Pharrell, Harry Styles, and Native American Appropriation
From Harajuku hits to bizarro burqa photoshoots, celebrities seem perpetually convinced that cultural appropriation is always on trend. Now a particularly ugly strand of this phenomenon, Native American appropriation, is hogging the spotlight. Harry Styles kicked off the controversy in early March, when a black and white photo of the star posing in a headdress started making the rounds. Styles quickly removed the photo from his Twitter account, but not before fielding a barrage of angry tweets.
Unfortunately, it appears that the One Directioner’s controversial snap was misinterpreted as photoshoot fodder by Elle UK. The magazine’s special July issue is covered by Pharrell, shot in profile. Unfortunately, the artist’s cheekbones aren’t the only striking aspect of this image; Pharrell appears to have traded in his Vivienne Westwood Mountie hat for a feathered Native American warbonnet. The Internet immediately responded to the insensitive cover, tweeting the backlash under the hashtag #NotHappy. In turn, Pharrell released an apologetic statement: "I respect and honor every kind of race, background and culture. I am genuinely sorry."
Of course, celebrities were appropriating Native American culture long before Harry Styles bought his first bottle of hair gel. Much like blackface (which has also, shockingly, been making a comeback, “playing Indian” has been a demeaning mainstay of pop culture for decades. The caricature of the Indian chief/sidekick, stereotypical and reductive as it is, doesn’t appear to be going anywhere—Johnny Depp’s Tonto in The Lone Ranger reboot is a particularly eye-roll inducing example.
But Native American appropriation has recently spread beyond the realm of the modern day minstrel show, making its mark on the fashion world. Scandals like Heidi Klum’s “Redface Photo Shoot” and the Urban Outfitters’ exploitation of traditional tribal prints are a dime a dozen, proving that this trend is unfortunately here to stay. Celebrities like Alessandra Ambrosio and the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne have also hopped on the bandwagon, Instagramming full Native American regalia.
A day spent walking around Coachella (or perusing the festival’s Instagram location tag) is bound to prove just how pervasive this cultural appropriation-turned-fashion trend is, with every stylish hipster sporting huge headdresses. That is, when they’re not lounging in the overpriced teepees that Coachella rents out as novelties. Waifish festival-goers struggling under the weight of their feathered fashion pieces take on a particularly sinister tone when you take into account the fact that Natives used to live on the very land where Coachella takes place. In this instance, donning Native garb as a fun costume isn’t only unaware, it’s plain cruel—the ultimate example of adding insult to injury.
What these two recent celebrity controversies have in common is that they took place across the pond. While the line between British and American is admittedly hazy, Native American oppression is technically an American invention. The UK’s physical and historical distance from this American genocide might explain why the British are more inclined to blindly approach a headdress as a fancy dress accessory, as opposed to a significant-laden, highly symbolic object.
Of course, this is no excuse for the main engine behind cultural appropriation: pure, unadulterated ignorance. As the blog Native Appropriations explains, “The image of a warbonnet and warpaint wearing Indian is one that has been created and perpetuated by Hollywood and only bears minimal resemblance to traditional regalia of Plains tribes.” Additionally, eagle feathers are not a fashion accessory within the Native community; they’re an honor that has to be earned.
When Pharrell and Styles put on their feathers, they were contributing to the reductive image of the Indian with the headdress, a stereotype that groups together every distinct Native American tribe under one purely aesthetic cultural symbol. This is misleading for everyone, and particularly offensive to those who have earned the honor of wearing their feathers. In the UK, Native American oppression isn’t the open wound that it is stateside—but that doesn’t give Pharrell or Styles the right to forgo a simple Google search, which would quickly inform them of the insensitivity of their actions.