Back in July I spied this in the local H&M store:
I was offended, but not surprised. Earlier in the month I had this exchange with a hipster Twitter persona (a mock character created by a trendy writer in Brighton):
Regardless of whether this is a joke account or not, it speaks to a general apathy in the UK towards appropriation of Indigenous material culture. This somewhat clever person had an opportunity to engage in a real discussion about the central issue (and I’d just like to point out they felt comfortable being serious for a moment to draw attention to another topic) — appropriation — but was so invested in their jokey-joke hipster alter-ego (I suppose in an effort to sell the self-published novel that revolves around this character on amazon?) that they provided the perfect (albeit absurd, extreme) vignette of so many of my encounters with British people who do not see the relationship between English colonialism, Indigenous oppression, and profiting unfairly off of Indigenous art, design, ceremony and culture.
For example, the breathless commentary from Glastonbury festival praising ‘celebrity’ Poppy Delevingne for her ‘laid-back’ festival ensemble. <eyeroll>
Or, perhaps, the opportunity to rent a tipi at Glastonbury for the low, low price of £950 (that’s about $1500 CAD). (I think I’m mostly offended that people are dumb enough to pay that price, and that none of the money goes to Indigenous organizations or charities or some other worthy cause. Instead it just fuels the pseudo-subversive moneyed-yuppie-wank-fest that is Glastonbury).
The real kicker, though, was this special summer pull-out in the weekend edition of The Guardian in early July:
Nooooo! Not The Guardian. My letter of complaint went completely unanswered. Which, actually, was a huge disappointment. I’ve learned, rather harshly, in the last few years that liberals are always ready to critique everyone else, but when they get caught exploiting or appropriating Indigenous folks or people of colour, they’re quick to point the gaze elsewhere. Accountability for everyone but themselves.
I’ve been questioned by folks back home for being too critical of this issue, as well. Which left me feeling kind of…tired. Why bother fighting when you’re constantly told you’re being overly sensitive? In any case, I’d lost my taste for fighting when I came across the ridiculous poster in H&M. I’d been defeated by the idiots. And being the only Indigenous Canadian woman in the room at a lot of points in my time here had left me kind of exhausted. I mean, there are just so many moments where people don’t understand how their words or actions are so oblivious to the realities of Indigenous peoples in the Americas (and elsewhere!).
However, when I read the reports of Kim Wheeler taking on H&M when the headdresses hit the market back home, I was inspired again. My friend Marilyn pointed out that it only took three letters to get the offensive items pulled from shelves in Canada.
So I wrote a letter, admittedly not expecting much. I was, however, pleasantly surprised to get a contrite response indicating the company never meant to cause offense and they would ensure that the items were not restocked in the UK.
Success! So I want to say hiy-hiy to Kim Wheeler and the women in Canada who took on the issue. And I also want to thank Marilyn for her encouragement. It is possible to be heard, sometimes. Which is a good antidote to the countless other experiences of appropriation and exploitation and patronization I’ve endured over the years in the UK. And of course, hiy-hiy to Adrienne K. of Native Appropriations, who also inspires me to think more critically about issues of cultural appropriation in all its forms.
Thank you for your email.
I am sorry to hear that you have been offended by the design and the sale of this item, both in Canada and in the UK.
While we do take inspiration for our items from all over the world and from many sources, it is never our intention to offend anyone or to be insensitive towards any aspect of a particular culture, social history or any ethnic group.
We always to listen to our customers and take on all feedback that we are presented with. We are extremely disappointed to hear that offence has been caused by this item, and we would like to apologise to you for this.
Of course it is encouraging to hear of your support of other social causes and issues that we have drawn attention to, and we truly appreciate your kind words on this. As you have mentioned, we do always aim consider our position as an example to the public in everything that we do, and we strive to work in an ethical and fair manner.
With this in mind, we have now been in touch with our Merchandising and Buying departments to bring you concerns to their attention and I can tell you that following the example from our Canadian stores, we have now placed a stop on sales of this item here in the UK both online and in store. Work will now be done to ensure that this item is removed from sale.
Once again, we are very sorry for any offence that has been caused by this item. As I have stated, we always appreciate the feedback of our customers, and I hope that this action will help to restore your faith in H&M and that we can count on your continued support.
Of course if you have any further queries, pease do not hesitate to get back in touch with us.
H&M Customer Services”
I just wanted to commend you on removing your headdresses from stores in Canada out of respect for Canada’s Indigenous peoples. I am wondering if you will also be removing them from your stores over here in the UK? When I was shopping in _____ a little while ago I noted advertisements for these headdresses in the H&M store.
As an Indigenous women living in the UK, I’m concerned that First Nations culture is being appropriated and sold en masse in the UK. British consumer culture is largely unaware of the implications of how Indigenous peoples in North America were — and continue to be — oppressed by North American governments (and cultural and sacred items continue to be stolen and exploited for profit). Selling a headdress that models itself on sacred Indigenous items while Canada debates shocking evidence that has emerged recently suggesting Canada’s deliberate role in the genocide of Indigenous children in residential schools is offensive.
I know you’re a good company and have done a lot of work to address social justice issues, and I am really pleased with your work to address body image and providing clothes that fit a variety of body shapes.. I hope that you will consider the ethical and social implications of selling these headdresses while such serious issues regarding Indigenous peoples in Canada continue to be unaddressed.