The wearing of American Indian regalia by non-Indians, particularly the feather headdress or “war bonnet,” is a vexing issue in Indian country. It’s stirred up a lot of controversy in recent years as a hipster fashion trend, but it’s been with us for decades. Even today, many people of all races wonder, what’s the big deal?
In 2010, Adrienne K of Native Appropriations wrote that a non-Indian casually wearing an Indian headdress “furthers the stereotype that Native peoples are one monolithic culture, when in fact there are 500+ distinct tribes with their own cultures. It also places Native people in the historic past, as something that cannot exist in modern society. We don’t walk around in ceremonial attire everyday, but we still exist and are still Native.” She also draws attention to the deep spiritual significance of a headdress and maintains that when a non-Indian wears one “it’s just like wearing blackface.” In a post at mycultureisnotatrend.tumblr.com the author writes of wearing the headdress: “Unfortunately if you’re a woman, you’re thumbing your nose at our culture which explicitly disallows you to wear the headdress. … If you’re a man, it’s still not appropriate to wear one, unless you’ve actually earned it, according to your tribe (no, you cannot pretend you’ve made a new tribe, etc.)”
We won’t pretend that every single Native would agree with these statements—Indians are not a monolithic culture—but certainly many, perhaps even most, would say they dislike the headdress’s status as a gimmicky costume or hipster fashion accessory. But non-Native musicians seem particularly enamored of it.
Since ICMN originally published this list there has been occasion to update it. Most recently, Snoop Doggadded his name to this Hall of Infamy, joining Gwen Stefani and Pharell Williams on the shortlist of performers who never got memo. Here are conspicuous examples of hip-hop and rock stars who’ve donned the feathers:
British band Jamiroquai gets its name from tacking “jam” onto (slightly misspelled) “Iroquois.” So lead singer Jay Kay obviously digs the Indians in his own jammy way. Although perhaps he does not dig them enough to do the research.
Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
Jamiroquai frontman Jay Kay performs during day 2 of the Hard Rock Calling festival held in Hyde Park on June 26, 2010 in London, England.
Outkast’s performance at the 2004 Grammy Awards may be one of the most detested cultural misappropriations, largely because of the Poca-hottie dancers filling up the stage, but the buckskin getups worn by Andre 3000 and Big Boi certainly didn’t help. But it is the DJ (possibly Mr. DJ, Outkast’s go-to spinner) who really takes the cake, wearing a giant headdress as he scratches. Get down with your bad self, Chief. Suzan Shown Harjo, writing for Indian Country Today, described the costumes as “Indian drag” and remarked of her Grammy-watching experience, “I felt like I’d been mugged in my own home.”
AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian
Andre 3000, of the group Outkast performs “Hey Ya!” during the 46th Annual Grammy Awards, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2004, in Los Angeles.
3. Karen O
With this adornment the lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs begs the question, “is a feather headdress sacred if it’s not made of feathers?” Karen O’s is made of hand-shaped fabric cutouts—they’re clearly meant to suggest American Indian garb (as are the rainbow-colored tennis shoe-moccasins), but has Karen (or her designer) “done enough” to distance this from a true headdress?
Jeff Gentner/Getty Images
Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs performs during the 2009 Lollapalooza music festival at Grant Park on August 8, 2009 in Chicago.
4. Ted Nugent
Ted Nugent probably thinks he can get away with anything he wants because he is crazy as a loon, and except when he suggests he might kill the President he pretty much does. So it’s little surprise that he busts out this enormous gag headdress whenever he can. It’s ironic that the man who wrote “Great White Buffalo” in praise of Native American lifeways could be so clueless about the significance of this headdress.
5. Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater
Chicago blues man Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater doesn’t have any known Native heritage, but he does have a hat. He often wears it on stage; like many of the musicians here he probably doesn’t see any harm in it. Now, naming one of his albums Reservation Blues—that was pushing it a bit, we thinks.
Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images
American Blues musician Eddy ‘The Chief’ Clearwater (born Edward Harrington) wears a headdress as he leads his West Side Strut band during a performance at the 25th Annual Chicago Blues Festival on Grant Park’s Petrillo Music Shell, Chicago, Illinois, June 6, 2008.
Even those who have no interest in American Indian culture gave this outfit a hearty whaaaa…? when Ke$ha wore it on American Idol. And then they proceeded to rip her showmanship. Newsday blogger Jamshid Mousavinezhad wrote a post titled “Kesha Annoys Us All on American Idol“ in which declared it “a train wreck of a performance.”
Ke$ha performs on American Idol in 2010
7. Stevie Ray Vaughan
David Redfern/Redferns/Getty Images
Stevie Ray Vaughan (1954-1990), U.S. blues guitarist, wearing a Native American headdress while playing the guitar during a live concert performance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, in 3 May 1986.
Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner is a bass player who’s worked with Erykah Badu and Snoop Dogg, and has been the touring bassist for Suicidal Tendencies since 2002. You might for a moment think he’s going all in on the pretendian thing with the name Thundercat—but he’s not. It comes from the ’80s animated series about cat-like space warriors.
Steven “Thundercat” Bruner
9. Steve Aoki
Producer/DJ Steve Aoki wears it at the beginning and end of this video for “Cudi the Kid (ft. Travis Barker and Kid Cudi)”—he probably thinks the cultural mashup of a Japanese guy in a feather headdress looks cool. Not as cool as the burning clowns and psychotic nuns we see later in the clip, but still, not bad. Sacred regalia can’t really compete with burning clowns, but then, what can?
Steve Aoki in his “Cudi the Kid” Official Video
10. Juliette & the Licks
The Indian headdress was a favored accessory of proto-hipster Juliette Lewis during her run as the lead singer of Juliette & the Licks. For some artists, though, the goal is to be offensive, and all there is to do is congratulate her on achieving it.
Actress Juliette Lewis fronts her band Juliette & the Licks
11. 1910 Fruitgum Company
Sometimes an album cover doesn’t directly relate to any of the music on the disc—sadly, that was not the case with Indian Giver, an album by bubblegum popsters 1910 Fruitgum Co. Actual lyrics to the title track included “Indian giver, Indian giver / You took your love away from me. / Indian giver, Indian giver, / Took back the love you gave to me.” With a song like that, you might as well go whole hog and Skin it up on the cover. They’re mixing their metaphors here, though — Pocahontas (Eastern), feather headdress (Plains), and cigars (wooden).
1910 Fruitgum Company’s Indian Giver album cover.
12. Dr. John
In his early days, Dr. John performed as Dr. John the Nite Tripper, and wore a feather headdress that has some American Indian styling to it. However, Dr. John has always been fascinated with voodoo, so its possible that the real target of his disrespect is Haiti, with only a glancing blow struck against American Indians.
David Warner Ellis/Redferns/Getty Images
Dr. John performs live on stage at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Montreux, Switzerland in July 1973
13. The Dirty Diamond
Here’s some not-bad psychedelia from a group that clearly worships at the altar of George Harrison and Ravi Shankar. You have to wonder, though, why nobody on the set thought to tap lead singer Sam Babayan on the shoulder and whisper in his ear, “Dude, wrong kind of Indian…”
YouTube/The Dirty Diamond
The Dirty Diamond featuring The Other Deepak “Calendar Expires” music video
14. Gwen Stefani and No Doubt
When Gwent Stefani and No Doubt released the video for their song “Looking Hot” in late 2012, they ended up looking anything but. The video concept and styling was stereotypical and trivial, as Gwen and the boys ran around like children at play dressed as cowboys and Indians. Various disturbing scenarios saw Gwen Stefani in Native clothing put in handcuffs and tied to a wall, dancing in teepees and fighting cowboys. The backlash was swift and harsh; to its credit, the band pulled the video from circulation within days and apologized profusely.
No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani in the now-shelved video for “Looking Hot.”
15. Pharell Williams
A surprising display of bad judgement from a typically-savvy artist, Pharell Williams appeared in a 2014 cover of Elle UK to near-universal criticism in Indian country. Earlier in the year, Williams had popularized—at least for him—a Canadian mountie-style hat by wearing it to the Grammy’s but apparently the stylists at Elle had a better idea for the shoot. “We persuaded ELLE Style Award winner Pharrell to trade his Vivienne Westwood mountie hat for a native American feather headdress in his best ever shoot,” press materials crowed. Of the many celebrities who have been party to such displays, Pharell Williams appears to have taken to hear his apologetic statements to learn and do better. Last year he involved Native performers and production talent in commercial shoot for his Adidas Original Hu Collection.
Photo by Doug Inglish. Source: facebook.com/ELLEuk
Pharrell Williams appeared on the July 2014 cover of Elle UK in a headdress.
16. Snoop Dogg
Fast foward to 2017, and the appearance of a portrait of Snoop Dogg in headdress that Snoop tweeted out to his followers. Adding insult to the image, he captioned it “Big chief knocanew. From the knocahoe tribe.” At the time of the Twitter storm, his motivations were unclear, and perhaps muddled by information he received in 2010 on the George Lopez show Lopez Tonight that a DNA test revealed Snoop to be “23-percent Native American.”
Snoop Dogg, aka Cordozar Calvin Broadus Jr., came under fire on Thursday after posting an image of himself in a headdress with the comment, “Big chief knocanew. From the knocahoe tribe.”
This piece was originally published on June 9, 2012.