Woman Says Redface at Parade Was Just Theater, Not Racism — Natives, ACLU Beg to Differ

Is redface during parade racist or just theater? While one woman says it was a performance, others say it was blatantly racist.
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Students at a high school in Helena, Montana, wore redface and dressed in “scantily-clad” faux Native garb at a parade there, according to reports.

Meg Singer, who’s Navajo, wrote on Facebook that students riding a float during the “Vigilante Day Parade” were donned in “stereotypical ‘squaw’ clothing” and that “teepees had gibberish symbols.” The students were allegedly portraying a buffalo jump and hunt.

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“And I even heard stereotypical ‘whoops,’” Singer wrote. “This is not representation. This is blatant racism of the ugliest kind.”

But former students of the high school, like Nicole Geiszler, disagree with Singer.

Geiszler said the float and the costumes were merely theater.

“Nothing is racial anymore. It’s just people getting offended because you have some clothing that is portraying almost exactly what they wore, I mean, they were trying to get as close as they could,” she told Montana Public Radio. “You don’t sit there and call someone racist because they put on an outfit to play a part.”

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The ACLU of Montana later issued a statement in response to the redface at the parade.

“As organizations who work tirelessly to combat racial discrimination in Montana, we share the concerns of the Indigenous community regarding the racially inflammatory costumes and behavior displayed during the Helena Vigilante Day Parade,” the statement reads. “The perpetuation of Native American stereotypes exemplified by the Buffalo Jump float in the parade is unacceptable.”

The ACLU further put the responsibility not merely on the conscience of the students, but also on the administration and faculty.

“While student participation in a tradition that is meant to honor Montana’s history is laudable, it is the responsibility of the school district to ensure that the parade does not marginalize or misrepresent Native communities, heritage, or contributions to this state,” the statement says. Eleven nonprofit organizations signed on to the letter, including the Montana Human Rights Network, the Montana Racial Equity Project, and the Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance.

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But Helena school superintendent, Jack Copps, told the Helena Independent Record that there were cultural guidelines to prevent any form of misrepresentation of Native people—though he admitted he didn’t see the float firsthand.

A 2015 study from the University of Buffalo (UB) found that the stereotyping of Natives such as redface and Native mascots, leads to stereotyping of other groups. Wendy Quinton, a clinical assistant professor of psychology at the university, said that when people are exposed and perpetuate Native stereotypes they “are more likely to negatively stereotype other ethnic groups as well,” she told the UB News Center. “We now know better,” Quinton added. “The research documenting their negative effects is clear.”

Culture Editor Simon Moya-Smith contributed to this report.