Wavell Starr column

The feather bonnet headdress has recently been a topic of much debate in the news. From Victoria’s Secret lingerie runway models wearing them as fashion accessories, to Washington Redskins fans wearing them at NFL football games, to music festival attendees wearing them as they celebrate, to musician Pharell wearing one on the cover of Elle magazine – all of these instances have made headlines and have sparked varying degrees of public outcry. The world of professional wrestling has a long history of Indigenous performers with authentic Indigenous bloodlines. A common trait with many of the wrestlers’ in-ring characters is the headdress. Though imagery involving the headdress has drawn criticism, I don’t feel it is an issue of concern if the performer is Indigenous and has gone through appropriate channels to do so.

Since wrestling’s earliest days, characters representing various ethnicities have worn items of cultural significance to affirm their identity. The Iron Sheik wore a kaffiyeh. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper acknowledged his Scottish ancestry with a kilt. “The Great” Gama Singh wore a turban. Chief Wahoo McDaniel donned a traditional war bonnet. I was mentored early in my career by Bad News Allen, who worked a radical African-American gimmick, and I learned the social significance of the characters that we portray and how it governs our actions when we are “in-character”. Though the romanticized imagery at times draws criticism, I have witnessed first-hand how many Indigenous people support the imagery through their support of the performers.

I have wrestled on events with WWE Legend Tatanka (of the Lumbi tribe of North Carolina), who has been wearing a headdress to the ring for the entirety of his career. When I asked him about his background he told me the story of how he was presented with his in-ring name and character at a Lakota ceremony conducted by his adopted family. People clearly supported him in the ring and out. In fact, the local Indigenous crowds went wild for him. You could see the pride in their eyes, young and old alike.

I myself have worn a headdress that belongs to my father, who is a former Chief, on a couple of occasions over my 18-year career. My Dad was aware and supportive. When my career was really starting to pick up, I knew I would eventually be asked to incorporate my background into my persona to a greater degree than just calling myself the First Nation Sensation. To be proactive, I sought advice through traditional ceremony. At that time, I was encouraged to do my best to take my career as far as I could because young people would find inspiration and become motivated to follow their own dreams and aspirations from my efforts. I was told to “do what you need to do,” and I have.

Two years ago, I was approached with a dream opportunity to be featured in what I consider my favourite story line that I have ever been involved in, and perhaps the personal highlight of my career. The Hart family was promoting an event in Calgary to honour the legacy of the Hart family and Stampede Wrestling. It was a sold out show at the historical Victoria Pavilion, home of Stampede Wrestling TV. Many stars from the golden era were in attendance and the crowd loved the nostalgia.

Gama Singh was berating the capacity crowd on the microphone and the audience was hot. He announced that the infamous “Karachi Vice” had identified a talented prospect with potential and he was going to induct that prospect into the faction at that moment. “Wavell Starr, please come forward” he announced as I emerged from the back wearing a headdress and made my way to the ring for my moment. He continued “in order to make this official, we are going to ask that you remove that headdress”. I took it off and handed it to the security guard who promptly returned it back stage to where I was keeping it.

Gama then adorned me with a turban and gave me the name Sitar Singh, thereby proclaiming me as the newest member of the Karachi Vice. As a welcoming gesture for joining the family, I was gifted with a beautiful woman as well. The crowd was eating up every second of this storyline that invoked memories of yesteryear and as a long-time fan of Stampede Wrestling that dreamed of such a moment since my childhood, so was I. If I could relive any career moment for the rest of my life it would be that one.

Though some debate undoubtedly exists around the imagery presented that evening, I am very proud of that particular performance and look back upon it without any regrets. I think the issue has been blown out of proportion in the media and that not all cases should be a cause for concern. If filtered through the appropriate channels and the appropriate people are consulted with, then the use of the headdress is not as bad a thing as we tend to make it out to be. If the opportunity exists to potentially motivate youth, some, including myself, would say it’s a good thing.

Keep up with the latest news from Wavell Starr on twitter @wavellstarr and “like” his page on Facebook: www.facebook.com/TheWavellStarrShow

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