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Indigenous Teen Livid After Friend Asks To Borrow Native Headdress For Costume Party

Jess Lindner/Unsplash

The line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation is a hot-button issue. And for one Indigenous teen on Reddit, it sparked drama when she refused to allow her friend to wear her Native clothing to a costume party.

The Original Poster (OP), who goes by aitaheaddress on the site, wasn’t sure about how she’d handled things. So she went to the AITA (Am I The A**hole) subReddit for perspective.

She asked:

“AITA for telling my friend to not wear a headdress?”

She explained:

“I (17f[emale]) am Indigenous and was raised to take my culture and history seriously. While I didn’t grow up on a reservation, I’m still taught about my ancestors, religion, and culture.”

“Recently my close friend (16f) who we’ll call Katie, was telling me about a costume part she got invited to. She told me she wanted to wear a Native headdress with her costume and asked me to give her one.”

“My mom (45f) always told me to allow others to appreciate and participate in our culture as long as they know the significance and history of what they’re doing or wearing. So when Katie told me what she wanted to do, I told her that 1 I don’t have a headdress and 2 she shouldn’t be wearing one because she doesn’t know anything about it.”

“I explained that I’d be happy to educate her on the subject if she really did have an interest in the culture and that once she knew the importance we could talk about it again and see if she still felt it was appropriate for her to wear it.”

“Katie went off on me, saying that it shouldn’t be an issue for her to wear one as her great grandfather was part Indigenous and that I was gatekeeping ‘our’ culture just because she ‘wasn’t Native enough’ (her words) for me. Katie told me I was contributing to racism and has refused to talk to me since last week.”

“I’m starting to believe that I really was in the wrong here. The last thing I want to do is stop people from loving my culture and now I feel like that’s what I was doing to Katie. I don’t want to lose her as a friend because of something that was my fault.”

“So am I really the AH here or was I right?”

Redditors were then asked to judge who was in the wrong in this situation based on the following categories:

  • NTA – Not The A**hole
  • YTA – You’re The A**hole
  • ESH – Everyone Sucks Here
  • NAH – No A**holes Here

And most of them were firmly on OP’s side on this one.

“I am %100 not Native BUT the argument against what Katy wants to do that carries the most weight for me is that headdresses are symbols of a position that has been earned. Not all Native people are entitled to wear headdresses in the same way not all non-Natives are allowed to call themselves ‘doctor’.”

“So, if Katy wants to earn the right to wear one she can. But she will have to put in the years of learning, working, contributing to ‘her’ Indigenous community and earning their respect. Just like I would have to be willing to devote 8-10+ years of study before I could call myself ‘doctor’.” –seaworthinessNo1304

“Please note, my perspective below is from a White POV. Back when I was younger and participated in Boy Scouts I was in the Order of the Arrow.”

“The order learns lots of Native traditions including traditional dances and how to make and properly wear regalia, and the first thing we were all told when learning was how it wasn’t a costume and never to treat it as such.”

“My chapter specifically learned a lot about the Crow tribe and none of this would have been done if we hadn’t asked permission first and treated their culture with respect.”

“Much like OP, many tribes are very glad to be able to teach about their culture and to see their culture being appreciated and learned about more widely (because we know the American education system lacks in that area). I can only imagine how much it hurts to see people view it just as a costume.” –Meechgalhuquot

“People shouldn’t be using parts of culture they don’t understand/aren’t willing to learn about for a costume. Using a culture just for a costume is really inconsiderate. A lot of the costumes people wear are historically inaccurate and/or disrespectful.” –Trans_Karma

“A headdress is not a costume. Wearing it as such fetishizes Indigenous girls and women and is partly responsible for 1,000’s of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. If any part of her was Indigenous, she would be educated as such.”

“You are NTA and you do your ancestors proud by understanding we are not a costume.”

“If your ‘friend’ needs someone to educate her, this Auntie will be happy to set her straight.” –TGMB99

“This Auntie will help too. I am so sick of our girls and women being targets as MMIW and fetishized. I had to teach my daughter about MMIW when she turned 5. I felt like I took some of her innocence that day teaching her how to fight, scream, and don’t give up. I worry about our safety everyday.”

“We are more than a costume. We are a nation that’s often forgotten and stereotyped. Headdresses, turkey feathers in hair, urban outfitters type dream catchers, etc… are NOT OKAY. Please don’t appropriate our culture with the lie of ‘I am honoring your culture by wearing this’.”

“I mean it’s a small drop in the bucket of what we as Indigenous people face but it’s a start. If this behavior can be corrected and stopped we can move onto the housing crisis, lack of clean water, disturbing burial sites, using the guise of ‘progress’ to install pipelines that further disturb our land and render water undrinkable, the horrors of residential school and all the bodies of children being discovered..” –xoredroses12

“Not only this but a headdress is what we refer to as a ‘closed’ article. It’s something that you have to earn and demands great respect in Indigenous cultures.”

“Wearing a headdress without earning it is essentially equivalent to stolen valour.”

“(Not to mention a legitimate headdress/war bonnet would literally be illegal for her to possess anyways under both Canadian and US laws that bar anyone without a permit or status from obtaining or possessing eagle parts including feathers).” –TheRestForTheWicked

“NTA. She’s asking to wear Native regalia to a costume party. She’s not asking for it to use as a serious representation of a culture.”

“Truth is, she isn’t Native enough. Not because of the amount of Native blood she has, but because she doesn’t care about having Native blood at all unless she can use it to her advantage.”

“And I’m suspicious of her great grandfather being part Indigenous. WTF does that even mean? Probably that her ggf went around telling everyone he was 1/64 Cherokee. That’s what non-Natives always say when they get called out on crap like this.”

“Bottom line is, she wanted to use your culture as a prop, you called her out on it in the most gentle way possible, and she got mad. She should be worried about losing your friendship over this, not the other way around.” –PeachesMcGhee

“I also feel like it’s telling that she said ‘my great-grandfather was part Native American;’ because what that should mean is that (in theory) she’s part Native American. But she didn’t say ‘I’m part Native American;’ because deep down she knows that it’s such a small part of her ancestry that she can’t even claim it as her own, so instead she has to assign it to someone else.” –ha_look_at_that_nerd

“NTA. As an Indigenous woman who also did not grow up on a res, and is also not from a tribe that used headdresses, you handled this very maturely.”

“If she did really respect the culture, she would be willing to challenge her idea that it was okay for her to wear one. And if she listened, she would understand that it is not appropriate for her to wear.”

“I never hear anyone say this in good faith. Blood quantum is garbage.”

“Either you’re connected to your tribe, or you aren’t (and I always count anyone who is reconnecting!)” —fakemonalisa

“NTA. She’s saying – Who cares about your culture, I will just use your cultural signification for my own selfish purposes and you saying no means you are a racist!”

“This is modern day slavery-imposition, she’s a complete AH. Separately, if you are not the gatekeeper to your culture, then who is?? She? Tell her to get her head out of her entitled behind.”

“As John F. Kennedy said ‘You cannot negotiate with people who say what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable.’ You should rethink your friendship with her.” –NaiveFox9698

“NTA – It sounds like Katie is unaware of the difference between a headdress and a hat. One has more significance than the other.” –fuzzy_mic

Hopefully OP’s friend can learn from this.

Written by Peter Karleby

Peter Karleby is a writer, content producer and performer originally from Michigan. His writing has also appeared on YourTango, Delish and Medium, and he has produced content for NBC, The New York Times and The CW, among others. When not working, he can be found tripping over his own feet on a hiking trail while singing Madonna songs to ward off lurking bears.