When the Bass Coast music festival outgrew its Squamish, B.C., home and moved to a site on aboriginal land elsewhere in the province last year, festival organizers began discussing a possible ban on feathered war bonnets, which have, in the last few years, become increasingly popular at concerts and electronic dance music events.
The practice is seen as deeply offensive – a crass form of cultural appropriation, with important traditional symbols reduced to feathery fashion statements by music fans and celebrities one might think would know better (or at least have access to a stylist who does). Pharrell Williams, Vanessa Hudgens and Khloe Kardashian have all recently been called out for wearing them; Mr. Williams apologized after the outcry when he posed in one for a fashion magazine cover.
It took longer than organizers had hoped to work out the details, but when Bass Coast finally announced its plan to implement the ban at this year’s festival, which takes place this weekend, it touched an international nerve.
Over the last week, the move has put the Merritt, B.C., music fest – and the issue – in the spotlight, and may have the unintended consequence of sparking the beginning of the end to this controversial trend.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more policies like this popping up,” says Bass Coast’s Paul Brooks, who has seen the story spread from a brief Facebook post last week to international media attention ranging from The Guardian and the Daily Mail to MTV and BuzzFeed.
“Maybe it’s too late in the festival season for it to happen this year, but I think it’s going to make a big difference next year. But people are watching closely,” he says.
Inspired by Bass Coast, FozzyFest, which will be held in September elsewhere in B.C. – also on First Nations land – has decided to implement “an unofficial ban” on the headdresses; security officials will inform any patrons trying to bring them into the grounds that they are not allowed.
The issue was already on FozzyFest’s radar – although it has not been a problem at the electronic dance music festival – but the move by Bass Coast inspired organizers to take action.
“We saw that and we thought, well, we’re really happy someone’s actually taking a stand,” says Raz Rydstrom, who is on the organizing committee of the Calgary-run festival, which moved to a site south of Fernie, B.C., last year because of the flooding and will return to B.C. this year. “We absolutely do not want to disrespect the people whose land we’re on.”
Another B.C. event, the Tall Tree Music Festival, which took place this summer on Vancouver Island, also bans headdresses. The festival’s Emmalee Brunt told The Globe the ban was put in place last year and the organizers “will continue to maintain our stance as long as we are around.”
Mr. Brooks says the Bass Coast ban was not an attempt to provoke action at other festivals – or grab headlines for its own event. “This was about us respecting our community,” he says. “The festival is happening on aboriginal land. We felt we wanted to respect our hosts and our neighbours.”
There are five First Nations bands in the Nicola Valley, where Bass Coast takes place. The site is on the traditional territory of the Coldwater Indian Band. While Chief Lee Spahan was surprised at the ban – he heard about it on the radio – and wishes local bands had been consulted, he supports the decision. “It’s culturally insensitive because they’re used in our culture. … Our leaders, some of them are Grand Chiefs, and they do use headdresses.”
Chief Aaron Sam of the nearby Lower Nicola Indian Band, the largest in the Nicola Valley, agrees.
“I support the ban 100 per cent. I think it’s important that people understand that when First Nations people – it depends on the culture, of course – but when First Nations people wear headdresses it’s usually in a ceremonial kind of setting or relates to the First Nations culture. It’s not for parties or dances.”
It’s unclear how the trend picked up steam, but Daniel Justice, chair of First Nations studies at the University of British Columbia, says it is only the latest example of this troubling practice.
“The appropriation of indigenous symbols … has a very, very long and ugly history in the Americas,” he says, pointing to examples such as Hollywood films, Halloween costumes and the 1970s disco group the Village People.
This latest emergence – the hipster headdress – is “very weird to me, why all of a sudden it’s become this cultural icon,” says Dr. Justice, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation. He believes it has to do with aesthetic – and ignorance.
“I think [people who wear them] think it probably just looks cool. But unfortunately behind that ‘it looks cool’ there’s just such a long history of misuse of that particular symbol, but also complete and profound ignorance about indigenous peoples and the fact that indigenous peoples continue to use these various symbols in really culturally meaningful ways.”
“So I think in a lot of ways this is just profound ignorance. I think it’s also colonial entitlement arrogance – this idea that anything that’s indigenous is free for the taking and anything that’s meaningful to indigenous peoples is the cultural property of all people, which obviously is very problematic and troubling.”
While there were only a handful of fans seen wearing them at Bass Coast last year, the festival felt it was important to take a stand. Providing further incentive: The Ottawa-based aboriginal DJ crew A Tribe Called Red, vocal critics of the practice, is headlining this year. (Mr. Brooks says he consulted with band member Ian Campeau – Deejay NDN – on the issue.)
“People aren’t doing this out of malice; we understand that,” says Mr. Brooks. “They’re doing it because they think the war bonnet is an amazing-looking thing. Some people think they’re honouring aboriginal culture or that they’re showing solidarity, but … we feel it’s a negative thing and we don’t want it at our festival.”
Anyone seen wearing a war bonnet or anything resembling one at Bass Coast this weekend will be approached by a security supervisor who will explain the policy, educate the person about the issue, and ask the person to put it in a car or tent. Anyone who refuses will be removed.
“This is our dress code, essentially,” says Mr. Brooks. “And we’re not going to tolerate that on site.”