Monday, March 11, 2013

The Pow-Wow Dress and My Discomfort with the 'First Nations Yoga Fashion' Trend

There has been quite a bit of discussion in the yoga blogosphere concerning accessibility, inclusion and diversity (or lack thereof) in yoga.

There have been some fabulous posts recently, and I strongly encourage you to check them out.

What I've been wanting to comment on for the past six months is the uncomfortable feeling I get whenever I step into a 'non-lulu' yoga clothing space.

Full disclosure: I am an invisible minority from a place of privilege. As an Acadian woman, I have shared history with the Mi'kmaq people of Nova Scotia and live with the feeling of 'otherness' while benefiting from being able to 'fit in' to mainstream white society. I am not an expert on cultural appropriation, nor do I pretend that my culture's history of being oppressed even closely compares to that of the First Nations Peoples.

Instead of writing an 'expert' post, this is a personal sharing of my discomfort with the increasing 'First Nation' fashion trend creep into the yoga world.

Firstly, I need to admit that I do find all things First Nations beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. I have always been drawn to dream catchers, feathers, stone and natural jewellery and I will admit, all things that are stereotypically portrayed as 'First Nation'. This is very hard for me to write, but I've always felt that it's so important to recognize that I am influenced by our North American, white, culture. In order to be honest, I need to recognize that I am biased.

I don't believe people of privilege who claim to be completely unbiased. I work every day to honestly acknowledge how my small village and (loving) family and education have shaped my thoughts and perspectives while working to move to something real, respectful and empathetic.

About a year ago, I walked into a local yoga wear store (that I love) and stumbled across these 'Be Love' shirts sporting feathers, dream catchers and 'Peace warriors' with obvious First Nation references. They made me uncomfortable. I took some time to think on that, wondering if I were being extra sensitive.

Months later I was back in this store and noticed the 'Pow-wow dress'. Yes. That is the name of the dress. Admittedly, I own several dresses by this company and I heart them very much. However, while holding up the dress I couldn't help timidly voicing my discomfort that this was a bit too much like 'cultural appropriation- don't you think?' to the owner. She was surprised, and kindly said she assumed the company, as with 'Be Love' had most likely consulted with local First Nations community... 'The company is based in Vancouver after all'.

A tweet not long after on this topic resulted in a response from a (then) local blogger Mi'kmaq Mama that solidified all my remaining doubts: "Since when is being Indian cool? I wish someone had told me that". I had the lovely opportunity to meet up over coffee and chat further. It was eye opening. Just listening to how these images of First Nations religious and traditional dress and culture were being portrayed and 'sold' as a trendy, superficial fashion trend made her feel was enough for me to rediscover how the media and images shape our society's view on people and culture. And how that can be hurtful and disrespectful.

(From Native Appropriations post in November 2012 re: Victoria Secret's use of Headdresses in their runway show)

I think âpihtawikosisân says it beautifully in her post "the do's, don't's, maybes and I-don't-knows of cultural appropriation" with her analogy of the importance of symbols and their meaning (please read the entire article, it is critical and insightful as well as logical).

"...eagle feathers are restricted symbols in the many indigenous cultures found throughout Canada and the US.  They represent various achievements made by the person who is presented with the feather.  Being presented with a feather is a great honour.  Many indigenous people will receive only one in their life-time, or perhaps never have that opportunity.Because of the significance of the eagle feather, very few native people would display feathers they haven’t earned.  It would be like wearing that Victoria Cross I keep mentioning.  Someone outside the culture might not realise what the symbol means and perhaps would not call that person out in disgust for wearing it…but those from within the culture probably would.  It would be shameful.
It also cheapens the symbols earned by others..." (emphasis added by EcoYogini)

It's important, I feel, to recognize that in our current society, we are inescapably influenced by media, fashion (as it pertains to media) and the images we are confronted with every day. The advertising industry wouldn't be a billion dollar industry if it didn't work. As such, we can't simply discount the relevance of how fashion trends and our support of such trends, impact and affect those people who continue to be oppressed in our society. I will argue that what we choose to outwardly present to others does have a direct impact in how we shape perceptions of others and our own acceptance of these stereotypes.

I am not writing this because I feel that we should tread on tiptoes for every single piece of First Nations inkling in a shirt, jewellery or dress you'd like to wear. I'm writing it because after some thought, further reading and earnest discussion, I've come to realize that simply the fact that I feel uncomfortable should be enough.

I also feel that this topic isn't discussed enough beyond the 'you're exaggerating' 'lighten up' defensive reactions we get from most online and in person community. Especially in the yoga world where it is simply ASSUMED if you are a yoga company that you will magically have all the empathetic and almost righteous tools to 'with authenticity' create and share your product. It's completely taboo to call out a company that is sharing 'from a place of love'. Unfortunately, this blind acceptance of the yoga label discounts the opportunity for critical growth, acceptance and honest discussion.

Some fantastic reading: "But Why Can't I Wear a Hipster Headdress?" (by Native Appropriations)
"A critical fashion lovers (basic) guide to cultural appropriation" (by À l'allure garçonnière)
"A Much-Needed Primer on Cultural Appropriation" (at Jezebel)
"Dear Defender of the new Atlanta Braves cap" (by Native Appropriations)
"Playing Indian" (by Lindsay Raining Bird at the Coast)


  1. Hey,

    Here's an article by Mandy's daughter, Lindsay Raining Bird, on a similar vein. Although it was written specifically regarding Hallowe'en costumes, it is highly relevant here.

    Thanks for bringing this up, I'm feeling the same discomfort. For Christmas, my mother-in-law bought me a t-shirt with feathers printed on it, I rarely wear it... it feels wrong.


    1. Thanks for sharing her article Bonita! I'm not sure how I missed that in the coast... (or maybe it wasn't in the printed coast?)
      Oh your Mother-in-law; i am so not surprised that she bought you yet another shirt... lol. :)

      but I'm glad that I'm not the only person who 'feels wrong' when confronted with these fashion (and perhaps 'lighter') images

  2. Ultimately, this recent fashion trend is just one recent manifestation of large-scale appropriation/romanticization/utter falsification of Native American/First Nation cultures by the hippie/new age/alternative spirituality crowd, which reinvents the "noble savage" again and again. A general rule of thumb: if a yoga teacher says something about "what the Native Americans believe/do/say," there's about a 99% chance that it's bullshit (and, even if it is accurate for Native group, it's probably inaccurate for lots of others). One of my favorites is "it's a good day to die." Now, I don't know, it's possible a Native American actually said that (though, most likely, if so, he was an actor reading a script written by an anglo), but, either way, it's awfully convenient for us anglos to believe that the victims of our genocide had such a positive attitude toward death. If there's one thing I've found in studying depictions of Native Americans in American literature/movies/etc. by non-natives, it's that, whether the "Indians" are portrayed as noble or ignoble, they die beautifully. And, of course, that's why the Native Americans that fascinate the yoga crowd tend to be riding horses and living in teepees--i.e. safely in the mythical past, as opposed to the harsh conditions of the modern reservation.
    Alright, rant over(I realize what I'm writing here is somewhat US-centric, but I don't know nearly as much about Canadian First Nations issues).

    1. yes i agree 100%. I think what makes the yoga world more complicated is that critical discussion is stymied by sweeping responses of 'but it comes from love' or some other sort of cop-out (increasingly less though, which is heartening).

      I'm not sure in the states, but recently in Canada the 'Idle no more' movement has been giving a more social media voice to the First Nations peoples. I also think that Canadians believe that we are so much more advanced in the reconciliation process than in the states (lets be honest fellow Canadians), but the reality is so much further from the truth.

      An example, is the comment by the owner of the store re: geography (company situated in Vancouver BC) somehow justifies the use of a traditional, cultural symbol in a superficial, romanticized way.

  3. Great post EcoYogini!
    I think it's an important issue which needs to be discussed far more than it is and from all backgrounds. I don't know if the feathering craze also hit the Halifax yoga community like it did us in Montreal (after Bollywood dance but before Andean shamanism).
    The Babarazzi also had some great posts recently on the the cultural appropriation of "shamanism" a la Kelly Morris

    1. thank you! especially since I have found your thoughts on this topic (and inclusion in general) to be such an important voice in this discussion.
      Yes- hipsters (and feathers)abound in Halifax.
      I'll have to check out babarazzi!

  4. Thank you do much for the post. This topic has been coming up a lot lately. I actually came across the Jezebel article when looking for info about cultural appropriation. There's a lot of talk in the Zen Buddhist world of how to honor the traditions and sources of our lineage and how to make the practice "American" or fit western culture without either trying to be Japanese and without losing the heart of the buddha's teachings, which can't always be separated from the forms or practices which have been passed down from India to china to japan to the US. Great things to ponder and I appreciate your brave honesty.

    1. thank you Lulu- it definitely is a topic across several disciplines. I'm just glad there's a lot of discussion happening right now on the topic :)

  5. "In order to be honest, I need to recognize that I am biased. I don't believe people of privilege who claim to be completely unbiased. I work every day to honestly acknowledge how my small village and (loving) family and education have shaped my thoughts and perspectives while working to move to something real, respectful and empathetic."

    This is so profound and true. It should be obvious that our circumstances influence our perspectives and presumptions, but the dominant culture all but ensures we can't see it. Once we realize our privilege, it's really incredible and scary. I've been doing a lot of thinking on this topic as well. Thank you for your voice and wisdom.

    1. Thank you VB! I'm so glad you get it- sometimes it's hard to explain that bit...

  6. So I had originally wrote up a comment to this post about how outrageous the idea was etc etc..and then I thought about it some and realized that in fact I have some different perspectives on the issue! I grew up as a visible minority, and now status Inuit, in a small community in Newfoundland. Let me tell you...being aboriginal in this community was not cool. It was completely uncool. I bet that if I went to my home community today it would still be uncool and that kind of racism would be present not only there but in many other smaller communities in the maritimes. As a result of this perception, I hated being considered aboriginal. I was ashamed of it and I never discussed it willingly or openly. At the time, my mother had some original Inuit pieces of clothing (e.g. wool embroidered coat) that I hated seeing her wear in the community. I would have never worn the anything with a reference to my background in public. I was embarrassed of my heritage.

    So fast forward..I now have a two year old little girl and am completely open about my background. Now, when I am shopping for my little one and I see any clothing with a reference to aboriginal or first nations on it I completely gravitate to it...and have definitely purchased some pieces for her. Would I prefer that she had the opportunity to have original hand made authentic Inuit clothing in her wardrobe? Absolutely! Is it readily available to me? Absolutely not! I want her to be able to wear any clothing with reference to her heritage or aboriginal culture with no shame was so ever. Do I agree with the Victoria Secret ad that ties overt sexuality to aboriginal culture? No. I find it extremely inappropriate. But would I ever be offended to see a white person wearing an article of clothing that makes reference to first nations or aboriginal culture? No absolutely not. In fact, perhaps if I had seen more of that growing up I wouldn't have been so ashamed of my background. In the meantime, my advice is to wear what feels right for you..and don't just think about who you might offend but who else it might help! Just a different perspective to chew on.... :)

    1. Thanks Katie for your perspective. It definitely is a different perspective than one I've been reading- but a very interesting one. you bring up some good points.

      I wonder, though, if we assume that there is a sizeable group of First Nations Peoples who are hurt and offended by these trends that we should simply continue because it may help some people?

      I think I could help First Nations peoples if I took care to purchase jewellery and clothing directly from them. There are ways- etsy sells quite a bit of clothing and pieces as well as there are a few online places that cater specifically to this. Also- every summer in Halifax we now have the Membertou gathering and there are clothing pieces sold there. :)

      I do appreciate you sharing your story and it definitely brings up a very important point: How do we appreciate and celebrate First Nations culture and heritage without tipping into cultural appropriation?

    2. Just to clarify to make sure that no one things differently: I am advocating for use of aboriginal inspired clothing (not costumes, not underwear, nothing sexually exploitative) as a form of cultural appreciation rather than exploiting a culture for profit. I would have loved to have seen more of this in my life so I could have learned a lot earlier than I did to appreciate my own culture. I will definitely be scoping out the Membertou gatherings in future to help my little one appreciate her culture from a young age :) Great sparking up some convo L. ;)

  7. Fashion is something that's always evolving, and it seems to be more about what will sell than what reflects the general culture. Sure, this "First Nations" fashion definitely cheapens the meaning of the original clothing, but it'll keep on being pumped out if people are willing to buy it.

  8. Just for clarification, the "Membertou gatherings" , the two that occurred in Halifax were pow wows. The first in 2010 was to "celebrate" the 400th anniversary of the baptism of Chief Membertou - but the gathering was a pow wow. It was so successful they hosted another pow wow in 2011. There were no funds so the pow wow did not happen in 2012. We are all very hopefully it will happen in 2013, so keep your eyes and ears open for the summer. ~~ Mikmaq Mama


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