The Perils of Culturally Appropriative Halloween Costumes

Guest Commentary
"Pocahottie" costume does not honor Native women

“Pocahottie” costume does not honor Native women

I recently had a long back and forth with a Facebook acquaintance of mine around the issue of wearing a Native American “costume” for Halloween. She thinks it’s okay and can be done respectfully, to honor and flatter Native people.

In short, I disagree. It is extremely problematic to reduce any minority to a stereotype, a “costume,” and it is especially problematic to try to do so with Native Americans. I put a lot of thought and effort into explaining why I have a problem with that type of costume.  I’ve written papers for classes in graduate school that were shorter, less articulate, and that I was less proud of than this letter. I’ll withhold her name, but as she herself once recommended to me, I don’t post anything on Facebook that I don’t want to be made public. Hopefully she followed her own advice.

I wasn’t really angry at her inability to see my point so much as I was disturbed by it, concerned. Writing that post was a public service. I was lending my voice, my perspective, to many people who feel uncomfortable seeing their culture, history, and struggles, indeed, genocide, reduced to a caricature – whether they’re Native, Black, Hispanic, Gay, or any other minority, even a Woman. Not everyone in that situation is able to articulate why it makes them uncomfortable.  And few speak up when they see someone wearing a costume like that. Those who do, sometimes share articles, or blog posts, of people who could articulate their discomfort.  wanted to offer a similar service.

After I’d posted my letter, I thought the messages contained in it might be of interest to the general public. People who see these costumes and are made uncomfortable by them might learn something they could say to their cousin, their co-worker, their classmate, their friend. Or they could just point them to this article.  Others who might not think it’s a big deal might better understand why some of us get offended when we see these types of costumes.  “Aren’t there bigger issues to worry about,” my Facebook acquaintance asked at one point.  Part of my essay addressed this question like this: reducing a minority group to a Halloween costume is only one symptom of the majority culture’s inability to see us as people, and tendency to reduce us to stereotypes.  There are other symptoms, many of them more present, more real, more hurtful.  But an insult is not painless just because it is not a slap, a kick, a police dog sicced on you at a protest march.

The issue here is not just interpersonal racism. It’s not all name-calling or not hiring someone because of their appearance or accent (although those are very real phenomena, too).  Discriminatory action can be impersonal, systemic.

Alaska Natives are 19.5% of the population of Alaska, but represent 37% of currently incarcerated individuals, or 60% of children in foster care.  Alaska Native children make up half of law enforcement referrals and school-related arrests, despite being one-sixth of the total school population; across the country, White children acting up are disciplined less harshly than minority kids committing the same offences, and in particular minorities are much more likely to receive out-of-school suspension or even jail time.  No one individual needs to harbor consciously discriminatory beliefs to enact these inequities (although many in these systems probably do).  The systems themselves are set up to disadvantage people who are not members of the majority culture.

Our current position as Native people in Alaskan or American society is dictated by 150-500 years of oppression, assimilation, marginalization, and many (including me) argue, genocide. The UN definition of genocide includes outright widespread killing, as well as any systematic attempt to destroy a group of people or their culture, including through forced sterilization (which Indians were subjected to), removing children from their families (see the boarding school legacy, as well as above with regard to foster care), outlawing minority cultural practices (it was illegal to practice Indian religions until 1978), etc. But we were also subjected to outright killing.  Look up the Sand Creek massacre in Colorado in December 1864, for example.  On that winter day, 160-500 innocent Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, who flew both an American and white flag of peace when they saw Colorado militia soldiers (volunteer, privately armed citizens) approaching, were casually executed and their bodies desecrated and mutilated.  One eye witness to the massacre, New Mexico infantry Lt. James D. Cannan, gave the following testimony to the Adjunct General’s Office at Fort Lyon Colorado, in 1865.

“The [militia] command of Colonel Chivington was composed of about one thousand men. The village of the Indians consisted of from one hundred to one hundred and thirty lodges, and, as far as I am able to judge, of from five hundred to six hundred souls, the majority of whom were women and children. In going over the battle-ground the next day, I did not see a body of man, woman, or child but was scalped; and in many instances their bodies were mutilated in the most horrible manner, men, women, and children–privates cut out, &c. I heard one man say that he had cut a woman’s private parts out, and had them for exhibition on a stick; I heard another man say that he had cut the fingers off of an Indian to get the rings on the hand… I also heard of numerous instances in which men had cut out the private parts of females, and stretched them over the saddle-bows, and wore them over their hats, while riding in the ranks.”

Our ancestors were not even human beings in the eyes of the American majority culture.  Our languages, clothing, diet, spiritual practices, and family life, among other life ways, were stripped away from us – clothing literally ripped off our backs and burned, mouths washed out with lye soap or worse for speaking our languages, healers tortured before our eyes – by colonial authorities, often military representatives or missionary school masters.  American culture was literally beaten into us.  “Kill the Indian (in him) to save the man.”

So what does all this history have to do with “costumes”?

One of the dangers of Native American themed costumes is that it reduces us to stereotypes. That is the exact same type of thinking, similar in kind if not degree, that led to the Sand Creek massacre. It sees us as a group of people reducible to a single dimension, which is harmful in and of itself, but that one dimension is also itself often problematic.

The “Pocahottie” costume, as a class, for example, is not only damaging because it oversexualizes women in the manner of sexy-X costumes where X is Nurse, Zombie, or whatever-that is a real issue. But it also recapitulates, admittedly largely unconsciously, 19th century stereotypes of Natives as animalistic hypersexual savages.  That stereotype is also why the Indian Romance subgenre of historical romance novels is so popular. These stereotypes arguably contribute to the astoundingly high rates of sexual violence against Native American women.  Stereotypes, whether it’s “Pocahotties” or “Redskins,” hurt Native people. Cries of, and signs reading, “Kick them back to the Reservation” or “Let’s send them down the Trail of Tears” at sporting events featuring Native mascots hurt Native youth. These tropes arguably contribute to the astoundingly high rates of Native suicides and concomitant depression, both often accompanied by substance abuse.

Perhaps you would dress like an Indian to honor and flatter us.  I do not say that cannot be done, but I cannot take that claim at face value. Dan Snyder says he maintains the name “Washington Redskins” to honor Indian people.  They say the name “Redskins” derives from bounties put on Indian people in the Wild West: to collect your purse, you had to bring in the “red skin” as proof of your kill. We were hunted like vermin.  There is documentary evidence to a least partially support this etymology.  Even if it was not the origin of the name, that name, redskins, was used to advertise those bounties.  It conjures up the tortured ghosts of slaughtered ancestors.  Dead Sand Creek “squaw” genitals tied to American soldiers hats.

By dressing up as, say, a Tlingit for one day, you can “play Indian” without partaking in the historic trauma, culture loss, and heartache of the Tlingit people.  “Playing Indian” trivializes our pain.  It further marginalizes us, because we are not able to create the image we are known by within the dominant society.

Ask yourself: would you dress in a hole-y San Francisco Giants T-shirt and ragged blue jeans, and tell people that for Halloween, you’re portraying an American Indian living in poverty on one of the Lower 48 reservations, or an Alaska Native living in poverty in rural Alaska? Would you dress in three or four layers of dirty clothes, carry a Crystal Palace vodka bottle half-full of water, and tell people that for Halloween, you’re portraying a homeless Native on 4th Ave.? Or would that feel like perpetuating a harmful stereotype – a single dimension of Native life, not reflective of the vast diversity of Native peoples or cultures?

Stereotyping minorities is bad. Costumes that stereotype minorities are bad. But costumes that stereotype Natives hold a special place in history, due to the massive scale of our losses, our status as sovereign nations, and the fact that our oppression is present, real, today.

Kyle Dlaakaw.éesh Wark is Tlingit Indian from Hoonah, Alaska. He is an Indigenous Researcher and Policy Analyst at the First Alaskans Institute.



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