Native American spirituality goes commerical

For those of us the grew up in the public school system here in the US, learning about Native American culture and spirituality was largely focused more on the memorization of famous battles, and old white men with beards who held the title of “General” something- or other. We may have learned about some aspects of American indigenous culture, but this was usually done by viewing tee-pees and pow wows through illustrations in books that were likely also written by old white men with beards.


Today, Native American heritage and spirituality has been strangely mixed into the world of merchandising. Big name clothing retailers like Forever 21, Target, and even kids stores like Justice, are using aspects of traditional Native American spirituality to sell fashion, and more disturbingly, to sell the continued disregard for what these traditions mean for the people that created them hundreds, if not thousands of year ago. In fact in 2012, The Navajo nation even sued Urban Outfitters for branding some of their items with the term “Navajo,” which was included on items like flasks and the “Navajo hipster panty.”


It is no question why the western world is having a moment with things like tribal print, feather-headdresses, and hundreds of online quizzes that will “tell you your spirit animal.” These are beautiful, intricate, and unique pieces of art and ways of thought, and while it is true that most people who sport these pieces in their everyday life aren’t meaning to insult the culture of Native Americans past, present, or future, it is important to know where they come from and to appreciate them for what they mean, and not for what the big retailers are telling you to buy.


So here’s a brief list of some of the hidden spiritual meanings behind items you probably see in stores all the time.


  • The Headdress- aka “the Festival girls hat”

You may have seen this trend made popular by concert goers at festivals like Coachella and Burning Man. In fact there is even a blog that compiles pictures of this phenomenon, called whitepeopleinheaddresses. However, headdress were traditionally worn by great warriors, and each time a significant battle was won another feather would be added to the piece, which meant that those who wore headdresses with many layers of feathers, were highly respected and honored by others. Today they are used for weddings and ceremonial purposes.

ladyheadress                                 manheadress

Photo credit: Whitepeoplewearingheadresses,

Photo Credit: TrialsandErrors, Flickr    

  • Finding your spirit animal


Photo Credit: Kera Q, Stuff Happens

The ever popular quiz and gif based website Buzzfeed, along with many other websites features this quiz to “find your spirit animal.” even more interesting, this particular quiz is sponsored by insurance agency Geico, and the questions are undoubtedly tongue in cheek. Traditionally, choosing ones spirit animal is not possible. According to the Manataka American Indian Council, channeling one’s spirit animal is done by paying attention to the spirits around you and through ones own spiritual journey and understanding of the universe.

  • Smudging and incense


Photo credit: Wendy Kenin, Flickr

Calling out Urban Outfitters once again (sigh) with this sage burning kit described as “hand picked in Mexico by Sage Spirit” and meant to “balance + cleanse your life.” They didn’t get this symbolism totally wrong, as in Native American spirituality sage and incense are burned during rituals and ceremonies in order to purify and send prayers to The Creator. But smudging is also an important tool for aiding in visions through smell, and opening oneself up to healing powers.

It is important to understand that while these aspects of Native American Spirituality are being exploited for profit in some industries today, there are plenty of legitimate reasons some people to want to incorporate these traditions in their life. The difference is just in knowing the tradition behind these things, and appreciating and acknowledging the cultures they come from. So next time you’re drawn to a tribal print sundress, or some other Native American art (as I am myself, often times) just take some time to think about where they come from, and how you are portraying it.


  1. While I don’t disagree with your suggestion to be aware of the true meaning of garb and other spiritual things Native American’s use traditionally, I find myself questioning why there is so much more hype about not insulting the Native American traditions but not others. Many argue, it is just clothes or it is just for fun, so how do we stop offending this culture yet enjoy it? It seems like awareness is not necessarily the best answer. If we should avoid insulting this culture, don’t you think we should do the same for other fashion trends like the gypsy trend? What makes one worst than the other? I would be curious to know your opinion and maybe you have further evidence! 

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