You see that cute little Indian costume for sale at a big-box retailer near you. It even has the two pretty black braids and a faux-leather dress. Baby girl could trick-or-treat as Pocahontas. She’d look sooooo cute — especially if you’re a baby wearer and you put her up on your back. Voila! Get your own Indian costume and you’re an instant Sacajawea. So adorable.
If blackface is your idea of adorable, then by all means, dress you or yours as an Indian this Halloween. Among American Indians (the name most of them prefer, at least in the United States), the term is “redface,” and it refers to a non-Indian dressing themselves up as an Indian. They find your Pocahontas costume wildly offensive. And it’s not because you’re smearing your face in red paint. (You would never do that! It’s racist!)
First, you’re not dressing up as a person, you’re dressing up as a culture. When white people do that, we call it “cultural appropriation,” or taking the trappings of a non-dominant culture and using it for their own ends — monetary ends, like the profit that Ye Old Big Box Store or Massive Internet Retailer is making, or aesthetic ends, like the way you think that redface is sooooooo adorable and we all want Maddyyson to look cute this Halloween! When you or your kids dress as American Indians, you, as a member of a dominant culture, are picking and choosing what you want from a non-dominant culture. Not cool.
There’s another problem though: The idea of culture gets murky when it comes to American Indians. Not because they don’t have it, but because there are so many. And American Indian culture is far from monolithic. They don’t all wear two braids with leather skirts and have teepees and tomahawks. They don’t all use cradleboards and carry their babies on their backs. When you mash all their cultures together, it’s wildly offensive. It’s as if you said all Europeans carried shillelaghs, drank tea, yodeled, and exterminated the Jews. That probably pissed you off. Now you know how American Indians feel.
Quick quiz: From what tribes did Pocahontas and Sacajawea hail? Pocahontas was Powhatan, specifically Mattaponi, and her real name wasn’t even Pocahontas — it was Matoaka. Sacajawea was Shoshone. She was also bought as a slave, not married, and it was to her master that she subsequently bore her son. You failed that quiz. I know that because I failed the quiz, and I’m the one railing against redface here.
Basically, when you dress up as an Indian, you’re dressing up as a stereotype of an entire continent of people. You wouldn’t dress up as an Australian or as an African. We’d find it incredibly offensive if you dressed up as any other American minority.
Imagine smearing blackface all over little Caytlynn, or sticking a prosthetic Jewish nose on her face. Or maybe you could pop a sombrero on her head and hand her a taco. All of these are wildly offensive and would get you kicked out of any respectable Trunk-or-Treat. Dressing as an American Indian should be the same.
Imagine this scenario: Your kid’s all Pocahontas-ed up and you run into an actual American Indian elder. How would you feel? You could say, “Look, I dressed my kid up as a girl who was captured by the English at age 15 or 16, according to the Mattaponi, then converted, willingly or not, to Christianity, after which she married an Englishman and was taken to England and paraded before Queen Anne as a ‘noble savage’!”
Or, if you’re dressed in the mish-mashed garb of an anonymous American Indian (or worse, the sexy version thereof), you could look that elder in the face and say, “Hi, I’m dressed as all of your people who we slaughtered by sword and disease, chased off their land, chased off the reservations we gave them to replace their land, shunted into boarding schools, and destroyed their cultural heritage.”
Speaking of the sexy Indian costume, it sexualizes an entire culture with a history of rape being used as a tool of warfare against them, and which consistently has the highest rate of sexual assault in the nation. And when it comes to domestic violence, American Indian women on reservations “suffer assault and physical violence at a rate far exceeding women of other ethnicities or locations.” You don’t actually want to mock victims of sexual assault, right? I didn’t think so.
Basically, Indian costumes are like blackface — there’s no way to do it without being offensive. Of course, some people say, it’s just a costume, it doesn’t matter, you’re making a mountain out of a molehill, you’re inflaming race relations, etc. But you’re responsible for the way your children view American Indians. Do you want them to think they all use tomahawks and live in teepees? Do you want to erase centuries of genocide with the words “trick or treat”? Perceptions matter. So do costumes.
It’s called redface. And it’s offensive. Don’t do it.