It's Time to Abandon Wearing Headdresses to Festivals

Article by: Marcus Dowling|@marcuskdowling

Mon July 20, 2015 | 00:00 AM

In November 2015, the Michigan's venerable Electric Forest Festival was the latest festival to take a stand against the rampant cultural appropriation of Native American headdresses at festivals. The event made a bold, official statement: " Electric Forest, all should feel safe, comfortable, and welcome. In this spirit, HQ requests that those who would bring American Indian Headdresses to the festival leave them at home. Out of respect for this community, it is inappropriate to wear headdresses outside of traditional ceremony...In such a creative community, HQ is confident that these requests will open up new, more inclusive creative opportunities for all who attend."

A Native American headdress or war bonnet is a globally known and iconic symbol. Since each headdress is a unique work of art unto itself, it’s understandable that a fashionable festival attendee might wish to incorporate one as a beloved accessory. However, although a beautiful headdress may be seen as a festival fashion cliché, the backlash against wearing the culturally significant headgear has grown louder and louder. Native Americans in the U.S. and First Nations people in Canada have explicitly requested that they not be worn, and festivals themselves have begun to ban headdresses outright, although this hasn't stopped what is now a fashion trend from popping up in music videos, ads, and onstage performances by world-famous DJs. Now that the issue is more prevalent in the festival world than ever, it’s time to unite as a community and, with kindness and inclusivity, reject this cultural appropriation and encourage our friends to abandon the war bonnet.

In many modern Native American tribes, the headdress is ceremonially used in weddings. In others, the headdress is a war bonnet worn to showcase men who have achieved a place of great respect within their tribe. Each feather in certain headdresses or bonnets must be earned through acts of courage and honor, or gifted in thanks for a job well done. Even further, in some tribes, headdresses are only worn by those who are considered political and spiritual leaders. Given the headdress's deep cultural significance, it's easy to see how donning one while waiting for the bass to drop could immediately be perceived as a total (and yes, oftentimes unintended) sign of disrespect.

David Guetta Racist Native American Beach 08

The headdress issue recently reached a boiling point regarding an act that has nothing to do with festivals but everything to do with David Guetta’s continued attempts at evoking pieces of Burning Man-esque transformational festival culture in his revamped DJ persona. In advertising the Summer 2015 season of his legendary F*** Me I’m Famous Party at Pacha Ibiza, Guetta’s team filmed a clip that involved a series of non-Native/Indigenous people not just wearing war bonnets, but also tapping their mouths while whooping to suggest Native war cries. Also included in the footage were Native garb, totems and other Native/Indigenous paraphernalia. Though eventually taken down by his team, the notion of moving past headdresses and into other Native/Indigenous iconography without either a) consulting any tribe or tribes and b) doing so in a manner that involved everything but actual Native/Indigenous war battles or spiritual events took the wanton level of cultural insensitivity shown to Natives to another level. 

In response to Guetta clearly going too far, plus a general uptick in public awareness being raised to not just headdress appropriation but disrespect shown to Native/Indigenous people in general, bans on the controversial headgear are now in effect at a trio of forthcoming Canadian festival events including the Osheaga Music and Arts Festival, Heavy Montreal, and Ile Sonique. Regarding the ban, Osheaga event planners stated, “The First Nations headdresses have a spiritual and cultural meaning in the native communities, and to respect and honour their people, Osheaga asks fans and artists attending the festival to not use this symbol as a fashion accessory.”

Bottle Rock 2015 Laura Mason Headdress

Photo by: Laura Mason

In 2014, British Columbia’s Bass Coast Festival lead the charge by being the first major festival to explicitly ban “feathered war bonnets,” and in announcing the policy to festivalgoers, showcased a brilliant use of intelligent policy-making to address the issue. The festival’s announcement stated the following:

For various reasons, Bass Coast Festival is banning feathered war bonnets, or anything resembling them, onsite. Our...

Posted by Bass Coast Festival on Wednesday, July 23, 2014

There are those within the festival community who may feel that attending festivals is all about freedom of expression and that donning a headdress can be done respectfully. Some would argue that as long as the non-Native person is aware of the struggles of the culturally marginalized, the wearing of a headdress in some way acknowledges an awareness of their plight. As sensitive and aware as that may appear on the surface, that non-Native person is still not a warrior or spiritual leader of a tribe; so, under the laws that govern someone’s tribe, they’re clearly showing a great deal of disrespect. Flagrant cultural insensitivity of laws that govern someone’s sovereign nation and unique cultural identity may enhance your festival look, but it in all actuality represents an intolerable act.

As A Tribe Called Red's Deejay NDN says, “I have yet to speak to someone who is First Nation who wears fake headdresses and war paint to EDM concerts. It's ‘redface.’ Just like ‘blackface.’”

It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said in 1963’s Letter From Birmingham Jail that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When it comes to the rights and privileges of Native and Indigenous people to protect their laws, freedoms, and culture, this quote applies. Given that Native and Indigenous people have been cruelly marginalized throughout history, the traditions they hold dear deserve to be respected, especially at festivals. Similarly, A Tribe Called Red's Ian Campeau states, "Please stop. It's disrespectful and we really don't appreciate it. That's about all we can say at the moment. We're in the middle of our civil rights movement right now, today. So hopefully, in a couple decades, ‘redface’ and terms like ‘Redskin’ and ‘Indian’ will go way of ‘blackface’ and terms like ‘n*****’ and become tabooed in North American society."

For those who want to show up at a festival looking like a million bucks, remember your fellow festies. Just because you acknowledge a culture’s ongoing struggles doesn’t mean you experienced it. Simply because you feel free to express yourself in a festival setting does not imply that it’s okay to frivolously appropriate someone else’s cultural heritage in the name of a killer Instagram shot. On the flipside, if you see someone at a festival wearing a headdress, don’t assume they are flagrantly disregarding the wishes of an entire people; they may simply not know any better. Consider it a moment to make a new friend and teach a new, valuable lesson.

If festival culture, much like its cousin rave culture, is all about peace, love, unity, and respect, wear another hat and ditch the war bonnet for good.