My Culture is Not a Costume

Donning fake eagle feathers, a beaded headband and a dream catcher swaying from her hips, a girl clothed in a faux hide dress makes her way to the dance floor. She is not Aboriginal, but as she parades through the night club her Halloween costume does receive its fair share of attention.

Dressing up to imitate a race or culture on Halloween is a controversial topic, plain and simple. On one hand, a claim has been made that multiple minority groups are being targeted and publicly misrepresented. Conversely, other people will argue that the indignation being expressed by the offended party and its supporters is an overreaction.

A line of division has been drawn, igniting fiery debate and splitting these two opposing schools of thought straight down the center. There appears to be no middle ground, but with the passing of each October 31, the occurrence of non-Native children and university students wearing (what they assume to be) traditional Aboriginal clothing and powwow regalia as a part of their Halloween costumes is numerous enough to take note of.

Ohio University’s S.T.A.R.S (Students Teaching About Racism in Society) has begun its yearly process of sharing and distributing “My Culture is Not a Costume” posters. These posters show adults of diverse ethnicities frowning upon photographs that display their peers dressed in a racial or cultural stereotype for Halloween.

Among the costumes marked offensive are those of: a Middle Eastern suicide bomber, blackface participant, Mexican man riding a donkey and wearing a sombrero, geisha, mummified Egyptian, and subject of this article, the falsely contextualized “Indian.”

Recently, an anonymous source said, “If you have the time and energy to be offended by a Halloween costume, consider yourself lucky. It’s not racism, it’s just fun. I highly doubt that anyone who wears a costume like this does it out of hate or mockery.”

Perhaps not, but it is important to recognize that misguided humour can be hurtful nonetheless.

In Canada today, Aboriginal peoples consist of First Nations, Métis and Inuit. Prior to European contact, and subsequent colonization, hundreds of Aboriginal communities existed, each with their own unique oral narratives, traditions, languages and distinctive styles of attire.

Yet, in each image portrayed by mainstream Halloween costume producers, the depiction of an Aboriginal man is almost exclusively that of the bloodthirsty warrior, face painted red, tomahawk held threateningly in hand. His body is rippling with muscle, his expression unflinchingly stoic. An Aboriginal woman is customarily portrayed as being an exotic creature, usually thin, with flowing black hair, midsection revealing tank top and loincloth-like mini skirt. The pair will always be wearing moccasins on their feet.

Much like the movies discussed in Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond’s documentary titled Reel Injun, historically, these costumes are inaccurate. Such parodies effectively reduce an entire culture to a caricature. Many find the “savage warrior” and hyper-sexualized “Indian princess” stereotypes to be dehumanizing and culturally insensitive. Trent University student Jayme Blondin had the following to say:

“Personally, I believe that culture cannot be condensed into a single costume. Particularly with “Indian” costumes, many people have absolutely no clue as to the significance of items such as headdresses. I don’t think that it is appropriate for people to dress up and hyper-sexualize a culture with a history of colonization and oppression.”

Those who support this point of view will argue that an “Indian” Halloween costume mimics and lessens the importance of post -colonization Aboriginal history, reducing it to a farce.

“It’s like putting salt in a wound,” Jayme concluded.

Since the “My Culture is Not a Costume” posters were first released, bloggers and users of social media have been arguing over the legitimacy of the racism/not racism argument. Facebook has become one fertile ground for conversation. Last year a poster wrote, “I don’t need so-called activists to speak up for me…My people have been doing a pretty good job of handling racism since the 20th century…and if you think that putting me on a pedestal as some sort of ‘persecuted minority’ is a good idea, you’re seriously mistaken.”

With so many opinions to consider, the question becomes that of an intensely personal nature. At the end of the day, no amount of intelligent conversation or childlike arguing will convince some individuals to alter their thoughts. Ultimately, on Halloween night every partygoer must decide for themself: where do I stand on this issue?

About Jennifer Boon 0 Articles
Jen is a third year Indigenous Studies and English undergrad, and has been writing for Arthur since 2012. She has written dramatic pieces performed in Nozem theatre for Anishinaabe Maanjiidwin, been published in small alternative magazines, and is currently developing a book of self-positivity poetry in partnership with local Peterborough youth. In addition to spending her time writing essays, short stories, and articles, Jen can also be found devouring sushi at local restaurants downtown or sipping one too many cups of coffee by the river.