Thou Shalt Not Wear a Native American Headdress
By Thom Nickels
The girls in my Chester County country neighborhood would often don a headband with one feather sticking straight up in the back. They played Native squaws. In those days, nobody thought that outdoor theater like this was disrespecting Native culture. If anything, the opposite feeling was usually present: by our dressing up as American Indians, we felt we were honoring our true American ancestors in a special way.
Because this column appeared on the liberal-leaning Huffington Post, the comments were actually good--thoughtful and intelligent--for once. A sample:
Sorry, but I am totally out of sympathy with your complaint, starting from the first sentence in which you decry "political correctness" with the pathetic cliche about a "warpath." This is not about your fond memories of pretending to be another race. For us (I am Native), headdresses are not costume pieces or decorations. They are holy. They indicate achievements and reverence akin to wearing a priest's stole--you don't simply put on a fake one and go play. For you to describe our ceremonial lives as mere "inconsequential minutiae" is PRECISELY the attitude of arrogance and cultural bigotry that makes our protectiveness necessary. The fact that you have a history of behaving in such ways is not a validation of the history, any more than the legacy of blackface is a defense of that. It's a shame that you've attached such nostalgia to bigotry as a rite of passage, but that's what makes this our problem.
American Indian people: "We find it offensive when you dress up as caricatures of us."
Thom Nickels: "We do it to honor you! You're being oversensitive! We're not gonna stop!"
Sane people: "..."
Clarification: Thom, you cannot honor somebody by doing something they find offensive. When somebody tells you they find something offensive, you can either ignore them, which is in your rights but disrespectful, or you can be respectful and comply with their wishes. You cannot honor somebody by being disrespectful.
This is not hard. The fact that you can write this many words about this topic and not stumble upon this simple fact is pretty impressive, though.
My father used to “play Indian” as a child too. The only problem was, he always wanted to be the “cowboy” which was ironic because we are Oneida/6 Nations People. He told me this was because the cowboys always won and the Indians always lost. Westerns were big (in the '50s) and of course, little kids emulated those stereotypes in play. The white kids in the neighbourhood thought it was great they had “real” Indians to chase and terrorize. You see the difference between us is that when you are done playing Indian you can take off the headdress. We cannot. We are stuck with dealing all those stereotypes you have created for us, good or bad, and we are the ones who have to live with them.
Seems much of the time I see people complaining about 'political correctness' they are complaining about being called out for demeaning other cultures, race or ethnicity.
I find it interesting that you claim wearing a headdress as a rite of passage for your youth, totally oblivious to the rites of passage of the people you supposedly honor with such portrayals in your appropriation. Claiming it is just as much yours as the people who still use the traditions because you played with their culture, religion and traditions as a toy when you were a kid only shows the lowly stance you hold these people and their culture. It is a kids' toy to you, a romanticized idea or a source of amusement. It means something different to those who you claim are being overly sensitive and you refuse to acknowledge their side but insinuate they should accept yours as theirs.
You state you wanted to be a Native American is if it were a job or simply a lifestyle, have you ever played Mexican or black? Instead of warpaint you can wear black-face and you can pretend to fight against slavery or something, why not?
You are willingly ignorant to the other side of the story or to actually put some context into your actions. You are too busy in a mock defense of your right to speech, freedom etc. to realize your actions do not protect you from the consequences of your freedoms you choose to exercise.
I totally missed the part where you said the girls dressed up as "squaws." You do realize that that's a derogatory term right? What am I saying, of course you don't. That's the same as calling a black guy or gal a n*****. Let me suggest a past time for you to try next...go paint your face black and go out to see how people react. I'm so tired of people like you saying others are overly sensitive about our heritage and culture.
What you and all those children were respecting, Thom, is a clownish caricature of Native culture. You know, the savagery of primitive people whooping and dancing and committing other acts of wild abandon. That's not what Native cultures were like.
You were not respecting real Native cultures--either those that existed then or those that exist now. If you were, you'd be volunteering on a reservation, supporting Idle No More, or writing pro-Indian columns. I'm guessing your "childhood obsession" hasn't translated into any of these actions.
Respecting a caricature of Indians is exactly like respecting blacks by supporting minstrel shows, Aunt Jemima, and Amos 'n' Andy. Do you consider those fair and honorable representations of blacks? If there's a difference, explain it to us, because I don't see it.
Nickels tries again
Nickels's closing argument is worth noting too. He tries to shift gears radically and ends up proving his critics' point:
Now, dressing up as a 19th-century Turkish sultan is something straight out of an MGM movie set. A costume like that, to the modern mind, has a storybook quality with only a vague connection to Islam. Yet somebody was outraged and took matters into their own hands.
Welcome once again to our super-hypersensitive world.
What exactly is the point of your Turkish sultan anecdote? First you say you had a deep childhood reverence for Native cultures. As demonstrated by your cartoonish costumes and mock savagery, presumably. Then you say your "Turkish" acquaintance, and by implication the costumed Mummers, had only "a vague connection" to reality. In other words, these people were falsifying an ethnic group, not honoring it.
Which is it? Were the Mummers trying to "honor" Indians the way you supposedly did in childhood? If so, why did they wear phony costumes only vaguely connected to reality? Or were they and you stereotyping Indians because you were too ignorant to know any better? If so, why did you expect to get a pass for your belittling behavior?
For more on the subject, see Racist "Make Me Indian" App and Halloween = "Socially Acceptable Racism."
Below: Kids who probably think about Indians the way Nickels did.