I have loved you for years. Genuinely.
From the evolution of your work through N.E.R.D. all the way to the release of a 24-hour music video for Happy, I have loved and supported your artistry — bought your music, played your music, spread your music around. You are progressive. You are a modern man.
But the other day, I woke up to several messages regarding the cover of Elle UK magazine. You are wearing a headdress. Next to "Summer Dressing: 5 Tricks You Need to Know" by the Elle fashion team” and “All Natural Hair,” there you are. Pharrell Williams.
I wonder if anyone has explained to you, in the outcry, why it’s important to take a second look at appropriating our culture.
I am Sioux and proud of it. My tribe was believed to be one of the first Native American groups to wear headdresses – also referred to as war bonnets.
'While not given for the purpose of war, medicine men and leaders in the community are given [headdresses] for what they have contributed to the community. This custom, in fact, predates the creation of the country you live in.' - Megan Red Shirt-Shaw
In Lakota society, there was an order. Only warriors of great renown were allowed to wear a bonnet so embellished. When a man was given one, they did not look like the one you are wearing — often those feathers were added as symbols of bravery.
For every heroic act that came to pass, another feather was added. If you wore one, it was a symbol that you had done something to benefit the tribe – typically as a warrior. This idea continues to live on in native communities today – while not given for the purpose of war, medicine men and leaders in the community are given them for what they have contributed to the community. This custom, in fact, predates the creation of the country you live in.
The editors and style gurus of Elle (and every person I see wearing a headdress without understanding or compassion – I’m looking at you, Christina Fallin) may not recognize that the wearing of eagle plumes was an honour. But it was, and it is.
It isn’t something even your most renowned fashion designers can create and put on the cover of your magazine. It means nothing that way. In Lakota society, the number of quills was representative of the number of battles won. Each feather was earned. The significance of eagle feathers is still honoured today in contemporary indigenous culture and the war bonnet specifically is not definitive of all Native American people today. Every community practices their own belief system.
Symbols like the headdress are owned by the tribes. They are sacred to our communities. It is hurtful to see them used in any other way.
Culture is alive and well in Native America. I invite you to Gathering of Nations, or to any powwow across the country so you can see the ways in which we continue to celebrate who we are as America’s First Nations. Visit a reservation. Visit an urban Indian centre. Come and see us for who we are and understand why we celebrate our traditions. You too, stylists of Elle. We see you. Clearly.
Pharrell, you have earned a lot of respect and celebration for your music. For being an individual. For changing the scene. In the Sioux community, we believe in the ideas of bravery, fortitude, generosity and wisdom. I see none of these ideas in your cover with Elle.
I appreciate your apology but hope you know why that apology was important and that it wasn’t because your publicist told you to make it. I hope Elle UK follows your lead and apologizes.
You are a musician, not a warrior. You are a man of many accolades, but so were the men of our community who sacrificed their lives for those who followed. We have warriors in our communities in different ways now — in spiritual healers, in advocates, the men and women who serve in the United States military.
I would hope that you would want to be a symbol for something other than ignorance. Your music has been uplifting across all cultures around the world – but there is nothing uplifting about your Elle cover.
Megan Red Shirt-Shaw
Megan Red Shirt-Shaw is Oglala Lakota Sioux. She is a partnerships manager for the Catalyst Prep. She loves living in the Bay Area, learning about projects for indigenous youth and the idea that a college education opportunity can change one’s trajectory forever. Her favourite phrase her mother ever taught her in Lakota is “Weksuye, Ciksuye, Miksuye” meaning “I remember, I remember you, Remember me.”
This letter originally appeared on Think Progress and has been republished with permission.