Horned Headdress Guy Is Not A Viking
White Supremacy’s Native American Thefts
Amid the chaos of the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, one individual stood out. Bare-chested, tattooed, face painted, wearing a horned headdress, and carrying an American flag dangling from a spear, he quickly became a visual icon of the media’s insurrection coverage. He was eventually identified as Jacob Chansley, a.k.a Jake Angeli, a.k.a “Yellowstone Wolf,” a.k.a “The QAnon Shaman,” a far-right conspiracy theorist linked to the Patriot Movement in Arizona.
Chansley’s attire inspired widespread fascination as well as confusion. “I don’t know what the hell this is,” wrote Elamin Abdelmahmoud of Buzzfeed. The most common interpretation was that he was aiming for Viking. This was a reasonable guess, considering that an imagined Viking past has become an integral part of white supremacist mythology and, as Kim Kelly of Rolling Stone has pointed out, Chansley’s body is etched in Old Norse symbols that have been co-opted by white supremacists. However, the horned headdress, the focal point of his ensemble, was not Viking at all. Contrary to popular belief, Vikings did not wear horned helmets, and the details of Chansley’s headwear point to a different source entirely. Instead of a metal helmet, his head was crowned in a fur pelt mounted with upward-curving black horns. Feathers adorned with beads hung next to the coyote tails on either side of his face. In a 2020 interview given to the Arizona Republic, Chansley explained how his costume drew upon Native American traditional ceremonial attire to support his assumed persona as a QAnon warrior-shaman. The horns alluded to the bison headdresses traditionally worn by members of various tribes of the Great Plains and Southwest, and the coyote tails invoked the trickster figure of Navajo legend. “If you ever tried messing with the buffalo, you get the horns,” Chansley told the interviewer. Chansley’s appropriation of First Nation ceremonial attire to participate in an insurrection intended to overturn the outcome of the 2021 presidential election is particularly twisted considering that tribal members across the U.S. overwhelmingly voted for Biden, and increased voter turnout on Navajo and Hopi nations is one of the factors that turned Arizona blue.
The story of how a QAnon conspiracy theorist appeared in Washington wearing a faux-bison headdress and got mistaken for a Viking speaks to the erasure of authentic Indigenous culture from mainstream public consciousness and its replacement with white supremacist iconography. We collectively associate Vikings with horned headdresses because of the success of German nationalist propaganda. In the nineteenth century, anxiety over a lack of common identity across the decentralized association of states that formed the German Confederation inspired a search for historical sources that could form the basis of a new unified culture. German scholars were inspired by Roman accounts of ancient, unconquered tribes living east of the Rhine, and laid claim to Old Norse literature from Scandinavia. In this spirit, the German composer Richard Wagner mined medieval Icelandic sagas in writing his epic opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. Wagner began sketching the libretto during the Revolutions of 1848 and premiered the complete work in 1876, just five years after the unification of Imperial Germany. Costume designer Carl Emil Doepler clad Der Ring’s pantheon of Norse demigods in fur draperies and horned metal helmets, crystallizing the image of the Viking in the popular imagination. The opera cycle quickly became a favorite of German nationalists, including Adolph Hitler. During the Third Reich, Nazi critics extolled its characters as exemplifying the virtues of the German race. Der Ring’s evocative costumes and the opera’s enthusiastic Nazi reception forged a lasting popular association between Vikings, horned helmets, and white supremacy.
However, Doepler’s costumes struck Cosima Wagner, the composer’s wife and an ardent nationalist, as an “archeologist’s fantasy” that made the singers look like “Indian chiefs.” With little information regarding the garb of bronze-age Norsemen, Doepler may have turned to other sources for the details of his design. At the time, Germans believed that observing contemporaneous “primitive” cultures could give them insight into their own ancient past. As historian Frank Usbeck has argued, the image of the Indigenous American merged with that of the ancient Norse tribesman in German nationalist mythology, complete with a set of imagined affinities: nobility, bravery, an aboriginal connection to the land, and the right to defend it against invaders. This constructed mythology eventually crystalized in the Nazi’s “blood and soil” ideology and its horrific implementation.
The appropriation of North American indigeneity to support displacement and ethnic cleansing was not entirely a German invention. On December 16, 1773, American colonists of English descent, calling themselves the Sons of Liberty, put on Mohawk ceremonial garb, boarded three British East India trading ships, and dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. The Boston Tea Party was just one of many protests in which white colonists assumed First Nation identities to oppose the heavy taxation that Britain required to pay off its debt from the Seven Years’ War. The war had secured the continent for British occupation but had ended with the Proclamation of 1763 that prohibited further colonial settlement west of the Appalachian mountains.
Like Chansley’s carefully-constructed costume, the Sons of Liberty’s choice of riot attire was deeply symbolic. In a 1774 allegorical cartoon entitled “Liberty Triumphant: Or the Downfall of Oppression,” Lady Liberty stands firmly on the North American continent holding a drawn bow aimed at Britain. She wears a flowing Roman-style robe paired with a straight-up eagle-feather headdress. A group of figures, described in the caption as “The Sons of Liberty represented by the Natives of America in their savage garb,” prepare to back her up. By donning Indigenous dress, white colonial figures laid their claim to the continent and transferred imaginary Native qualities such as unfettered freedom and noble heroic savagery to themselves.
Lady Liberty donned a Native-style headdress again in 1863 for her ascent to the top of the newly-constructed Capitol building as “The Statue of Freedom.” In 1855, sculptor Thomas Crawford submitted a design in which Freedom wore a liberty cap similar to those worn by emancipated slaves in Roman times. Jefferson Davis, the Secretary of War and future president of the Confederacy rejected the design because the history of the liberty cap “renders it inappropriate to a people who were born free and should not be enslaved.” Crawford combined classical and Native American elements in his revision. Freedom’s new Roman-style military helmet was topped with a crest “composed of an eagle’s head and a bold arrangement of feathers, suggested by the costume of our Indian tribes,” as Crawford himself described it.
One of the tragic ironies of the Freedom Statue was that Philip Reid, an enslaved Black metalworker, oversaw its casting in bronze, but Crawford’s use of a Native-style crest to symbolize American freedom embeds a second tragic irony. In the year before the statue assumed her position on top of the Capitol dome, Congress passed three major pieces of legislation that would devastate First Nations, following two hundred and fifty years of nearly constant war, dispossession of ancestral tribal lands, and forced removals by death march directed by the United States government. The Pacific Railway Act, the Morril Act, and the Homestead Acts were signed by President Lincoln in 1862 and accelerated the ethnic cleansing of the American continent and its resettlement with European immigrants. These acts enabled the extraction of vast wealth from Native lands and its redistribution to American universities, corporations, and individuals. Crawford’s design for a pediment entitled “The Progress of Civilization,” mounted in 1863 over the Senate’s east entrance, commemorated the spirit of American triumphalism over Indigenous peoples. According to Montgomery Meigs, who directed the project, the pediment represented “our history of the struggle between civilized man and the savage, between the cultivated and the wild nature.” A female figure depicting America stands at the apex, flanked on the left by figures allegorizing the industry of the young nation. The right side, shown below, depicts a Native family. The husband, wearing an eagle feather war bonnet, cradles his head in despair as a white settler chop down a tree. Near the family lies a grave.
Ideologies of white supremacy require a rejection of facts and their replacement by imagined histories and fabricated mythologies. We are now seeing first hand how these myths are generated in real-time. Alongside the myth of the stolen election and the QAnon conspiracies, white supremacists continue to appropriate the experience and identities of First Nation peoples to construct artificial narratives of persecution and to rationalize racial violence. The harm in any cultural appropriation is not the borrowing, per se, it is the alteration of meaning when symbols are taken out of their original cultural contexts and used for new purposes. Americans have yet to undergo a national reckoning with the complex five-hundred-year history of genocide and ethnic cleansing of Indigenous peoples. In the absence of genuine history, only the mythology remains.