Through globalization, immigration/migration, and developments in the technology the world became a place where different cultures intervene. Cultural diversity is the presence of a variety of cultural and ethnic groups within the population. Cultural diversity is a positive phenomenon, but at times due to lack of cohesion between races, religions, and cultures could lead to misunderstanding and stereotyping. One particular issue which can potentially arise with cultural diversity is cultural appropriation which is absorption of knowledge, cultural expression, or folklore of a certain culture by a member of another culture without permission. It is evident that cultural appropriation can occur in a number of forms, but I will be focusing on national costumes and ceremonial dresses.
A blog article with the title of “An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdresses” written by a Metis woman from Alberta touched on the topic of the appropriateness of wearing native headdresses by other cultures. She pointed out that wearing headdress without consent from the Plains nation community can be considered inappropriate and even disrespectful. Headdresses (war bonnets) are worn by Plains nation man during ceremonial occasions. Not all native man have the honor to wear the headdress since it is an honorary degree. If majority of the Plains nation members do not wear this ceremonial headdresses, then members of other ethnical groups should have even more respect towards Plain nation values and tradition. Non-indigenous people may have misconception about the meaning of headdress because they usually do not understand that it is not only a national costume, it is rather a ceremonial symbol with a strong spiritual meaning. Lack of knowledge of other cultures heritage and a tendency of young people to get public attention for their physical appearance or behaviour may be a possible explanation for using headdresses. Wearing the headdresses by other ethnicities can be seen by indigenous people as a form of colonial logics of conquering cultural objects, symbols, and traditions. It can also be perceived as a way of losing its sacred and venerable content and identity. First nations could also be concerned about assimilation of their culture and loss of the core features of their heritage. Beside headdresses there are other Plains nation objects or costumes with sacred ceremonial significance that also should not be worn by other cultures.
Non-indigenous people may see headdresses and other cultural objects as a demonstration of understanding, acceptance, and promotion of the indigenous people heritage. From the other hand, others can simply use the headdress as a fashion accessory. Nowadays the fashion industry is looking for uniqueness and distinctiveness of their brand, without considering cultural dimensions. The fashion industry is insensitive and uninterested in regards to cultural appropriation and to a certain extent encourages all people to behave similarly in the name of fashion. One striking example of this point is keffiyeh which is a traditional Middle Eastern headdress made from smaller square scarfs. The keffiyeh emerged as a fashion item around ten years ago and became an instant hit amongst non-Arab population due to numerous marketing campaigns from the fashion companies. Keffiyeh was in the past mostly used by Bedouins as protection from the sun and sand, but in the last century it also became a symbol of revolution within the Arab world and can be associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The keffiyeh was not only used as a clothing item throughout the Middle Eastern history, but it also holds a deeper meaning within the region. The keffiyeh demonstrates how designers and fashion companies imitate different culture’s items and ideas without looking into the history of those items and without making sure whether it is appropriate to globalize them.
Other people believe that they should have the freedom of choice to wear traditional costumes and use ceremonial objects of other nations and that should not be perceived in an offensive way. Some non-native people also believe that wearing headdresses and other cultural symbols is a form of art and they appreciate the aesthetic appearance of those objects. These non-native individuals view wearing of headdresses as a harmless artistic expression or even promotion of native art and culture. First nation people may perceive this process of overtaking their folklore as a way of theft of their cultural heritage.
I think that a balanced approach is essential in considering cultural diversity and cultural heritage exchange. If a particular cultural and spiritual ceremony with subsequent dressing is a part of cultural identity and possess a significant importance for a certain cultural group, other nations should be respectful towards it. However, this need to preserve its own culture should not be excessive to the extent of cultural isolation and losing contacts with other ethnicities and cultures. Besides cultural heritage of certain nations and ethnicities we should foster a global cultural heritage as a way of developing a well-established multicultural society.
Coombe, Rosemary. The properties of culture and the politics of possessing identity: Native claims in the cultural appropriation controversy. 1993.
Damluji, Nadim N. Imperialism Reconfigured: The Cultural Interpretations of Keffiyeh. Diss. 2010.