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.
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.