Racist New York: Hipsters’ Appropriation of Aboriginal People’s Symbols and Imagery

First, let’s start with definitions. There are many terms often used to describe, categorize, identify, or refer to Aboriginal Peoples… you know, the Peoples who lived in the American continent before europeans colonized it fucked everything up. These terms include but are not exclusive to:

  • Aboriginal, First, or Indigenous Peoples: refers to ethnic groups that existed in a territory prior to its colonization and that were affected by this process (e.g. through genocide)
  • Indian: Inaccurate term to describe Aboriginal Peoples
  • Native American: descendants of Original Peoples of the Americas (used mostly in North America)
This post is about the use, misuse, and abuse (appropriation) of Aboriginal People’s art, imagery, symbols, fabrics, etc. that I have witnessed in the NYC fashion and advertising industries as well as everyday NYC life.  
For me, the line between appropriation and appreciation of Aboriginal People’s culture is not evident. Most of the time, this appropriation takes place when an example of Aboriginal (or “Aboriginal-inspired”) art, symbol or imagery is presented in a mainstream media or fashion environment, devoid of its original cultural context or in a stereotyped way. For example: white girls wearing headdresses; little kids playing “cowboys and indians”; people dressed up as Pocahontas on halloween; plastic dreamcatchers being sold at Walmart; hipsters throwing a “pow-wow”; Coachella 2012; etc. 

Scroll down for some visual examples from NYC cityscape:

– From the Humans of New York (HONY) tumblr 

the “mohawk”

the what-the-fuck??

– From Urban Outfitters “festival pieces”:

Bitching and Junkfood Headdress
“Make a statement with this fabulous and fancy Rio headdress by East London design collective, Bitching & Junkfood. It features an embroidered front back with pom pom trim and large pom poms at each side; finished with multicoloured hanging ribbons and lots of colourful feathers. It will make a perfect festival piece!”

Bitching & Junkfood Mayan Headdress
“Make a bold statement with this Mayan headdress by East London design collective, Bitching & Junkfood featuring a banded panel with large disk sequins and a beaded patterned panel at the front with a studded triangle in the centre and pom poms around the edge. The real show stopping detail are the lilac marabou feathers surrounded by brown feathers and tall quails feathers at the top; a great piece for a festival.”

– From tumblr:

Plates printed with pictures of “Indian chiefs” at Catbird in Williamsburg

This is throughout North America (and probably elsewhere in the Americas and Europe. In New York city, you also see it everywhere on the street and in the subway. Tweens, Teens, and adults  alike, walking around dressed in cultural genocide.

During colonization, from what is now Argentina all the way to Canada, Aboriginal Peoples were systematically killed and tortured by white European settlers or otherwise forced to adopt a foreign european culture and give up their own culture! Including language, fashion, dances, religion, and other traditions. And now, native american headdresses and patterns are the *must have* fashion statement of the season? WTF.

I was walking around the Lower East Side a couple of weeks ago and I walked into a few boutiques. Between 100% organic cotton $100 T-shirts and $700 dresses, I saw one too many ebags, scarves, and canvas shoes made from what it looked like handwoven mayan textiles. Then went for at least a couple of hundred bucks a piece. I wonder what percentage the woman who wove that fabric received. My guess is 0.1%. I also saw one too many “chic” native american inspired and “dia de los muertos” rose headdresses.

Meanwhile in Indigenous communities in Mexico, Guatemala, Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Urugua, Ecuador, the United States, Canada, etc. are victims of a system that privileges a non-indigenous, white sections of the population and are thus prone to higher unemployment, illiteracy, discrimination as well as limited access to higher education and health, amongst other troubles.

To conclude… if white people once destroyed your culture, one day you bet their kids will bring back a watered version of it for everyone (not just white people) to consume!


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