By Jordan Russell
The beginning of summer ushers in a wave of music festivals, bringing hordes of attendees flaunting the kind of neo-hippie fashion that has become so closely tied to festival culture. However, in the crowds of festivalgoers donning beads, feathers and elaborate headdresses, there is an unwelcome guest that many may not realize is present: misappropriated Native American culture.
Thanks to powerhouse events like Coachella, which just wrapped up its second weekend, “festival fashion” has become a ubiquitous term in the fashion industry. Major retailers such as Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters have capitalized on the popularity of music festivals, creating annual lookbooks encouraging people to look their “fest best.” While there is nothing inherently wrong with adopting a festival-centric style, the mainstream adaptation and use of traditional Native cultural elements is a trend that demonstrates a severe lack of respect for this country’s oldest cultures.
Regardless of which minority group’s culture is in question, its function is invaluable. When a population has spent centuries being systematically abused, its culture can be a saving grace. It serves to keep individuals connected and provide a sense of self-direction to communities whose rights and opportunities are continually dictated by the white majority.
Native Americans have suffered abuse since the European invasion of the 15th and 16th centuries. Throughout this country’s history, our First Nations have been murdered by white settlers, robbed of their tribal lands, driven onto reservations and whipped into religious conversion. My own tribe, the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, exists because a portion of the Tiwa tribe was taken prisoner by the Spanish after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and marched in chains from their home of Taos, New Mexico to El Paso, Texas.
When all else has been taken away, culture remains as that which has the power to endure through the abuses of history and allow individuals to maintain their dignity in the face of horrendous injustices. We do not have a right to adopt the bits and pieces of a culture that we find attractive and commodify them to fit our own wants. This is not to say that any and all parts of Native American culture are off-limits to non-Natives, nor that an interest in Native culture denotes racism. With more than 500 federally-recognized tribes throughout Alaska and the continental U.S., according to the National Council of American Indians, there is a wealth of history and meaning to explored and respected. However, the “boho” section of Forever 21 is not the place to begin this cultural journey.
Our own Washoe Valley is home to not one, but three, tribes whose members make and sell goods that reflect their unique cultures. Though these items will generally be more expensive than anything commercially produced, buying directly from tribal members will ensure two things: that what you are buying is free of sacred symbols that would be offensive if worn by non-Natives, and that you are doing your part to support population that continues to struggle economically.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ 2014 American Indian Population and Labor Force Report estimates that 23 percent of all Native American families in the United States were living below the poverty line in 2010. According to the National Council of American Indians, the unemployment rates on reservations are on average double those of the rest of the population, reaching as high as 80 percent in some communities.
Let’s be honest: if you can afford to drop $375 on a ticket to Coachella, you can afford to buy your Native-inspired jewelry and other goods from artisans whose profits help them to feed their family.
When Native culture is reflected in the goods produced by that culture’s own members, those goods become things of beauty. When similar goods are mass-produced as mere shells of their true cultural context, they become articles that represent a cultural misappropriation that we should be ashamed to perpetuate.
No matter how attractive we find feathered headdresses or bastardized Navajo prints, these are not ours to claim. They carry with them a rich history and importance that is unique to the tribes they originate from; they carry with them the legacy of a people’s ability to persevere through injustice, and to disregard this cultural context is an injustice in itself.
Jordan Russell studies political science. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.