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The Perils of Culturally Appropriative Halloween Costumes

I commonly work with racial equity issues in my role as Indigenous Researcher & Policy Analyst for First Alaskans Institute. With Halloween approaching, I’d like to share my perspective why wearing Native American “costumes” is a bad idea. It shouldn’t necessarily be minority peoples’ place to educate majority culture people about their privilege. But if they do not receive push-back from us, how will they learn? That’s the definition of privilege: they can choose to ignore these issues. We cannot.

Reducing minorities to stereotypical Halloween costumes is one symptom of the majority culture’s inability to see us as people. Other symptoms are more hurtful, but an insult is not painless because it’s not a police dog unleashed on you at a protest march. Our position as Native people in American society results from 500 years of forced assimilation and genocide. The UN definition of genocide includes any systematic attempt to destroy a group of people or their culture. Forced sterilization of Indians, boarding schools, outlawing Indian religions, and outright killing were genocidal acts. One eyewitness at the 1864 Sand Creek massacre in Colorado testified that militia soldiers “cut out the private parts of [Indian] females… and wore them over their hats…” Our ancestors were not human to the American majority culture, but stereotypes: savages, lice. Hundreds of millions of Indigenous Americans were killed by Western colonists. It was a holocaust, a fire that consumed our world, as many Native activists called it in early 1900s, before the tragedy that unfolded in Europe was perpetuated on the Jewish people. (Sadly, Hitler’s “final solution” was allegedly inspired by America’s treatment of Indians.)

Our oppression is ongoing. It isn’t just interpersonal racism. No one needs to consciously discriminate to enact inequities. Alaska Natives are 19.5 percent of Alaska population but 37 percent of currently incarcerated individuals, half of law enforcement referrals and school-related arrests, and 60 percent of foster care children in Alaska. Alaska Natives fought the State to open 128 new early voting stations in rural Alaska, who previously could vote in an eight-hour window, or through cumbersome mail-in ballots, while urban largely White voters had 14 days to early vote in person. Voter disenfranchisement is systemic harm. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law..."

How’s this related to “costumes”? Reducing us to a single stereotypical dimension is the same thinking, similar in kind if not degree, that led to the Sand Creek massacre. “Pocahottie” costumes (perhaps unconsciously) recapitulate 19th century stereotypes of Natives as animalistic hypersexual savages. These stereotypes arguably fuel the astoundingly high rates of sexual violence against Native women. If think your “costume” does not engage in stereotyping, the burden of proof is on you. The history of oppression and marginalization of Native peoples is too strong for me to easily believe reducing Natives to a “costume” does not perpetuate oppression and marginality.

Perhaps you think you dress like an Indian to honor and flatter us. I don’t say that can’t be done, but Dan Snyder says the name “Washington Redskins” honors Indian people. Natives say “Redskins” derives from bounties put on Indian people: we were hunted like vermin. The name "redskins" conjures up tortured ghosts of slaughtered ancestors. So too, stereotypical Native “costumes” mock our genocide.

If you want to honor and flatter us, fight for Native people’s right to access subsistence resources on our traditional homelands. Advocate for Federal or State recognition of Tribal sovereignty, which includes land management, the protection of our people from domestic violence and sexual assault in Tribal courts, and Tribal management of child custody cases. Recognize the inherent connection between perpetuating Native life ways, including art forms and diet, and our strength as Native people, including raising up strong families. Testify on our behalf in the legislature. Donate to Native causes, volunteer at Native events. Celebrate our entire way of life. Don’t dress like us for one day of the year. “Playing Indian” trivializes the historic trauma, culture loss, and heartache of Native peoples.

Perhaps you think that your particular style of “dress up” does not perpetuate harmful stereotypes because you pursue historical accuracy in your “costume.” Maybe you copy archival photos of ceremonial dress, like our Tlingit at.óow. Where’s the harm?

Among other issues, Tlingit at.óow are our intellectual property rights. They are deeply sacred spiritual entities, many incarnated in objects like haa shuká (“clan crests”). These items represent the accomplishments of our ancestors: they are paid for in blood. We pay, every single time, for the right to display them at ceremonial events. Wearing at.óow outside of legitimate cultural contexts trivializes our history, and privileges what you choose to emphasize: your story about that at.óow, not ours. Even if you repeated the clan’s words verbatim, you would only pretend to deign to recognize our claim, even as you usurp it.

Perhaps you think, if you can’t wear ceremonial garb, at least you can wear ordinary clothes, right? As you dig into the archives again, you find out that after almost a century of colonial influence, 19th century Tlingits wore the same clothes as other Victorians. You’d be constantly telling people that your costume portrays not a Victorian, but a colonized Tlingit. Could you tell them what it means to have lost our clothes? To avoid those explanations, you copy “authentic” pre-colonial wear. If you’re ambitious, you could hunt an animal, tan the hide, harvest some sinew from a sea mammal, fashion a needle and awl from bone, and pattern and sew a garment yourself. But even historically-accurate “costumes” like these freeze us in one era: “traditional” life can only refer to 18th century life, before colonialism set in, as if we cannot be “Native” and “modern.” And it still reminds us of what we’ve lost. Even historically-accurate “costumes” trivialize the Native American genocide, and perpetuate the harmful stereotypes that fueled it.

Ask yourself: would you dress in three or four layers of dirty clothes, carry a Crystal Palace vodka bottle half-full of water, and tell people you’re portraying a homeless Native for Halloween? Or would that perpetuate a stereotype – a single dimension of Native life, not reflective of the vast diversity of Native peoples or cultures?

Stereotyping minorities is bad. Costumes that stereotype minorities are bad. But costumes that stereotype Natives hold a special place in history, due to the massive scale of our losses, our status as sovereign nations, and the fact that our oppression is present, real, today.

You’re free to wear an Indian “costume.” This is America, and whatever harms have been committed against our peoples in the name of this Nation, like Dr. King, I still adhere to its ideals. As the cricket said, “Let your conscience be your guide.” Are we humans, or are we just your “costume”?

Kyle Dlaakaw.éesh Wark (Tlingit) joined First Alaskans Institute in early December 2012 as the Indigenous Researcher & Policy Analyst within the Alaska Native Policy Center (ANPC). For more information or to get involved with the work of the ANPC, please visit their website.