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.

Joseph M. Pierce is Assistant Professor in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature at Stony Brook University. He is the author of Argentine Intimacies: Queer Kinship in an Age of Splendor,...

33 replies on “There Is No “Pride” in Appropriation”

  1. I agree with the main point, but wonder why the writer says “I snapped a picture because I wanted to know who these people were.” That’s only a picture; that’s not how you find out who someone is, only what someone looks like. Did the writer not actually TALK to them? That’s how one finds out who they were (and why they were doing it, and how they felt when questioned by someone). That would have been a useful and interesting part of the story. I’m not suggesting that their response would have made anything “okay” about what they did. But direct engagement does help, it does matter, in can make a change.

    1. That will not get them a writers fee or exposure on here. It is a lot easier, as the writer say to “call them out” than to have a real conversation.

      1. Talking with them would not have precluded getting a writer’s fee or getting published. I’m not sure why you would assume that.

    2. my direct engagement would have been ripping that fake wannabe ndn gear right off their bodies.

      1. and your direct experience following that should have been having your face ripped back off, unless of course, you find some physical metaphor for these untoward feelings you are experiencing about this. Love ur spelling of such respected peoples as ndn. so deeply respectful, so well demonstrated for us, and the world

        1. NDN, it’s an appropriation of the word mistakenly used to identify us, often with negative connotations; just like another n-word in use.

          It’s the younger generation’s self-identification where other identity words like Indian, Aboriginal, Indigenous, First Nation just didn’t ring true.

          And your acceptance, or lack of it, not only wasn’t asked for but also won’t shame the users into changing to gain your approval.

          1. excuse offered as explanation; response, in order to save face; reason derived from bias : explanation v response v reason

            reason lost

            assuming others do things for your approval rather demonstrates some basis of one’s (your) own motives.

            some knowledge does not come until much later in life

            if ever – good luck isn’t going to get it for anyone

            do you think for sure you have more ‘ndn’ (that’s so cute) blood in your veins than me, and that makes any diff as human?? And you are gonna be my spokesmodel???
            thanks, but n-n-NO !

    3. Seems you skipped the article…centered on them not being tribal. Dressed like that in a parade sort of says “take my pic!” Photos are essential to id violations. At least they were caught in time to be asked. If they had claimed or not claimed it we would have told them to go home and change, wry eye et now.
      Wado to everyone who spoke out

    4. @guadelupe, didn’t you read the article? In it, the author discusses how he went up to the men to talk with them; it was only after that conversation proved fruitless (the men said they weren’t indigenous & were wearing the costumes just for fun) that he took the picture.

      1. You’re correct, he did try. But his phrase “I took a pic bec I wanted to know…” was misleading, perhaps I wrote in haste…..

  2. What is cultural appropriation? It might be said that the use of the Hebrew Bible by Christianity (and calling it the “old testament “) is the ultimate act of cultural appropriation.

    1. That could be said, but only by poorly informed people who don’t understand the history of Christianity and that it begun among Jews.

      1. to say nothing of the more poorly informed people who don’t see that history as merely following the same wrong path even further. Besides, what xtian do you know that can have a meaningful argument with god the way a good Jew can? can you stand up to that god? if you don’t, you are not made in that image. meekly doing what the god tells you is acquiescing yourself to the bully, empowering the bully, giving moral hazard over to the bully, et cetera and so on and on

    2. And hence all gospel tunes need to be scrapped? Much of the history of art is ‘appropriation’. Saves us from the New Victorians.

  3. acrylic dyes are the only ways to achieve colors like those hot pinks and “turquoise”. acrylic is made of plastic. this is some party city BS.

  4. I find this totally disrespectful. I’m Native American and I’m bisexual. however I dont disrespect our culture this way. my opinion.

  5. I am sorry but did you just assume their race/nationality? You do realize that you aren’t the only indigenous person on earth, right? Did you really go up to these people and ask them their race? This crap is getting ridiculous. You need therapy.

    1. @Ahase Cdams, did you read the article? No, the author didn’t just assume their race/nationality–the author walked up to them and asked them what tribe they were from. You’re the one who’s making assumptions here!

  6. “self-indulgent narcissists like the men at WorldPride”. Would you expect more at a Pride parade? The parade, it seems, is a celebration of self-indulgence and narcism.

  7. I wonder how you feel about indigenous people who wear jeans or suits. Is that not “cultural appropriation”?

    1. Are jeans or suit a particular culture’s spiritual and cultural dress? If so, which culture?

    2. No, it is not cultural appropriation. Do you really need it spelled out for you? European people colonized the Americas, mass murdering Native Americans and kicking the few that survived off their own lands. During and after this genocide, Native Americans were forced to adopt Western clothing, religion, and other customs in order to survive. Just imagine being a Native American in the 19th century and trying to take out a bank loan, or interview for a job, in your traditional clothes. Jeans and suits were the norm as dictated by white people, and they continued to be.

      Cultural appropriation refers to a group in power using the culture of a minority group. People of European descent (myself included) by and large do not have to worry about their histories and cultures being erased. Minorities very often do. Seeing non-indigenous people dress in headdresses and other regalia is not only insulting to Native Americans; it’s also akin to someone rewriting their history. You wouldn’t want someone dressing up as a caricature of your ancestors, would you?

  8. Cultural tone deafness by groups who wish their own differences to be acknowledged is unfortunate. Let us all assume day glow pinks aren’t traditional of any tribe. Kudos to the author for a topic explored and explained for us all. Prof. Pierce, do we see a book in the making?

  9. What better way to forget indigenous peoples ever existed than banning the wearing of their regalia by others? I like pizza, r&b, ramen, silk fabric, Tuvan throat singers, etc. – just how far do we go with the anti-appropriation movement? I do agree with one part of this article – appropriation is ALWAYS an opportunity to educate people, so why not do that instead of complaining?

    1. Cultural appropriation is very different from cultural appreciation. Of course it’s fine to enjoy foreign cuisines and music, especially when you support smaller businesses and artists who are preserving their heritage. The difference is, when you have a nice bowl of ramen, you are not presenting yourself as someone of Japanese descent. You are not dressing up as a stereotype of their culture.

      It’s also particularly heinous for a white person to attempt to dress in Native American regalia given the atrocities white people committed for centuries against indigenous people. Even as recently as the 1990s, in North America and in Australia, some indigenous children were forceably separated from their parents and sent to boarding schools to receive a Westernized “education.” Given all that, can you imagine being a Native American and seeing people trying to dress as your ancestors? Wouldn’t you be mad, too?

      The parade-goers’ garish outfits weren’t even accurate, and their synthetic materials–which are harmful to the environment–are an additional slap in the face to cultures that have already been whitewashed countless times over (in mascots, in movies, even in government-commissioned works). It’s beyond insulting.

      Yes, appropriation is an opportunity to educate people–exactly why the author wrote this article.

  10. Thank you for this good and heartfelt piece. I understand your outrage. Decades ago as a freshly-arrived US resident, this white female lived in a tiny village composed of all whites and one Black man. In solidarity and humor I wore blackface to a Hallowe’en party and danced with him. Today I would be – you can imagine. I cannot assume the source and reasons for why these men mimicked sacred dress. Ego? yes, but not intent to offend. There are many levels of ignorance. Person to person communication in a state of calm, to educate, would seem the better response, “state of calm” being the key words here; most challenging , I realize, but most vital.

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