Commentary  Headdresses and cultural hijacking

Racism at Igloofest

*Correction appended February 12, 2013

I went to Igloofest, the outdoor music festival held in the Old Port on Thursday, January 31, to let loose and dance the night away after an exhausting few days of school. I chose Thursday deliberately, anticipating for weeks the set put on by A Tribe Called Red (ATCR), a group of DJs who identify as “Native American” on their website and describe their music as “Pow Wow Step.” Now, I am no electronic music expert, but I know that I like their sound, which is a really interesting blend of electronic, dubstep, and traditional pow wow music. ATCR also make a point to use their public persona to make a social commentary about the commonly held racist stereotypes about Native Americans, and to “reclaim, repurpose and reuse” racist images such as the Cleveland Indians logo.

You can imagine my surprise and horror when I walked into the show only to be greeted by dozens of fans adorned in cheap “hipster headdresses” (the term coined by the invaluable website ‘Native Appropriations,’ which has extensive posts detailing and explaining why and how these practices are problematic and perpetuate racist and colonial relationships), red-face, and some doing their best to mimic the ‘savage cry’ made famous in Hollywood’s long tradition of white supremacist cinema.

“Whoa, Eli, you have to say something to these people,” I think to myself. I try and stumble through the dance floor to the closest “hipster headdress” wearer, only to find the task of having a meaningful conversation unmanageable given the noise, crowd and, well, intoxicants. “Why even bother politicizing Igloofest?” I ask myself, before realizing that despite the dual stigmas attached to calling out acts of common racism, and being called a “racist,” it is profoundly the actions and attitudes which dehumanize others that are the problem, are political, and are what we ought to be primarily concerned with. Until there is a common realization that racist culture runs through us all there will be energy misguided into how and why I and others call out acts of racism, and not focused on the root causes of oppression itself.

How is it possible that during the Idle No More social movement, commonly described as an “Indigenous rights revolution,” so many young Canadians could act so mindlessly in a racist fashion? It would be easy, but disingenuous, to pinpoint benign ignorance as the answer. Euro-American racism has never been accidental, but rather is a concept manufactured to serve the dominant interests of European empires in conquering vast portions of the world. It is a lot easier to justify the historical mass slaughter and genocide of Indigenous bodies, and the enslavement of African bodies, for example, by creating a racial caste system that is still more or less intact today.

The histories of colonialism and racism in Canada are simply not taught to young people, nor is our current government truthful in respecting its most basic moral commitments to the rule of law, never mind substantive justice, by honouring treaty rights and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It would be inaccurate to put all the responsibility on the government, however, or on the perpetrators of acts of common racism: Canadian society benefits economically from the continued marginalization of Indigenous rights, the theft of Indigenous lands, and the dehumanization of Indigenous bodies forcibly controlled and defined by the state as “Indians.”

That almost-identical racist incidents occurred at this year’s 4Floors party in the SSMU building only attests to the ways in which McGill is implicated in the same national myth of ‘discovery’. James McGill, our university’s benefactor and namesake, amassed great wealth in the late 18th* century trading furs with Indigenous populations, often trekking great distances and surviving the winter by depending on the hospitality and knowledge of Indigenous peoples. In spite of this interdependence, Indigenous peoples and their ways of being have often been seen by Europeans as inferior to ‘civilization,’ and doomed to fade away with time. Is it any surprise that McGill’s gift of a great university to his adopted city of Montreal never conceived of Indigenous peoples as its beneficiaries, and still devotes little to no resources to programs or research which challenge the colonial status quo?

A Tribe Called Red are perfect testament to the sometimes-beautiful ways in which cultures interact, even under exploitative conditions. The diverse cultures of Indigenous peoples have never remained static as racist caricatures and Hollywood suggest, but have evolved with time, like all other peoples on earth. And despite the best efforts of Canadian governments up until the present to codify cultural genocide, the people most affected have risen up. Now it is time for the rest of us who are not ruled by the paternalistic “Indian Act” to accept our role in benefitting from centuries of ongoing domination and choose what kind of future society we want to live in. I only wish I could live long enough to see what is possible when we can party in coexistence.

Eliyahu Freedman is a U3 Philosophy student. He can be reached at