What's the fuss about Dame Trelise Cooper adorning some of her catwalk models in faux Native American headdresses? After all, haven't we all long worn gear like this at fancy dress parties -- or to the rugby sevens? And even other garments that may be considered sacred in different quarters, such as nuns' habits as used by Moschino at the Milan Fashion Week this year.

How come it's acceptable to appropriate the attire and adornments of some cultures and not others?

There are various ways to address this question. One obvious point that could be made is that in referencing the nun's habit, Moschino was making use of the sacred within their own (Italian, Catholic) culture.

But I want to focus on another aspect of the issue, which is the role that cultural appropriation has played in the colonial history of societies such as our own, the United States and Canada.


Americans have been "dressing in feathers" and "playing Indian" (the titles of two books on the subject) since the Boston Tea Party at least. Historically, this practice was one of the ways colonials separated themselves from the "mother country". It was a way to mark themselves as American and no longer British.

We had similar practices here, for example with Savage Clubs founded in the late 1800s -- and still operating in some places around the country. These clubs were named after English poet Robert Savage but in New Zealand adopted Maori icons and rituals, such as the haka, to mark their identities. And we continue to mark ourselves out as New Zealanders through performances of the haka and by welcoming dignitaries with powhiri. Likewise, in the US many sports teams continue to identify themselves using indigenous mascot figures, despite the protests of Native American communities.

That's one side of the historical back story. The other is that at the same time as the white settlers were "indigenising themselves" by dressing up and playing native, they/we were also engaged in comprehensive programmes to strip cultural difference from indigenous peoples themselves -- to make them effectively into people who might have a different skin colour but were otherwise "just like us" in terms of culture, values, way of life and so on.

One of the most insidious aspects of this was the privatisation of Maori land, making it available for sale to settlers and forcing Maori to leave the land and become wage labourers. Maori children have also, for generations, been educated in English rather than their own language, with all the impacts of cultural transmission that goes with that.

The massive success of these assimilation programmes is evident in the struggle for survival of te reo Maori and other indigenous languages, to point to one obvious element of the attrition of indigenous cultures and ways of being.

So cultural appropriation, from an indigenous perspective, continues both these colonising acts - in the act of adorning and enriching the white culture it strips away the meaning and place of the artefact or practice for the indigenous people it belongs to. Which means it's not just a bit of fun and decoration.

Dr Avril Bell is senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Auckland and author of Relating Indigenous and Settler Identities: Beyond Domination.