Opinion

There Is No “Pride” in Appropriation

As I experienced firsthand at WorldPride, the erasure of Indigenous peoples is alive and well in the queer community. But our culture is not a costume.

WorldPride attendees in fake war bonnets, costumed as Indigenous people (image by author)

WorldPride was a landmark moment for Indigenous representation with the largest gathering of two-spirit people ever to march in the parade. But I almost didn’t go. In recent years, Pride’s radical origins have been overshadowed by a culture of conformity. And yet, part of me still wants to see in Pride something liberating for queer people of color. I do believe that representing ourselves and our desires matters. So, I braided my hair, put on my beads, and joined the Two Spirit Indigenous Peoples Association to march as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. This act of collective resistance stands in stark contrast with the tendency to tokenize and erase Indigenous people from queer history. As I would experience firsthand, however, the erasure of Indigenous peoples at Pride is still alive and well.

As we gathered in Midtown there were people from all across Turtle Island, as many Indigenous communities call what is commonly known as North America. We wore traditional regalia and rainbow ribbon shirts, tank-tops crisscrossed with ancient patterns and buckskin. We prayed before starting the route and gave offerings of tobacco to the Creator, asking for guidance and protection. We were committed to marching for our ancestors and future generations.

Somewhere past 14th Street, I waved to the crowd and a woman waved back, mouthing the words, “I see you.” It was a small but welcome gesture.

Suddenly, from the corner of my eye, I noticed a group of five men wearing elaborate headdresses and loincloths. I was dazed by this flash of fuchsia, turquoise, tangerine, and scarlet. At first, I wondered why they weren’t marching with us. But no tribe actually dresses like that. Oh shit, I realized, they’re playing Indian for Pride.

I shuffled next to one of them and asked, “What tribe are you from?”

“Oh, we don’t belong to a tribe,” one of the men responded. “We dressed up like this for Pride. It’s just a costume.”

My comrades and I couldn’t tell if these men were marching with a group or if they simply jumped the fence and entered the parade by themselves. (I suspect the latter). I gathered a few friends and we confronted them, chanting, “No appropriation, no appropriation, no appropriation.” A smirk. A baffled look. Of course, these men had no answers. And despite our chanting, dozens of people wanted to take pictures with the “Indian” crew. Spectators formed a line for selfies with the costumed men precisely because they were appropriating our culture.

I snapped a picture, because I wanted to find out who these people were. I wanted to call them out or at least raise awareness about how racist and insensitive their actions were. The image went viral on Twitter, and people started weighing in about the costume: the political moment, the lack of awareness, and the motivations behind such a choice.

For me, it felt as if a deep colonial wound had opened again. Rage and helplessness and loss and resignation — I know this feeling well. I know it on Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. I know it when the Trail of Tears becomes a tasteless punch-line and when white people say it’s all in the past. When they say we should get over it.

The irony is that most WorldPride spectators were more interested in celebrating these men in tacky makeup and fake headdresses than legitimizing the presence of queer and two-spirit Indigenous people who have fought for decades to open space for others.

And it’s especially hurtful that these men appropriated Indigenous regalia. From the early 19th century, war bonnets have been worn by Indigenous tribes of the Great Plains. Specifically, they are worn by men who have earned the right to wear them in ceremony or battle. People can spend decades crafting their regalia, which is typically made of eagle feathers (objects of great cultural and spiritual meaning), porcupine quills, or glass beads. The war bonnet represents one’s relationship to the community, its history, and its continuity. But despite their prevalence in American popular culture, not all Indians wear war bonnets — and those tribes that do, wear them in specific circumstances that honor the sacred bonds that such regalia represents.

When a group of non-Indigenous people wears fake war bonnets, they erase real Indigenous histories and cultures; they normalize the idea that we are not agents in our own stories, our own lives; and they homogenize hundreds of Indigenous cultures into one war-painted stereotype. When Indigenous people wear regalia, it’s not meant to be sexy. The war bonnet is not meant for the entertainment of others; rather, it shows our heritage, ancestry, and the bonds of reciprocity that are essential to our communities. Indigenous regalia requires patience and humility — but for self-indulgent narcissists like the men at WorldPride, it is hard to expect humility.

I would hardly expect the costumed men at WorldPride to realize that the appropriation and misuse of Indigenous regalia is part of the broader genocidal project of settler America. Theft of Indigenous land, erasure of Indigenous cultures (which is assimilation by another name), and the gradual but insistent diminishment of Indigenous sovereignty are central pillars in this architecture of oppression.

In fact, it was not until 1978 with the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act that the United States finally recognized the inherent right of Indigenous peoples to wear our sacred regalia, access our religious sites, and practice our ceremonies in public. Our relatives fought and died for this right. Incredibly, this struggle continues as young people still confront hatred when wearing regalia in public, at graduation ceremonies, and yes, at pride parades.

As historian Phillip Deloria describes in Playing Indian, from the Boston Tea Party to the Boy Scouts to contemporary hobbyists, colonial stereotypes serve to objectify Indigenous peoples. Crucially, this provides anxious white Americans with a link to a supposedly authentic, autochthonous past. This objectification perpetuates the erasure of Indigenous peoples; it undermines our sovereign right to express ourselves as human beings.

For people who dress in fake war bonnets, it must seem like Indigenous people are no longer here, or that we are no longer active participants in the modern world. We are relegated to the past as pieces of history inside a museum. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, live Indians were actually displayed in museums and at World’s Fairs. In fact, our ancestors’ remains are still held in museums. Indian bones and body parts. Brains in formaldehyde. Teeth in boxes. The bodies of our relatives were stolen without their consent and shipped around the country by anthropologists and collectors. This is more than just appropriation. Whether on the WorldPride parade route or in the halls of a museum, objectifying our communities makes possible the cultural rape of Indigenous peoples.

And our lives are constantly negated by the media, politicians, and popular culture. We are seen as objects, rather than subjects of history. This is why our communities are at a much higher risk for sexual violence and for incarceration; our youth commit suicide at much higher rates than white people; our land and water is more contaminated; and our economies are more precarious. Not only are we dispossessed of our land, we are erased as peoples in every imaginable way.

Is there a place for Indigenous queer and two-spirit people at Pride? Maybe I was naïve to believe so. This year’s march marginalized intersectional queer struggles and ongoing fights for decolonization. As queer Indigenous people our presence is itself an act of resistance, but we still need the respect of our peers.

There is no pride in using Indigenous peoples as props in a settler fantasy; there is no pride in racist caricatures; and there is no pride in cultural appropriation. Because my culture is not a costume. My culture is alive in the here and now. It is memory, flesh, and fire. It is the strength of all my relations.

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