Controversial Photo of Native Woman in a Headdress Circulates Online
By Michelle Shining Elk
Many Native people who don’t understand why this is upsetting were likely not raised in our traditional settings–amongst the generations of elders who have shaped many of us into the people we are today. We are in the process of revitalizing our languages, songs, ceremonies and stories–not for public display–but for something much greater–our survival. I understand you two are the next generation, but it doesn’t change the fact that we need to support the present, by honoring our past in order to champion our future–to forever respect those who have come before us, and those who are coming behind us.
On the Last Real Indians' Facebook page, this posting led to a debate. First, some critical comments:
So many in my generation do not care. It saddens me that their kids will look to the few of us who pay attention when elders speak. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Damn Hollywood Indians!!! >:(
According to her profile pic she did it because Maria Tallchief did it..... she says when she seen Tallchief's pic with a headdress it looked POWERFUL to her...hmmmm doesn't sound like she did this to bring attention to the use of Native attire in the MODELING/FASHION INDUSTRY. But, perhaps that's the new excuse she will use for this lapse in judgment.
This could undermine all the recent work of educating people that it is not okay to do this. Now they can point at this and say, "Well, she did it!"
So many hundreds of us have done so much work recently to educate & bring awareness about the cultural appropriation, sexualization & mockery of our ways. Because this girl Crystle is Native she should know better! It's not even okay from a Native perspective since in most tribes women DO NOT wear headdresses....I'm disappointed!
A Google Images search for Maria Tallchief doesn't show a single pic of her in a headdress. If she ever wore one as a publicity stunt, it's not representative of her or her career. It's stereotypical--exactly as it would be if a non-Native women wore the headdress.
How does repeating the wrong honor Tallchief or educate the public about her? Answer: It doesn't. It perpetuates the false belief that wearing a headdress is what makes someone an Indian.
"Powerful"? Of course headdresses look powerful. That's why Karlie Kloss, Lana Del Rey, Heidi Klum, Drew Barrymore, Kesha, Cher, et al. have worn them.
Is "looking powerful" really a legitimate excuse for anyone to don a headdress? How do you tell an ignorant white woman that Crystle "looks powerful" but she doesn't?
At this point, Crystle's partner Red Cloud appeared to say the criticism was "insane." I said:
It's insane that anyone thinks a sexy Native woman in a headdress is the best possible representation of the elegant and understated Maria Tallchief.
I Googled "Maria Tallchief headdress" and found the photo that apparently inspired Crystle. As I put it, Tallchief wore a headdress in one photo and didn't wear one in the other 999 photos. Guess which is more representative?
The source image
Then someone posted Crystle's version of the photo, proving it was indeed the inspiration.
A Native critic answered him:
It's not a scandal. It's more of a demand for Native respect to mainstream society and to stop stereotyping us, using us as caricatures & mascots and sexualizing our women. I don't know if you have been paying attention to all the recent advocacy efforts of hundreds of people demanding that The GAP, No Doubt, the Kardashians, Victoria's Secret etc. stop wearing replica headdresses & sexualizing our culture...but all of them apologized for offending people. None of them got defensive but did the right thing out of respect for those of us voicing our discontent. It's more than this however...much much more.
My final thoughts on the subject:
If you decide wearing a Pope's hat made you feel powerful, would you do it? And would you be surprised when others criticized you for trivializing their sacred traditions?
Let's also note that the Tallchief photo was a candid shot of her adjusting her headdress. It was not some sort of power pose to make her look awesome. Everything about it--her string of pearls, wedding ring, wristwatch, and bow on her blouse--suggests this wasn't a staged photo of an "Indian chief."
In contrast, Crystle has donned warpaint and Indian jewelry. More important, she's showing off her curvaceous form. So both women are wearing headdresses, but the intent couldn't be more different. Tallchief's photo wasn't making a statement, but Crystle's is.
How exactly does the warpaint honor Tallchief, who wasn't wearing any? Headdress + warpaint = savage in most people's minds. Crystle isn't emulating Tallchief, she's emulating a million stereotypical impressions of a sexy hot savage.
All the white women I listed think they're just being themselves, releasing their inner Native, feeling wild and powerful and free, etc. So yes, Crystle is doing what they're doing. She's imitating Tallchief and they're all imitating Sitting Bull and other esteemed chiefs. Same thing.
Memo to white women in headdresses: Just say you saw Tallchief in a headdress, you feel like her, and you want to honor her. Voilà...you're excused from offending Indians!
Even if you ignore the fact that the headdress misrepresents who Tallchief was, how do you ignore the near-constant controversies over people wearing headdresses inappropriately? Have you been living in a cave for the last five years? Or did you think the controversies somehow didn't apply to Crystle because she felt "powerful" and special?
Either way, guess again. Crystle wanted people to notice her. Now they're noticing her. Let's hope she enjoys the attention.
For more on the subject, see Victoria's Secret Model in a Headdress and Boutique Lookbook's Stereotypical Fashions.