November 01, 2015

Native people in "Indian" costumes

Adrienne Keene talks about a Metis woman who received rude comments for wearing an Indian Chief costume for Halloween. Keene empathizes with the woman but ultimately takes the critics' side:

To the Native people in “Indian” Costumes

By Adrienne KeeneAs a Native person, or a person with Native ancestry, you are not somehow excused from criticism for a racist, stereotypical costume. The costume has no connection or relationship to actual Native regalia, and pieces like the headdress actually have deep meaning that you are mocking and erasing by donning them on a night made for make-believe. You are reifying stereotypes, collapsing hundreds of tribes into a set of characteristics that don’t represent the vast, vast diversity of Indian Country. Your tribe has its own distinct culture, regalia, and cultural practices, and chances are they look nothing like the mess you’re wearing for a party.

Halloween is also the exact worst time to honor your heritage. Halloween is a time for people to dress up as characters, as fantasy creatures, and play pretend. Your culture is not pretend. It is real, and vibrant, and deserves respect–not for you to stand in faux-regalia with a red cup of Halloween punch drunkenly dancing to Monster Mash.

I also support the harsh questioning from Native peoples you may have encountered, and believe their tone, anger, and dismissiveness is completely justified. When we angrily demand to know your nation and your connection to your community, it’s because we are asking ourselves, How could this have happened?? Who are you accountable to??

The anger of Native people should be a signal to you. If you are a Native person, this is the community you are part of, and the relationships that you held are accountable to. If they are telling you that your actions are harmful, it would behoove you to listen.

So while I offer you my empathetic understanding that it is truly difficult to be a Native person growing up without close ties or cultural groundings, I’m telling you now that it’s time to listen and learn, and to grow. Reflect on your choices, own up to your mistakes, swallow your shame and embarrassment, apologize, and move forward. If you are going to claim your heritage, do research. Find out what nation you are actually from (chances are, it’s not actually Cherokee), what your regalia actually looks like, and when the appropriate times and spaces are to wear it. Be humble, listen, and take small steps. Heritage is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. Native identity is responsibility, pride, and accountability, and Native cultures are beautiful, complex, and again, deserve respect–which doesn’t and can’t come from a costume shop headdress and striped warpaint.
Comment:  Your typical Indian costume--chief, "brave," or Pocahottie--is false and stereotypical. I'm not sure why any Natives think their heritage would change that.

Say you're a full-blooded Navajo, Lakota, or Cherokee in a typical costume. Why should we care about your heritage? Your costume is still false and stereotypical. Even if you put Pocahontas, Tecumseh, or Geronimo in the would have no effect on the costume's authenticity. It still would be false and stereotypical.

For more on Halloween, see "Indian" Listed in Halloween Assignment and British Model Dresses as Dead Chief.

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