Monday, May 24, 2010


Earlier today Brian Young sent me two photos, taken today, with his cell phone. In both, someone is shown in a headdress, and, neither one of them is Native...  (I'm sharing one of the photos here. In it, the person's face is not visible. At the moment the photo was taken, playing cards were being tossed about, obscuring the individual's face.)

I met Brian three years ago. He's among the outstanding Native people in the Class of 2010 at Yale.

Brian took the photo at "Hat Day"---one of the many events taking place this week at Yale. Events at which graduating students and their families gather to celebrate four years of hard work and study.

Brian's family is there at Yale with him. They are Navajo.

They are, understandably, experiencing a wide range of emotion. Joy and pride in Brian's accomplishments, and, surprise and anger at the audacity or ignorance in the two students wearing these headdresses.

Brian inspires me. He approached one of the students and asked her to take it off. He explained why it inappropriate. In the foreground you see a baseball cap and a hard hat---both of which signal an occupation or a pastime.  They signal something you can do or be through training or study.

The thing is, unless you are born into a Native family, you can't really "be" an Indian. You might dress up like one, but, doing that is precisely the same thing as putting on one of the items the pope wears on his head (the small white skullcap is a zucchetto and the larger one is a mitre---I'll need to double check these terms later), and most people would recognize that activity as sacrilegious.

As I said, Brian inspires me. Rather than fret, he took action. He talked to the individual, and she took the headdress off. I don't know if he knew her personally or not. The point is, he demonstrated a tremendous act of courage and pride in who he is. In doing that, he modeled activism for his family.

Brian is considering further actions he can take. No doubt, he is thinking about other Native students at Yale, and what their "Hat Day" experience will be like.

Today's blog post is a public CONGRATULATIONS, BRIAN YOUNG, for graduating from Yale. I am deeply proud to know you. 

 Let's get some chili in July...

Update, May 25th, 6:45 Central Time

How/why does Brian's experience relate to children's books? A few years ago (before I started this blog) I came across a children's picture book. The cover was hats of all sorts. Among those hats was a Plains-style headdress. I'm sure thee are others like it. If anyone knows the book I'm remembering, please let me know. And there are, of course, other examples of non-Native characters wearing a headdress to "imitate Indians", dress like "an Indian", or, as a disguise to conceal one's identity....

Brian submitted a comment last night. It's the fourth comment below. Thanks, Brian, for taking time on your graduation day to submit the comment.  Some people may think that students at an Ivy League school would "know better" --- and I am confident that some, if not most of them, do --- but the point is the increase in this sort of thing all across the United States. 


Hull.Margaret said...

Congraulatons Brian on your graduations, and for taking a stand on what you believe and stand for.

SoonerSearcher said...

what a great story!! Congrats to all the Yalies!! Nothing like smart NDNs!!

Anonymous said...

Hey debbie this is brian young. Thank you so much for bringing attention to this trespass against native amercans. I didn't fully describe the climate and occassion for our "class day." this is how it was explained to me. Traditionally, class day refers to our day before graduation. It involves a baccalaureate and a speaker (yeah bill Clinton!!). During the speaker, seniors are required to wear our gown. But since this event is less formal than graduation ceremony, seniors have the option of "wearing... flamboyant, lovely, SILLY, inventive headgear." (an email sent to me describing the event) it was in this festive and joyous atmosphere that two non-native individuals decided to wear feathered regalia as their SILLY headgear. I took the time to question the other graduates, an alum, and rising seniors about this incident. We have all confirmed this event to highly insensitive, massively disrespectful not to we seniors but also to our families (some of whom had came from reservations). Not to just isolate this stereotype to nativeS, there were also individuals wearing sombreros who were not of Mexican descent. Obviously, ethnic heritage can NOT and should NOT be represented in a SILLY manner. I am at the moment writing an essay/letter to individuals with higher authority in Yale to describe how utterly humililated, enraged, and dishonored I felt throughout my graduation ceremony. I wish to prevent this for future Yale graduates. Thank you every one who has taken the time to read debbie's blog.

Anonymous said...


thank you for sharing Brian's story.
I, too, admire his act of truth and bravery. And Debbie truth be told, and I'm addressing the humility with which you consider your work, I admired your inspiring acts of bravery countless times on this blog and on CCBC, too...

Brian, Congratulations on ALL your accomplishments. And thank you for educating people outside your culture, about the true and deep meaning of your cultural values, values that existed before this country was given its current name.

Anonymous said...

Hi there,

I applaud Brian's courage to educate his fellow classmate on her insensitivity.

FYI: as a Catholic I would not be at all offended if someone wore the Pope's miter or the thorn of crowns or a nun's headgear at any graduation ceremony or at Halloween for that matter. I feel that the spiritual inner life of the leader of any religion is much more important than the costume that signifies her or his station.

Phil K said...

Thanks for sharing this thoughtful account of inappropriate ownership of a culture. Now if we could do the same with RVs named Winnebago and similar names real and imagined that are also an inappropriate ownership of a culture and North American tribal heritage.

Claudia said...

Too bad that people don't think more about their actions before they do things like this. Brian is to be commended for educating his peers about their insensitive actions. If more people could be proactive without violence, our world would definitely be a happier place. I must admit that I am currently taking a class about American Indian Literature for children and prior to this class I may not have recognized the harm in "dressing" in this manner. I certainly have had my eyes opened. No one wants to be singled out or humiliated because of their culture, beliefs or any other personal values.

nymphancy said...

On the topic of cultural appropriation and stereotypes, you may be interested in this tumblog:

The war bonnet trend is HUGE in high fashion and hipsterdom right now. It's always good to hear people calling people out on it.

Also, congrats to Brian!

calizona said...

I am a newcomer to your blog, and enjoy it very much. As a student of anthropology, I love all things cultural. If there is a people, there is a culture - and I want to learn about it. This post misses a few critical points, however, in its hurry to censure what is considered an unforgivably ignorant ethnic faux pas.

First, while it is true a plains Indian war bonnet holds spiritual significance to some tribes (and according to this post, all Indians irrespective of tribe or headdress traditions), your battle cry against a (presumed) non-Indian wearing one is misdirected. Almost any object may have spiritual meaning to an indigenous people; be they on this continent or on an island in the South Pacific or in the jungles of the Amazon.

Close to home, the White Mountain Apaches and Navajos here in Arizona are passionately appealing to their people to reaffirm their spiritual roots in an effort to stem the catastrophic epidemic of meth on the reservation. Key in their anti-meth campaign is reminding the rising generation that cooking utensils are sacred; and as such, must not be defiled by cooking a substance that destroys life. Ordinary pots and pans and spoons therefore are anything but ordinary - and their traditional value is hoped to inspire a healing that so far nothing else has.

The American culture has no equivalent in spiritual assignment, especially in consideration of my second point: There is nothing more iconic of the American Indian than the feather headdress. Your attempts to change something that has long since become a timeless representation of all North American Indians will not succeed. It quite literally has become what Elvis is to rock and roll, or what Mickey Mouse or the McDonald’s logo are to the world. How do you piously censure what has - (right or wrong) - become a thoroughly steadfast American symbol?

Likewise, by virtue of its undisputed iconography, the Indian war bonnet has morphed into something commonly experienced by people of all ages and ethnicities across the globe. Generations of kids have grown up wearing one; yes, even for a “silly” purpose such as backyard play, school dramas or halloween dress-up. Even in this light, why hasten to assume the negative - that non-Natives are mocking, when in fact they are more guilty of romanticizing the stoic, the brave and fearless Indian? Why assume that the familiarity with something so incredibly iconic is synonymous with gross disrespect? And where will we draw the line at what ethnic costuming is out-of-bounds?

I have some authentic Tongan ta’ovalas (palm frond mat skirt). They were presented formally to me as a gift at a Tongan funeral. No instructions regarding their use were issued other than how to put them on. In other words, the Tongans who honored me were not threatened by this cultural exchange.

It is limiting to the goal of cultural appreciation to require the proper genealogy to wear it or risk great offense. Shall we expunge Japanese-style kimonos from American women’s closets? Explain to me why so many Native Americans wear cowboy hats? It will be too convenient to claim a stetson represents an occupation. Gauchos in Argentina, for example, would beg to differ. Who is making up the rules about what is or is not appropriate headwear and for which occasion?

calizona said...

Why assume first of all, that the student at the Yale “Hat Day” did not qualify as a Native American? A co-worker of mine was a brown-eyed natural blonde. At first glance she could have been the American girl-next-door. She is, however, a card-carrying Ottawa. Her grandfather is full-blooded and alive and well on the res in Canada. I have another friend who has a Hispanic name, wears Mexican cowboy boots, dances a mean cumbia and is a native Spanish-speaker. His mother is full-blooded Yaqui. According to standards voiced in this blog, both of these Natives would have likewise been confronted and righteously censored by the young man heralded here as a cultural preservationist. This is a curious title for one who might possibly qualify as a cultural snob.

It is difficult to object so fervidly to the non-regulation exhibition of an American icon, and remain above the sting of what is currently identified as “racial profiling”.

Rather than angrily relegate the Yale Hat Day incident as a heated example of humiliating non-Indian “audacity”, might you consider what your goals really are when interacting with non-Natives? If increased awareness, sensitivity or respect between cultures is desired, then how best to achieve it? This blog has the capacity to do a lot - dialogue has always been a good start towards that end.

I suggest cultural dialogue hinges most on what each party is willing to give towards understanding. In essence, how much of Native culture are you willing to share? Educating non-Indians to be more sensitive to cultural issues will follow your lead as you invite the rest of us into your world. Referring to this experience as “activism” only cripples your desires for respect.

I love my Native friends. They are beautiful. They teach me “The Beauty Way” by example. They are Hopi, Navajo, Apache, Pima, Quechan, Tahono-O’odam, Yaqui and Hopi-Tewa. I will never forget Frank Yazzie, who, when my little daughter was critically injured and suffering numerous emergency surgeries - was selfless enough to perform an Eagle Feather Ceremony on her behalf. His generosity with one of the most sacred aspects of his culture was matched by a Jewish friend who placed our Christian daughter’s name on the wailing wall in Jerusalem. We were deeply honored by both.

Again, I suggest to your readers that the cultural respect you seek is usually commensurate with the cultural exchange you are willing to cultivate, rather than confront. That’s just human nature - regardless of ethnic affiliation.

Anonymous said...

Brian, First off, congrats on your big day! Your hard work has fianlly paid off. As for the "silly hat day" debacle, I wish I could say I understand, but I can't...I'm not an American Indian...however, I'm learning! In my current class (on American Indians in Childrens Lit)I just wrote a paper exploring the injustices and prejudices of mascots. I never realized the depths of this issue. Actually, I never noticed the signs, the tv shows, etc, that always seem to be putting down a particular group of people...and I'd like to think that I came from a pretty progressive family. As for mascots, it's amazing, isn't it, that this issue only makes the news during football season! Please keep us up to date on the response you get to your essay. Somehow I have a feeling that you will continue to fight for what's right.

hschinske said...

At first glance she could have been the American girl-next-door. She is, however, a card-carrying Ottawa.


I think you might want to rephrase that first sentence.

Helen Schinske

calizona said...

What part of the sentence would you prefer to edit? The word American? Or “girl next door”?

Supposedly there are 307 million Americans in the USA today. Roughly 305 million of them are non-Natives. The phrase used is statistically appropriate. The utilization of a phrase that is culturally iconic is also in proper context. As indicated in my previous comment; when something - ANYTHING (image, phrase, word, thing or person) achieves iconic status (whether we agree with it or not) - how do we effectively combat that in the larger culture to make a point?

I might argue with a vengeance that contrary to national headlines Sandra Bullock is not “America’s Sweetheart”, or Apple Pie is hardly a universal code for all things American. But is that argument effective? Is it even realistic?

I am willing to alter my sentence structure if it more succinctly clarifies my meaning.