know i will simply respectfuly admire it. However i do wear my handmade mukluks with love and pride.
    I thank your people for your beautiful culture.

  18. Hailey says:

    I read your blog and I respect your opinion but it seems to me you’re the one who’s not open-minded. Referring to your comment to Courtney.

  19. Krisy says:

    “These headdresses are further restricted within the cultures to men who have done certain things to earn them. It is very rare for women in Plains cultures to wear these headdresses, and their ability to do so is again quite restricted.”

    So if a woman does what a man would do to earn a headdress, how is she honored? Is there a female equivalent that men aren’t usually allowed to wear or are women just held to a higher standard?

  20. Salome says:

    I am so grateful to have stumbled on your blog. This is so enlightening. But more so, I can comprehend the tone and emotions in your writings. I have great respect for indigeneous people all over. I am from India (from a local indigenous community called ‘East Indians’ in India) and our local people are fading away in the huge mass of diverse religions and cultures among the Indian ethnic peoples there – You may have never heard of the ‘East Indians’ of the nation of India. We have very little national presence, let alone global presence. I have also lived for 10 years in NewZealand and admired their indingenous people called the ‘Maori’ and their customs and their ongoing struggle for equal recognition and not just reservations. Sending you my warm heartfelt greetings to you all.

  21. Jacob K says:

    This letter completely disregards the fact that most people wear things simply because they like how certain articles/items look. It usually has nothing do to with honor or respect. The headdress itself may be a symbol of an achievement, but it is itself not the achievement. Frankly, it only holds as much value and authority as one decidedly places on it, just as words have only as much value and meaning as you place on them. One person can hold a rock and feel it is the most important thing in the world to them, while another will look at it as just a rock. It’s a matter of perspective. To chastise someone for their own perspective isn’t a trait of open-mindedness, but rather one of intolerance. To call a contradicting perspective “disrespectful” is itself disrespectful. That kind of thinking is something that creates boundaries, not something that promotes unity or individual freedom.

    The Golden Rule is “treat others as you would like to be treated” – that goes both ways. If I wear something that you like, I feel you should be allowed to wear it, too, regardless of what it is. Likewise, I feel I should be able to wear something that you do if I like how it looks. If you feel I follow traditions that are silly and you want to mock me, I encourage you to do so. That is your right as a free, living being. It’s 100% my choice if I want to be offended by your actions or not. Nobody controls my emotions but myself, and if I disagree with what you think, say, or do, why should I become upset? It would be selfish of me to expect you to think like I do. Instead, I choose to respect you and your views, no matter how much I disagree with them. You are fully capable of doing the same.

    And by the way, I have Native American heritage.

    • You have hit enough points on the cultural appropriation BINGO card to win a prize, no doubt.

      You claim some vague “Native American heritage” (we don’t actually identify that way, btw) in order to excuse yourself and others. You call upon an extreme form of cultural relativism wherein nothing has any meaning but what the individual engaging in the behaviour gives it. Of course, this extreme form of cultural relativism completely ignores the reality of social structures and norms, and the way in which societies give things importance because we do not exist as individual units.

      Ugh, no. Your entire post reeks of idiocy, to be frank. This is not an issue of individual perspective. Someone, give this person what he won for playing Cultural Appropriation BINGO.

      • Manitopyes says:

        Wow. I have to say a lot of your points are valid but they are lost in your bad attitude. You cannot speak for possibly every tribe so please don’t act like you do. You’re marginalizing other native peoples while at the same time dismissing the issue of cultural misappropriation of other cultures. You act like a child anytime anyone disagrees.

        • You made absolutely no attempt to engage any of the points in the piece, you simply invoked some vague notion of complete and total individual freedom. You do not have complete and total individual freedom in the real world, and despite your adherence to the notion of individual cultural relativity, we do indeed restrict certain things in human societies. You may not like this fact, but your argument against it is not at all compelling, as you essentially attempt to ‘think restrictions away’ without ever engaging with why they exist in the first place.

          And with your last petulant rant, you have indeed achieved BINGO!

          • Britney says:

            I’m getting a headdress tattoo because I think they are beautiful. I read your original artical as well as researched the meaning behind them so I know what they are about… and I couldn’t care less who it offends! So put that in your pipe and smoke it! Ha! :-P

          • Hey, at least you’re embracing your racism instead of dressing it up in faux-honour! I prefer an honest racist to one who hides it.

  22. Paul says:

    I recall when imitation used to be the biggest form of flattery, when did that change? Are we truly suggesting that we can only have heroes from our own race? If so, then I believe we have become the racist we wished didnt exist. Lets celebrate and embrace our culture as well as that of others. As soon as our culture becomes ours alone then we have nothing.

    • This is not imitation, it is ignorance. Please do not claim to be paying homage to cultural symbols you are too lazy to understand, or pay any actual respect to. If you just want to rip something off, and you don’t care if it bothers people, own that. Do not hide behind false claims to be ‘celebrating’ what we are telling you is not yours to do anything you wish with. You can’t pretend to be respecting us, while you actively disrespect us.

      • Sarah says:

        does it make you feel better to sit on your computer and bitch about things because you have no life ?
        People are allowed to do what they want and if someone wants a head dress tattoo they can get one and shouldn’t have to explain the meaning behind it to everyone , your pretty much saying anything anyone non native does that has anything to do with native culture is racist , it’s 2014 so get with it your not in charge anymore nor will your culture ever will be again so take what we do as a compliment , and if a non native person has a native friend they obviously respect them and don’t use them as excuses for the things they do , your delusion :)

        • Thank you for sharing your unapologetically racist, colonialist opinion. Though it is a breath of stale air, never let it be said I don’t let some of you folks rant and rave away…always good for a laugh at least!

    • Azymic says:

      Hello, Paul. I have no links to this culture, and I really have no business replying to this. I am no expert on the subject. But I would like to point out several statements in the above article that answer these questions already. You seem like someone who wants to create an intelligent discussion, so I’ll try to give you one.

      Imitation is flattery when you are respecting the one you are imitating – for example, looking up to a role model, or taking on the fashion style of your friend. But the imitation mentioned in this article comes with disrespect, and is actively promoting harmful stereotypes. Many of the photographs found online of others wearing headdresses are of people being drunk, smoking, nude, etc.

      Sharing culture is great! But only when you know the significance of what you are inspired by. And there are things that are off limits. As the author mentions, it is like the difference between wearing a hoodie and producing a fake war medal. Pretty much, compare and contrast picking up a few traditional recipes from my mum and this video:

      Yeah. I’m Chinese-Canadian, and I love sharing my culture with my friends – cooking I’ve picked up from my parents, the many old legends I’ve read, trying to figure out calligraphy together – but there are things that are off limits. Sometimes, with our melting pot/tossed salad sentimentality, our thoughts of being multicultural, we cross the line from celebrating and sharing to mocking and appropriating.

      The only thing I can come up with to compare this to is wearing the pope’s clothing and going binge drinking with your buddies. All the while taking selfies and with the captions “So ironic lol” and defacing a church. You may not be Christian, but I hope you understand the sentiment.

      It’s even worse when you do this with minority cultures, because it’s drastically less likely for someone to call you out on it.

      I’ll admit that the tone of the author’s reply is harsh – but she’s been dealing with this for a long while, putting up with bullshit responses that only mean to further degrade her culture. Yours is just another in the list (the few comments I’ve read throughout this website often have similar sentiments to yours). There is a long history of this crap in Canada, and even today, the government is refusing to do anything. I don’t have any links on hand (although you could just go through this blog), but even our history textbooks (forced down to a PG version) record this.

      The difference between celebrating culture and destroying is a hard line to walk, and yes, it’s very possible to offend others. It’s a byproduct of our society. Apologize if you do. Strive to be better.

      TL;DR – Being ignorant isn’t the same thing as sharing culture.

  23. Paul says:

    Note the significant difference in our approach. I ask questions with the hopes of engaging an opportunity to learn from each other. You reply with accusations and attempt to denounce who I am as a person! You wish respect by being disrespectful? I believe you have a lot of anger and unfortunately that can blind a person to truth and understanding. Perhaps it would have been prudent of you to ask of me if I am an Iriquois Chief or European Pauper first? Have you tripped over you anger and made assumptions of who I am?

    • Yes yes yes, you are special, and your arguments and tone policing are special no matter how many thousands of times they have been rehashed by others. You deserve time and consideration and engagement despite the fact that you did not address a single point made in the article. You merit celebration of your radical ideas of harmony, while you blithely wave aside the specific reasons given as to why certain things are disrespectful. I deeply apologise for not getting a sample of your DNA or giving due reverence to your individuality before I lumped you in with every other shithead who says the tired crap over and over again without a shred of intellectual integrity or consideration of the material presented.

      We aren’t a “race” we are individual nations, and having someone claiming to be native going, “I personally don’t mind, go ahead!” isn’t all that compelling. You don’t get a pass on ignoring the specifics here, or creating straw-arguments (omg we’re not going to let anyone access our cultures ever!) any more than some hipster does.

      • Britney says:

        Edit: I celebrate my racism, and add smiley faces to show how little I care about the ignorant, vile, racist things I say, aren’t I cute?

  24. Shawn says:

    Thank you I believe that I understand and I am grateful. I need to research and study, understand more then copy and duplicate. My culture is vastly different from yours and I will try to learn more

  25. nigel says:

    my friend is going to a fancy dress party as the lone ranger and asked me to go as tonto or kimosabe. Am I ok as long as I don’t wear the headdress ?

  26. Ron says:

    to Nigel…. Don’t do it….. go as Silver instead…..

  27. kindra says:

    so if it is culturally rude to wear a headdress, what are some alternatives if any? I really enjoy the beauty of the headdress, and my original plan was to wear one for senior crowns ( most/all wear crowns from burger king) but I wanted to do something different- a headdress ( before I knew the symbolism and meaning). I still want to do something different, and its very hard trying to let go of the headdress, is there a way to meet in the middle without offending anybody. would it be ok if I wore it once or no?

  28. Dave says:

    I have a few questions and I am not trying to antagonize I am simply curious. You said that “for the most part headdresses are restricted items” could you provide some examples of situations where that is not the case? Also you stated that there are on occasion people awarded with a headdress in a matter similar to an honorary degree, is this honor exclusive to First Nations? If it can be awarded to non First Nations peoples how would that individual go about wearing it without being offensive? Or to be more clear, without people making the assumption that they are being offensive when they have the special permission you discussed above. You also stated that it would be appropriate to depict a “real native person in a war bonnet” but you said in the previous sentence it would be offensive to “depict a non native woman” so I’m asking if it is in fact ok to depict a native woman in such fashion? Lastly you stated that it would be offensive for a native person who has not been awarded a headdress to wear one. But it is okay to depict a native person who has not been awarded a headdress as someone who has? So if I am a native male model who a artist has made a painting of wearing a headdress, would that not be offensive to my fellow natives to see a painting of me wearing one when they know I have not been awarded one? Thank you for taking the time to satisfy my curiosity and Thank you for your informative letter. I apologize if my questions offend in any way, I am simply trying to understand this issue as much as possible.

  29. Medros says:

    Edit: “Waa waa waaa I have special opinions, please pay attention to me.”

  30. Lauren says:

    Thank you for writing this. I see these idiots at North Country Fair every year but I don’t have the energy to explain to them how stupid they are. If its alright with you, I want to print a few of these off and hand them out when I see them, and hopefully make them think twice.

Leave a Reply