Archives For October 2011

We are not a costume.

October 31, 2011 — Leave a comment

Happy Halloween! If you didn’t get your fill from my Open Letter to the PocaHotties and Indian Warriors This Halloween, or the follow up of Halloween Costume Shopping: A Sampling of the Racism for Sale, here are some human reminders as to why you might not want to dress up as a stereotypical Native this Halloween: (lots more photos after the jump)

 (context for Robohontas here)

In case you were wondering, I’ll be dressing as Katniss Everdeen tonight. She’s fictional. and I’m a nerd. :)

Halloween Costume Shopping: a sampling of the racism for sale
Open Letter to the PocaHotties and Indian Warriors This Halloween
But Why Can’t I Wear a Hipster Headdress?
Nudie Neon Indians and the Sexualiztion of Indian Women
A Cowboys and Indians Party is just as bad as a Blackface Party
Paris Hilton as a Sexy Indian: The Halloween Fallout Begins (includes lots of links about the costume issue)
Mid-Week Motivation: I am not your costume

(Thanks Girlaboutcamp, Chelsey, Jaclyn, Robohontas, Bree, and SAIO!)

PS- You can still send me your “I am not a costume” pictures or post them in the comments, I’ll keep adding to the collection!

After my open letter yesterday, I feel like some people still aren’t getting it (maybe it was the 100+ comments telling me to eff off?). Despite my appeals to emotion and greater human decency, it seems that many people in the world of thar’ intranets need some more physical reminders as to why dressing like a Native person this Halloween might be a problem. So I, dear random-probably-racist-internet-not-friend, am happy to oblige. Because, as a person of color, that’s my job, right? To prove to you that racism exists? To teach you why these things are wrong? To offer evidence of such wrong-doings? What fun it must be to never have to worry about such things! What a privilege!

To state my case, I wandered to the Spirit Halloween website. I did a simple one word search: Indian. I got 56 results, all Native-themed. I chose a few at random to share with you below. Hooray!

To start off,  I give you the description for that “Sexy Indian” above:

Hey cowboy – get a look at this Indian! Stop him in his tracks in this sexy Indian Dream Catcher adult costume and all your dreams will come true. There’s no need for a bow and arrow – just shoot him sexy looks and he’ll make tracks in your direction – it might get so hot he’ll put out smoke signals!

Awesome. Cowboy/Indian stereotypes, mentions of dream catchers, bows and arrows, and smoke signals! But it gets better (worse?):

Put the wow back in pow-wow when you go native in this very sexy Tribal Trouble Indian adult women’s costume. They may need to break out the peace pipe because the other squaws will want to torch your teepee when their menfolk see you in this foxy costume!

“The other squaws will want to torch your teepee?” That’s….great.

But the “menfolk” are included in the fun too:

Go native American in this classic adult men’s Indian Brave costume. Your job – to hunt. Hunt for prey like food and beer or pretty women in this comfortable costume. Get what you want then lay back and enjoy – pass the peace pipe!

Glad women are equated with food and beer. Glad the costume is “comfortable” too. God forbid you be “uncomfortable” when you’re being an ignorant misogynist! And I won’t even with the peace pipe comment.

and don’t forget the teens and tweens…they want to bring boys back to their tipi’s too!

You are an Indian Princess, able to hunt, gather and lead. In this cute Indian Princess tween costume it will be a snap to gather and lead the boys back to your tipi! Dance to celebrate the harvest or welcome a full moon in this fun costume trimmed with lots of fringe, feathers and more.

I’m sure every parent wants their daughter to be gathering boys and leading them back to the tipi. but only while they’re mocking Indian spirituality by “dancing to celebrate the harvest,” of course.

and saving the worst for last:

Girl, you won’t be sitting around the campfire stringing beads in this Pocahottie Pow Wow costume! The work is done and it’s time to play cowboys and Indians, only this time the Indian picks off the cowboys that she wants. Put the wow in pow wow and practice some native American rituals in this sexy Pocahottie costume. Is that an ear of corn in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?

Yeah…I can’t.

I hope these can serve as examples as to why I’m so pissed off. The dripping misogyny and stereotyping is so blatant, it almost reads like satire. But these are real products, for sale on websites and in thousands of Spirit stores nationwide. Thousands of people are seeing, reading and internalizing these messages.

These costumes are hurtful and dangerous because they present a false and stereotyped image of Native people. The public sees these images, and it erases our current existence, so the larger, contemporary issues in Indian Country then cease to exist as well. When everyone only thinks Indians are fantasy characters put in the same category as pirates, princesses, and cartoon characters, it erases our humanity. Have fun thinking through that one.

But let’s be real for a minute. Can you seriously read those descriptions and still say that this is totes ok? Really. Be honest with yourself. Read them again. Think about if these descriptions were describing you and your family. Then tell me I’m being “over-sensitive.”

Thanks for playing, and have a happy, healthy, racism-free Halloween!

Open Letter to the PocaHotties and Indian Warriors This Halloween
But Why Can’t I Wear a Hipster Headdress?
Nudie Neon Indians and the Sexualiztion of Indian Women
A Cowboys and Indians Party is just as bad as a Blackface Party
Paris Hilton as a Sexy Indian: The Halloween Fallout Begins (includes lots of links about the costume issue)
Mid-Week Motivation: I am not your costume

Dear Person that decided to dress up as an Indian for Halloween,

I was going to write you an eloquent and well-reasoned post today about all the reasons why it’s not ok to dress up as a Native person for Halloween–talk about the history of “playing Indian” in our country, point to the dangers of stereotyping and placing of Native peoples as mythical, historical creatures, give you some articles to read, hope that I could change your mind by dazzling you with my wit and reason–but I can’t. I can’t, because I know you won’t listen, and I’m getting so tired of trying to get through to you.

I just read the comments on this post at Bitch Magazine, a conversation replicated all over the internet when people of color are trying to make a plea to not dress up as racist characters on Halloween. I felt my chest tighten and tears well up in my eyes, because even with Kjerstin’s well researched and well cited post, people like you are so caught up in their own privilege, they can’t see how much this affects and hurts their classmates, neighbors and friends.

I already know how our conversation would go. I’ll ask you to please not dress up as a bastardized version of my culture for Halloween, and you’ll reply that it’s “just for fun” and I should “get over it.” You’ll tell me that you “weren’t doing it to be offensive” and that “everyone knows real Native Americans don’t dress like this.” You’ll say that you have a “right” to dress up as “whatever you damn well please.” You’ll remind me about how you’re “Irish” and the “Irish we’re oppressed too.” Or you’ll say you’re “German”, and you “don’t get offended by people in Lederhosen.”

But you don’t understand what it feels like to be me. I am a Native person. You are (most likely) a white person. You walk through life everyday never having the fear of someone mis-representing your people and your culture. You don’t have to worry about the vast majority of your people living in poverty, struggling with alcoholism, domestic violence, hunger, and unemployment caused by 500+ years of colonialism and federal policies aimed at erasing your existence. You don’t walk through life everyday feeling invisible, because the only images the public sees of you are fictionalized stereotypes that don’t represent who you are at all. You don’t know what it’s like to care about something so deeply and know at your core that it’s so wrong, and have others in positions of power dismiss you like you’re some sort of over-sensitive freak.

You are in a position of power. You might not know it, but you are. Simply because of the color of your skin, you have been afforded opportunities and privilege, because our country was built on a foundation of white supremacy. That’s probably a concept that’s too much for you to handle right now, when all you wanted to do was dress up as a PocaHottie for Halloween, but it’s true.

I am not in a position of power. Native people are not in positions of power. By dressing up as a fake Indian, you are asserting your power over us, and continuing to oppress us. That should worry you.

But don’t tell me that you’re oppressed too, or don’t you dare come back and tell me your “great grandmother was a Cherokee Princess” and that somehow makes it ok. Do you live in a system that is actively taking your children away without just cause? Do you have to look at the TV on weekends and see sports teams with mascots named after racial slurs of your people? I doubt it.

Last night I sat with a group of Native undergraduates to discuss their thoughts and ideas about the costume issue, and hearing the comments they face on a daily basis broke my heart. They take the time each year to send out an email called “We are not a costume” to the undergraduate student body–an email that has become known as the “whiny newsletter” to their entitled classmates. They take the time to educate and put themselves out there, only to be shot down by those that refuse to think critically about their choices.Your choices are adversely affecting their college experiences, and that’s hard for me to take without a fight.

The most frustrating part to me is, there are so many other things you can dress up as for Halloween. You can be a freaking sexy scrabble board for goodness sake. But why does your fun have to come at the expense of my well-being? Is your night of drunken revelry really worth subjugating an entire group of people? I just can’t understand, how after hearing, first-hand, that your choice is hurtful to another human being, you’re able to continue to celebrate with your braids and plastic tomahawk.

So I know you probably didn’t even read this letter, I know you’ve probably already bought and paid for your Indian costume, and that this weekend you’ll be sucking down jungle juice from a red solo cup as your feathers wilt and warpaint runs. I know you’re going to scoff at my over-sensitivity. But I’m telling you, from the bottom of my heart, that you’re hurting me. And I would hope that would be enough.


Adrienne K.

PS- I wonder if you saw these posters? Because I think they illustrate my point really well.

UPDATE 10/27: Have a look at some of the costumes I’m talking about. I think it makes my arguments a lot clearer.

FOLLOW UP 11/3: A de-brief about my series of Halloween posts, with some clarifications and follow up.

FOLLOW UP 2014: I annotated the original letter.

But Why Can’t I Wear a Hipster Headdress?
Nudie Neon Indians and the Sexualiztion of Indian Women
A Cowboys and Indians Party is just as bad as a Blackface Party
Paris Hilton as a Sexy Indian: The Halloween Fallout Begins (includes lots of links about the costume issue)
Mid-Week Motivation: I am not your costume

Readers, if you want to send over an “I am not a costume” picture, I’ll put together a big post–power in numbers!

Chief Merman Christmas Ornament from December Diamonds is a traditional tribal chief that leads a tribe.”

He must be the “traditional tribal chief” of one of those NW coast tribes. They really like their salmon. Ayyye.

Yeah, I have no idea. Luckily this guy is only $23.95, much unlike our lovely $7000 “Pueblo Clown Goes to Sturgis” from last week.

Happy Friday!

Diamonds of the Sea: Chief Merman Ornament

(Thanks Maren!)

MerMAN (cough, cough). MerMAN.

Just a quick, positive post for today. I know many of you have seen all the coverage that Sasha Brown’s Open Letter to Urban Outfitters has been getting (making it to ABC news, Jezebel, all over!), and I’m really happy after truly years of writing about this stuff (especially at Urban), the word is finally getting out. I want to give a HUGE thanks to my friend Marjorie and her friend Brian, who’s a lawyer at Navajo, and the one who sent me the cease and desist letter back at the end of September. There would definitely be no discussion without them!

So, for today, my friend Scott sent me this video this morning, and I thought it was amazing. The video shows the staff of Winslow Indian Health Care Center, located on the Navajo Nation in Winslow AZ, rocking out to Katy Perry’s “Firework.” They made the video as part of the “Pink Glove Dance Contest,” which is about cancer awareness, and winners will get $10,000 donated to the charity of their choice.

Beyond the adorable-ness and positive message, I think this video makes concrete a lot of things we’re glossing over with the Navajo product name issue. The Navajo Nation is a vibrant, real, awesome community doing great things. They’re not some abstract, mythical tribe out in the desert, they’re a group of Aunties and Uncles dancing to Katy Perry and running a health center that supports both traditional and modern medicine (see if you can spot the sign for “Traditional Medicine Man Services” at the Health Center). I love it. This just totally makes me smile.

Vote for their video here! They’re currently in 9th place, let’s help them win the money for Cancer Centers of Northern Arizona!

Pink Glove Dance Contest: Winslow Indian Health Care Center

(Thanks Scott!)

I have yet to feel connected to the Occupy Wall Street movement, or even the Occupy Boston movement happening here in my backyard. I consider myself an activist, an at-times radical, and I clearly feel passionately about advocating for voices unheard and on the margins. But, Occupy Wall Street hasn’t appealed to me. There has been a lot of coverage as to why people of color, and Natives in particular, are having mixed emotions about this whole movement–and I agree with a lot of those sentiments. But I even have issues with the language and images being used to represent the Native presence in the movement. I’m not easily pleased, apparently.

Jess Yee (who I’m obsessed with) wrote a fabulous piece for Racialicious pointing out the inherent issues with calling the movements “Occupy….”, namely, that, oh, these lands are ALREADY OCCUPIED and sites of ongoing colonialism. She quotes John Paul Montano, an Anishinabe writer and his open letter to the “occupiers”:

I hope you would make mention of the fact that the very land upon which you are protesting does not belong to you – that you are guests upon that stolen indigenous land. I had hoped mention would be made of the indigenous nation whose land that is. I had hoped that you would address the centuries-long history that we indigenous peoples of this continent have endured being subject to the countless ‘-isms’ of do-gooders claiming to be building a “more just society,” a “better world,” a “land of freedom” on top of our indigenous societies, on our indigenous lands, while destroying and/or ignoring our ways of life. I had hoped that you would acknowledge that, since you are settlers on indigenous land, you need and want our indigenous consent to your building anything on our land – never mind an entire society.

I agree completely. But, being the person that I am, I also feel the need to deconstruct images and language–I’ve got a critical filter that can’t be turned off. So let’s look at the image above, the one that’s being widely used to “complicate” the Occupy Wall Street narrative.

This image (which I can’t find the original source for, so please send it over if anyone knows), was shared far and wide on Facebook, and even made it to the Indian Country Today article that quotes Jess’s piece. From my ventures around the internets, this seems to be “the” image used to push back on the narratives of colonialism in the OWS movement.

But, in my opinion, this image only serves to further stereotype Native people and present mis-information about the land which is currently being double-occupied. We’ve got the red and black motif, the Edward Curtis stoic Indian warrior with the eagle feather and buckskin–who’s clearly from a Plains community, with a buffalo, an arrowhead, and a red power fist. Reads like a list of “10 things to include to make it recognizably Indian.”

Yes it acknowledges Wall St. is on “occupied Algonquin land”–but one problem: Manhattan is Lenape land. So we’ve got the stereotypical Plains imagery to represent a movement that is taking place on the East Coast. Everyone already forgets that there are Nations and Indigenous Peoples in the East, and this just continues to marginalize and erase their ongoing presence in their homelands.

Luckily, I’ve come across some posters that do a better job at representing the issue:

This at least has a Lenape woman (Jennie Bob, picture from 1915), and I like that the message is clear at the bottom: “Occupied since 1625″–because, let’s be honest, I really don’t think a lot of non-Native people even know what “decolonize” means, which makes it easier for them to dismiss the underlying issues. But, it’s still a historic photo, which could be argued puts the issue in the past. I still like it way more than the original (again, if you know the source, let me know).


This poster comes from Oakland, and I like the juxtaposition of the current Oakland skyline with the Ohlone tribal member. No Plains warrior here.

I want to end with pointing out that not all of the “Occupy” movements have marginalized Native peoples and ignored legacies of colonialism. Occupy Denver has taken a bold stance, incorporating a 10 point platform from the Denver American Indian Movement into the overall message of the movement. The points can be read in full here, but here is an expert from the intro:

 If this movement is serious about confronting the foundational assumptions of the current U.S. system, then it must begin by addressing the original crimes of the U.S. colonizing system against indigenous nations. Without addressing justice for indigenous peoples, there can never be a genuine movement for justice and equality in the United States. Toward that end, we challenge Occupy Denver to take the lead, and to be the first “Occupy” city to integrate into its philosophy, a set of values that respects the rights of indigenous peoples, and that recognizes the importance of employing indigenous visions and models in restoring environmental, social, cultural, economic and political health to our homeland.

Lulululu’s to that.  If every “Occupy” City began with that foundation, I sure as heck would be out there with my signs and warrior-activist attitude. But you know I’d be breaking up some faux-”Indian” drum groups along the way. Appreciation without appropriation, folks! geez.

So what do you think? Is it more important to disrupt the narrative with images that non-Native folks already recognize and resonate with? or are the images like the “Decolonize” poster doing more harm than good? And what do you think about Occupy Denver?

Awesome articles you should read:

Racialicous: Decolonization and Occupy Wall Street
Racialicous: Occupy Wall Street: The Game of Colonialism (Jessica Yee’s article)
John Paul Montano: An Open Letter to the Occupy Wall Street Protesters
Unsettling America: Decolonize Wall Street
Tequila Sovereign: Manna-hata (Info about the Lenape history of Manhattan)
Indian Country Today: Indians Counter Occupy Wall Street Movement with Decolonize Wall Street
Indian Country Today: Why I’m Occupying Wall Street
Press TV: Indigenizing Occupy Wall Street (about Occupy Denver)
Occupy Denver: An Indigenous Platform for Occupy Denver (AIM’s 10 Points)

(Thanks to Kannon, who was the first one to point out to me that the Decolonize Wall Street poster was problematic.)

A couple of weeks ago, I drew attention to how obsessed Urban Outfitters is with the term “Navajo” to represent a catch-all stereotypical southwest/plains asthetic. Then this week, reader Julia sent me a link to the Anthropologie website, with several “Native” inspired pieces. The one that caught my eye was the “Haida Poncho,” shown above.

I just thought it was interesting, given we recently discussed Miss Canada’s horrific “Homage to Haida,” that Haida keeps popping up, rather than the typical Navajo or Cherokee.

First of all, this poncho is made by Pendleton, but is part of their “Portland Collection”–the hipster cool line that I’ve written about before. I went to both the Pendleton site and the Portland Collection site, and couldn’t find anything with the name “Haida.”

After the Urban post, a few readers pointed out to me that the products were not named “Navajo” on the original brands’ sites, meaning Urban had added the name on later.  Pendleton is generally pretty accurate with their descriptions, linking them to the correct tribe or community where the design originated, so I was surprised that they would call this southwest mess a “Haida” poncho. It makes sense that it may have been a branding choice by Anthro.

Oh, did I mention Anthro and Urban (as well as Free People) are all under the same parent company? Cause they are. Surprise, surprise.

So, if you were wondering what a Haida poncho would look like, here’s an example, made by the incredible Dorthy Grant, a Haida designer:

A little different, right? Here is where we pause and talk about how harmful this is to smash completely different cultural groups into one stereotyped “Native American Design.” This erases out existence as  diverse, living, and contemporary communities, and furthers the stereotype that there is only one type of “Indian”–the plains warrior that died out long long ago.

But you know what I thought of instantly when I saw the poncho? Wednesday Addams in the Thanksgiving Pageant:

Side-by-side comparison?

Look, I made Wednesday a new outfit!

UPDATE 10/11: A commenter pointed out that the website has changed the name from “Haida Poncho” to “Ashcreek Poncho”! Though some other third party sites are still calling it “Haida.” A definite step in the right direction, and pretty awesome if we had anything to do with it!

Anthropologie “Haida Poncho” (only $248!)
Dorothy Grant, Haida designer

Oh, (Miss) Canada
Urban Outfitters is Obsessed with Navajos
Let’s Talk About Pendleton

(Thanks Julia!)

What do you get when you combine a ken doll, some sharpies, maybe a little tempra paint, a small dancing mud kachina that looks like a bear, and an intricately carved to scale wooden three wheeled motorcycle?

This, apparently.

Thank my dad for this one–he was driving through Vista, CA on his way home from jury duty and spotted “The Indian Store,” a behemoth of a building that he’d never come across in 25+ years of living in San Diego. He got home and googled, and of course, this would be the representative image he chose to send me. I mean, how can you pass this up?

If you’re interested in purchasing this here piece that I’ve named “Pueblo Clown Goes to Sturgis”, it can be yours for the low, low price of $7000. I’m not kidding. Does it have to be mentioned the artist is non-Native? Cause he is. Duh. The site also shows him carving a “Native American style totem pole.” Awesome.

Or, you can send me $7000 and I’ll go to Target, buy the aforementioned ingredients, substitute the carved wooden trike for a plastic action figure one, and you get an “authentic Indian craft!”

Questions I have in viewing this piece:
- Is he wearing an eyepatch?
- Does he have sharpie 5′oclock shadow?
- Is he wearing a chocolate old-fashioned donut on his head?
- Is he scratching his behind?
- Why doesn’t his friend sit down in the comfortable-looking back seat? Isn’t dancing on a moving vehicle dangerous?

All joking and WTF-ing aside, this guy is making “art” pieces that include sacred pueblo kachinas, and is making a mess of them. Talk about appropriation and mis-representation. Not cool.

But if you’d like to support a real Indian artist and place an order for my version of “Painted Ken Goes to Sturgis”–let me know in the comments. ha.

(Thanks Dad!)