Arts, Culture & Media

It's not OK to wear a Native American headdress at this Canadian music festival


A patron wears a headdress at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California April 12, 2014.


Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Feather headdresses seem to be latest must-have fashion accessory. They've been all over the catwalks from brands like Chanel and Victoria's Secret, and they were the headwear of choice at the Coachella Music Festival earlier this year.

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But is it OK to wear a headdress if you aren't Native American? Not if you want to go to the Bass Coast Music and Arts Festival. "We don't want to see war bonnet-style headdresses or things resembling them on-site,” says Paul Brooks, the festival's communications manager.

The festival is in Merritt, British Columbia, an area surrounded by aboriginal communities. “There are many Indian bands in the area and we want to be good neighbors and respect Canada's aboriginal people,” Brooks explains.

He says websites are popping up to cater to those who want to buy the feathered headgear. “You'll find hundreds of vendors selling ‘authentic headdresses’ from around $50 to $100," Brooks says. Of course, they're usually anything but the real deal. "Often they are made of chicken feathers and other cheap materials.”

A real headdress has slightly more impressive plumage. “Mostly these are eagle feathers, and eagle feathers are almost invariably treated as being very sacred objects,” says Daniel Justice, professor of First Nations Studies at the University of British Columbia. He's also a member of the Cherokee Nation.

Headdresses are traditionally worn by a community member who's been honored as a leader, so Justice says having any old concertgoer sport one, especially a low-quality replica, is a serious insult.

"It's a pretty big slap in the face," he says. "But it's also part of a much longer and much more egregious history of colonial appropriation of indigenous things that are significant — trivializing them, repurposing them for really banal and sometimes really offensive purposes.”

There have been signs of a backlash to the headdress as feathery fashion accessory. Last month, musician and style icon Pharrell Williams was on the cover of the UK edition of Elle magazine wearing a headdress. Williams was criticized for wearing it, and outraged Native Americans took to twitter using the hashtag #NOThappy.

Williams issued a statement saying "I respect and honor every kind of race, background and culture. I am genuinely sorry."

So if you're going to a music festival this summer, feel free to wear your high-wasted cutoff shorts, your homemade neon bracelets or even your Stevie Nicks skirt. Just don't wear a headdress.