Elaborate headdresses have been worn throughout history by many different cultures, but many Americans mistakenly believe it is unique to Native American tribes. A recent promotional image of Nicki Minaj, who is Trinidadian-American, in traditional headdress had folks up in arms and crying appropriation.
— Evan Buck (@evvanbuc) March 16, 2015
But Nicki’s headdress pulls from a totally different cultural tradition. Let’s brush up on some Caribbean history…
Headdresses are a staple of carnival, which is celebrated widely across the Caribbean. Carnival is a European Catholic tradition brought over to the Caribbean by French and Spanish colonizers.
Carnival in the Caribbean has a complicated birthright, tied as it is to colonialism, religious conversion, and ultimately freedom and celebration. The festival originated with Italian Catholics in Europe, later spreading to the French and Spanish, who brought the pre-Lenten tradition when they settled (and brought slaves to) Trinidad, Dominica, Haiti, Martinique, and other islands.
The word Carnival itself is thought to mean “farewell to meat” or “farewell to flesh,” the former referencing the Catholic practice of abstaining from red meat from Ash Wednesday until Easter. The latter explanation, while possibly apocryphal, is said to be emblematic of the sensuous abandon that came to define the Caribbean celebration of the holiday.
Carnival traditions were initially restricted to European settlers, and slaves weren’t allowed to participate. So they created their own carnival festivities, which soon outgrew the European carnival in popularity.
Carnival was introduced to Trinidad around 1785, as the French settlers began to arrive. The tradition caught on quickly, and fancy balls were held where the wealthy planters put on masks, wigs, and beautiful dresses and danced long into the night. The use of masks had special meaning for the slaves, because for many African peoples, masking is widely used in their rituals for the dead. Obviously banned from the masked balls of the French, the slaves would hold their own little carnivals in their backyards — using their own rituals and folklore, but also imitating their masters’ behavior at the masked balls.
Over time carnival culture took on a unique island identity, with heavy elements of both African and native Caribbean style and history.
For African people, carnival became a way to express their power as individuals, as well as their rich cultural traditions. After 1838 (when slavery was abolished), the freed Africans began to host their own carnival celebrations in the streets that grew more and more elaborate, and soon became more popular than the balls.
Before slaves were brought over, primarily from West Africa, the islands were populated by native people, whom the Europeans called ‘West Indians’. There is a history of feather headdresses among Tainos and Caribs, native tribes of the Caribbean. Here is a Taino man speaking to a Taino woman in Jamaica;
Here are Dominican Taino people;
Their influence is clear in images of carnival headdresses. Furthermore, the use of feathers in Caribbean carnival celebrations also has distinctly African roots;
Important to Caribbean festival arts are the ancient African traditions of parading and moving in circles through villages in costumes and masks. Circling villages was believed to bring good fortune, to heal problems, and chill out angry relatives who had died and passed into the next world. Carnival traditions also borrow from the African tradition of putting together natural objects (bones, grasses, beads, shells, fabric) to create a piece of sculpture, a mask, or costume — with each object or combination of objects representing a certain idea or spiritual force.
Feathers were frequently used by Africans in their motherland on masks and headdresses as a symbol of our ability as humans to rise above problems, pains, heartbreaks, illness — to travel to another world to be reborn and to grow spiritually. Today, we see feathers used in many, many forms in creating carnival costumes.
African dance and music traditions transformed the early carnival celebrations in the Americas, as African drum rhythms, large puppets, stick fighters, and stilt dancers began to make their appearances in the carnival festivities.
The colorful Caribbean carnival dress you see today is a beautiful blend of African and native Indian influences.
…outside of the Carribean