The one stop for all your “Indian costumes are racist” needs!

October 1, 2013 — 23 Comments

Spirit Halloween Tonto

It’s that time of year again! Halloween. Time for folks to grab the nearest Indian costume off a shelf, put it on, and prance around a costume party as they get schwasty on witches brew. Or even better, for parents to grab an *adorable* little Indian outfit to socialize their child super early into an oppressive system that benefits from the genocide and ongoing colonialism of Native peoples. But the excellent thing about this time of year, besides the fact that it will be over in a month? No, not pumpkin spice lattes…

The fact that I’ve already covered this issue so. many. times. And many different angles. So I was going to write another piece, mostly about that hideous Tonto costume above, which is about 8 feet tall in the window of my local Spirit store, but I’m over it. The bottom line is this: Don’t dress up like an Indian for Halloween. No, Pocahontas and Tonto aren’t ok because they’re “fictional” and/or “historic” “characters”–they’re based off tired stereotypes that continue to marginalize Native peoples. No, you can’t wear your Boy Scout Order of the Arrow regalia, even if a “real Indian” taught you how to make it. It’s not respectful to wear it as a costume, and I’ll argue that it’s not respectful for you to wear it ever, but that’s another post. No, the fact that you have a distant Indian ancestor does not make it ok for you to wear a $19.99 costume shop monstrosity. Especially if he/she was “Cherokee.” Our traditional clothing looks nothing like that. No, this is not the result of “PC culture” gone awry. This is about basic human decency and respect. My culture is not a costume. There are 566+ tribes in the US alone. We don’t wear skimpy dresses, fake buckskin, pony beads, and neon feathers. No, it’s also not ok to dress as a “Mexican” with a sombrero and a mustache. Or a Geisha. Or a “phat pimp.” Or a “phat rapper.” Just stay away from the racialized costumes. It’s pretty simple. There are like ten-thousand-million other things for you to dress up as. Any other objections?

So, for the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be re-posting my Halloween posts from the last few years, because the argument is still the same, and will forever be the same. First up, from 10/27/2011:

Halloween Costume Shopping: A sampling of the racism for sale 

Update 10/1/13: All the links still work, so all these costumes are still available for purchase. But interestingly, the descriptions have changed. So I’ve updated each of the descriptors with the new one from this year for comparison. In my opinion, it doesn’t make the costume any better, but it is noteworthy that they’ve toned down the blatant racism and misogyny. Not completely, but a bit. 

 

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! (New Description: Stop everyone in their tracks when they catch you in this Sexy Dream Catcher adult womens costume. Give Pocahontas a run for her money in the tan, faux suede, spaghetti strap mini dress, complete with an open back, faux wood and turquoise bead work and a fringed mini apron.)

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. (New description: You’ll put the wow in pow-wow when you go native on Halloween in this sexy Tribal Trouble Indian adult womens costume. The brown, stretch, faux suede dress features a long fringe and plastic bead detail, complete with a feather embellished headpiece.)

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. (New Description: Go native American in this classic Indian Brave adult mens costume. Your job – to hunt. Hunt for food and beer in this comfortable costume and get your fill. Take what you want then lay back and enjoy – pass the peace pipe!) 

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. (New description: Dance to celebrate the harvest or welcome a full moon in this Indian Princess teen costume. The brown, 100% polyester dress is trimmed with tan fringe and comes complete with a matching arm band, hair ornament and tan boot covers.)

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. (New Description: Go native on Halloween when you don this Pocahottie adult womens costume. The brown, microsuede stretch dress features intricate Indian beading and a layered fringe hem, complete with matching feather headpiece. The pow wow won’t start until you arrive!)

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!

Other Halloween posts (I’ll be sharing some of these in full later this week):
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

Adrienne K.

Posts

  • Laura Hyatt

    They need to stop making these costumes

  • Bernadette Anderson

    ok I don’t get offended, life is to short to get offended by silly costume’s. You don’t see superman or spider man or bat man getting offended do you? or doctor’s or witches? I mean come on its a costume its a long way from who we are as native people. If someone wants to dress up let them, if a child wants to dress up like a native let them, I think its cute. Maybe they would want to educate themselves later in life on native Americans but if we try and victimize ourselves because of a silly costume then we have lost touch with who we are. WE HAVE BIGGER things to worry about then a darn costume or the name of a foot ball team or baseball team.

    • michaeljpatrick

      Yes. Native costumes are no more offensive than Dracula, or Batman because Natives are fictional characters that don’t exist and not people who don’t wish to be ridiculed.

      • Bernadette Anderson

        lol I thought that to but I was like fuck it, People take things to damn seriously. damn I am 100% Shuswap from the shuswap nation. so its not like I am just being a jerk. but I don’t give a fuck about native costumes because I have bigger things in life to worry about!!!

        • Adrienne_K

          Hi Bernadette,

          I actually get those comments a lot, that we as Native peoples have “bigger things in life to worry about”, and I absolutely agree. I wrote more about why I see these issues of representation as important here: http://nativeappropriations.com/2012/03/why-tonto-matters.html

          But this is the crux of my opinion:
          “Yes, unequivocally, we have big things to tackle in Indian Country. We have pressing and dire issues that are taking the lives of our men and women everyday, and I am in absolutely no way minimizing this reality. But we also live in a state of active colonialism. In order to justify the genocide against Native peoples in this country, we must be painted as inferior–that’s the colonial game. These images continue that process. The dominant culture therefore continues to marginalize our peoples, to ignore and erase our existence. We are taught everyday, explicitly in classrooms, and implicitly through messages from the media, that our cultures are something of the past, something that exists in negative contrast to “western” values, and something that can be commodified and enjoyed by anyone with $20 to buy a cheap plastic headdress. These stereotypical images like Johnny Depp’s Tonto feed into this ongoing cycle, and until we demand more, our contemporary existence (and therefore the “real” problems in Indian Country) simply doesn’t exist in the minds of the dominant culture.

          How can we expect mainstream support for sovereignty, self-determination, Nation Building, tribally-controlled education, health care, and jobs when the 90% of Americans only view Native people as one-dimensional stereotypes, situated in the historic past, or even worse, situated in their imaginations? I argue that we can’t–and that, to me, is why Tonto matters.”

          • FX

            Thank you Adrienne. I am a classroom teacher and I’m going to send a note home to the parents summing this up BEFORE we have our Halloween party. Children are indocutrinated into racism little by little and at a very early age. It’s the “little things” like this that allow people to develop into adults who willfully ignore the rights and general human-ness of other folks.

        • Lana M.

          I’m curious, do you know what “micro-aggressions” are in reference to oppressed groups? People choose to dress up as “Indians” because they wish to exoticize, homogenize, and erase our existence. Being NDN isn’t a costume we have the privilege of taking off – we live it every day. There are plenty of situations where some of us have felt our lives would be easier if we could take off our ethnicity or race for a day, avoid discrimination. It makes our struggle seem trite to play dress up with it.

          Furthermore, by equating us with fictional characters, they are stating that they do not care if we exist or not, because we are theirs to insult and degrade as they see fit. It’s not “just a costume” or “just a team name;” it’s the flagrant disrespect and dehumanization of various NDN cultures.

          • Bernadette Anderson

            Let it go, your giving them power over us, over costumes. do you get that? I believe in my heart that all the great chief’s would be like REALLY? you all are sitting around crying about people using costumes and not worrying about the neglect that we get from our own people? or the abuse’s that our own people put on us? or about the drilling and fracking going on thats going to affect out health and wild life? About the young adults and children getting involved in gangs and violence and drugs and alcohol. you would rather waste your time wining and bitching about a bunch of people wearing costumes?? we have bigger problems!! I refuse to give anyone power over me by letting a costume upset me or degrade me.

            • Alexson Philip

              Damn. Never thought someone could be so stupid and apathetic. Bernadette, check your privelege.

    • http://communityvillage.us/ Glenn Robinson

      Insidious issues are big issues too.

  • ces

    So. I had a native halloween costume once. I was 11, and had just read a Sacagaewea biography and was SUPER into being a translator when I grew up (nerd alert). So my mom helped me make a (reasonably) historically accurate trail costume. This is probably the type of costume that makes me least uncomfortable and has the most “but is historical!” defenses and it wasn’t (at ALL — I grew up in NH and those Octobers are COLD) revealing and I still feel it was borderline, and probably wouldn’t let my child do it now. The level of hubris, to say “well I know my motives are pure so it doesn’t matter if other people interpret this the wrong way or get offended” is just so high. Like the dresser-upper’s internal thought process is more important than the viewer’s experience or the risk (horror) of someone seeing you and thinking “right on! ignore those whiners” — using your thoughtful use to find support for their bigoted one. Ugh.

  • Joanie Boucher

    So, in a previous article on this topic, you argue that people of other ethnic backgrounds basically don’t have any right to say things to you about being offended because of their “privilege.” In this case, you were speaking to their privilege of having light skin tones, ie: Germans and Irish. I am a white Jewish woman, so does that mean that my right to be or not be offended is removed as well?

    You speak of people in positions of power, and how you, as a Native person, are not in a position of power in our society. Yet you are a “Professor, Lawyer, Activist, and Poet.” You are complaining of a broken heart over Halloween costumes. I am a Waitress, and I have to endure racist jokes from employers and guests in order to keep my job and pay my bills. From my point of view, it looks like you’re the one with the privilege.

    You may argue that My skin tone invalidates my argument, but I am still hurt when people say the holocaust didn’t happen. And I am hurt when people in your obvious position of power say that I don’t have the right to make an argument like, “if someone dressed like a stereotypical Jew for Halloween I wouldn’t find it in any way offensive; I would find it ridiculous and funny” because I have light skin. Even worse, my light skin and un-obvious mannerisms make it so people slandering Jews have no idea that I am one, so by being innocuous I am more exposed to people’s blatantly hateful remarks.

    You may argue that I should find a different profession if I find myself in a position of being offended, but that would be making the same argument against feminism and sexual equality in the workplace. So I guess what I’m trying to say is, take your fancy education and your extensive writing skills, and write more about your own experiences with racism.

    Just lay off of the fucking halloween costumes already.

  • Guest

    Not surprising that my long thought-out response/counterpoint that took me hours to write out was apparently deleted. Way to only approve comments that make people with a different opinion look ignorant. Thats not really fair play.

  • Joanie Boucher

    Also, I may be beating the proverbial dead horse here, but if thousands of people accused me of being hypersensitive I might stop my self-validating long enough to consider that, perhaps, I was being hypersensitive, and thus less sensitive to more important issues. Most of your recent article seem to be focused on how upset you are over people in Native-inspired dress than any of the countless other issues you yourself have pointed out. I think it’s harsh to call out other commenters who disagree with the OP for being ‘ignorant’ and ‘privileged’ just because they’re in the minority.

  • Joanie Boucher

    So, in a previous article on this topic, you argue that people of other ethnic backgrounds basically don’t have any right to say things to you about being offended because of their “privilege.” In this case, you were speaking to their privilege of having light skin tones, specifically people of German and Irish descent. I am a white Jewish woman, so does that mean that my right to be or not be offended is removed as well?

    You speak of people in positions of power, and how you, as a Native person, are not in a position of power in our society. Yet you are a “Professor, Lawyer, Activist, and Poet.” You are complaining of a broken heart over Halloween costumes. I am a Waitress, and I have to endure racist jokes and comments without a bat of the lash from guests, coworkers, and even employers in order to keep my job and pay my bills. From my point of view, it looks like you’re the one with the privilege.

    You may say that My skin tone invalidates my argument, but I am still hurt when people say the holocaust didn’t happen. And I am hurt when people in your obvious position of power say that I don’t have the right to make an argument like, “if someone dressed like a stereotypical Jew for Halloween I wouldn’t find it in any way offensive; I would find it ridiculous and funny” because I have light skin. Even worse, my features and un-obvious mannerisms make it so people slandering Jews have no idea that I am one, so by being innocuous I am more exposed to people’s blatantly hateful remarks.

    You may say that I should find a different profession if I find myself in a position of being offended, but that would be making the same argument against feminism and sexual equality in the workplace. So I guess what I’m trying to say is, take your fancy education and your extensive writing skills, and write more about your own experiences with racism.

    Just lay off of the f**king halloween costumes already.

  • ka’ae

    But it’s not just Halloween — how many people have worn a plastic lei necklace or gone to a luau? Native Hawaiians have been “made fun of” for such a long time. Coconut bras (FYI – natives went topless – plus coconuts are itchy, no one in their right mind would put them in their breasts), monkey tiki cups, fake hula dancers, and plastic leis – they drive me crazy. My heritage and nationality is worth more than an eisle in a party store.

  • arter130

    If offense ye seek, offense ye shall find.

  • hargen

    I entered cowboy into the spirit site and got 134 costumes, 37 for French, 21 for Irish, 10 for German, including “frisky frauelin complete with choker”. It isn’t an attack on “indians” they are selling costumes, if you don’t like them don’t buy them. If you look around and filter the world through the prism of racist glasses you can find examples everywhere, against all people. Like if you add alcohol you can be as Irish as a Leprechaun. (Spirit site)

  • Guest

    Hello, I am the white female who’s audience you target. On a whim I
    decided that this year I wanted to dress as Native American. That
    decision led me on the topic of NA appropriation. My biggest concern
    with the way you and your fellow authors are expressing your concerns in
    the impenetrable wall you are building between your culture and
    everyone else. The wall you have put up will unfortunately impede the
    very communication that could help resolve the issues you express. If
    you could find a way embrace this platform and use it as a teaching
    tool, to not only encourage the celebration of your culture but to help
    change peoples opinions, so much more would be achieved. Instead of
    creating a ban, teach us how you would like to be portrayed not just on a
    day as silly as halloween, but in our everyday conversations. If I
    choose to dress up as a NA I am not dressing up as a weak individual who
    has a historical past of being taken advantage of and who’s culture has
    and continues to be abused, but rather as that powerful fierce warrior
    who fights for her rights, family and culture (kind of like how you are
    portraying yourself). Please tell me how can we talk about/portray you
    and your culture in a way that doesn’t trigger controversy.

    I am
    very disappointed by all of the articles I have read and am still unsure
    of what I will where come tomorrow at 3:00 pm not because I agree with
    your approach to the situation (see above), but because I don’t want to
    draw unnecessary controversy and violence??? I read an article that
    supported the violence against those who dress up – that was a good
    approach to the situation…

    • jemand2

      you should not ask her to do your work for you. you should be glad she brought it up to begin with so you are now more educated. you can look up more resources and do more thought yourself.

  • Nel Ross

    Just read the update on your open letter, as well as this. Thank you so much for your articulate and humorous insight on this important issue! What a shame it needs to be an issue at all…

  • lionsandbears

    I have a ladybug-themed outfit.

  • Alex

    The narrative of subjugation and ‘empire building’ is so ingrained in the American narrative it is almost invisible to the layman until brought to light. I have often thought about the duality involved in the U.S. attempting to be the leader of the free world and the ‘Moral Right’ when many of its actions throughout history easily meet the criteria for state sponsored genocide and continue to violate basic human rights.

    Thank you for opening the dialogue on this and demonstrating how subversive and insidious mass cultural stereotypes are to indigenous nations and to the bewildered idiots, such as myself, that usually have no idea what is going on.