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Don’t Dress Up as An Indian

 

Every oppressed community experiences cultural appropriation, but none as much as Indigenous peoples. Every part of Indigeneity has been appropriated since first contact. In the past, American Indians were romanticized, and their culture appropriated by colonizers who sold stories and books that they claimed were written by Indians. Traditional colonial ideas tell us that Indians are either stoic, old and wise, proud brave warriors, sexual objects, or holy representations of wilderness. Take a look at any Indian Halloween costume. I’ll bet they will all fall into these categories. 

As Paul Chaat Smith writes in his thought-provoking and often irreverent book, Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong

“… stereotypes show us that the mythmaking machine has learned new and deadly tricks. The ultimate result - the continued trivialization and appropriation of Indian culture, the absolute refusal to deal with us as just plain folks living in the present and not the past - is the same as ever. That's why challenging negative images and questioning who owns or produces these images are no substitute for a more all-sided oppositional effort. What's needed is a popular movement that could bring about meaningful change in the daily lives of Indian people.”

Cultural appropriation has gotten a fair bit of attention in the past 5-10 years, but that is not nearly enough to work through the centuries of romanticization and control of Indian culture. Simply not dressing up as an Indian is not good enough, instead we each need to work on decolonizing ourselves, our thought processes, and our lives. Respecting Indigenous peoples and their culture is a very simple first step in this process that I ask you take now. 

TW: Sexual Violence, Anti-Indigenous Slur

Another important note about Indian Halloween costumes is the sexualization of Indigenous women. Sexual violence is an epidemic in Indigenous communities that ties into the abuse of both women and land dating back to first contact. I am sure you have heard of the movement for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) that focusses on bringing awareness to the women who have been lost to their families and bringing them home. It’s an uphill battle fighting not only the current issues of police brutality, policing jurisdiction debates, and non-native apathy toward the issue but also the entire history of violence against Indigenous women. 

The Pocahontas Perplex by Rayna Green discusses the way that colonial culture has viewed Indigenous women throughout history. “As some abstract, noble Princess tied to ‘America’ and to sacrificial zeal, she (the native woman) is powerless. … As the Squaw, her physical removal or destruction can be understood as necessary to the progress of civilization. … As symbol and reality, the Indian woman suffers from our needs, and both by race and sex stands damned.”

More specifically, Green argues that women have been categorized into two sides, the pure and holy versus the sexual and unworthy. In Catholicism this dichotomy is called the virgin/whore dichotomy, Green describes it as the Princes/Sq**w dichotomy. This is a slur against Indigenous women, so I will be censoring it in my own writing but not in the direct quotes from Green. I feel that her writing elicits a specific response because of her use of this slur and I respect that. On the aforementioned dichotomy, Green writes, “Both her (the native woman) nobility as a princess and her savagery as a Squaw are defined in terms of her relationships with male figures. … (white) Men revere their mothers and sisters but use prostitutes so that their ‘good’ women can stay pure.” 

Addressing the many problems facing Indigenous peoples is hard work, but it is necessary. It goes far beyond simply avoiding dressing up as an Indian for Halloween or even confronting people who do. The first step is respect and understanding just what those problems are. Once you have done this you can move on to active decolonization. The bare minimum is not appropriating Indigenous cultures, so please make sure you are doing that on this unusual Halloween.

Addressing the many problems facing Indigenous peoples is hard work, but it is necessary. It goes far beyond simply avoiding dressing up as an Indian for Halloween or even confronting people who do. The first step is respect and understanding just what those problems are. Once you have done this you can move on to active decolonization. The bare minimum is not appropriating Indigenous cultures, so please make sure you are doing that on this unusual Halloween.

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