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

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