July 08, 2014

Headdresses are for children

Why the nostalgic headdress won’t go away

Aboriginal music acts like Ottawa’s A Tribe Called Red strike back at festival-goers sporting headdresses

By Emma Teitel
In June, the U.S. Patent Office ruled to strip the Redskins, an 82-year-old NFL team, of their federal trademarks, because the team’s nickname is “disparaging of Native Americans” (a decision the franchise will appeal), and American Indian advocacy group, People Not Mascots, announced plans this month to sue the Cleveland Indians in federal court for $9 billion over its derogatory “Chief Wahoo” logo. Dozens of news publications, including the Detroit News, have vowed to stop printing the Washington team’s full name, except when writing about the trademark controversy.

This is a commendable stance, it goes without saying, but it’s also almost guaranteed to be forgotten in the fog of indifference that surrounds the issue of Native North American sensibilities. This is because Indian tokenism isn’t really casual; it’s nostalgic: It operates not in the context of adult history, but in the benign, colourful, Neverland of childhood. There’s a reason why kids used to (and still do) play cowboys and Indians on their front lawns, why the classic movie fare for children preceding the 1970s was the western, with its cowboys and Indians, soldiers and Indians, black hats and white hats, morality more at home in colouring books and comic books than in adult art.

Whether the Native people in this context were demonized (more often, as the savage) or lionized (less often, as the noble savage), they were almost always dehumanized—but dehumanized in a way that seemed nothing if not innocent, benign, entertaining and rarely sinister. The Apache warriors shot out of their saddles in the old westerns suffered deaths as bloodless and negligible as the eight-year-old Apache warriors in someone’s backyard. Who were they, the players up on the screen or in the park? Indians, Redskins, Braves. The sports names and mascots hark from the same whitewashed era, and seem to the people who lived through it (or weaned on it) as breezy and inoffensive as kids’ games themselves. Ditto for the white folks in the colourful headdresses at Bonnaroo, who may wonder what all the fuss is about. But being patronized and diminished by someone’s else’s nostalgia is as pernicious as being told to get to the back of the bus. Until people can make that connection, mascots and headdresses are here to stay.
Comment:  For more on headdresses, see Why Pharrell's Headdress Was Wrong and Fallin Defends Headdress, "Sheep" Shawl.

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