The right to dress like an idiot is a fundamental principle of festival culture…I sense a ‘but’ coming…
… but at this weekend's Bass Coast electronic music festival in British Columbia, Canada, one particular kind of idiot will not be welcome. Last week, the organisers told festival-goers that Native American feathered headdresses, also known as war bonnets, would not be permitted on site.Wha..?
"We understand why people are attracted to war bonnets," they wrote on the festival's Facebook page. "They have a magnificent aesthetic.
But their spiritual, cultural and aesthetic significance cannot be separated. Bass Coast festival takes place on indigenous land and we respect the dignity of aboriginal people."You to be kidding me? But no, apparently it’s a topic that’s had a lot of activists on the warpath.
The Bass Coast prohibition arrives just as the headdress issue is approaching a tipping point. Last month, Pharrell Williams swiftly apologised for agreeing to wear a war bonnet on the cover of Elle magazine, while the long-running campaign to change the name and logo of the Washington Redskins football team scored a major victory when the US Patent and Trademark Office cancelled the team's trademarks for being "disparaging to Native Americans".Chalk it up to social media (and a healthy dose of fear at being thought ‘offensive’):
The backlash is a classic example of online activism. It has not been spearheaded by an official campaign, lobby group or celebrity spokesperson but a growing array of individual voices repeatedly making one simple demand: stop wearing headdresses as fashion accessories. Many of those making this demand, however, are surprised that it even needs to be said in 2014.
"When it first started happening, my reaction was like, really?" says Ehren Thomas, also known as Bear Witness, of the Ottawa-based dance music trio A Tribe Called Red. "I thought we were over this. I thought the politically correct age of the 90s had taught people we weren't allowed to make fun of other cultures but apparently I was wrong."Is that what you really thought political correctness was?
But the case against headdress chic is powerful, and it's threefold.Hmmm, ok. Hit me:
First, the trend ignores the differences between indigenous peoples. There are 564 federally recognised tribes in the US alone, but fashion smushes them into one vague stereotype with all the sophistication of a B-grade 1950s western.
"You'll see someone wearing a headdress in the same picture as a totem pole and a canoe when actually those are from three different cultures," says Bear Witness.
"The totem poles are from the northwest, headdresses are from the plains and the kind of canoes you usually see are woodland canoes. So it's robbing us of our individual cultures."*nonplussed face*
Second, it disrespects the sacred significance of the headdress. Among the plains people, they are worn only by male chiefs, and only on special ceremonial occasions.And I guess a music festival doesn’t count?
Finally, far from being a trivial issue, the trend reminds indigenous peoples of all the more serious crimes and indignities they have been subjected to over the past 500 years.Ah. Of course it does.
Keene has been dismayed by the amount of pushback she has received as a campaigner. While high-profile figures are prone to apologise to stem the bad publicity, ordinary festival-goers and sports fans often dig their heels in.
"Unfortunately, we run into resistance when we try to say: 'Can you please not do that,'" agrees Bear Witness.
"People are telling us it's just fun, or get over it. On the festival scene, people are giving us a 'don't ruin our good times' attitude. I would love to say that it's as simple as informing people about what's wrong, but it's also about people being able to accept that information."The usual bafflement that the general public doesn’t immediately rush to do the bidding of a single-issue fanatic with a chip on her shoulder, in other words.