JJ Neepin is the director of Headdress, short documentary about the recreation of her great-grandfather’s portrait and the responsibility a headdress may carry.
I am an Indigenous woman and a member of the Fox Lake Cree Nation in Manitoba. I was born and raised in Thompson, Northern Manitoba; I now live and work in Winnipeg. I am a full time filmmaker. My sister Justina is also my business partner — our company is called JJNeepinFilms Inc.
The idea for Headdress came up in 2014, when singer Pharrell Williams appeared on the cover of a magazine wearing a Native-inspired headdress. When I first saw the photo, I had mixed feelings about it. It was a beautiful photo of a great artist — but no matter the intention, it felt disrespectful.
Many fans were not happy with singer Pharrell Williams for posing in a headdress for Elle magazine. (Doug Inglish/Elle Magazine)
When I see a non-Indigenous person wearing a headdress, it feels like my entire culture has been reduced to a prop, a costume. My culture is rich and complex, and it feels stolen when I see a headdress used as a simple fashion accessory.
When the Pharrell story was all over the news and social media, most people I knew were angry and frustrated, including Justina and me. We discussed it at length. It got me thinking about my own connection to a headdress in a new way.
What does it mean to wear a headdress?
I began researching what the headdress meant to the Cree, and to other nations.
I found the headdress has several meanings and protocols, depending on which band or nation you come from. And I learned a headdress may come in different shapes and sizes, depending on who is wearing it and for what purpose.
I also learned that some nations will adorn non-Indigenous political figures with a headdress, as a symbol of hope that these politicians will address Indigenous issues. A headdress carries so much weight. I wanted to let others know about it, what I had learned, and I wanted people to talk about it.
I come from a long line of leaders
I’ve known that a headdress is important to my culture since I was a child, but I began to learn more when my father was elected Chief of our band, the Fox Lake Cree Nation, when I was around 20.
I was in Winnipeg for school and he was always on reserve, working. When he came to Winnipeg, I saw the new ways he had to conduct himself and the weight of the responsibility, accountability and stewardship of being a chief. It was his duty to take care of our band members and the land. Just as any politician must follow social etiquette, Indigenous protocol is similar: there are rules and ceremony, unique to each nation.
That’s when I started to pay more attention to the black and white portrait of my great-grandfather in our living room. I noticed, for the first time, that I came from a long line of leaders, and realized that I had the potential to do something just as important.
The complicated task of borrowing a headdress
Our original concept for the film was to do a promo photo shoot with a headdress — but that didn’t feel right. It still reduced the headdress to a costume.
I posed a question to my sister: what if we recreated our great-grandfather’s portrait? It would add a personal connection.
Our search for a headdress was complicated. We were confronted with more questions about protocol. Because I am not a chief and not a man, we encountered raised eyebrows right from the start.
We had trouble finding nearby and available chiefs who could help us. Even if my intentions were good, even though I am a First Nations person myself and promised everything would be handled with the utmost respect, there was still chance we’d be unable to obtain a real headdress.
Then we asked our father George for help. He had a friend, Dr. Sydney Garrioch — a former Manitoba Grand Chief — who was willing to lend us a smaller and older headdress, with a promise that it be handled with care, respect and only touched by my sister and me. It was challenging for us to keep this promise while allowing our cinematographer Ryan Herdman to get the shots we needed.
I said I would put it on a maximum of three times; therefore, it had to sit on my head for a long while. We smudged before, during and after to keep us grounded in what we were trying to accomplish. As I say in the film, the headdress was quite heavy. Its physical weight felt like a gentle reminder of the metaphorical weight it carries as well. I had thoughts on what it must be like to be a real chief and if that is a potential path for me — I still have not decided yet.
When I saw the moments Nadya (my photographer) and Ryan had captured, I started crying. I was so elated and overwhelmed. I had been so worried that everything my sister and I were doing might not go over well, but showing the film to my family and colleagues reassured me that Headdress would indeed start a conversation.
Headdress premiered at the 2017 Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto and I was surprised by the warm reception it received. Feedback was positive and many people wanted to discuss it more and encouraged me to keep the conversation going.
My ultimate goal is to return to this ongoing discussion and make a documentary feature to address the topics and issues this short piece has sparked.