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Native Appropriation In A Hipster Heterotopia: The Headdress Phenomenon At Indie Music Festivals

Jeremy Hamilton-Arnold analyses the phenomenon of the ‘hipster headdress’ and the display of the Plains Indian war bonnets in indie music festivals as a heterotopian hipster space. Native Peoples and their allies recognize this appropriative act as offensive inauthenticity and a profane twinning of a sacred original while for the hipster it fulfills desires for an authentic, pre-modern, outsider identity.

MLA citation format:
Hamilton-Arnold, Jeremy W.
“Native Appropriation In A Hipster Heterotopia:
The Headdress Phenomenon At Indie Music Festivals.”

Web blog post. Material Religions. 27 January 2016. Web. [date of access]


The indie music festival appears to be a hipster utopia. It is a locus, bounded by the span of a weekend and the physical barriers bordering the venue. To this locus are drawn musicians from a variety record labels and the various social bodies attracted to their music. But such bodies come for more than music; they come out of a fondness for being enmeshed in a place and a desire to be participants in a micro-society. Hipster culture in particular reigns in this concentrated population, where ravenous acquisition of anything deemed “authentic” takes precedence and illusions of commodity-free consumerism abound. That is, hipster culture appears to promote the assumption that true commodities are products from mainstream capitalist culture; and indie music festivals foster a space for products immune from mainstream capitalism––that “soulless” realm devoid of aesthetic feeling. The hipster’s ultra-sensory festival experience, felt through a variety of consumptive practices, is also a performative experience when one recognizes clothes as a conduit. For the hipster, this becomes a visual paradox when those clothes are appropriated: the presentation of self as an authentic original is constructed through adopting elements of dress from an/other. Upon the critic’s discovery or realization of the hipster’s mimesis of alterity (to use Michael Taussig’s terminology), the performance becomes for the critic ultimately unoriginal and inauthentic.[i]

Figure 1: “Me and my headdress :)”, CC BY 2.0, Image Credit.

Following Foucault, I call the environment where this takes place a hipster heterotopia rather than hipster utopia, seeking to emphasize: the actual existence of such a typology in the real-world, its relative otherness to places of the everyday, and its increasingly discursive qualities as made evident through controversies of cultural appropriation.[ii] Specifically this is seen through the hipster’s appropriation of the Plains Indian headdress or war bonnet that for the hipster has appeared to fulfill the desire for commodity-free consumption while displaying to others a counter-cultural self. For those who have found this distasteful, the authentic war bonnet thus became inauthentically twined in the appropriative act, and thus was born the hipster headdress. This object of mimesis rapidly took on exogenic totemism for the non-Indian social group—an iconic marker of hipster culture’s distinctive ignorance and cultural insensitivity. In other words, the hipster headdress becomes seen (again I follow Taussig) as a moment of mimetic excess, materially sustaining the imperial mindset of Euro-American settler colonialism.

In this paper, I argue that whereas headdress-wearing hipsters see the object as an authentic anti-commodity viable for appropriation, Native Persons and their allies view the opposite: the hipster’s act is misappropriation—a form of cultural extraction and re-contextualization that commoditizes the headdress as “fashion accessory” and transforms the object into something profanely inauthentic—distinct from that which is truly authentic and sacred.

Every generation has their bohemians, their generators of the “culture of cool”: the beatnik, the hippy, the punk. They are defined by their desire for counter-culture individuality and are segmented into generally cohesive manifestations. Over the past ten to fifteen years, a new brand of bohemianism has reified in the person of the “hipster.” One of the better definitions for this amorphous category of person comes from New York Times blogger Christy Wampole. She says,
“The hipster is a scholar of social forms, a student of cool. He studies relentlessly, foraging for what has yet to be found by the mainstream. He is a walking citation; his clothes refer to much more than themselves. He tries to negotiate the age-old problem of individuality, not with concepts, but with material things.”[iii]

The hipster, like all socially-invested bodies, requires materiality to define and perform selfhood, which is perhaps most intimately enacted through consumerism.

Hipsters amass things and take delight in turning them into enchanted objects by endowing them with new meanings (or perhaps hipsters perceive meanings at first sensory contact, when things have already been endowed with meaning by other hipsters). Amassing for hipsters takes place for the purpose of achieving what Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht called the “aesthetic experience” in everyday worlds–-a process of enchantment via intentionally seeking and seeing the aesthetic in objects of sensory consumption.[iv]

It is in this process that hipsters seek to avoid commodity goods (as they see them) and instead amass what they perceive to be anti-commodities: the artisan-made and the vintage, objects invested with meaning by being products of “craft” and “nostalgia”–objects that appear to ultimately transcend their capital-value through aesthetic-value. This search for anti-commodities causes the hipster to move away from occupying “inauthentic” capitalist realms to occupying spaces that promote aesthetic experience–places where the body may engage with objects of sensation and enchantment. NPR columnist Ann Powers defends this move away from “chain stores and cold cubicles”, while warning of its dangers: “That path can lead to a mirage: Romanticizing the past is a convenient way to avoid its long-embedded problems, from racism and sexism to the drudgery of many working people’s days. But insofar as these activities involve the body—moving in time-honored ways as you try a classic dance step or chop some wood—they can fix an alienated relationship with tradition, forging a link that’s personal and real.”[v]

At the seemingly anti-capitalist realm of the indie music festival, the hipster has taken to self-enchantment by reviving the Euro-American tradition of native appropriation, donning the Plains Indian feathered headdress as a part of a counter-cultural uniform for this hipster carnival. Following Philip J. Deloria, I argue this tradition of “playing Indian” has never waned to the point of alienation; it has been rather persistent in American culture.[vi] After Deloria opens his book Playing Indian with a critical discussion of the Boston Tea Party, one of the first public events of Indian play in American history, he sets up an interpretive schematic of meaning for this and all Indian play, saying,
“Although these performances have changed over time, the practice of playing Indian has clustered around two paradigmatic moments––the Revolution, which rested on the creation of a national identity, and modernity, which has used Indian play to encounter the authentic amidst the anxiety of urban industrial and postindustrial life.”[vii]

Figure 2: Nathaniel Currier, “The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor”, lithograph (1846), Public Domain.

The headdress-donning hipster fits perfectly into Deloria’s second paradigm. At the indie music festival, the hipster encounters and embraces an opportunity for revelry. Heterotopias such as this encourage difference, and the hipster follows through in the extreme by appropriating the iconic symbol of American alterity and embodying its enchanted meanings of Savage Otherness.

Deloria authored Playing Indian in 1998 and thus was unable to comment on this current iteration of the American tradition, but he did witness an instance of its prefiguration at a Grateful Dead concert in the early 1990s and offered commentary in his conclusion. At this concert he encountered the Society of Indian Dead, who in “paint, buckskin,” “feathers,” shrouded in “smoke,” and congregated within parking-lot tipis, played Indian in this space that welcomed––even encouraged––their “antimodern quest for authentic truth” and their “rejection of urbanism, technology, mass culture, environmental degradation, and alienating individualism.”[viii] We can see many of these qualities and characteristics encapsulated in today’s iteration of hippy (two generations removed) and at the indie music festival (the situational inheritor of counter-cultural musical heterotopia). Deloria’s analysis seems timeless and applicable.

This iconic, stereotypical “Indian aesthetic” has for a long time found a remarkably comfortable home in the realm of American rock, folk, and even electronica. Weather from older popular musicians like Elvis (see below) or bands like the Village People, or from contemporary indie performers like Jonsi from Sigur Ros, musicians themselves have seemed apt to don the feathered headdress for on-stage performances.[ix] DJ Lanphier from the website Music.Mic suggests a major contributing player in the iconic proliferation in music was through the ’60’s band the 1910 Fruitgum Company and their popular album “Indian Giver,” which featured on the cover all six band members in American Indian “costumes,” each sporting a different headdress along with other stereotyped Native attributes.[x] Today the appropriative trend has reappeared with florescence due in part to major fashion icons (such as Victoria’s Secret model Karlie Kloss) and pop music performers (Pharrell) promoting an appropriation of the war bonnet as a sensual—often sexualized––display of high-fashion savagery.[xi] Though, as the hipsters would have it, they got to the trend first, before it was cool.

Figure 3: “Elvis”, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Image Credit.

They first began spreading it at these indie music festivals, the concentrated locus for spreading and affirming hip trends among consumers of hip music. Music festivals like Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in southern California have promoted and capitalized on the trend of headdress-appropriation, participating in the mimesis of the perceived icon of alterity through a variety of materials. Coachella especially has been well known for its high density of headdress-wearing festival goers.[xii] The massive spectacle, which in the course of two weekends in April of this year raked in a record of over $84 million, is the world’s highest grossing festival and should be seen as a veritable cauldron of hipster commodification.[xiii]

How, then, does the headdress-wearing indie-music-festival-goer miss the commodified status of the headdress, let alone the cultural insensitivity in its appropriation? Following Deloria, I find that the hipster perceives an anti-modern power in the headdress that surpasses and occludes all negative significations; its mimetic inauthenticity is unknown or irrelevant. As Taussig states, “in imitating, we will find distance from the imitated and hence gain some release from the suffocating hold of ‘constructionism’ no less than the dreadfully passive view of nature it upholds.”[xiv] Here I revisit the hipster’s paradox: in the exercising of “mimetic faculties,”[xv] the hipster finds a cessation of inauthentic conformity to modern western civilization and instead embodies a perceived alterity, miming and acquiring a felt authenticity of Self, despite mimesis being, by definition, unoriginal.

The hipster’s attraction to and appropriation of the headdress has become fetishistic in essence. Enchanted, it holds the magic of the foreign, the exotic, the otherworldly. It is “Indianness” in a single object. Its materiality is perceived as shockingly different from normalcy, which is heightened in its mimetic forms, where the headdresses can become an aesthetic exclamation point of exaggerated formal qualities. The headdress recalls the ever-appealing vintage popular culture; it is a product of romantic nostalgia, evoking moods and feelings associated with childhood play recently shuffled off for these new adults. The hipster’s headdress carries meanings of macho bravery and fierceness, yet ironically downplayed by casual frivolity.

Figure 4: “Stand aside or get hurt”, CC BY 2.0, Image Credit.

As a fetish, it magically endows its wearer with a plastic identity. With the physical weight of the head’s adornment—with its textured materiality newly experienced by the hipster at the festival site, the headdress is experienced as it makes the self “Indian-like.” It feels “handmade,” “natural,” and looks “authentic,” despite its likelihood of being bought second hand fromEtsy.[xvi] Its natural (or nature-evoking) materials of feathers and leather are sensed as bespoke and feels like an anti-commodity. As an icon of “Indianness,” such specific materiality can magically endow the wearer with a feeling of wild “oneness with nature,” or at least connote that message to others by visibly performing alterity—by playing Indian. Relatedly, it carries with it a feeling of ek-stasis, transcendent otherworldliness through an amorphous and generic “Indian spirituality” which serves to enhance an ultra-sensory experience of the festival. I interpret this to be an embodiment of what native appropriation scholars Carter Jones Meyer and Diana Royer call “white shamanism,” here expanding it beyond “non-Indian poets and writers” yet maintaining its performative definition as an “[appropriation of] an Indian identity or higher Indian ‘powers’ to convey [and I would add experience] certain mystical truths…”[xvii] The heterotopic festival and its attending carnivalesque social atmosphere encourage a deep shapeshifting of identity, and the hipster, in a heterotopic curation of selfhood, finds ultimate shapeshifting in appropriating an icon of deep alterity.

In the Native countering and naming of this act as misappropriation, the hipster mimesis has begun to backfire and become widely recognized as inauthentic and can be understood (again following Taussig) as “mimetic excess.”[xviii] In this recognition of mimesis, Native groups and individuals have sought to widen the mimetic gap, emphasizing the sacred authenticity and originality of the Plains Indian war bonnet as distinct and far removed from its commoditized copy. The former is seen as truly, authentically, powerful, unique in its variety among numerous Native cultures, yet linked by a commonly revered social and spiritual status and its visible embeddedness within Native communities. The latter is a profane twin, an “inauthentic” commodity, a “hipster headdress.”

Figure 5: “Secret Garden Party 2014”, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Image Credit.

The hipster wearing the “hipster headdress” has since become a marked icon for Euro-American ignorance, neo-colonialism, and “cultural imperialism.”[xix] The hipster who dons the headdress becomes a pariah on social media and the object of online critique. Numerous photos on Twitter and Instagram evince instances of offense with the hashtags “#hipster,” “#hipsterheaddress,” “#DontTrendOnMe,” and “#NativeAppropriation.”[xx] In this new iteration of “Indian play,” Native Peoples and non-Native allies see a new social iconography on display: the blasphemy of the privileged American hipster who seeks a misguided authenticity by appropriating “sacred” Native materialities, perpetuating Native marginalization, or worse, cultural genocide.[xxi]

For both headdress-wearing hipsters and their objectors, the headdress (or the headdress-wearer) has renewed its status as a powerful icon, but in reality, it has become twinned into two distinct icons through mimesis. As hipster culture at the indie music festival has endowed and perceived the object once more with an imperialist and romanticized meaning of anti-modern wildness—savage alterity, Native Peoples reinforce their war bonnets with religious meaning and reverence through their invocation of the word “sacred.” They re-inscribe the “authenticity” of the headdress with meanings of cultural sovereignty, uniqueness, and power. Here the headdress type’s doubling––an authentic original and an inauthentic fake––is affirmed. Where one is religiously and culturally revered, the copy is lamented as a commoditized theft, an icon of their perceived Otherness made within and for a uniquely American Capitalist-Imperialist society.

The hipster’s headdress-wearing days at Indie music festivals and other heterotopias may be numbered with the rise of both “hashtag activism” and direct confrontation within these heterotopias. But I am left wondering with skepticism whether hipster culture (and Euro-American culture more broadly) will be able to dislodge their entrenched totemic sense of American Indian iconicity. If not, mimetic Indian play will likely continue in other heterotopias. It is an American tradition, after all.

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