are Native American themed weddings wrong?

Native American themed weddings - right or wrong?
I thought we’d take a break today from your regularly scheduled inspiration board programming to discuss something that has come to my attention lately… the Native American themed wedding trend. With Thanksgiving coming up this week I couldn’t help but think of this cultural appropriation.

No Doubt pulled their ‘Looking Hot’ video after accusations of racism (it had a pretty obvious cowboys v. Indians theme to it) and Victoria’s Secret came under fire for using feather headdresses in their latest show and the company apologized for it. And who can forget Urban Outfitter’s ‘Navajo Hipster Panty’ debacle?

Ironically enough, November is Native American Heritage Month.

These are examples of high profile people/brands coming under fire for what the public claims is a trivialization of Native American culture.

But what about wedding blogs? Should we come under the same scrutiny or do we get a free pass because weddings are inherently sweet and most brides don’t walk down the aisle in Navajo hipster panties? I’ve seen countless Native American themed engagement shoots, weddings in teepees, and feather headdresses on brides and I’ve even made an inspiration board with this exact look (and passed it off as ‘bohemian’ to boot).

But here’s the tricky part. Where do we draw the line? Is it ok for someone who isn’t part of the culture to sport a kimono, or a bindi, all of which (Native American headdresses included) have cultural and religious significance? I really haven’t heard of underwear models or musicians or other high profile people getting a public scolding for wearing kimonos or bindis even though both have been used as fashion statements.

So all this brings me back to ‘where do we draw the line?’ I am starting to think that it’s part of America’s guilty conscience at our systematic extermination and removal of Native American populations that causes us to get up in arms over cultural appropriation when it comes to Native American cultures, but not others.

What do you think of this trend with regards to weddings? When you see a bride sporting a Native American look and the blogger passing it off as ‘bohemian’ or ‘hipster’ or ‘indie-chic’ does it make you cringe?

I’m not going to lie and say I don’t love the look, but I am also starting to feel guilty about creating an inspiration board that marginalizes a culture and reduces it to a theme.

photo credit

About Sara Burnett

Editor of Burnett's Boards, which she founded to showcase global creativity in the wedding industry. Sara currently lives out of a suitcase while island hopping the Caribbean and beyond. Learn More // Follow on Instagram.

Comments

  1. Why should the American Indian be any different than any other culture? Do you see men wearing lederhosen at bratwurst festivals (maybe we shouldn’t be having bratwurst festivals either) or women sporting French nails? If the world can’t see that perhaps people enjoy having a mix of cultures and are only honoring them by showing their love by wearing representational bits and pieces then we live in a sad place. We already have homogenized our culture to such an extreme that all vitality and organic nutriments are disappearing daily. Everyone wants to be, have, look and live like everyone else. I think we should throw on ankle bracelets, load our hair with feathers and beads, and eat fish between courses of vodka shots (that’s the Polish holiday celebration). Don’t feel guilty, be happy and represent your culture mix and those of others for soon we will all be one boring multitude and that will be one sad day. Besides all that, Indians weren’t the first to wear feathers – they borrowed that tradition from the birds.

  2. I’m so glad you wrote about this as it’s something I’ve been struggling a lot with lately. No Native American themed weddings have shown up in my inbox yet so it’s not an issue I’ve had to deal with directly but I’m not sure what my decision would be if one did. I know lots of couples who have incorporated aspects of other cultures (not their own) into their wedding because they have a great respect and admiration for that culture’s rituals and norms. So is the act of appropriation marginalizing a culture or celebrating it then? I think it’s a fine line and perhaps needs to be judged on a case by case basis. That being said, with all the hullabaloo surrounding the issue right now, I’m still not sure what I would do if a Native American themed wedding showed up in my inbox.

  3. I think about this a lot. I see it come up more with Asian Indian culture than Native American culture. There is a fine line between paying homage to a culture, incorporating a culture in to your own look, and appropriating and trivializing a culture for your own entertainment. I think if you have a genuine understanding and appreciation for a culture that’s one thing. If you just think “Oooh, dot on forehead, that’s shiny and edgy” that’s another. The problem is that not everyone draws the line in the same place. I say when in doubt err on the side of respect.

  4. Thank you for bringing this topic to light! I, too, love the look, which is always vaguely passed off as “bohemian,” but I’ve steered clear of it for this exact reason. I do feel that it is a form of cultural misappropriation, and I think most Native Americans would agree. I think it’s fine to wear fashions that are inspired by other cultures, but I don’t think it’s okay to mimic, misrepresent, or commodify something that has a spiritual or religious significance. In addition, it reflects a false romanticization and perpetuates stereotypes.

    • All of these comments are very interesting, it’s amazing how the American people react to the “Native Americans” or whatever is politically correct in the eyes of the white people. I am full blood, Mohawk I always have been Mohawk. Not American Indian, not Native American, not First American or First Nations, I’m Mohawk. So first and foremost, we are the Nation that we belong to. I’m just giving a little background here. I’ve heard parents tell their children, “Don’t call them American Indians, they don’t like that, they are Native Americans!” It’s funny to me and I did correct that woman is a very nice way, and she was so surprised. As for the misappropriation, well need I say that if you put any other ethnic race in the place of the Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians, high school and college mascots, (which have eliminated most) just imagine the uproar. And these teams and schools, etc., have mentioned that it’s an honor to the Indians. And I say, how do they know? Have they ever asked all the Nations? There was a question, earlier “Why should the American Indian be any different?” Have you seen the Cleveland Indians logo? OMG, it’s ridiculously mocking. There was another comment here about what the United States did to the first people living here, LIVING HERE! Sorry Columbus! Just thought I’d throw that in. And believe me when I tell you this the truth has not been told.

      So now, on to the art, which is all very beautiful and made from the heart and hands of a proud people. The Urban Outfitter deal was that they couldn’t use the word “Navajo” because the Navajo didn’t design the pattern. That to me is fair. My feeling about a “Native American” themed wedding is ask, if you want a certain type of artwork, ask the artist. That would be an honor, just ask them. If they say no then don’t use that art but if they say yes, how awesome would it be that you purchased something hand made and from the heart and soul to use in your wedding! My daughter is getting married and we are using elements of our culture in her wedding. There is art that we want to use and I asked and the artist said yes. There are blessings from the Navajo and Apache that I love, and we can use it. Just thought I’d voice my opinion which I rarely do and I hope I shed some light for those who commented here.

  5. I’m marrying into another culture (Armenian) what is proper etiquette in mainstream society is completely taboo in their culture. I’m also Cherokee & Irish, I wasn’t brought up with the heritage in my house (although I wish I knew more). My fiancées best friend is Asian Indian and his girlfriend (from Hawaii) will wear traditional Indian garments, she truly respects their culture and in most photos, you would think she is from their culture. I guess what I’m saying is that depending on the culture and if they see this as respect or something that is dishonoring them. Like Marta said, if it’s a true appreciation of another culture and not just sporting the look because it’s on trend and mistaking it for bohemian, then it could be fine. It’s not about eating their foods, but rather wearing symbolic garbs for them, you wouldn’t sport a yamaka if you weren’t Jewish, unless it was necessary to enter a temple. But to sport one at your wedding with no ties to the culture from both parties? Boundaries would have been crossed. But I can speak for the Armemian culture, they wouldn’t appreciate someone sporting a trend that is their heritage, if you do not have their “blood”, you do not have that right, not even if you marry into it. It’s both religious & cultural making it a highly sensitive to most though.

  6. Such great comments from you ladies – it’s giving me a lot to think about… xx

  7. I would think that you should only have a cultural wedding if 1) You or your spouse have heritage in that culture and/or 2) If you are having that type of wedding to honor that culture, because you like or respect it.

    If you are just having that wedding to be “fashionable” I think you should take a long hard look at what a wedding is for in the first place. You aren’t getting married to be a fashion plate.

  8. This is such an interesting topic – good for you for bringing it up and not shying away from it because it’s difficult!

    I think that cultural appropriation is either okay or not okay depending on context. If you’re from that culture, cool. If you’re appropriating from a culture that’s thriving and hasn’t been oppressed (either historically or today), that’s probably not so bad. But I like to air on the side of being sensitive when it comes to groups of people that have been historically screwed over and treated poorly. It also might be considered insulting to trivialize something that actually means something to someone else by using it as a meaningless decoration.

    That being said, I think it’s awesome when we’re inspired by other cultures and integrate little things here and there. It’s hard to know where to draw the line! It also might be worth asking someone from the culture in question what they think.

    • You raise some great points… the way I’m starting to think of it now is – I live in Hawaii and was married in Hawaii and have a lot of Hawaiian friends that were guests at my wedding. Had I held a traditional Hawaiian wedding – filled with their customs and traditions and sacred garments and chants, I can’t even imagine what my Hawaiian friends would have thought of it…I think it would appear to those of the culture that you’re making a mockery of cultural traditions that they work hard to keep alive. Incorporating a detail or two here and there isn’t so bad provided you know what it signifies I suppose, and yes – definitely asking someone of that culture if would be offensive or not is a good idea!

    • As a Native American, it is good to see these comments. Its a very different world, and since I am mixed, we get thrown into the crossfires of trying to see both sides. My culture means a lot, all the way down to feathering, bead work, and paint. I want to share the culture with everyone and give them a chance to truly learn about this beautiful existence instead of being a scary Native that gets mad. However, I will take a stand for people who “trend” on the culture for this situation. But very true, when do we draw the line? I get flustered at all the warbonnets on clothing and jewelry now. Simply because I know that those were earned, and my culture was destroyed because we were wearing them…now everyone gets to? Nah. I love your point about a culture that has been oppressed. I think with all the ongoing indigenous struggles, and the meaning of literally everything in our culture, to take anything Native is beyond offensive, unless it is given, supported by Natives, or blessed. Anyways, we should continue to be inspired by Native culture, learn it, research it, visit it, and support Native Artists… and choose to represent it correctly through those beautiful things. Not make it a decoration in an already very important ceremony.
      As sore as this topic is, its good to see people that recognize that this is in fact not okay. 🙂

      • Cassandra Hatcher says:

        My fiance is Lakota and we were discussing getting married next summer. I want to invite his traditions into the wedding as well as everything else. What in your opinion would be a good way to do that? We are having the wedding in south Dakota where all his family is but I’m basically planning everything without him since he works a lot. I don’t want him to feel like his culture was ignored but I also don’t want him to feel like I’m disrespecting his culture if I incorporate too much of his vs. Mine?

        • Cassandra,
          this is a great question! Just like your wedding is a union of you both, so should this actual wedding. A perfect balance of both cultures, and traditions should be present depending on how comfortable you each are with it. South Dakota will be beautiful! What a beautiful place right where the Black Hills are!! 🙂 I definitely think that you should both pick a day to sit down, and seriously discuss what he would want including in the wedding regarding Lakota traditions, or dress, and what you would like to incorporate as well. Don’t make him feel ignored, but don’t try something by just winging it; which I’m sure you wouldn’t! I hope the both of you choose something beautiful! Good luck, and have fun!!
          -haley @phenomenalhaley.com

  9. I think appropriating the culture of someone else out of context, can be very offensive. that being said, i went to a wedding of some friends who were of a more new age perspective but wanted to be married in a dakota style ceremony, and got an “authentic” guy to do it. as someone with some claims to that background i wasn’t terribly offended that my friends chose to do this- they didn’t wear all kinds of crazy feathers and sit in a tipi or anything that blatant. I would say that the further away from an authentic respect for people that you are choosing to “honor” with your wedding motif, the more opportunity you have to go awry and do something that someone who consider offensive.

    I definitely find the whole concept of being reduced to a style as being very, very offensive. please don’t propagate this. its like having a blackface wedding.

    • Thanks for your comment – I tend to agree with you – while I do think it ok to ‘borrow’ some of the looks and styles in a respectful manner as some of the previous people have commented, there is a line that some people cross into going ‘too far’ and I definitely don’t intend to spread that or endorse it.

  10. Moronica Guildenstern says:

    Omg sar-bear, I cant believe I am just now reading this entry. Ive been to several native amrrican weddings and it is amazing how much personal planning and work goes into on the side of the families. This is mostly because they can not afford to contract the work out. However, they can still manage to afford the liquor! :))

    • FYI the personal planning on the part of the families is tradition. There are many steps to be made by the families and elders in a proper marriage. The liquor comment was just ignorant and common.

  11. The greatist form of flattery is imitation

  12. Sherrie Bellegarde says:

    Unless you are Native American – don’t do it. I happen to be a Plains Cree woman from Saskatchewan, Canada, and I think I speak for pretty much all of my people when I say, it’s highly offensive to all of us. Our ways are sacred, and if you do not follow them, believe in them, or know them, then you are offending our beliefs. There is absolutely NO justification that you can say to me that will ever change my mind or any of my people’s mind on this topic. If it remotely resembles our culture, then “just say no”. Using stereotypes simply encourages the rampant racism that exists towards us, and the commercialization of our culture by some people who say they are “Indian” only adds to that racism. There is a lot of knowledge and teachings that accompany what we do, how we dress, our worldview, how we live our lives, why we do things the way we do – and even just imitating a “headdress” out of “good fun” is highly offensive – do you even KNOW what that Headdress is for?? I can tell you right now that it’s NOT for weddings. Do you understand what each feather means? Or the cut of each feather? Or the colour of each feather? EVERYTHING in our culture has a specific meaning with a teaching and oral history behind it. Even the way we braid our hair has meaning, and the songs we sing all have meaning and power that must not be imitated because there is protocol about giving songs to someone that must be followed. I constantly see the imitation of my culture all across North America – a tipi is a Plains Indian thing – not a Southwestern, or Southeastern, or Eastern or Western thing at all. It’s SPECIFIC to MY area, yet I see them imitated everywhere. There are sacred teachings that go with that tipi – there’s even a sacred song for the tipi – all of which NONE of YOU know – so even just to erect a tipi you have broken our sacred Laws. Yes I said LAWS. The white man’s Laws are written down in books, created by men. Our Laws were given to us by the Creator, passed down through oral history and traditional teachings from Wesakachak (like you know who that is…you’ll probably google it after this), and encompass everything in our life, including something as simple as setting up a tipi. So, to end off, just don’t do it, because I’m 100% positive that you’ll break our sacred Laws. And NO, Imitation is NOT Flattery in this case. Imitation is ignorance and extraordinarily disrespectful.

  13. Kudos to the author of this post for taking on this topic and being thoughtful enough to ask these questions! I did not read all the comments, but I read the first few. I’m Cherokee and I think this trend is misguided and in poor taste *at best*. Here is the thing about these type of discussions: they typically take place exclusive of Native people. By Native people, let me specify: people who are active participants in a Native American community. I don’t begrudge anyone with Native ancestry their claim to Native blood. That being said, Native identity is a spectrum and people who have a little bit of Native blood several generations back with no active involvement in a Native community don’t probably have any better understanding of “their culture” than a non-Native. A lot of times someone likes to get into these discussions and say, “well I’m American Indian and I think it’s fine” when they know perfectly well 362 days of the year they are non Native! I would argue that despite the mainstream/dominant American cultural sense of entitlement to ALL things, there are some things that are off-limits and not for common consumption. Native people are very big on doing things “the right way” with respect, and though sometimes share their cultures with outsiders, its typically only after a long period of time during which trust has been well earned (or purchased via some random “Native” person who is generally entirely unqualified/unauthorized to be representing Native culture).

    I read the first comment from Sharon, who seems to want to reassure everyone that its really just fine to do whatever we want and take whatever we want. It really bothered me because of the examples she is giving about people wearing lederhosen at bratwurst festivals- well the people wearing those are typically from that culture. You don’t go to a bratwurst festival and see a bunch of blacks and mexicans dressing up in lederhosen with barely any germans in the crowd. And if that was all you saw all the time wherever you looked, you would probably find it disturbing too. That’s not even considering the context of history, genocide, oppression, colonization, etc. which I will not get all into. It’s just salt in a wound and while people who take Native American culture more typically believe they are “honoring’ than mocking or insulting, its’ all in the eye of the beholder and if you ask just about any Native (again, as defined above) they will find it offensive. I’ve found non-Natives are even more comfortable appropriating Native culture than others because our numbers are so few that people really expect not to be confronted or questioned by any “actual real life Native,” which would certainly rain on their parade and put them in a potentially awkward situation. I mean, hasn’t the NAACP effectively spoiled the fun of most frats & sororities from dressing up in blackface? If we say anything we are like PC police or some kind of awful people who want to ruin your day. And when non-Natives go ahead anyway and do whatever they want despite our protests and attempts to educate, well then it just reinforces our ideas about non-Natives being self-entitled disrespectful takers. So no, its by no means okay. But most don’t even bother saying anything because the whole thing is most of you just don’t care. You want what you want and you don’t care who you step on to get it. Great way to start your new married life (?!) I guess.

  14. Nope, not okay. Just say no. ❤ It matters so much to the people who have grown up in it. Leave it to the people who understand the ways, what they represent and how hard the fight was to protect those ways. There are many beautiful things, ways and beings in the world, and its nice to want to “pay homage”, but we are a people not a trend. This is a culture, not a theme. Please be informed, respectful, and when in doubt, just leave it alone. Thanks! ❤

  15. As a Canadian of Inuktitut lines, I think this conversation is a little silly. YES, cowboys vs natives is completely insensitive, absolutely, but taking inspiration from Navajo style and culture is a far cry from “racist”. Appreciating a culture’s art and manner of expression is not perpetuating hatred and ignorance, it’s actually a form of respect. If I cried “racism” every time I saw someone wearing an inuksuk necklace, I couldn’t be taken seriously for very long. Every culture borrows from another, and YES, in Toronto’s Oktoberfest you WILL see black people, asian people, and even aboriginals in lederhosen. On St Paddy’s day you will see EVERYONE dressed in green, white, orange. Just because a style or form of art is specific to one nation does not mean that it should be jealously horded due to “insensitivity”. If you want to protect your culture, share it. Teach people. Allow them to embrace it like you do. Just because their skin isn’t dark doesn’t mean they can’t wear beautiful feathers, and just because because your hair isn’t blonde doesn’t mean you can’t wear green overalls.

  16. As a Native American I see nothing wrong with it. Natives are a prideful but yet generous people. Unless you are intentionally mocking a culture, no matter which, its fine. Most people have a little Native in them. My mother was a full blood and it never bothered us or our people. As wedding photographer myself. I say go for it in the name of art. It should be recognized. So many Natives are oppressed as it is. Lets bring our culture to light more, for such a beautiful occasion.

  17. My 2 Cents: Firstly, I loved your blog, and the thought process you put behind it. Like you, I hold a respect for all Cultures, and find certain things distasteful, or down right offensive. However, when It comes to Native American Headdress and Peace Pipes, there is a rule of thumb that should be respected. That rule boils down to: If you are not of Native American Heritage, please, do not use them!! These are specific to their Chiefs and to their Shamans. They hold a deep symbolism that most outside of their Culture, have little, to no, understanding of. Having had the opportunity to have many Native American (Full Blood) friends, and having had the chance to sit down with a Lakota Chief for discussion, I was fortunate to speak with him about how he feels about outside cultures adopting religious symbolism to adapt to themselves. Native American Art is gorgeous, there are many things that can be easily adapted, once you know the stories behind them, and some find it an honor! Bringing to light the Culture in itself, bringing out discussions and understanding. However, he was deeply upset with the adopting of the Headdress and how disrespectfully it has been used. The same goes for the Peace Pipe. I feel if you are going to theme something after a certain Culture, than you should learn the meanings behind those objects, and respect them appropriately. We may admire the look, but do we truly respect it? I know I will get flack for this posting, but I just wish that more people would take the time to truly research any Culture they are not familiar with, and then respect that religious and Leader appropriated items, that demand the upmost respect, are the things that honestly, should not be adapted if you are not of that Culture.

  18. This is a very interesting conversation…I am planning a wedding for next year with my amazing fiance (who is white and has had dreadlocks his entire adult life) and we plan to have a bohemian gypsy feel wedding that will take place in nature, since we feel that fits who we are. Neither of us are religious, but we do appreciate energy and traditions that honor nature and humanity. That being said, we were thinking of having a tipi (honoring Native American and gypsy traditions) of having henna art done with our wedding party and family the day before (honoring Indian culture and sensibilities), and also somehow incorporating Buddhism into our ceremony since we really connect with the spirit and love of that practice…can’t our celebration of our love incorporate many cultural ideas and practices without being offensive? I think that the key to spreading love and acceptance in this world is to respect all traditions and connect with what we can that we have in common with our brothers and sisters all over the world. For those that are not religious, but do believe in energy and spirit and sharing, any ideas that speak to us are part of who we are…hoping I explained that well enough. Peace!

    • Amber – Its one thing to appreciate it, but using it in a sacred ceremony is not being respectful. I love exploring other cultures and learning from others. I find many religions to hold so much truth and speak to me, but I can’t adorn my body or my home with it. The problem with cultural (mis)appropriation is that people eventually see it as part of them, not part of someone else. Meaning gets twisted and others take ownership of something that isn’t theirs. If you don’t practice the religions or traditions, using bits and pieces at your leisure is not ok.

  19. Thank you for bringing up this topic I am full blown native American so having a wedding that thought of the idea.