When I went trick or treating with my daughter last year, I saw a little girl dressed as an “Indian” and I really wanted to explain to her parents that this is not an acceptable costume, but it didn’t feel like the right time or place.
I could just imagine how the conversation would go down:
Me [walks up to parent of child dressed as an Indian on public street]: “If I could have your attention for just a minute, I wanted to inform you that dressing your child as an Indian is actually really offensive to myself and many, many people.”
Parent [gets defensive]: “I think you should keep your opinion to yourself.”
Me: “I hear you, but I want to do you a favor, so you don’t have your child playing out racist stereotypes.”
Parent [angrily dismisses me]: “You’re being too sensitive! I don’t need the culture police telling me how to dress my kid.”
Why this costume is offensive:
1. Headdresses are sacred. Dyed chicken feathers mock real spiritual beliefs.
2. Fake fringe and buckskin forwards stereotypes that all Native peoples are alike and dressed like this, but worse,
3. that Native People are stuck in the past (you don’t see all depictions of white people in 250 year-old farm wear),
4. That better not be a tomahawk in her hand because the majority of scalping was done by settler murderers, and
5. Sexualizing Native women is dehumanizing which makes it easier for society to ignore the crisis of trafficked, missing and murdered Native women in North America.
Between October 31, 2016 and October 31, 2017, something changed in me. I was inspired by stories I heard from our friends and allies (particularly Deon Ben with the Colorado Plateau Intertribal Conversations Group and Jayden Lim with the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center Tribal Youth Ambassadors), who actively tell people — at festivals, at schools, and on Halloween — when they are mocking and devaluing Native cultures through offensive costumes.
I have had many discussions with non-Native friends about how to know when the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation has been crossed. The most common argument I hear is: “People have the right to wear whatever they want.” To that, I say, “Would you go around in blackface?” Everyone knows that blackface is racist today, but I don’t think everyday racism towards Indigenous Peoples has reached this level of public awareness.
It is hard to educate the public about why seeing a “Pocahontas” costume triggers trauma for Native Peoples, when our kids are still being taught “Thanksgiving myths” in school, when schools and sports teams condone the dehumanization of Native Americans through offensive Indian mascots, and when the Indigenous presence is constantly erased in our media. To learn more about why we are so sensitive, listen to this awesome podcast of mediaINDIGENA, “Why your kid will not survive being an ‘Indian Princess’ on Halloween.”
Learn more from Indigeneity about how to be an accomplice.
The Bioneers Indigeneity Program is an intercultural welcoming place for dialogue about these kinds of critical issues with people of all different backgrounds. Program Director, Cara Romero, and I strive to create a safe and mutually-respectful space for everyone to talk and learn about why things like cultural appropriation in fashion is offensive, without triggering defensive, relationship-killing statements like, “you are being too sensitive.”
Keep your eye out for more original content from the Bioneers Indigeneity Program to learn more about Indigenous Issues. We recently released a “Standing Rock Primer” for people interested in teaching about what happened at Standing Rock, and how it is connected to ongoing, systemic social and environmental injustices. We encourage you to read it. It will help shed light on why we are “so sensitive.” And I can’t wait to release the video of the 2017 Indigenous Forum Panel, “Fighting Racism in School” featuring some of the most courageous Native youth I know.
Inspirational Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown speaking at the 2017 Indigenous Forum Panel, Fighting Racism in School, about how he fought to bring down the Indian Mascots in his school
Coming back to today, how can we have those tough conversations about costumes? Here’s an awesome blog by Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations with some tips about what to say when your friend dresses up as an Indian for Halloween.
Happy Halloween from the Indigeneity Program. Be safe, have fun, and speak out against racist costumes!
This year, my daughter is a dragon, and I’m the Mother of Dragons.
Alexis Bunten (Aleut/Yup’ik), PhD, Indigeneity Program Manager