Please stop using my culture incorrectly.

Please stop using my culture incorrectly.

I often call out cliché photography styles on this blog. A simple search will yield articles on overused HDR, selective color and shooting on train tracks and roads. I totally get it, these styles are the go-to when you are just starting out as a photographer, and often portraits clients want to shoot on train tracks. We as photographers need to work to find our own style, not imitate the work of others. The next time a client wants to shoot a senior portrait on an active train track – do the right thing and say no. Granted that client will eventually find another photographer to do the shoot, but at least we can collectively start to make a difference. The one cliché style I haven’t touched on here is the improper use of Native American Headdresses and warpaint in portraiture. Who doesn’t like to play dress up? It is just Cosplay right? As long as nobody is getting hurt its all good? Let’s talk about it…

Why do I care?

I am native (not like Elizabeth Warren native .0001%). I understand the culture of my tribe and understand and follow our traditions. My last name is Tahquechi which in Comanche translates to Blue Skies. Through education, I learned respect for my tribe, its history and my ancestry. I strongly believe that the essence of native culture is fading away and needs to be preserved. Most native people are proud of their heritage, but few do anything to preserve it.  Ironically, I believe there are more non-natives working to preserve native culture than natives themselves. It is from this background that I pose this conversation to you – my photographer brethren and respectfully request that you stop the use of traditional native headdresses in portrait photography.

You’re doing it wrong

The misguided fact that all Indians wear the full feathered warbonnet was made famous by Hollywood movies and television. The full headdress was typically worn for ceremonial purposes or to intimidate enemies in battle. They were historically worn by many of the Great Plains tribes including the Cheyenne and Sioux. Gradually, other tribes began wearing these warbonnets to attract tourists, since the perception propagated by Hollywood was that all Indians wore the full headdress.

Only Native American men, chiefs and warriors, wore warbonnets (a type of headdress) even though women were sometimes warriors and even chiefs. This is usually the heart of the issue when a photographer gets attacked on social media for sharing an image with a (typically scantily clad) female model wearing a full warbonnet. The warbonnets were seldom worn in battle as they could be uncomfortable and were generally just used during ceremonies. With this in mind you should be able to understand that the compositions you are creating with female models running into battle wearing the warbonnet are not only disrespectful (because females didn’t wear them) but also contribute to the false narrative that all Indians wore warbonnets especially in battle, just like on TV.

Creating a composition with a female model and a warbonnet is akin to using Google translate to write a novel in a language you don’t understand, you may get the meaning across but the message being delivered may be lost due to lack of nuance and familiarity. In forums when this topic arises, I see people saying that it is no worse that playing cowboys and Indians and that the headdress is just a fancy hat so who cares. I feel sorry for these people because they have never had something culturally to believe in, or their self-centered beliefs are so strong that they can’t respect the cultures and heritage of others. 

Who is being hurt?

When I see your photo with that female model riding into battle wearing her bikini and full warbonnet from one tribe and warpaint from another it makes me sad. The only thing that could make some of these photos worse is if they used selective color so everything but the band on the headdress was in color and super grunge HDR so they look like something out of the opening credits sequence for Harry Potter. While you are at it, why not shoot the model on train tracks?

What you are creating is disrespectful to native culture whether you realize it or not, and whether you care or not. I understand the toxic culture towards minorities in society today and get the “I’ll do what I want” mentality. I don’t expect to change the mind of any photographers with this article, I just put it out there as a resource for others to learn from. I would like to point out that if you have this type of image in your portfolio you should also include some models in blackface and other racially inappropriate regalia for completeness.

The facts

Warbonnets always had feathers and were often intricately decorated with beads and animal skins. The more feathers on the headdress the braver the Indian wearing it was supposed to be; each feather was given for an act of bravery. The feathers of Golden Eagles were used frequently to make warbonnets.

Perhaps rather than playing dress up with someone else’s cultural iconography you should consider the ramifications of what you are doing and how it will make others feel. The misuse of the Native American Headdress in portraiture hurts all natives and their culture. 

The image

The image I used for this story came from Shutterstock, and all rights and attributions go to the photographer. I did not license the image for use, I used it with the full shutterstock watermark because I do not want to support a photographer who misuses cultural iconography for profit. I will also not name the photographer, if you are interested in licensing this image feel free to search for it on shutterstock as it was the first image that came up in my search. Being a photographer, I do find it ironic that I would use another’s work without full attribution, but in this case I feel it is necessary to illustrate the misuse of the warbonnet without supporting the artist.  


If you posted a photo of a female model wearing a warbonnet, you likely got this article linked to you. I hope you learned something about the warbonnet, it’s important role and why it’s misuse in art is frowned upon. My advice would be to consider why you feel it necessary to use the warbonnet in your compositions, and if perhaps there is another road you can take to honor native culture in your images, perhaps include native-made jewelry in your work rather than an improperly used cultural icon. If you purchase native-made jewelry from a native you not only support them, but you can help them and their business by linking their information in your image description for others to use.  The next time a female client wants to shoot a portrait with a warbonnet because her grandmother told her she was part Cherokee, just say no. It isn’t cool, it isn’t innocent, and it makes native people sad.

Hey! I love to hear from my readers! Feel free to contact me via my social media sites I would love to hear your thoughts on this or any of my other articles! Follow me on Twitter and Instagram and I will follow you back. Until then, get out and get shooting! 

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