Sep 26, 2014 - Commodification of the Sacred: The Appropriation of the Lakota Headdress, By April E. Lindala

“The commodification of difference promotes paradigms of consumption wherein whatever

different the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not

only displaces the Other but denies the significance of that Other’s history through a process of

decontextualization.” — bell hooks, Black Looks

On a weekly, if not daily basis, I am short-circuited by discriminatory visual markers that comfortably reside within modern society’s culture industry. This could range from the mascot of Washington D.C.’s NFL football team to the advertising blitz for the Johnny Depp film, The Lone Ranger to supermodel and television host, Heidi Klum wearing a replication of a Lakota headdress at a highly publicized karaoke party for the elite. Misrepresenting, commodifying, and thus, marginalizing American Indians within the culture industry is certainly not a new trend (can we say classic westerns?). However, in the past ten years, I’ve noticed more celebrities and public figures donning a reproduction of what appears to be a Lakota headdress in modern (and disrespectful) contexts: a musical concert, fashion shows; and beauty pageants. Wearing imitation headdresses within such postmodern situations erases the political and spiritual significance of an authentic eagle-feather headdress. No doubt the headdress is a striking item to behold; it makes one pause to take notice. Thus, the choice behind misappropriating the headdress one can safely assume is to make a provocative statement visually by wearing it in such contexts.

Stephanie Key, the daughter of New Zealand’s Prime Minister, posted a photo on her personal social media site that reflected this type of misrepresentation. Key, who attends an art school, submitted the image as part of a portfolio assignment. Several individuals (Native and non-Native alike) spoke out about the sexually-charged and provocative image over social media. The carefully constructed self-portrait depicts Key wearing bright pink and white lacy panties, a bright pink star over her right nipple, and what was described by journalist Kirsty Winn as “an elaborate pink, feathered, war headdress” (May 2014). The unnatural colors of bright, nearly-neon pink (used in lighting as well as costuming and make up) with a hint of neon blue (a single feather hanging from the pipe, “war paint” on her cheeks and smoke rising up from the pipe) serve to modernize both the pipe and the headdress. Key is sitting upright with the front of her body facing the camera. Her legs are spread and a portion of the headdress drapes over her left inner thigh. Key takes agency as both director and subject of the image. She looks directly into the camera matching the gaze of the spectator. In doing so she is commodifying not only herself in this pop-art-meets-soft-porn self-portrait, but also the items she is holding. What is quite disconcerting is her purposeful construction of the erotic with these items. Key’s considerations appear to be that of her own (academic) choice; to visually associate her own body as an object of desire furthered by the distinctiveness of items associated with the Other. Key choosing to position her body here with the headdress eradicates the political and spiritual significance of the headdress in relation to an American Indian context.

Considering that this was done within an academic context is quite frustrating. Even scholars do not fully understand what it really means to appropriate an item with such deep spiritual significance. We, in Native American Studies (NAS), must address this gap within scholarly circles as well as in society. But why is the burden solely on the shoulders of NAS? Shouldn’t scholars from other areas be talking about this as well?

It is not surprising that Key would lean on such an idea (it’s not very original to be honest). One merely has to scan previous decades of pop culture imagery to see how the culture industry around the world has commodified the images of American Indians and objects belonging to American Indians in the areas of fashion, film, television and sports.

Evidence of appropriation of the headdress as pop culture commodity appears in such favorites as Disney’s animated 1953 feature film, Peter Pan. Movie directors such as John Ford, opted to visually appropriate the look of the Plains tribes (including headdresses) in the popular classic westerns.

The headdress also appears in another thread of the culture industry during the transition to the postmodern era in the 1960s with examples such as the 1910 Fruitgum Company; an album cover photo features all of the band members dressed up as wannabe-Indian costumes. In 1973, Cher had her second top ten hit with “Half-Breed” on her tenth album of the same name. Cher was featured in a music video singing on horse back in a bikini and full headdress. The music video aired on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour that same year.

In 1977, the Village People formed what became a popular disco group with one member of the band dressed in an Indian costume with a headdress while other members wore costumes representing various occupations. More examples from this era include WWF wrestler, Joe Scarpa and actor, Espera de Corti (a.k.a. Iron Eyes Cody).

As I noted earlier, within the past ten years I have seen an increase in this behavior as acceptable within the culture industry. Celebrities of all caliber — super models, beauty queens, pop musicians and film stars — have appropriated the headdress not only for the purposes of visual spectacle but it must be in some way profitable. Did they come up with these choices on their own or was there a behind-the scenes constructor building these images?

One complication particularly disturbing is the number of women choosing to engage in this behavior. Scholar Adrienne Keene comments that headdresses, “…are reserved for men in Native communities, and nearly all of these pictures show women sporting headdresses. I can’t read it as an act of feminism or subverting the patriarchal society, it’s an act of utter disrespect for the origins of the practice.” (April 2010) What Keene doesn’t specifically mention in this quote is the way that some women are choosing to be portrayed with the headdress. In many cases, practically naked. Examples include the 2004 Miss Universe Pageant contestant from the U.S.A. who wore a floor length white headdress and what appeared to be strategically placed metal medallions about her breasts and other private areas. Khloe Kardashian has also been photographed wearing a headdress while in a swimming pool. She, too, appears to be topless.       Gisele Bündchen, dubbed “the model of the millennium” by Vogue magazine having been featured on more than “500 magazine covers…second only to Diana, Princess of Wales” (Carangi, Vogue), has also worn the headdress not once but twice for photo shoots. One of the images captures Bündchen on the runway in a one-piece swimsuit with a headdress and the second image she is featured in an outdoor meadow in which she appears to be topless.

 This juxtaposition of the women’s body with the male headdress is a means to, as bell hooks put it, decontextualize the meaning of what the headdress represents. If the spectator is looking at the female body and the not the headdress, the discussion of the political and spiritual significance is erased from the minds of the audience. Who is speaking out on behalf of this sacred headdress against such commodification and eroticification?

As a reaction to contestants on “Germany’s Next Top Model” wearing headdresses and holding sacred objects (such as a pipe), Ruth Hopkins, a tribal judge and writer for Indian Country Today and Last Real Indians wrote, “Natives haven’t lost touch with what’s sacred…we do not take kindly to ceremonial objects being used to hawk your wares, nor garner publicity for your second rate reality TV show” (April 2014). This idea that these items are sacred seems to be a foreign concept of the culture industry to comprehend and some who have been outspoken have argued that these reproductions are not “real” headdresses. Vi Wahn, who writes the blog, Sicangu Scribe, commented, “…it is disrespectful to both the sacred eagle and our ancestors for just anyone to wear a headdress, even when it is fashioned from artificial feathers” (November 2012).

However, the representation is distinct enough to bring us to the discussion of who has power in this situation. Who do they think they are to simply enforce this power; to simply take an object obviously an identifiable visual marker from the Lakota culture and commodify it in such a mangled manner? Visual and cultural markers do have power, but bell hooks asserts that any power these markers might have to bring forth a critical consciousness are “…diffused when they are commodified. Communities of resistance are replaced by communities of consumption” (1992).

I’ve often said that college students make the best agents of change, but if they embrace this culture of consumption they may be blindly led by the unseen faces of the culture industry and never question the integrity of the visual markers they are looking upon.

Another complication is what do you do when someone you admire puts on the headdress and that someone is also a person of color? This morning I saw a post on Twitter from Ruth Hopkins that Usher has posted a photo on Instagram wearing a headdress (as I write this, the photo has been removed).

Pop sensation Pharrell Williams was on the cover of the July 2014 issue of “UK Elle” magazine wearing a headdress. Scholar Mimi Thi Nguyen comments on such cultural appropriation as playing with “…pieces of cultural significance in ways that would be unacceptable if the group was not already marginalized in American society” (February 2011). In Williams’s case, it would seem that this was a collaborative decision by those involved with the fashion magazine and photo shoot, thus positing it as an exploit of the industry itself rather than a conscious act of the individual.

Jacqueline Keeler, a Dakota, commented, “This cultural taking causes great damage to Native people. Our youth have to deal with folks like Pharrell and go through complicated emotions of liking his music, wanting to feel represented by his art and then distanced by his stereotyping of their culture” (June 2014). Because he too is of racialized Other group, this complicates matters even worse. bell hooks comments that the racialized Other could very well be, “seduced by the emphasis on Otherness.” Through the act of commodification whether it be the cover of a magazine or an appearance on the Grammys, the attention is on the marginalized Other and this may offer a “promise of recognition and reconciliation” (1992). Or in the case of Pharrell Williams, a sort of solidarity of Otherness challenging and disrupting the hegemonic ethos. (Williams made a statement that he has American Indian ancestry after the cover was released. Cher released a similar statement after the release of her video in 1973).

Regardless of ancestry (or claims of), the point is that Lakota and Dakota scholars and activists have repeatedly spoken out that this behavior is unacceptable. These are sacred items, period. There is no understanding of what is sacred in the world of the culture industry. Decisions are made only to produce capital while embracing this demeaning visual narrative. Because American Indians are erased from the daily fabric of mainstream culture, voices on important matters are dismissed. American Indians are few in numbers. Allies vocal on these issues are even fewer in numbers.

Hopkins writes, “Native appropriation is proof positive that Native voices have been largely excluded by mainstream media. It’s crucial that the Native media takes center stage in educating the public as to the reality of Native identity. Our truth must be told. The public should want to know our truth, because who we really are and what we have to offer is so much greater and more powerful than what it’s been told” (November 2013).

We hear you, Judge Hopkins. This Native media outlet seeks to do just that.

By the way, when asked about his daughter’s work, Prime Minister John Key stated, “What she considers art, others may consider cultural appropriation and racist stereotyping.” In the end Prime Minister Key was “proud of her” (Wynn, May 2014).

There is a need for more people to articulate their concern about the commodification of the sacred. Education will help others garner those skills. Education can also be the bridge building necessary towards a critical consciousness and ultimately, respect for one another.

(This was first published in June of 2014 for the Anishinaabe News, a student-run newsletter supported by Northern Michigan University’s Center for Native American Studies. This piece is an excerpt from a longer piece on the topic in the works.)

 April E. Lindala (Grand River Six Nations) is the director of the Center for Native American Studies and an associate professor of English at Northern Michigan University.  Lindala co-edited, Mikwendaagozi–to be remembered, a showcase of photography by Anishinaabe youth from Michigan’s central Upper Peninsula. Lindala’s creative work appears in The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (Wayne State University Press), a 2014 Michigan Notable Book and the anthology she co-edited, Voice on the Water: Great Lakes Native America Now (NMU Press).


Last Real Indians