The temperature has officially hit 90 almost everywhere in the States (chin up, Alaska!), signifying we’re in the throes of summer concert season, especially for the cool kids, the hipster set. Typically, you’d have our blessing to go forth and rock an ironic t-shirt, thick glasses and at least one bird accessory. But, this year, hipster fashion has turned to “tribal” prints that include a heck of a lot from Native American traditions.
Everything from headdresses (also known as war bonnets) and moccasins to dream catcher earrings and beaded necklaces have been spotted on the hippest of the hipsters. The problem is that this fashion trend isn’t just a cheeky homage to North American heritage. In many cases, it’s full-on cultural appropriation.
Here’s how you can wear Native American–inspired apparel without the irreverent insensitivity that tends to offend.
Recognize What has Meaning
Every people group has items with significant religious or cultural meaning. These are the accessories and fashion items that you stay away from unless you’re actually a part of that culture. And no, a summer in India doesn’t give you the “right” to wear a bindi). For many Native American groups, these items include war bonnets, certain usage of feathers and some symbolic graphic prints.
So, how do you tell the difference between a cool pattern and something that’s been lifted by a massive corporation from a tribe member or family? Easy! Do your research. If you’re uncertain about something, look online. Several blogs have done a wonderful job illustrating what’s appropriate and what is not.
For an even better idea, check out sites from different Native American nations that provide accurate information about a culture. Parts of the Chickasaw culture, for instance, are on display at the Chickasaw Cultural Center and the nation’s website. Finding out what symbols and items have significance to different groups doesn’t require a decoder ring; the answers are readily available in the modern digital age.
Collaborate, don’t Appropriate
Back to the moment of decision in the store. What’s missing from your attempt to honor a culture? Someone profiting or weighing in who’s actually from that culture perhaps? Instead of buying your Native American–inspired fashion from Urban Outfitters or Forever 21, check out local native sellers or sites such as Beyond Buckskin. Native artisans won’t sell you offensive merchandise, and they’ll be more likely to sell authentic pieces. This also eliminates the unsavory notion that people are profiting from stealing from another culture.
Here are some easy questions to ask yourself when you’re trying to decide if something you want to buy or wear is appropriate:
- Would you be embarrassed of your attire if a member of a Native American nation sat next to you? Pass if the answer is yes.
- Do you feel like it’s necessary to explain that you’re one-sixteenth Cherokee when you wear it? If so, it’s not for you.
- Does the piece intend to honor tradition, or is irony the main goal? If an item is supposed to be ironic, don’t wear it.
- Did you purchase the item from a Native American seller? If so, you can be reasonably confident that wearing it is seen as honoring a culture and not offending the people in it.
- Do you know if there’s a meaning behind the featured symbol or item; if so, and it’s sacred, don’t wear it. Sacred items shouldn’t be worn as decoration, ever — no exceptions.
Being fashionable without being offensive is actually fairly easy as long as you take the time to educate yourself and make responsible decisions. Native American tribes are living cultures, and they should be respected as such. There’s just nothing fashionable about being culturally insensitive.