Thoughts on a Pair of Beaded Earrings

I love these earrings, but wearing them comes with some thinking. Once upon a time I wouldn’t have thought so much, but with the baffling continuation of hipster headdressesSpirit Hoods and J. Crew decorating their store windows with tipis, I’m cautious.

I’m careful because I don’t want these earrings to invite others to interpret me as another misappropriating hipster, with beads just the gateway accessory that leads to dreamcatcher tattoos and ironic face paint.

I’m careful because I understand the messages, manifest and latent, that earrings like these could send. While other accessories have ambiguity in their cultural and racial identity (e.g. the multiple cultures associated with hoop earrings), the materials and pattern of these earrings is very specific. And with the popularity of the mis-named and generically defined “tribal style”  (also called “neo native” and “Navajo nouveau”) this summer and fall, I don’t want to blindly follow a culturally inaccurate and outsider-interpreted trend.

I’m also careful because I don’t want to be read as trying to advertise, assert, or connect to my Native heritage. Even if the style and pattern of these earrings were culturally appropriate for my own genealogy, I have no ties to that community or its members and therefore do not claim it as my own.

Thoughts aside, I do wear these earrings.

I wear them because they’re beautiful.

I wear them because I purchased them from a talented Lakota artist licensed under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act who, by selling them to me, gave me permission to wear them.

I wear them because, to the best of my understanding, the design of the earrings does not inappropriately imitate or incorporate any colors or patterns that I should not be allowed to wear. I don’t feel that my earrings are a trend that compromises, bastardizes or insults cultural or spiritual practices.

I do not wear them as part of a costume.

Have I over thought all this? Probably. But I have been fortunate enough to be welcomed into an environment where many Native scholars, activists and professionals far smarter than me have helped me learn. I claim no expertise, but am committed to continue learning. And so I think. What I have learned so far has helped me understand the frustration and anger felt as diverse cultures have been distilled into a whitewashed, historically-centered, pan-Indian stereotype suitable for public consumption.

Under other circumstances, these earrings could be used as a small part of that. For me, they’re my beautiful earrings.

For more discussion on the presence and interpretation of Native art in fashion, check out Millie’s post on cultural misappropriation in the Miss Universe Pageant and the fantastic blogs Native Appropriations and Beyond Buckskin.

See this post in its original home here, at Interrobangs Anonymous


4 replies on “Thoughts on a Pair of Beaded Earrings”

You should wear them and love them and try not to care what anyone says. You know why they’re special to you, and that’s all that matters. Through the years I’ve been given handmade gifts from my aunt who is half Pottawattamie, half Osage. Some of these gifts include jewelry and I never feel trepidation about wearing any of it because I’m not claiming an entire culture as my own. I’m not wearing it “ironically.” I’m wearing it because it’s a very special gift from a loved-one. 

I appreciate the thought you’ve put into what these earrings represent, and I appreciate you supporting a Native artist, and I agree that the earrings are beautiful.  What leaves me a little dismayed is that every single one of your reasons for being cautious is fear of how others will perceive you or misjudge you.  It’s all about how the act of wearing the earrings makes you look, not whether you are causing actual damage to others.


“I’m careful because I don’t want these earrings to invite others to interpret me as…”

“I don’t want others to assume I’m blindly following a culturally inaccurate and outsider-interpreted trend.”

“I’m also careful because I don’t want to be read as …”


Maybe I’m reading too much into your wording, but the way you chose to frame the issue struck me.


I guess my question is, are you more concerned about not being lumped in with “those hipsters,” or do you just mean that you don’t want to inadvertently be aligned with the trend of thoughtless cultural appropriation.  I suspect you mean the latter, but wanted to clarify.

Thank you for sharing your reaction to my thoughts.

I do mean the latter, but I see why you interpreted my words as you did. As a museologist, I spend a lot of time thinking about how people view and understand the world around them. With that mindset comes the realization that I can only control my own actions and choices, not the reactions of others to them. Because I’ve been in professional and personal situations where I’ve observed and experienced the many sides of cultural interpretation and appropriation, I know how easy it can be to misunderstand motives, situations and individuals. And so I think about how others who don’t know me will decipher my actions.

The concerns I listed are ones that I have heard expressed many times by colleagues of different cultures who are understandably frustrated and sometimes infuriated by how people treat their histories, customs and creations as fad and fun and costume. Seeing their reactions to people’s choices has made me very aware of the messages I present through my own choices.

And, in the end, you’re absolutely right. I don’t want to be, or be perceived, as one of the many people who is careless with the identities and cultures of others. So I think a lot about both my actions and how those actions are read.

Thanks for the response Katie!  I feel that I better understand your perspective now.  I think this point in particular is key: “I think about how others who don’t know me will decipher my actions.”  It makes me think of all the times a person’s words or actions come across as prejudiced, and their defenders point out what “good” people they are (“I know Bob, and he is not racist!”).  But that really doesn’t mean anything.  It doesn’t correct the offense.  In that sense, perception is central.

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