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Why Nicki Minaj’s Feather Headdress Is Not Cultural Appropriation: A History of Caribbean Carnival

Avatar • Jul 10, 2015

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.

nickiminaj headdress

https://twitter.com/danae_ries/status/577622595698311168

But Nicki’s headdress pulls from a totally different cultural tradition. Let’s brush up on some Caribbean history…

nickitrinindad

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.

From AllAhWe.org;

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;

The Jamaica Gleaner

The Jamaica Gleaner

Here are Dominican Taino people;

atl.tlachinolli

large

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.

Trinidad

trinidad carnival

trinidad-carnival-beauty

Credit: Travel Channel

Credit: Yahoo

Credit: Yahoo

Tobago

Credit: Sureya John

Credit: Sureya John

Bahamas

Credit: Ebony.com

Credit: Ebony.com

Credit: junkanoobygigi.com

Credit: junkanoobygigi.com

Barbados

Credit: panamericanworld.com

Credit: panamericanworld.com

Brazil

Credit: aboutbrasil.com

Credit: aboutbrasil.com

Jamaica

Credit: visitbristol.co.uk

Credit: visitbristol.co.uk

Credit: Yahoo

Credit: Yahoo

Puerto Limon

Credit: repeatingislands.com

Credit: repeatingislands.com

Haiti

Credit: AfroPop

Credit: AfroPop

…outside of the Carribean

Toronto

aug12caribana4toronto

Credit: Torontolife

Notting Hill

Credit: Daily Mail

Credit: Daily Mail

Credit: Socanews.com

Credit: Socanews.com

Beautiful!

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R LongPig
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R LongPig

Bless this post!

Tabatha
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Tabatha

I love these headdresses! I love how the bright colors look against our many shades of skin. Man we are just doing the most! Absolutely gorgeous. People need to shut up if they are not for sure what the headdress is. Cause when you are proven wrong you just look stupid. I think Niki Minaj looks breath taking in that picture. Not that Niki owes people an explanation, but I’m thinking that she should have put a little caption saying that it was a traditional Trinidadian headdress. People assume that all feathered head dresses only belong to native Americans, but… Read more »

Corelle Perry
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Corelle Perry

Not surprised by that. If anything, I think Nicki Minja is annoying!!

Jumoke
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Jumoke

Wow people are stupid (for a lack of better words lol).
1) Nicki is Black. Black people collectively cannot participate in cultural appropriation. That’s backwards thinking.
2) Not everything with feathers is attached to Native American influence lol I guess since I live in Miami and there’s so much Caribbean influence I didn’t bat an eye at Nicki’s promo picture (also the fact that she’s Trini). During carnival season, that’s all Caribbeans talk about lmaoo

Chrissie
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Chrissie

Why can’t black people be guilty of cultural appropriation? Or do you mean in this instance because of the history of feathers in Caribbean culture?

Chazz
Guest
Chazz

Yes, we can collectively appropiate other people of color. Wearing bindis, or kimonos can be done by black people. We can’t appropriate white culture.

Kia Threatts
Guest
Kia Threatts

Actually black people can participate in cultural appropriation. With white culture we can not since we have to assimilate to survive, however, wearing things that are not of our culture and personal identity, we can. I am not Korean or Chinese, therefore I can not wear traditional garments associated with them because it is not my culture to adopt. I am not Indian so I can not wear a bindi. Just because I am a minority does not mean I can borrow from another minority as my own. Now, if I am going to that country and asked to wear… Read more »

Tiffany Holman
Guest
Tiffany Holman

I agree with your second point

cryssi
Guest
cryssi

Thank you!!!

Shanice Forbes
Guest
Shanice Forbes

Good article, but you need to fact check. Did you read the Jamaica Gleaner article? That man is not Taino. Only the woman and her mother described themselves as Taino. The man is a Cacique from Dominica. I’m Jamaican who lives in Jamaica so I should know. here’s the article for your perusal (http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20140705/lead/lead5.html) .

FYI-If you were born in the Caribbean you’re West Indian.

blackgirllonghair
Guest
blackgirllonghair

Shanice, thanks for pointing that out. We mention that native Caribbeans were referred to as West Indians by Europeans who were looking for India when they stumbled upon the Caribbean. Also we double checked the article and the man is Taino. He is described as president of the United Confederation of Taino People, but he is not Jamaican as we incorrectly stated. We are correcting that now.

Shanice Forbes
Guest
Shanice Forbes

Sorry, what I meant to say is that the man isn’t Jamaican. Good article. Very informative.

Adanna
Guest
Adanna

Cacique means ‘cheif’. He is Taino but just not from Jamiaca..Taino is really a more politically correct and less racist word than Carib.

Ganadora Loteria
Guest
Ganadora Loteria

If you were born in the Caribbean you’re West Indian’ — incorrect. Not all Caribbean people are considered or even identify with being ‘West Indian’ ie. Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans (from Dominican Republic, etc.

alt-K
Guest
alt-K

But is this not homage to the Carib Indians who were actually native to that part of the world? I’m sorry, but I don’t understand all the arguing about cultural appropriation. How about we think of it as cultural appreciation unless the person is actually trying to take credit for it? I just don’t understand what the big deal is. It’s like you can only appreciate and enjoy something if it’s a part of one’s own culture. If that’s the case, we should all stop wearing Western clothes or eating hot dogs or enjoying lunch at the local Jewish deli.

Rox
Guest
Rox

Someone on facebook (Sloane Cornelius) made a great point that I think the author should read: ” I was just going to mention this as well. I don’t neccessarily blame Nicki because I realize this was probably a stylist’s choice or the label’s decision and not hers (although I’m sure she had a say at some point). However, the reality is that this kind of fucked over ndns and trini people because of the fact that it’s appropriation and erasure of both of us. The person who made this is a white woman from winnepeg who specifically talks about how… Read more »

Melisa Boutin
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Melisa Boutin

thanks for this.

anon
Guest
anon

i agree…I’m Trindadian…and the ‘issue’ is that that headress is not Caribbean or have anything that even reminds one remotely of Carnival. Its a white persons take on a Native American Head dress and thats what it looks like.

caaps Ceps
Guest
caaps Ceps

Ah, but the trini would likely have been appropriating from the taino.…..who may well have appropriate for the carib.…..See, that it how culture works: people appropriate, borrow, copy, and thus new cultures are born.

blackgirllonghair
Guest
blackgirllonghair

Very interesting. Thanks for sharing. I think the article still highlights that feathered headdresses have strong roots in the Caribbean. But perhaps Nicki’s headdress in particular drew from a different influence.

Charmed
Guest
Charmed

There are no Taino. Taino descendants, yes. But no 100% Taino people

Pinchez
Guest
Pinchez

So everything is “cultural appropriation?” DOes using this word make people seem more intelligent? So what if a white designer was used? We (black people) cry racism, cry about preferential treatment, how we want to be on a level playing field. But when a non white person is playing on that field it’s appropriation? Howw so? And if black people or minorities borrow on the culture of another it is not “cultural appropriation?” WTH? I’m Afro Caribbean and the carnival today is not any celebration of any roots. It is just what theme is potrayed by the band for the… Read more »

Tiffany Holman
Guest
Tiffany Holman

In Martinique it is

Khadija M
Guest
Khadija M

That’s incorrect. Taino and Carib are two distinct groups of people that lived in the Caribbean. Carib being the more war-fearing and aggressive while the Taino were seen as the more agrarian group.

Voodoo
Guest
Voodoo

If Nicki’s headdress was more colorfully keeping to the headdresses that followed, I wouldn’t raise a brow. I understand the difference with Caribbean headpieces for Carnival and tribal be it African, Native American, Hawaiian or even Maori. I am black with Native American heritage (Black Hawk Nation), her headdress leans a little close to the headdress that a Native American Chief would wear (granted it’s not the long headdress).….that would be and is disrespectful. There are head pieces a woman can wear, but she does not wear a Chieftain’s piece. I think what a lot of people don’t understand about… Read more »

caaps Ceps
Guest
caaps Ceps

Other” are too easily “offended”. And by the way, since when do North Amercan natives use peacock feathers in their headdresses?

fgjd
Guest
fgjd

why does she have white skin?

Meowmix
Guest
Meowmix

That first picture under Dominican Taino are of Azteca dancers. Do your homework.

Tiffany Holman
Guest
Tiffany Holman

You get the point stop being so technical. After all that, that’s the only thing you chose to hang on to.

Meowmix
Guest
Meowmix

being “technical” is being FACTUAL. Black people can and do appropriate indigenous culture, and mislabeling Aztec descendants as Taino is ignorant and intellectually lazy. But you keep reaching. I can tell you’re desperate.

Letslivetogetherforthebetter
Guest
Letslivetogetherforthebetter

The Taino people were influenced by the Aztec, so there are more than likely Aztec/Taino descendants. We should uplift the mixing and influencing of cultures rather than attempting to isolate and separate. I believe you also need to do more research as well ??????

SKEEWEE
Guest
SKEEWEE

The ppl are likely from Africa anyway. Their styles are two similar to be unrelated. Africa had it first http://gallery.exoticwildlifephotos.com/africa-masai/h1D4D8150#h1d4d8150.

Felina Femenina
Guest
Felina Femenina

I don’t care about the topic — Nikki Minaj or so-called cultural appropriation — BUT I love all the pictures featured here of the beautiful black women from around the Caribbean wearing traditional styles in beautiful colors that flatter their skin tone. I just love black women…we are so breathtaking in beauty. 🙂

Pinchez
Guest
Pinchez

How so???
Cause this term is confusing the hell out of me. We have local whites here in my country where it is predominantly black. These locals may choose to cornrow their hair or put dreads( as is the case of my cousin’s ex) and I do not see it as “approriation”

my2cents
Guest
my2cents

In Puerto Rico, Mask and costumes are more traditional. Like “el Vegigante”
(the one on the left)

Beautiful pictures, I love carnivals!

Eilzabeth Gray
Guest
Eilzabeth Gray

Doesn’t appropriation have to include a history of /current oppression towards that people group and ongoing marginalization by the appropriators towards the appropriatee’s? I think that’s why minority groups without power cannot be guilty of appropriation.…but maybe I’m missing something?

KSonyka
Guest
KSonyka

No. You’re thinking of racism. Racism requires institutional/structural power (and that usually rests on a bunch of ugly history). So for example, black Americans can’t be ‘racist’ toward white Americans, because they don’t have the power to negatively influence white peoples’ lives institutionally (eg: via banks, the police, the media, the gov’t). They can’t, say… keep white people in ghettos via manipulation of the banking and mortgage industries, or relegate white people to lower paying jobs via long-standing Old Boys’ Networks, or keep white people from voting via control of the laws and justice system, etc, etc. Cultural appropriation just… Read more »

KSonyka
Guest
KSonyka

Let me try to tl;dr that.

Racism is prejudice codified by institutional power.
Appropriation is cultural misrepresentation, legitimized by visibility/credibility.

However there is some overlap, in that visibility/credibility is often a function of racism. Hope that makes sense.

SKEEWEE
Guest
SKEEWEE

Beautiful article! How can ppl not realize that feather headdress is also an African tradition http://gallery.exoticwildlifephotos.com/africa-masai/h1D4D8150#h1d4d8150 which makes me feel more and more that the natives in the Americas are African transplants. It is evidenced in the similarity of dress styles, religion, use of the drums and other styles of music, and dwelling places (huts/teepees). Not to mention that the only places in the world where pyramids have been known to exist is in Africa and Latin America. What does that tell you???

kim
Guest
kim

That headdress was way different than native peoples headdresses.

Stephine Griffith
Guest
Stephine Griffith

In SA and Caribbean(Latin America ) its ok to wear other ethnic groups cultural wear, because its culture.

Stephine Griffith
Guest
Stephine Griffith

Nicki can wear a bindi or sari she is a dougla part indian part african

So UL
Guest

this term cultural appropriation is irrelevant. so its wrong now for any human being to have their own personal connection to the many cultures of earth and the many ancestors? how about calling it LOVE and RESPECT.

KSonyka
Guest
KSonyka

But a lot of times it ISN’T love or respect. Off the top of my head: where’s the respect in taking a sacred religious object and treating it like a disposable fashion item you bought at Walgreens? (NA headdresses) Where’s the love when young white performers pump black culture’s talent pool and never give credit or support or even acknowledgement? Or when they gleefully promote every harmful stereotype in the book specifically to draw mainstream outrage— which doesn’t affect them, but definitely hurts the very culture that’s fueling their success? (Miley Cyrus I’m lookin at you.) Sorry but more often… Read more »

BrS
Guest
BrS

They don’t need to love or respect the culture it came from. That has never been a necessary justification for incorporating something from another culture. In fact it needs no justification.

So UL
Guest

Just to stir the pot of infinite possibilities.. how do you know that right now those who have “white” skin have not all re-incarnated from past lives as someone with “darker” skin, and vice-versa. Wouldn’t that be so hard for the mind to comprehend. Everything has a divine purpose.

trackback

[…] Black Girl Long Hair, 2015. ‘Why Nicki Minaj’s Feather Headdress Is Not Cultural Appropriation: A History of Caribbean Carnival’ Black Girl Long Hair, 10 July, accessed August 15 2015 <http://bglh-marketplace.com/2015/07/traditional-headdresses-in-black-culture/&gt; […]

Raeven
Guest
Raeven

Love this post. Just want to say that too photo is not Taino people.

niko
Guest
niko

yea really, looks like Aztecs to me…

blu jamaican
Guest
blu jamaican

Great article. The only way to battle ignorance on a topic is education. I don’t get mad at ‘outsiders’ for not understanding what I’m doing. I explain and enlighten. And the reverse is true too. I don’t make assumptions regarding other cultures and traditions. I accept and learn at least one thing. Being angry at someone else’s ignorance never makes any situation better.

BlackGirlShortHair
Guest
BlackGirlShortHair

Now these same people, who got angry for white models wearing african prints, are saying it’s okay for Nicki to wear indian head dress. smh!

Ganadora Loteria
Guest
Ganadora Loteria

You missed the point. Headress is a part of our (caribbean) culture/s. If you don’t lnow or understand our culture/s, then don’t speak on it.

kim
Guest
kim

Yeah “your” cultures headdress came from us natives. If you are not native it is cultural appropriation end f discussion.

Michelle
Guest
Michelle

Not Cultural appropriation. Looks like Kim here needs to educate herself on her own culture…unless she’s just claiming to be Native to (ignorantly) make her point. Seriously Kim, please do yourself and everybody else a favor…go do some research on the Native American Culture. Don’t stop there. Look up all of the different cultures around the world that are not Natives that use feathers in their headdresses. They date back thousands of years, and all across the globe. Once you do some real research…get back to us, I have done my research and I know without a doubt and for… Read more »

So UL
Guest

I totally SEE where you are coming from. However, if someone does not blatantly come out and say its disrespect (for example — Donald Trump blatantly calling out muslims) — then WHY do you only see it as that. Your entire post consists of this theme: destruction, ignorance, disrespect, white/black, even to the point of mentioning appreciation in quotations as if appreciation is a thing of sarcasm. Yet you have this idea that its supposed to change. Not with that focus. It is not so wise to focus on everything that bugs you, because life is a giant mirror.. everything… Read more »

Sheku
Guest
Sheku

One of the major issues, such as when I see people wearing Native American headdresses does come down to simply not being aware. People may say it’s out of respect and it very well might be, but the simple act of wearing it is disrespectful. In the case of Native American headdresses, they’re sacred honors that are awarded to people like soldiers and Chiefs. They’re not to be taken lightly nor warn casually. Additionally, you have the concept of many having eagle feathers. These are also sacred only to be warn in certain situations and never during a time where… Read more »

Alexx
Guest
Alexx

Best answer on cultural appropriation I have ever read.
I made me understand some things.

STAPAW
Guest
STAPAW

Your article was very well written and articulate. We cited it and linked to it in an article we just wrote on this topic: http://www.stapaw.com/#!Indian-Headdress-Cultural-Appropriation-Facts-and-Response/ca8l/5741afc90cf235ef26a601a8

033001
Guest
033001

Although this article hit the nail on the head, there still needs to be discussion about her appropriation of many Asian cultures (Check It Out, Your Love, etc.) Despite her claiming to be partially Japanese, it seems to be the same argument many white people make when saying their “great-great ____” was Native American to justify them wearing a Native American headdress to a music festival

trackback

[…] fun and dressing different than the societal dress code box that some might place on them. If amodel wears a warbonnet headdressit is notcultural misappropriation, it is having fun and dressing differently than the societal […]

Nova Saigo
Guest
Nova Saigo

The photo stating that these are Dominican Taino people, is incorrect they are Aztec. Most of the photos with girls wearing the elaborate headdresses are for entertainment and performance photos. The photo of the Taino man speaking to a Taino woman is correct, the man is Kasike Mukaro of the United Confederation of Taino People, and he is my Kasike (Chief, leader).

Jariah
Guest
Jariah

European Masquerades were actually inspired by the masked celebrations in western Africa, it was the Italians who first appropriated it and then it spread throughout Western Europe.

kim
Guest
kim

It is cultural appropriation because a) she is not native and b) that headdress is from native Americans. African feathered headdresses are completely different. That’s like saying a white girl who wears cornrows is not CA because white people wore braids too. They wore different kinds of braids. Not cornrows. Different. Do not tell a native when or when not someone is appropriating their culture when they know for a fact they are.

Michael Heister
Guest
Michael Heister

Granting that I haven’t done the research, the fact is the first peoples on these islands were Native Americans. It is quite possible that we know as the range of Caribbean headress styles today is a blend of African, Native American, and European influences.

In any event, it’s not cultural appropriation.

Michelle
Guest
Michelle

Not Cultural appropriation. Looks like Kim here needs to educate herself on her own culture…unless she’s just claiming to be Native to (ignorantly) make her point. Seriously Kim, please do yourself and everybody else a favor…go do some research on the Native American Culture. Don’t stop there. Look up all of the different cultures around the world that are not Natives that use feathers in their headdresses. They date back thousands of years, and all across the globe. Once you do some real research…get back to us, I have done my research and I know without a doubt and for… Read more »

Thandie
Guest
Thandie

Reply to Kim: Nicki Minaj is a native of TRINIDAD & TOBAGO, where such headdresses are worn throughout Carnival or Crop-Over. It’s not cultural appropriation. Our headdresses may look similar to the Native American headdress, however, we are not trying to copy or appropriate Native Americans.

Jules
Guest
Jules

Just out of curiosity! Is it considered appropriation if one attends carnival and dresses up for it if they are not culturally related to it? I’m wondering just because I’ve seen varying people dressed up for it. I’m not very knowledgable on the subject so I would love to hear an answer for it. Thank you

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