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By Kansas City Star, adapted by Newsela staff
Singer Pharrell Williams looked stunning in his photo. He was shot from the side wearing a proud Native American war bonnet. But Williams is not, as far as anyone knew, Native American.
The picture appeared on the July cover of fashion magazine Elle UK June 5. The angry backlash on social media followed soon after. Critics on Twitter used the hashtag “#NotHappy,” a joke about Williams' hit single, "Happy". Williams quickly apologized. “I respect and honor every kind of race, background and culture,” he said. “I am genuinely sorry.”
Headdresses have deep meaning for Native Americans. But lately a lot of people who aren't Native have been playing dress-up in them. This has brought back a subject that has been argued for a long time. Is it right to take things from other cultures and use them however you want?
Feathers Must Be Earned
Such headdresses can be seen at the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation’s yearly powwow. Every summer hundreds of Native American dancers and drummers from across the country travel to northeast Kansas for the event.
The dancers’ colorful costumes create a breathtaking scene. The leatherwork, beading and quillwork of their clothing is all done by hand. Some of their custom headdresses are worth thousands of dollars.
Dennis Zotigh works at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. The war bonnet was their symbol of leadership, he said. "Each of those feathers was earned and shows their position of leadership,” Zotigh said. “So not everybody had the right to wear these. And they were only worn for special occasions.”
Tom Spotted Horse sometimes sees a Native American wearing a war bonnet. “That tells me this person has met a specific level of distinction,” he said. Spotted Horse said his great-great grandfather was buried with his war bonnet.
"Not Real War Bonnets"
It's like "the modern warrior who earns a medal for their service during wartime,” Zotigh said. “For a person to wear a war bonnet who didn’t earn it would be the exact same thing as somebody wearing a Medal of Honor who did not earn it.”
Dana Warrington, a 34-year-old dancer from Keshena, Wisconsin, who is half Potawatomi, half Menominee, does not think it’s right for nonnatives to wear headdresses. But he tends to give artists like Williams and others a pass.
“I don’t think they do it in such a disrespectful way,” said Warrington. “I don’t think they do it with that intention."