Oh, Pharrell Is Part Native American? Here’s Why It Doesn’t Matter

Source: Elle UK via showbizgeek.com

Indian Country Today

Oh, Pharrell Is Part Native American? Here’s Why It Doesn’t Matter

The internet is a wonderful place for people who don't really know what they're talking about to openly speculate and confuse those who'd really like to understand the issues—that's not news. But with the latest cultural-appropriation scandal, involving Pharrell Williams wearing a feather headdress on the cover of Elle UK, Pharrell fans and self-appointed experts are pushing back by citing a detail buried in an article on the O, the Oprah Magazine New Zealand site:

"The young man whose name is derivative of his father’s (Pharaoh) and who says he has Native American and Egyptian heritages…"

Bloggers, Facebook pundits and even journalists are speculating that this claim may dull the outrage over the image—but does it work that way? Does some American Indian DNA in Pharrell's double helix make the headdress fashion choice OK? In a word, no. Here are four reasons why:

1. Not All Indians Wear Feather Headdresses

While the feather, specifically an eagle feather, is a sacred symbol in many Native American cultures, the "war bonnet" style headdress Pharrell is wearing is very specific to Plains tribes. An article at native-languages.org cites the figure of 12 tribes; this is a very small number considering that there are 566 federally recognized tribes and innumerable others that either aren't federally recognized or simply gone due to assimilation or genocide. Some of the feather-headdress-wearing tribes are large and well-known—the Lakota, the Crow, the Cheyenne—but saying that all Indians wear feather headdresses is—to use a very superficial example—like saying all Europeans wear lederhosen.

RELATED: Hipster Headdresses at Coachella: Yep, It Happened

2. Feathers Are Earned Over the Course of One's Lifetime

Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations explains this nicely in her oft-cited "But Why Can't I Wear a Hipster Headdress" post:

"Eagle feathers are presented as symbols of honor and respect and have to be earned. Some communities give them to children when they become adults through special ceremonies, others present the feathers as a way of commemorating an act or event of deep significance. Warbonnets especially are reserved for respected figures of power."

3. "Part Native American" Doesn't Cut It

A lot of people who don't self-identify as American Indian have some American Indian heritage. Many of them don't even know it. Others have a vague idea of Native heritage—there can be a grain of truth to family lore or even the "my grandmother was a Cherokee princess" cliché. But having an American Indian ancestor or relative isn't a license to use that relative's culture spontaneously and without context. Here's another way of looking at it: Many of the people who are appalled by this image are deeply connected to their Native culture and live it every day. If they say the picture is hurtful, it's hurtful, and a Cherokee grandmother doesn't change that. (By the way, the Cherokee did not have "princesses" and did not wear feather headdresses—these are two topics covered in the FAQ at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.)

Having a Native ancestor doesn't get you off the hook if you don't bother to do the homework—and if you bother to do the homework, you will not wear the headdress, and there will be no hook off of which to get… Q.E.D.

4. He's Not Paying Tribute to His Culture

For the sake of argument, say some of the above points didn't hold up. Say, perhaps, Pharrell's Native ancestor was from a Plains tribe that wore feather headdresses, and that he had studied the culture and it informed his daily life, and he had been given the feathers for accomplishments. The headdress remains a sacred ceremonial item, to be worn on special occasions. There's no tribute in wearing the headdress on the cover of Elle UK, flanked by "The Secret Life of Keira Knightley" and "All Natural Hair: 23 Products to Try Now." This is a spiritual item; on the cover of Elle UK it becomes secularized, trivialized, accessorized. Those who hold the headdress sacred might well say this is the opposite of a tribute.

We said it before: You really should have stuck with the mountie hat, Pharrell.

Comments (146)
No. 1-50
Kituwah
Kituwah

In the age of Truth and the internet, one has all the tools at their fingertips to see the plethora of Indigenous Americans, i.e. copper colored Americans that were here long before 250 Mongols, now called Native Americans immigrated to this country through the Bering Strait. This is well documented. Also, artifacts and archaeology confirms who the people that were already here and has always been here was and looked like. Stop being fed a bag of lies and do the research. It's irrefutable. He has more right than anyone to where his tribal headdress. You have more people from European descent parading around as Native Americans than what the original copper colored pictures and writings, of those who came here actually looked like. In the age of Truth all liars will get their just rewards!

Realindigenous
Realindigenous

Kituwah the burden of proof is on you. There is no evidence of what you say. So what artifact or archeology confirms what you say. I will wait....

ShellyM
ShellyM

I tire of people today now, NOW using the Native American heritage to THEIR ADVANTAGE....ELIZABETH WARREN, anyone? Just because someone in their line may or may NOT have been native American. My husband has a woman not far back in his line that was full blood native American from the area of the Sasquahana nation...but does he claim to be native American? No, of course not. I know a young girl that is half italian and half full Navajo, her Dad is a member of the Navajo nation, and she was welcomed into the nation..not her mother, who is Italian, she was...she KNOWS her people. But now that it is in a way "cool" to be natie American everyone is jumping on the wagon; I think it is reprehensible.

CHARLES WALKINGCROW
CHARLES WALKINGCROW

Donate your money for the Elle review to the tribe he says he is from?

them cheese
them cheese

You have to understand racism and white supremacy to understand the rejection and dismissal of Pharrell's claim by many.

SupaDupaJ
SupaDupaJ

I just wanted to say to people who are native American and part of a tribe that it is hurtful when you dismiss people who have had their heritage stolen from them as I. Having a family who has lived for many generations in the same place in Texas, my DNA says that I'm 40% native American with no knowledge of my ancestors. When you say oh that DNA doesn't matter because you're not part of a tribe it's like telling me, oh you're not black cuz you're only half black it doesn't count. Think about what you say and how hurtful is to people. The area where my family has lived for many generations is where the Karankwa have gone extinct.

10 Replies

Fabiola66
Fabiola66

Very honest SupaDupaJ and thank you for saying this. As someone whose family has lived many generations in northern New Mexico, I can name my Native Grandmothers who were stolen and therefore removed from their culture and traditions. I know them by name and unfortunately, not by their Indian names. It is a deep wound, rarely addressed, for native people who still participate in the cultural as well as for those of us who have native blood but don't possess the culture...and so we all have native ancestors who were violated and it's a deep, heartbreaking, and unforgivable wound on both sides. Also, here in Indian Country, we all know Chicanos and Mexicanos that have more Native blood than a lot of registered Natives that possess the culture and some of us mixed people have been rejected as much by Native people as by whites. That said, I think this is a good article in a number of ways. And BTW why does the author conveniently fail to mention that Pharrell is a black person and from a group of people who were decimated at least as much as Native people? That's what's NOT cool about this article. This is a much bigger conversation. But one thing is true: if you listen you'll hear something in Pharrell's music that will take you back to some of those lost and forgotten rhythms and traditions, and that will also take you to someplace completely new. He's a great artist too; so what about that???

Damiana
Damiana

In a way all of this racial division hierarchy is a by-product of the racism that was started long ago in Europe. The architects of this mindset planted seeds that grew to corrupt the thoughts and minds of people who were fed from those plants generations later, now, just about all of us. This idea that you have to have this much of that, so many of them, this shade of skin to fit in, that many years into this or that and so on to be ‘qualified’ to be good enough as whatever, whomever-it’s maddening. It’s all a sick by-product of older sick cultures that predicated their existence on the superiority and domination of others and thus created these divisive legacies for future generations.
How we overcome it is by not buying into it, by seeing it’s mechanisms and refusing to participate, but that’s hard, so how? It’s like an ancient cobweb, so many strands, so many branches that shoot out. So easy to get stuck on one thread that takes us down the wrong path easily pitting against one another and then we end up in a tangle, a philosophical mess. How do we undo the damage that was done and still doing to us by these means of separation?
I guess start by being aware of the paradigm(system) and nicely calling it out when we see it. Then we choose to suspend our beliefs or disbelief long enough to simply see and honor each other. And go from there. Hard possible. Just a start.
Peace.

hazcatken
hazcatken

I understand where you're coming from and agree with the validity of your argument, but I think their point on that may have been to highlight that cultural understanding and human connection don't come from genetics. While I agree with that too, it's terrible that peoples suffered erasure to the extent that their own offspring never knew them and can't find them even when they try, and I regret it's affect on you.

Shortdognate
Shortdognate

So very insightful Damiana! Had to read 3x. These words are like medicine. don't know, you but I wish we had more people like you, myself included.

Damiana
Damiana

Thank you Shortdognate. What kind words. I had honestly forgotten what I wrote and had to reread it myself. Kinda like those words! Sometimes we have to see past our own hurt to see the big picture and really get what’s going on. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the history of racial hierarchy and the damage it’s done to the world lately. Wanting to do more about it...somehow.
Peace.

Joe The Eurosquatter
Joe The Eurosquatter

Your DNA doesn't matter, and neither did the DNA of your ancestors. You're hurt because your lily white(-passing) ass isn't getting the juice you hoped for at the pow-wow? Your comparison to Black people is also perplexing, as they've historically been kept out of the artificial construct of whiteness on the basis of "one drop" of non-white blood...unless they could "pass" as white. Like you do.

If you seriously want to reconnect to your Indigenous heritage, you need to make a sincere effort to do so in the flesh, instead of some random whining at Indigenous people that they aren't respecting your Ancestry DNA test or whatever the fuck. I'm very much sympathetic to the notion of people dispossessed of their Indigeneity by Amerikkka, KKKanada, etc...but you aren't one. Your ancestors may have been, but...maybe they were just descended from a white broad that liked some freaky shit with "savages" on the side. You realize that wouldn't make you Native, right? lol

BlackCloud.
BlackCloud.

The Karankaw are not extinct. just renamed , i have hope

BlackCloud.
BlackCloud.

I see someone woke up.. Im not alone. LOL

David Franklin
David Franklin

Damiana, this is an amazing comment. So true. And the roots go deeper than people realize. I'm mostly of north European descent, i.e. blond, blue-eyed whitey. My ancestors were genocided, culturally assimilated, enslaved, for centuries - by Rome. And then we ended up doing it to the rest of the world.
The only way I've found to fight it is on a personal level. I can't think, 'Xhosa people are great.' Some are total jerks, which you'd expect from real people. Instead, I've learned, and am still learning to think, 'Let's evaluate you as a person, befriend you as a person, and I hope you'll do the same with me and look past the, ahem, Aryan appearance.'

Damiana
Damiana

Hi David,
Thanks for the appreciation. I try and do the same, judge people on an each person basis otherwise you get into trouble. I'm no way by any means done with figuring this out but I do know that buying into the 'color wars' is not the way.
Oh and fyi...the Aryan thing is one more thing the White Supremacists stole...Aryans are from Iran area. Caucasian are from Caucasus mtns. So neither group are European. Two German anthropologists once coined those titles @ 1800's but nowadays, most anthros no longer use those terms because they are inaccurate. Most people don't know about it and it needs to be spread around, just wanted to let you know. :)
Cheers.

SupaDupaJ
SupaDupaJ

However I do agree that sacred tradition should not be disrespected

-PRH
-PRH

It is nice to have a family history. BUT what you do today is what earns one rightful recognition.

Pharrell Williams
Pharrell Williams

fax

KingJerel
KingJerel

I'm confused, I didn't know Native Americans were the only people who wore feathers in a headdress a simple Google would've shown you that the Natives and Dogon tribe have a eerily similar "religion" and attire.

BritheWolf
BritheWolf

I find it funny that whenever people of color claim their heritage back and find out who they really are, many people have a huge problem with it. I see white people dress up in feathers and headdresses and have dream catchers for fun all the time, but no one seems to have a problem with it. All of a sudden, it's an insult when a dark-skinned person embraces and expresses their native culture, but celebrated when a white person does it.

arsplastiques
arsplastiques

I'm late reading this, but this is an excellent article, thank you.

Rudymoreno0512
Rudymoreno0512

Well my name is Rudy Moreno and I know I'm Native American from Navajo and also Asian. My mother chicana in other words Mexican. And the reason I know that is because I asked my Uncle Bear which is Navajo and my Father Mario Sunica Moreno. I look up my heritage because I want to learn it more and to know where my family is from.

RhysGalenRigsby
RhysGalenRigsby

Pharrell didn't earn those feathers.. he needs to take them tf off.

Prof_Goods
Prof_Goods

Since everyone is so insulted by Pharrell’s discovery of part of his ancestry you should be embarrassed how he became. Because I guarantee you his African ancestor was raped by Native American. Go ask the elders!! Guarantee the tribe lost those records. They seem to lose records of Africans captured and raped for hundreds of years before the Indian nation itself was conquered!!

Horsecreek Steve
Horsecreek Steve

Your comments needs a response. When a person clams to be Native American Indian without being a Federally registered Tribal member or proven ancestry it is stealing the heritage of those who are and it works to break down the fiber of Tribal Sovereignty. While DNA can prove a direct connection to another person it is very lacking in proving one's American Indian ancestry. Those who represent these DNA companies have made billions from suggesting that one can prove American Indian ancestry. Being native American and Native American Indian are two different classes of people. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22129554-400-there-is-no-dna-test-to-prove-youre-native-american/

hazcatken
hazcatken

No matter who you are, I think something we can all take away from this article is NA culture isn't a cute look and NA ancestry isn't a fun fact. A person benefiting from and voluntarily remaining in the system founded off Native American genocide and erasure will never have the right to don that culture, regardless of what the little 123andMe kit they got for Christmas said when it came back. Your genetic makeup doesn't excuse you to walk in and choose what parts of a culture you want to show off and what parts ignore. It's a way of life. And that is insulting. I have zero Native American DNA. In fact, I have zero "minority" DNA, period. When my parents (to my dismay) did a test I found out I am indeed as white as Christopher Colombus (or maybe even more). I have lived my entire life benefiting from that. And if it came back 14% plains peoples that fact wouldn't have changed. Your genetics do cause people to treat you a certain way (racism) thus forming a personal culture and contributing to preexisting ones, but they don't mold a culture by themselves. They aren't a golden ticket. Justifying this offensive ideology perpetrated by Elle and a clearly misled Pharrell Williams with DNA is exactly what we need to fight against if we want to understand race, culture, and intersectionality in a healthy light

jorgemontiel
jorgemontiel

Thank you so much for the information. Very good post https://apkmoto.com/

coolhorse
coolhorse

There were over 500 Nations and who is to say what each of them did or did not do.

Some of those Nations were lost forever so again who knows what is what.

If he is proud of his heritage and he shows the headdress in a positive light then so be it.

I can see the complaint if it was portraying his love for HIS heritage in a negative way.

Bottlefinger
Bottlefinger

I understand your thoughts on the ALL OF A SUDDEN native with a picture with a head dress. I grew up and saw Redbone on Midnight Special. They are native and have every right to attire themselves thusly BUT it inspired in me a desire to know more. I was blown away by the dance, the attire and their look. I ended up in rock-n-roll bands wearing moccasin boots but that was it. I have since then read many books that have illuminated a great respect and love for the culture and I list Black Elk, Chief Joseph and Crazy Horse as some of my heroes. Jumping on the band wagon is very nauseating for me, let alone natives. The culture is due its respect and the spiritual part of it is proven truer to me everyday. Sometimes an awkward moment opens the doors to inspection into something new and enlightening.

Getoveryourself
Getoveryourself

No body better wear a cowboy hat cause they might offend some rednecks. Jeez, get over yourself. Come on you're no longer hunter-gatherers; you go too Costco. I respect everyone. Until they start aggressively whining for 'equality'. Have a little pride. Take the high road. So some lame pop star wore a headdress. Shows how lame he is. But you getting your feathers all ruffled over it makes you lame too.

johnsmith101
johnsmith101

this is an excellent article, thank you.

Redpaint _37
Redpaint _37

Nervy

Ms Peggy Lee
Ms Peggy Lee

all my relations❤

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