Drew Hayden Taylor is an award-winning playwright and author who lives on the Curve Lake First Nation in Central Ontario.
Located in the sun visor over the steering wheel in my car is an aged and weathered photograph dating back to the 60’s. My grandmother and grandfather are proudly standing straight and tall, posing at the Curve Lake pow wow in central Ontario. The interesting thing is my grandfather is wearing a full scale eagle headdress. It’s actually quite magnificent looking. The only problem is, wrong part of the country, wrong nation, wrong headgear. But other than that, it’s pretty cool.
The recent ban on eagle headdresses at the Bass Coast Music Festival in British Columbia’s Nicola Valley has stirred up quite the hornet’s nest. Some see it as another politically correct move to ethnically police the fine art of cultural appropriation. Organizers feel the practice of such a sacred and culturally identifiable head gear being worn randomly and without a certain amount of aboriginal awareness isn’t quite cricket. The sacred has become kitsch. Admittedly, it’s been a long time in coming. Recently, singer Pharrell Williams apologized publically for wearing one in a photo shoot. A decade ago when Outkast performed at the Grammys, they did so completely in faux green feathers, loincloths and headdresses. More than just the natives were restless.
I can understand this position, not for the usual socio-political reasons cited, but simply because wanting to wear these things as a fashion statement is stupid, with the exception of my grandfather of course. It’s not honouring anything or anybody except the “look at me, I look so cool” Nation, which is far too populous a tribe.
For one thing, I am sure this fascination is tied into the mythological power and glory of the Prairie Indians. Getting sunburned at a folk festival is so strikingly similar to hunting buffalo. Everybody wants to be Lakota, which is fine. If you’re Lakota. This also includes the Bloods, Peigans, Plains Cree and other assorted and legitimate wearers of headdresses. I don’t exactly see a rush of people in the mosh pits wearing the Iroquois gustoweh or a traditional Salish woven cedar hat. I don’t think they are considered as cool, which is odd considering that in the Native community, the Iroquois and Salish are regarded as quite cool.
The same principle applies to native people regarding the wearing of culturally unsuitable attire. It’s rare you’ll find a Cree man snowmobiling in a Kilt. Or a Mi’qmak lounging around in lederhosen. Or a Dene rocking on in a turban. There’s just not much point.
Why my grandfather wore such a creation I never did ask him. It was definitely not part of Anishnawbe tradition. Try walking or running through the central Ontario bush with that object on your head. You’d lose half of the feathers just going to the outhouse. It was definitely designed for the emptiness of the prairies. Primarily, I think he and others of his generation wore them because that’s what the dominant culture expected of older Indian men. It was thought aboriginal men had three things: a status card, a fluffy headdress, and a case of beer. Luckily, my grandfather only had the first three.
One thing that has me curious, how broad is this ban? For instance, what would happen if a chap from the Blood Reserve in Alberta showed up at the concert, wearing his headdress with the proper authorization. Would he be asked to leave? Might that result in a possible Human Rights case? It can get so complicated. But the reality of the situation is that it probably wouldn’t happen. Those things are purely ceremonial and quite probably hot and heavy and intelligent people know not to body surf in them to the Tragically Hip.
More importantly, imagine sitting behind somebody at a concert wearing a headdress … those things are a bitch to see around.