A "Cowboys and Indians" party is just as bad as a blackface party.

In blackface, cowboys and indians, party themes, playing indian, racism, sociological images by Adrienne K.13 Comments

Sociological Images, one of my favorite blogs and a large inspiration for this here bloggy blog, keeps a running post of “race themed” parties on college campuses. Recently, they re-posted it because there was a big bruhaha in Canada over some boys and girls completely painting themselves black to “honor” a Jamaican sprinter, which you can see in the picture above.

 Visceral reaction, right? We all instantly cringe, and shake our heads, wondering, “what the eff were they thinking?!” Blackface, in our society, is an ultimate taboo. We know it’s wrong, though most folks probably can’t verbalize why other than to shout “THAT’S RACIST!”–More on that in a minute.

In addition to several examples of blackface at campus parties, SocImages also has some examples of students dressing up as stereotypical “Mexicans,” that I’m sure we all can agree are equally offensive:

As I scrolled down the list, however, I couldn’t help but think, “Wait, where are the Cowboy and Indians parties?”

Let’s look at some examples, all pulled from the first page of a google images search for “Cowboys and Indians Party.” These were not hard to find. Most were posted with pride–“look at my sweet-a** costume, bro!” They can’t be found on the websites of CNN or even the local newspaper. There were no bloggers calling for public apologies. In our society, this practice, completely akin to the images above, is accepted, condoned, and normal:

From the poster: “My friend Adam had a Cowboys & Indians themed party on Saturday night. Buddy and I picked up some stuff from Party City and a fabric store and made some pretty sweet Indian gear. The party was a lot of fun and there are more pics up on facebook if you’re interested.”
Caption: “7:40 p.m. There were cowboys and Indians everywhere…”
 This girl even made a nice collage for us! (/sarcasm)
“The Lambda Chi’s had a cowboy & indian party last night. I had so much fun.”
And then my personal favorite…
Which, irony of all ironies, comes from a photo gallery of folks in the peace corps, in Zambia.
So, why is it, that we as a society have deemed it “totes ok” to dress up in redface, but not blackface, or brownface? The explanation is long, and the practice of playing Indian goes all the way back to the Boston Tea Party, where the colonists dressed up as Indians without the benefit of PBR or ironic mustaches. 
According to Philip Deloria, who literally wrote the book on Playing Indian, the colonists used the racial drag as a way to assert their individuality and differentiate themselves from the British, creating a new “American” identity in the process:

“There is this simultaneous embracing of Indians, which allows Americans to  make claims of American identity. But at the same time, in order to make a  real physical nation, they have to dispossess those Indians”

This led to policies of Indian removal in the 1830’s, and the attempts to physically erase and assimilate Indigenous peoples. For “Americans” to lay claim to “their” nation, they had to get rid of the original inhabitants of “their land’. Throughout US history, donning redface has shifted and symbolized any number of movements, from rebellion to peace activism. But “real” Indians are always left out of the narrative. Americans are far too obsessed with their commodified and imagined images of “the Indian” to be concerned with true authenticity.

So how does this compare with blackface? In the words of scholar Kimberly Tallbear, “Black and White became a race binary, while White appropriated Red.”

Scholars and historians argue that blackface was about creating a white identity that existed in contrast to Black slaves, and asserting power over Black Americans by relegating blackness to defined, extremely stereotypical character tropes. This was done through minstral shows, where whites painted their faces with black paint to perform.

Blackface was about creating an identity in opposition (a binary of Black vs White), while playing Indian was about absorbing “Indianness” into a national identity and narrative.

However, playing Indian still relegates Native peoples to stereotypical character tropes. The images above show one “image” of an Indian–the feathers, the fringe, the warpaint, the braids. Indians are sexy maidens, fierce warriors, peace-loving environmentalists, all holding up their hand to say “How.” These characters were solidified through early cinema, where Westerns all seemed to include the helpless Indian maiden and the evil Indian warrior–all played by non-Native actors, of course–and continue through to today (see: oh, every post on this blog).

So, it’s clear there are large similarities between blackface and playing Indian–both are intentional acts that draw upon stereotypes and a racist history to enact whiteness–but our Nation has created a narrative in which blackface=racist, while redface=normal.

Does that make it ok to play Indian or host a cowboys and Indians theme party? Absolutely not. It just goes to show how deeply the erasure of Native peoples runs. Just because our national narrative and history has somehow normalized the phenomenon does not excuse its roots in the process of systematic erasure of the First Peoples from our homelands.

Bottom line: Blackface=dressing up in a stereotypical costume of a race that is not your own, drawing upon a history of racism and inequality. Playing Indian=dressing up in a stereotypical costume of a race that is not your own, drawing upon a history of racism and inequality. Clear enough for you?

Sociological Images: Race-Themed Events at Colleges 
Native News Online: Philip Deloria on Playing Indian
Wikipedia: Blackface
Theodore Allen: On Roediger’s “Wages of Whiteness” 

But Why Can’t I Wear a Hipster Headdress?
Harvard’s Conquistabros and Navajo’s theme party
Playing Indian at Stanford Powwow
When Non-Native Participation in Powwows Goes Terribly Wrong

Editorial Note: I know I’ve extremely over-simplified a lot of this, and I don’t purport to be an expert in the history of blackface or playing Indian, so please, feel free to disagree or point to other resources in the comments!


  1. Kristin

    The pilot of Zooey Deschanel’s new TV show, “The New Girl” had a plot point that revolved around one of these parties. Her male roommates really want to go, because, as one explains, it is his only chance all year to motorboat a hot indian chick. (He either says ‘indian chick’ or ‘Cherokee’ – my TIVO fluffed the audio a little. Not that one version is better than the other). And of course at the event, there are the requisite white girls dressed in ‘hot’ pseudo-native attire at the event.

    These parties are really common in the Greek system, but are usually called Wild West Parties, because members seem to think the racism issues are due to using the word ‘indian’ in the title of the party, not the actual event/costumes/appropriation. So, these poor white kids seem to think that if they just call it a ‘wild west party’, instead, but still dress as Poca-whore-tus, the patron saint of sorority girl costuming, somehow, that is not going to be offensive.

  2. Sarah C-L

    Oh Adrienne! Thank you thank you thank you. This whole issue makes me so mad I wanna throw up. I am so glad there is a voice like yours calling out what to me is CLEARLY racist behaviour. Reposting far and wide.

  3. Brigid Keely

    He used the word “Cherokee” and the tempting Indian Princess who was wildly eager for his motorboating looked like the Land O’Lakes Indian Maiden. But it’s totally ok, it’s for charity!

  4. Leashley

    I was actually assigned Philip Deloria’s book for a undergraduate class that I was unfortunately never able to complete. I kept it an finally finished reading it this year, and It really had an impact on me. My father had enrolled me in the local Indian Princesses chapter when I was younger, and I dressed up as an Indian Princess for Halloween a few years in elementary school. My parents would be considered by most to be liberal, but the ignorance of how these things that would have been considered ‘innocent play’ of my white childhood has had such an impact on native communities. These Greek kids probably think that they are just continuing this ‘innocent play,’ and need to be fully educated of the consequences of their actions.

  5. Mzee Ukumbwa Sauti, M.Ed.

    Powerful and important writing here…however insanely troubling and enraging…thank you for this very necessary challenge to the conscious/unconscious and blatant racism and anti-indigeny that these young people and not-so-young social structures and institutions demonstrate. This is reprehensible and deserving of much more attention. Thank you, again.

  6. BLT

    Be careful when you use the word “authentic”. Residential schooling in Canada displaced hundreds of thousand of children and fractured their relationship to the land, language and ceremony. What is considered “authentic” by one First Nations person may not be accessible by another because of the ability to access their culture. If a person grew up away from their culture (not by their choice) is their “authenticity” lessened? See what I’m saying? I grew up in a city and consequently, don’t speak my language. So does that make me less Native than my brothers and sisters of the reserve who can?

    check out peoplehood by R. K. Thomas. He does some really neat stuff surrounding the notion of “Indianess” and “authenticity”


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