Appropriating Indigenous Culture through Body Modification

By Marian Phillips

We’ve all seen the image of a young white woman in a traditional Native American headdress prancing around Coachella. Every year, the image grows increasingly distasteful and racist. Despite the internet’s call for festival goers to abandon this appropriation of a culture that is not theirs, they have not. Recently, it was brought to my attention that a cast member of the television show Love Island (2015-), Chris Taylor, has a tattoo of a woman in a Native American headdress. Understandably so, Native American groups have criticized the permanent piece that features symbols of Indigenous cultures that this man does not identify with. 

The Native American Rights Fund group stated that the piece is not only inappropriate and offensive, it is damaging to their community. The popular culture website, Heart, interviewed the group to comment on the situation. They resonded with, ““The use of these images was often rooted in an extensive history of abuse, discrimination, and conquest. The growing body of research around the use of these images shows that they have a harmful impact on our youth, and the youth of non-native people as well.” [1] This made my wheels turn. I am a heavily tattooed individual who has been deeply invested in the body modification community for nearly ten years. The conversation on the negative impact of permanently displaying a symbol of someone else’s culture, identity, or trauma is constantly happening and being argued over. 

For instance, in the early 2010s, the popularity of tattoos of dream catchers or Native American headdresses was at an all time high. One google search of either will show you an overabundance of these images, almost always on individuals that do not identify with or belong to the tribes these images are derived from. Even worse, it is not uncommon for a tattoo featuring any Native American imagery to be a gross amalgamation of multiple tribes, completely disregarding the importance of a specific symbol to a specific tribe’s identity. When a white person takes a symbol that does not belong to them and permanently places it on their body, it is another form of cultural appropriation and conquest. 

The ownership of Native cultures has been torn from them through the violent processes of colonization. Murder, rape, and the forced removal of Native peoples from their land was how white colonizers stole their culture (via Native bodies). To speak of Native cultural symbols as belonging to Native people, is to acknowledge the continual act of reclaiming their culture from white colonizers. There is no single Native American culture; however, all of them have experienced the violence of colonization. Therefore, when white people tattoo their bodies with unspecified indigenous cultural symbols, such as the dream catcher, the body modification represents white colonial power, not respect for Native culture.

While there is a strong debate within the tattoo community over appreciation versus appropriation, we must turn to the model of the Coachella incidents of white women wearing headdresses. These festival goers did not take into account the deeply symbolic meaning of the headdress, the purposes of eagle feathers, and who receives the honor of wearing it. Therefore, they appropriated Native American culture and heritage. This is just the same when one considers tattooing this symbol on their body permanently. Yes, some people may do their research and gain some semblance of knowledge on it, but ultimately, they have no ownership over these symbols. When non-Native people put a Native American headdress or dreamcatcher on their body, they are staking a claim of ownership, which is inherently disrespectful towards Native people.   

This piece does not serve the intention of trash-talking someone who already has these symbols tattooed on them or tattoo artists that specialize in them either. Rather, I would like to assert that we reconsider what we place on our bodies, what it actually means, what it can perpetuate, and our position when we actively participate in damaging a Native American community by asserting that we can own their cultural symbols. 


Notes

[1] Alice Dear, “Native American Group Slams Love Island Star Chris Taylor’s ‘Offensive’ Tattoos,” Heart, Heart, 12 July 2019, http://www.heart.co.uk/showbiz/tv-movies/love-island/chris-taylor-native-american-tattoo/.


Marian Phillips is a second year Master’s Candidate in the Women’s and Gender History department at Sarah Lawrence College. Her research interests include LGBT History, Horror, Gay Liberation Movements, and 18th Century Literature.