Native American Appropriation: Respecting the Struggle of Native American Liberation

I would like to say before you read this that these are some of my own reflections about cultural appropriation, and I have tried to bring in as many Native American accounts as possible. This isn’t a definitive account or set of ideas, but I have written this primarily to draw attention to the work of activists and the ways in which they have tried to raise awareness of Native American oppression. I welcome any comments or criticisms about what I have said: I think this is a discussion that needs to be had in order to shed more light on Native American Liberation, and how allies can best respect Native American struggle, culture, and history whilst fighting together to stop racism, colonialism, and imperialism.

Yesterday, I was shown a few discussions about ‘cultural appropriation’ by my good friend Lukas, in particular the appropriation of Native American culture. Just for those who might not have come across the phrase ‘cultural appropriation,’ the blog Native Appropriations ( defines it as the use of other cultures, traditions, languages, and images in popular culture, advertising, and everyday life. For background on cultural appropriation, the blog signposts this article. Lukas also showed me this zine, challenging the way in which “Mohawks” and dreadlocks have been appropriated by white people, often without any historical/political/cultural understanding of where these come from (here: In order to understand the basis of this discussion, it is important that you have had a look at the Native Appropriations blog, the zine, and this video ( outlining some of the arguments against cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation rears its ugly head everywhere in the capitalist west, from white people wearing the traditional dress (or an often disrespectful take on one) of another culture to a costume party, to mystifying or ‘othering’ of culture; at its core, it is politically and culturally entrenched racism. Native Appropriations discusses Bon Iver’s new song ‘Towers,’ (here: focusing on an article in the Huffington Post about the new video. As the blog points out, the creators talk about Native American ‘preservation land’ (something that no longer exists for Native American people), and they play into a stereotype that paints Native American people as a homogenous whole, rather than a diverse group of many individually distinct cultures. The video makes no reference to Native American culture or traditions, nor does it represent the struggle or oppression of Native American people, despite referring to it as a ‘tribal tribute’ – as Native Appropriations puts it:

Why mention it was on Native land at all? Because it adds to the mysticism. It gives it a hipster-edge. “We didn’t just shoot a video in nature! We shot it in NATIVE AMERICAN NATURE!”

and again:

I’m really, really tired of the rhetoric of “honoring” or “tributes” being drawn upon to somehow erase Native peoples anger at the way we’re being represented by outside forces. Mascots? Hipster headdresses? YMCA Indian Guides? Quotes about Bon Iver music videos? Don’t get mad, we’re honoring you with our gross mis-representations of your culture! 

Please don’t tell me that I should be “glad” that Native people are being “recognized at all” and throw out the “Would you rather that Native people were just forgotten completely and never mentioned or shown again?” I’m sorry, we’ve been somehow “disappearing” for over 500 years, yet we’re still here. Our cultures are still strong. We’re not going anywhere. So your ridiculous “honors” and “tributes” that do nothing to truly represent our peoples and our cultures aren’t “saving” us from extinction. They’re continuing to oppress, erase, and marginalize our living, breathing existence.

The history of the oppression of Native American people cannot be ignored. Ever since white European ‘settlers’ came to America, Native American people have had their culture and way of living destroyed: land was taken away from them, they were forced to ‘integrate’ into a new way of life, having their culture stripped away and barbarised as ‘savages’ (a damaging stereotype that still rears its head throughout capitalist media), subject to a violent political rhetoric of ‘civilisation’. Native Americans were put through genocides, imperialism, and colonialism, forced into slavery and, after the Abolition movement, thrown into prison and forced to work through the new ‘convict lease system’ – in Angela Davis’s book ‘Are Prisons Obsolete?’, Davis traces how slavery was transformed after abolition, as capitalists developed a new way of exploiting free labour due through the expansions of the ‘prison industrial complex.’

As capitalist property laws expanded, Native Americans were faced with attack, rape, torture, and social conditioning in order to get them out of the way of the new American capitalist project – the drive for profit far superseded any dialogue or respect for the people that existed long before the ‘settlers’ did. As a white person, I can only touch upon the long history of oppression that Native Americans have faced, and I cannot claim to know how that oppression must impact the lives of Native American people today; I urge any serious non-Native American anti-racist/anti-capitalist to educate themselves by reading about Native American experiences of oppression and the history of Native American struggle that the capitalist west has sought to erase entirely.

So, the question is raised: how do we spot cultural appropriations, and how best can we respect Native American (and all other) histories and cultures? Here is a post from a Mohawk/Mi’kmaq woman (, who lists a number of cultural appropriations with an explanation of why these appropriations are offensive (but also outlining that she can only speak for Mohawk and Mi’kmaq cultures).

I also read this zine (here: explaining how the writers feel that white people have appropriated Native American and Black culture through Mohawk and dreadlock hair styles. It was on reading this that I decided not to grow my Mohawk back, and that three of my white friends that have Mohawk hair styles decided to shave their heads. The zine explains that:

“Mohawk” is the name of a sovereign First Nation in the Iroquois Confederacy. Wearing “Mohawks erases Mohawk people and culture

Wearing “Mohawks” or dreadlocks plays into a racist society that believes that people of colour and our lands, bodies, cultures and spirit are up for grabs

For me, this zine is an account that was created for white people, challenging privileges and often a lack of understanding of how these cultural symbols have been appropriated, and also how my use of the word ‘Mohawk’ to refer to my old haircut was culturally insensitive. Not wearing a “Mohawk” is one example of solidarity with Native American Liberation that I have undertaken as a committed anti-racist; because I didn’t want to present myself as culturally insensitive to the seriousness of Native American oppression. The zine outlines the problem with the appropriation clearly:

The hairstyle called “Mohawks” is rooted in distinct Iroquois and other First Nations/Native traditions that have only recently (1978) been legal in the United States. Non-native people who wear “Mohawks” appear naive and condescending to this reality

So i’ve been asked “Does this mean that wearing Mohawk is racist?” Well, I don’t think that was what the zine was trying to say; the zine is talking about how cultural appropriation is received and how it could affect the anti-racist movement:

By wearing “Mohawks” and dreadlocks, white people demonstrate they are unaware of anti-racist struggles and deteriorate trust between white people and people of color/non-white people.

Being an anti-racist white person is counter-culture. Trying to present a countercultural image by appropriating other cultures is not.

I know that many people might not be aware of Native American struggle – white, western capitalism has re-written the history books, and Native Americans are denied platforms to educate others about their oppression – and, because of this, white people might not know about cultural appropriation. That’s why I have tried to bring together some resources so that people can learn more.

The forces that create division are also structurally entrenched: it is clear there is a difference between the racist/colonialist drive to eliminate Native Americans and the ignorance of a white individual wearing a “Mohawk.” It is our governments, capitalism, and the media that are continuing to deny Native American liberation, and it is these structures that we must smash in order to end Native American oppression entirely and serve social justice. However, we must come together to do this, and challenge every racist division in the process – if that means withdrawing cultural appropriations, then that is one thing I will do to offer solidarity.

After reading some of these blogs and other resources, I think that white people should seriously look at what they may appropriate in order to be ‘cool.’ Ignoring and denying these accounts of cultural appropriation is disrespectful and, yes, racist. If white people feel that looking ‘cool’ is more important than the possibility of giving up one of their privileges, then I think they should spend some more time reading about anti-racism and cultural appropriation before jumping to conclusions that this is ‘political correctness gone mad’ or trying to ‘correct’ Native American or other non-white accounts.

Written by Max Brophy (
Edited by the fabulous Liz Sylvian (



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  2. Both mohawks and dreadlocks have been worn in a variety of cultures for thousands of years. Dreadlocks have origins in Africa but also India, Nepal, Pakistan, Mexico, New Zealand, even ancient Greece. They were also worn by the Vikings and Celts. Both hairstyles were a part of ancient Irish culture. Centuries ago, before combs and brushes were commonplace…dreadlocks were probably commonplace. I don’t think this is a crazy assumption to make. When you neglect your hair, it mats and locks start to form, particularly if your hair is curly in nature.

    “The [mohawk] hairstyle has been in existence in many parts of the world for millennia. For instance, the Clonycavan Man, a 2000-year-old male bog body discovered near Dublin in 2003, was found to be wearing a mohawk styled with plant oil and pine resin.

    The Mohawk and the rest of the Iroquois confederacy (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Tuscarora and Oneida) in fact wore a square of hair on the back of the crown of the head. The Mohawk did not shave their heads when creating this square of hair, but rather pulled the hair out, small tufts at a time…
    Therefore a true hairstyle of the Mohawks was one of plucked-out hair, leaving a three-inch square of hair on the back crown of the head with three short braids of hair decorated.”

  3. I Completely understand. as a person of color myself. I feel that the fact that people tattoo themselves. pierce their body and wear their hair to make a statement. but truly don’t understand the history of that statement or what it even means. cheapening the meaning and leaving other people ignorant because your saying the wrong things. and sending the wrong message about a culture.

  4. I am a Celt. I wear a mohawk. I wear a mohawk because that’s what it is called these days. My hairstyle is appropriated from my own culture. I regret that it isn’t dyed with woad, but it certainly wasn’t done in reference to Native American peoples, with whom my ancestors lived alongside for a hundred years before the United States. (Being the progeny of actual rednecks, which I never hear complaints of cultural appropriation from.)

  5. As a Celt, and the wearer of a “mohawk” I don’t feel that I’m cheapening any other culture. As stated above, ancient Celts did in fact wear “mohawks”, and though mine is not stained with woad, I still feel it is an appropriate acknowledgement to my linage, as are my cartilage piercings. I may not be “of color” but my origins still lie in a native people. Nevertheless I think that claiming ownership over anything can really only go so far, and crying cultural appropriation is a very contested road to tread. My people lived alongside native Americans for over a century before there was a United States, but you don’t hear them crying about cultural appropriation every time someone misuses the word redneck (which I do find offensive when used to describe those not of my ancestry).

    • I dont think you have read my second post in which I make some additions and changes to what I argued here:

      To quote another activist Re: having a “Mohawk” haircut (in the article I wrote linked above):

      “I agree that the name is more-than-problematic, but in terms of the actual cut I’m not so certain. the Mohawk/Mi’kmaq woman you cited says that she thinks that white people can wear a ‘non-traditional mohawk hairstyles (the ones you see at punk concerts)’ its obviously complicated cos the hollywood depiction of Mohawks had the ‘modern’ mohawk, which actual Kanien’kehá:ka Iroquois don’t wear themselves.”

      So basically the name is an appropriation but not the haircut. Interesting to hear some of the Celtic cultural roots. However, I will still continue to “cry cultural appropriation” though cause im a committed anti-racist. If you dont like that – I really don’t care.

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