This Indian Isn’t Playing Dress-Up

For one day of the year, America seems to remember that Native American people do exist. As a Native person, Halloween is a time of year that I usually dread. For the entire month of October, I brace myself for the horrible costumes I am forced to encounter. No matter where I am and how much I try to hide, I always see it: the “Indian,” typically wearing a headdress, holding a tomahawk, and hyper-sexualized. On campus, at Halloween parties, and at the grocery store, “Indians” begin to flood the streets. The thought of it all makes me feel sick. I don’t consent to this. My ancestors don’t consent to this. The millions of American Indian people in the United States surely do not consent to this. Shouldn’t we have some sort of say? Shouldn’t our opinions matter? Are our feelings not valid?

Throughout United States history, Native American people have always been given the short end of the stick. From the spread of disease, the Allotment Era, boarding schools, and everything else in between, Native people have continuously been marginalized, victimized, and pushed into the corners of society, out of sight and out of mind. Unfortunately, Halloween is a reminder of this history and the unequal relationship between American Indian people and white society. “Indian” costumes, though meant as harmful play, are a manifestation of five hundred years of pain, suffering, and persistent racism.

While Halloween does have deep historic roots in Celtic culture, Halloween in America encompasses something wholly altered. My understanding of Halloween is a holiday that is a time for celebration, drinking, having fun, and dressing up in a costume that is entirely different than your typical character. However, the problem lies in the ambiguity of this difference and the intentions behind the costumes. While some Halloween costumes are meant to be funny, joke-provoking ensembles, other costumes are intended to represent something scary, alien, and even monstrous. Where should racial costumes lie in this spectrum? Should they be considered funny, or a despicable representation of the “monstrosity” of other races? By dressing up as “Indians” for Halloween, are they saying we are monsters? Or worse, are they still mocking us for being scary, untamed savages?

Unfortunately, Halloween has transformed into a holiday that represents racism, racial othering, and ancient stereotypes. More often than not, Halloween is a time to dress as something we are afraid of. While most of the time this includes zombies, skeletons, vampires, etc., there is almost an equal proportion of people dressing up in racial costumes. Is there something to be said about this? Does this imply that there is fear of the ethnically different? I cannot help but think that this is another exercise of white supremacy. In my eyes, the true monster is not Native American people, but the people wearing “Sexy Indian” costumes and the power roles that continue to perpetuate this American custom.

These “costumes” are not actually costumes at all, but a mimic of reality. By appropriating our exterior, you are actually mocking who we are, how we look, where we come from, the importance of traditional regalia, and the modern lives we live. Being Native is not a one time commitment, but a lifetime commitment. You will never actually experience the realities of Native American people, which are often destitute, abused, and victim to horrible social on-goings. At the same time, you will never experience the wonderful benefits of Native American culture. Playing “Indian” is not a game and it is not a choice. Rather, being Native is a privilege, a privilege that entails a beautiful culture, unique history, a distinct relationship with the land, close kinship, and a vibrant and loving community. There is no doubt that being Indian is sexy, but only when you are actually Indian.

The “Sexy Indian” costume, in its robust despicability, commits far more than cultural appropriation. For women, most, if not all, Native American Halloween costumes include a short, tight-fitting leather dress, fringes, moccasins, and feathers thrown sporadically throughout the ensemble. For men, Native American Halloween costumes often include a tomahawk, leather pants, and a headdress. Contrary to popular opinion, Native American people do not dress like that. We do not walk around town in our headdresses and moccasins, and we do not cover ourselves in glitter tribal paint when we are celebrating ceremonial doings. Rather, on most given days, we are dressed just like you, sporting normal everyday clothes on our way to school or the office. These costumes deny the modernity of Native American people, a misfortune that has repercussions in society, politics, economics, and the media. You may not want to hear it, but by wearing a “Sexy Indian” costume, you are assisting the literal and theoretical erasure of Native American peoples.

Not only do these costumes deny the modernity of American Indian people, but they successfully generalize all Native American people into a false stereotype. All “Indian costumes” assume that ALL Native American people look and dress the same way and celebrate identical social and religious customs, an assumption that could not possibly be more incorrect. While I wish I had the exact number of Indigenous tribes throughout all of the Americas, in the United States, there are 567 federally recognized tribes. Because of United States federal policy, each tribe is required to have their own governmental structure. Furthermore, most tribes speak their own language and, though many Native people do hold similar worldview, there are significant social, cultural, and some religious differences between tribes. Not all tribes wear headdresses or have Tomahawks, and those that do have extreme cultural importance attached to such practices. “Sexy Indians,” though not at all an accurate depiction of Native people, most closely represent the regalia worn by Plains American Indian peoples. I cannot count the number of times people, both friends and strangers, have asked to look at pictures of my traditional regalia and claimed their disappointment in that it didn’t match up with their expectations. As a Pueblo person, I find it extremely insulting when people assume that my people and my ancestors look like “Sexy Indians.” Moreover, when I reveal that my traditional regalia does not match up to expectations, it allows people to deny the validation of my Indianness. It is extremely frustrating and disheartening to be forced to combat such limiting assumptions.

Many of my friends wonder why I’m not a big fan of Halloween, but it is extremely difficult to celebrate a holiday where your heritage, skin color, family, culture, and identity are constantly being mocked and reinvented by the thousands of people wearing the stereotypical “Sexy Indian” costume. I am tired of finding myself surrounded by “Indians” on Halloween. What’s worse is that these people do not realize the immense blessing of being American Indian. I am fortunate to have a very sacred and fulfilling culture, a unique worldview, and a beautiful community overwhelmed with love and compassion.  It is not only necessary to remember the modernity and diversity among Native American people, but it is also critical to be mindful of how your “funny” Halloween costume insults very sacred and extremely important cultural practices that are just as present today as they always have been. Though Native people have been put in reservations and forced into corners, we are still here, our cultures are still strong, and we still have feelings.

Not only are “Indian” costumes wrong, but it should go without saying that all racist Halloween costumes are wrong as well. Nothing is funny about mocking someone’s identity. You will never be called Pocahontas on a weekly basis; you will never be looked down upon because your family does not speak English; you will never understand the difficulty of becoming an American citizen; you will never be targeted as a terrorist by airport security; you will never be victimized by the police for wearing a hoodie on your walk home from the convenience store. By dressing in racist costumes, you are not just mocking a reality, but deeming the realities of these situations as acceptable. Trust me when I say that being offended by racist Halloween costumes is not a result of being over-sensitive. Unless it happens to you, you will never understand.

What I ask of all of you is to please think about your actions and their cultural, societal, and racial repercussions. In some cases, you should not walk a mile in someone’s shoes (or moccasins) if you do not have to walk in those shoes for an entire lifetime. Insulting Halloween costumes are an extreme case of this, but there are many other minor aggressions that occur on a day-to-day basis. Headdresses, moccasins, dreamcatchers, and feathers have become fashion statements in the last few decades, and unfortunately, little thought is given to ceremonial purpose or the racial repercussions that such items may have. America has a tradition of cultural and racial “othering,” but by no means should that continue. Changing the way America does Halloween costumes and dressing culturally appropriate can make a huge positive impact in the trajectory of America’s societal progress.

Please, don’t take this issue lightly. If you were planning on dressing up as “Sexy Indian,” change your plans now. There is an infinite number of costumes to choose from. Use some creativity and talent to come up with something else. If you have friends who are dressing up as a “Sexy Indian,” please share this blog with them, and if they refuse to change their costume, don’t invite them to your Halloween party.

This year let’s make Halloween a holiday that everybody can enjoy.

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This Indian Isn’t Playing Dress-Up

Finding the Justice in Environmental Justice: A Call Into Action

Given recent awareness of the Flint Water Crisis, I think this event deserves greater analytical and political attention. Despite some media focus, this event seemed to go almost unnoticed by most of my friends and the greater world of social media. Little did people know, the water crisis started almost two years ago and caused significant amounts of lead to be detected in the public water supply. Typically, in the United States, there are less than 200,000 cases of lead poisoning each year. Unfortunately, the Flint Water Crisis greatly intensified that number, especially among the local African-American community. In addition to lead poisoning, many Flint citizens also suffered from Legionnaries’ disease, which has already proven its fatality.

The point is: some American citizens are disproportionately affected by environmental waste, environmental hazards, and outright social wrongdoing. The Flint Water Crisis is a near textbook example of the cause behind the Environmental Justice upheaval. While it is difficult to pinpoint a specific start date for the movement, Environmental Justice activism began in the latter half of the 20th century to combat the environmental inequality faced by ethnic minorities and lower social classes. Social upheaval caused the Environmental Protection Agency to develop law that would attempt to address the inequality gap in environmental degradation.

According to the EPA, “Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, natural origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Fair treatment means that no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or policies. Meaningful involvement means that: (1) people have an opportunity to participate in decisions about activities that may affect their environment and/or health; (2) the public’s contribution can influence the regulatory agency’s decision; (3) their concerns will be considered in the decision making process; and (4) the decision makers seek out and facilities the involvement of those potentially affected” (www.epa.gov).

Based off this definition alone, America is having an obvious problem abiding by this law. Moreover, in many instances when this law is taken into account it is reactionary, not preventive. This means that in some cases, it is already too late to respond. Numerous members of Flint’s community have already been forced into giving their lives because of the inadequacy of environmental justice law to prevent against environmental harm.

What I really want to get across, though, is that this environmental injustice is not just occurring in Flint, Michigan, but around the United States and greater global population. Not to discredit the tragedy facing the residents of Flint, but this case is just one example of environmental injustice that was fortunate enough to make it into the news. This evil is occurring constantly throughout our neighborhoods, the homes of our friends, and the homes of our families.

Native people, especially, have become primary victims to the atrocities of environmental injustice. There are the unfortunately obvious actions committed to American Indians (i.e. forced removal from home-lands and put into reservations), but there are also lesser known calamities that occur on a day-to-day basis among Native populations. As some of you may be aware, the Flint Water Crisis almost pails in comparison to the water disaster in the Navajo reservation, a crisis that has been going on for decades and has had absolutely no attention in mainstream news and media. Even more extreme examples of environmental injustice are the persistent horrors of uranium mining, nuclear weapon testing, and dumping of radioactive waste that have been going on for generations in reservations across the United States. Ethnic minorities, particularly Native American people, are bearing the brunt of development, industrialization, and the negative externalities of attaining the American dream.

What it comes down to is that this is not just environmental injustice, but environmental racism. 

Unfortunately, time and time again, America has proven itself not to be the almighty paradise. Scratch that. It can be paradise, but just for some people, not everyone. The American dream has become far too different from the American reality. Citizens of Flint, tribal members of American Indian reservations, and countless other poor colored communities are falling ill because of the environmental harm targeted in their area. Even worse, these people are usually not the ones to see the associated benefits of development and the possible positive externalities that may result. Many environmental injustice atrocities are committed by companies that are damaging the health of local ecosystems and selling those products or developments to upper class or middle class buyers, leaving the affected communities unable to reap benefits from their suffering. Obviously, there is something very, very wrong with this paradigm. Poor colored communities should not be preyed upon because they cannot afford to live elsewhere or because they were forced into reservations, nor should they be ignored because they do not speak English and cannot afford lawyers. It should not be necessary, but America needs a reminder that this environmental wrongdoing is affecting real people—mothers, fathers, grandparents, students, future politicians, future entertainers, the list goes on.

As the forefathers of this nation once wrote:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator[s] with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I think we need to hold the Declaration of Independence more accountable. I think we need to hold American agencies more accountable. I think we need to hold companies and guilty individuals more accountable. Environmental injustice needs to stop. Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness are impossible without clean water, clean airways, and clean ecosystems. Environmental health and the health of all citizens are necessary for the success of our country. That is the true American reality. A functioning society and economy are dependent on the health of everyone, especially the people of color in affected communities.

Despite lackluster attempts to solve environmental injustice, it has become coded in the social and economic order. Centuries of capitalism and discrimination have forced this criminality into the American tradition. In that case, how do you fight the system? What do you do when the law just isn’t enough? How do you fight the depravity that has simply become the “American way of doing things?” The same goes for racism and discrimination within this country. White Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, etc. are granted “equal rights” under law, but it is clearly not the case. Unfortunately, fundamental rights in American society have become privileges enjoyed by few. Environmental justice should not fall into that. It should not be considered a privilege.

Minorities should not have to convince the rest of America that this is not right, but unfortunately, that is what this has come to. The even worse realization is that people of color are often deemed powerless by White America. It takes decades, even centuries, for progress in this country. With that being said, there seems to be very little I can offer, but I do know that I am really, really frustrated, and doing something is always better than doing nothing.

Please, everybody, do something. If you are a minority affected by environmental injustice, or if you aren’t but you care about the cause, do something. Whether it is raising awareness on social media or hiring a lawyer to represent your community, doing something is better than doing nothing. As depressing as it is, environmental injustice will not cure itself. That has become our job. Present and future generations depend on each and every one of us. Your health, your neighbor’s health, and America’s health are calling you into action.

Finding the Justice in Environmental Justice: A Call Into Action

The Proper Etiquette of Having a “Native American Friend”

For as long as I can remember people have made jokes about me being Native.

In 6th grade, my classmates would refer to me as “Pocahontas.”
In 8th grade, someone joked about me having “red skin” in front of the entire classroom.
In my senior year of high school, people would say that the only reason I was accepted into college was because I am Native.
In my sophomore year of college, a good friend of mine dubbed me a “savage.”
In my junior year of college, a few of my friends tried to get my attention by making an 
“Indian war call.”
Last week, someone called me a “good little Indian” for picking up a piece of trash I saw on the street.
Yesterday, for the one-millionth time, somebody said, “isn’t college free for you since you’re Native?”

These are just a few specific events that stick out in my mind, but it does not begin to cover the multiple insults I hear on a day-to-day basis. At least once a week, I hear someone talking about my “Indian hair,” my obvious “love for nature” because I am Native, and referring to me as their one “Indian friend.” It seems as though most people I am surrounded by, many of my friends included, think this is the only component of my identity. Little do they know, each one of these remarks are equally painful.

Maybe because I went to a prep school from 6th-12th grade, and maybe because I go to CU Boulder now, but I have always faced the obstacle of being Native American in a white world.

My roots are in Santo Domingo Pueblo, and I do consider that to be my home, but I have spent most of my life growing up in what could be considered typically “white” places. I went to college prep school from 6th-12th grade, attended Columbia University for a short while, and am now attending CU Boulder. In each of these places I have found it equally difficult to get past the “Indian” stereotypes such as the ones mentioned above.

Throughout my life, I could not help but wonder why people felt the need to say such remarks. When I was younger, I typically just alluded it to bullying—everybody was made fun of in middle school and high school. It was not until college and a more academic setting of the study of race and racism that I finally realized exactly what was going on here. I learned about the historical processes of racial formation, utilization of power dynamics, use of stereotypes, and the exercise of microaggressions that perpetuate such foul legacies. Most importantly, I realized that remnants of these historical legacies are exactly what I was facing each and every day.

While I know that most of these encounters occur with strangers and friends who often mean no harm, I also believe it is necessary for me to educate my peers on what these remarks mean to somebody like me—a Native American woman trying to benefit from all the advantages provided in the white world, such as a scholastic education. The truth is that these jokes have foundations in racism, and making them is an extension of the aforementioned legacies of stereotyping that shaped our country. The practice of such jokes and remarks are historically part of the greater, very politically incorrect treatment towards race in modern American society. Everybody is aware that it is not okay to joke about many race issues, such as slavery and the Holocaust, but for some reason, it is okay to retain focus and comedic entertainment on other race issues that are still very real for many American people today. Unfortunately, microaggressions, racist jokes, and uninformed racial remarks have become mainstream in pop-culture and the modern world. From middle school classrooms, college academic environments, and popular TV shows, they are everywhere.

Microaggressions are defined as “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership” (UCLA Diversity & Faculty Development, 2014).

All of the offenses I mentioned earlier fulfill this definition.

Despite intentions, whether good or bad, the regular comments, remarks, and “jokes” I hear on a day-to-day basis are not funny. Even more than not being funny, they are mean, insensitive, and, to be frank, completely uneducated derogatory assumptions. Most people making such comments do not see the magnitude of their words.

In my eyes, microaggressions are actually macroaggressions. I will be ready to admit, they hurt. Hearing racist comments and insults have made lasting impacts on my life. No matter how infinitesimally small the comment may have been, I remember each and every one. From everything being said to me from sixth grade to remarks made to me last week, they have made noticeable scars in my skin.

Hopefully after reading this, you will understand more personal reasons about why you should not say these things to your “Native American friend.” Being in the white world as a Native American is tough, but it does not need to be that way.

So here are a few easy rules to follow:

No racist Indian jokes. Easy as that. I do not want to hear the words “savage,” “redskin,” or “Pocahontas.” And I definitely do not want to hear uninformed jokes about my heritage or American Indian culture.

No joking about how I, or any other American Indian, got into college because of our racial identity, and do not joke about the preconceived perception that we have free tuition. The truth of the matter is that we have to work just as hard as everybody else, if not harder, because of the limiting obstacles of the white world. Personally, I often find these comments to be the most offensive because they are discrediting the intelligence of Native American students when that is obviously not the case. In fact, some of the best students I know are tribal members and we too cherish our academics. Furthermore, tuition is absolutely not free. As much as I wish this were the case, Native American student populations are not receiving nearly the financial opportunity they deserve in the world of academia.

Do not refer to me as your “Native American” or “Indian” friend. While that is a huge component of my identity, I just don’t think that needs to be said. There are many other parts of me that make me who I am, and I do not want to be marked just for being “Indian.” I don’t refer to people as my “white friend” or my “black friend.” Why create that division? Why should that be a part of friendship?

Do not assume things about my culture and who I am. If you want to know, you can ask. Of course if you are curious, you are more than welcome to spark a conversation about it, but there is a huge difference between starting a conversation and assuming racist falsities about my heritage or where I come from. However, with that being said, I am also not saying that I am one to speak on all things American Indian. Do not expect me to know the “Native American viewpoint.” These are my personal viewpoints from my experiences.

Finally, no racist jokes in general. Please. We can find much better types of comedy than the easy racist punchline.

Personally, it feels incredible to finally get that off my chest. I have stood silent for years, being hurt by friends’ and strangers’ remarks and quietly letting the anger build inside of me. I am finally realizing that by no means should I have to put up with this. Although I am constantly preaching against racist comedy and arguing that offensive jokes and remarks are not right, I have somehow sacrificed my feelings in my own experiences. In the actual moment, when such jokes and remarks are said, it is really hard to defend myself. In that instant, I feel hurt, insulted, degraded, and a whole other plethora of negative emotions. But now, after 21 years of racial sting, this is me telling you to stop, slow down, and be careful with your words. I am not “Pocahantas.” I am not a “savage.” I did not get into college “just because I am Indian.” I do not respond to war calls. I do not pick up trash to be called “a good little Indian.” I do not go to college for free.

It is not that I am not proud to be Native. I am extremely proud. But it is not the generic, racist view of Native American people that I am proud of. I am proud of my true heritage, the heritage that outsiders do not know about, but feel entitled to make jokes about. American Indian people have grown though a history of hurt, and that should not be perpetuated, by anybody, but especially amongst our friends.

Do not treat me like a novelty. Do not use words to abuse my culture. Do not make jokes that are not, were not, and never will be funny.

Mutual respect is all I ask for.

The Proper Etiquette of Having a “Native American Friend”

Getting Started

Hello everyone,

My name is Sara Barudin. I am the unique product of a Native American woman and a Russian Jewish man falling in love and creating an unheard-of racial mix. Growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico (and Santo Domingo Pueblo), I had a very interesting cultural upbringing that has hugely impacted the way I see the world around me. I attended Hebrew school until I was 13 years old, danced in the Pueblo for feast days, had a Bat Mitzvah, celebrated Pueblo holidays, celebrated Chanukah, etc. After a life of cultural flip-flopping, I now almost completely identify myself as Native American in a racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural sense, but I still constantly struggle with the obstacle of personal identity and associating myself with the modern world.

As a 21-year-old biracial hybrid attending school in Boulder, Colorado, I have been in dire need of having a place to center my thoughts, talk about what needs to be talked about, and hopefully facilitate greater discussion about real-life issues. This blog seeks to explore concepts of race & ethnicity, culture, politics, and the world around us through the eyes of a Pueblo Jewish woman and an avid human rights thinker.

Hopefully you will all find something useful here.

Sara

Getting Started