Halloween: Time to Wear Your Indian Costumes

Chase Iron Eyes

Halloween is fast approaching, and little monsters everywhere are scrambling for costumes. Every year there should be an awareness campaign about the practice of Americans assuming Indian identity by donning an "Indian costume."

What do "they" get out of playing Indian? Maybe it fills some psychological-spiritual void that is created by the separation of man and nature, the latter to be exploited (toiled) as in the Bible or in accordance with the scientific method—but to say that would be stereotyping on my part. It is clear to me that several generations of media have succeeded in making caricatures of Indigenous peoples. Intentionally or not, the American Indian, by and large, has been made out to be something other than a normal contributing component of western civilization. The reasons for this phenomenon are not hard to imagine when one considers the inter-generational conditioning Americans are put through via school and pop culture.

Because most Americans see American Indians as a conquered and disappearing race, they see no wrong in playing Indian dress-up, particularly in social situations which do not include Indians. When in fact there is definitely a wrongful appropriation happening. Members of the mainstream—historically of Euro descent—have crafted 500 years of institutional paradigms that usually depict the Indian as noble, savage, bloodthirsty, lusty, and/or fierce. More importantly, the mainstream is convinced that Indians, having not figured out how to exploit the earth properly, were and continue to be impediments to "progress"—progress as defined in "modern" financial-industrial civilization. These collective paradigms see us as relics, as interesting little bits of history, ones that fit well into the narratives of White heroes.

Consider these questions: Can I touch your hair? Are you a real Indian? Do you live in a tipi? I have personally been asked these questions in real life. Can I put your living culture in museum? Can I withhold sacred items for scientific inspection? Can you be our specimen? Can we track you based on pedigree as we do our dogs and horses? Can we enforce our imaginary Christian dominion over you without you even questioning its legitimacy? These questions are sometimes not even asked; they go without saying and many Indians greet them without so much as raising an eyebrow.

Thus, I can understand why the average American would not consider whether his or her action in dressing up as an Indian for Halloween is offensive. I have said before that no longer are we living our identity; we are looking at it through a lens created by the European—a lens in which Indians are inferior and whites are superior. We are looking through a lens created and shown by such ongoing practices as Indian Halloween costumes, countless Hollywood "Indian" cameos or Indian oriented material, phony commercialized "Indian" products, and the use of Indians as team nicknames and mascots. Whatever the market demands, the market will produce. Right now, we are seeing what the market demands.

Inevitably, we judge our own "Indianness" based on the whole of our life experiences and learning. Largely, the whole of our learning consists of foreign perceptions learned in schools, internet, TV and other outlets. My fellow Indians and forward thinking Americans, we are in for serious challenges with respect to changing the way the market and the media treats Indians. However, with ever-changing media, including the internet and television, I am genuinely hopeful because American Indians are beginning to tell their own stories. It remains to be seen the level at which we break into the “mainstream”—or if we do, whether we can change stubborn minds.

We are beginning to own our image and remake it in a manner that suits us, the real Indians. I say that we are facing a lifetime challenge because we have so much re-learning to do. Ours is a society that denies its own holocaust. Few are the people that actually want to come face to face with the real America. But we have to; and we must forgive. I have meaningful conversations with my eight year-old daughter every time she tries to attribute all of white-America's historical wrongdoings to her young white contemporaries.

So, let me close by saying that I know the market will demand Indian costumes into the foreseeable future. However, if you choose to dress up in an "Indian costume" during Halloween or some other function, you had better hope you only run into the more civilized lot of Indians. Because you don't want to encounter Indians of a different persuasion. I know violence is not the answer here, I will only say that I have personally witnessed these less civil Indians (professional colleagues who will go unnamed) on a Halloween night; they do not take kindly to your ill-advised costume choice and will let you know it. For my children’s sake, I am glad they do not tolerate such behavior. Sometimes, change is hard to come.

Hecegla (That is enough)

Chase Iron Eyes is an attorney licensed in the State of South Dakota and the Federal Courts of both North and South Dakota. Visit thelastrealindian.blogspot.com to read more of his writings.

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ukumbwa's picture
Thank you to lynnj and to kathy for your openness. May the learning and education go forward.
ukumbwa's picture
Much appreciated, debbie1115, and to your last point, I'm not sure the issue in this article is about "every" person wanting to exploit Native American culture, particularly through holloween [spelling mine] costumes. There is a larger issue that even "innocent" embrace of Native cultural clothing can be an appropriation born out of contextual injustice and colonialism or misappropriation. That many people do it in ignorance doesn't negate its negative nature for the cultures whose practices are appropriated. I truly wish most people had a culturally dominant concept of the "Great Spirit" or a great spirit that was a unifiying force for people. I don't think that can be assumed because it's a good idea or because you or I hold that. Sometimes we do end up creating similar behaviors out of differing motivations and understandings. I look forward to the day where we can continue these sorts of conversations in more popular venues, more regularly. The protection and validation of indigeny, indigenous lands and cultures IS of key, fundamental importance for a healthy future outlook on this earth as you suggest. We must work to make that happen.
ndnbusinessmover's picture
I appreciate the candid assessment of the "Indian costume" just in time for halloween. Thanks to ictmn.com for highlighting your work! DO NOT STOP WRITING. Its like a breath of fresh air. Time will hone your craft. Although, I must say, I am not in full support of physically attacking anyone wearing an Indian costume, especially Children. Native Americans are already stereotyped as "violent"
kathy's picture
Well over 60 years ago I was one of those who dressed up in a costume based on Indian dress. It was not out of condescension or anything else other than total admiration. I wanted so much to be an Indian on the plains. Since I was only 6 or so at the time my idea of what it would be like was of course fuzzy. Nevertheless, after Halloween I wore that dress until it wore out. My family thought I was nuts. Maybe I was, but that's the way it was. If my wearing such a dress all those years ago has offended anyone I am truly sorry. It gave me such pleasure, but I do not want my pleasure to be anyone else's pain. Kathy Tsai
chuhamok's picture
What do we think when we hear the word attorney? Maybe we immediately think of somebody with their hands in your wallet—no cash, no representation, Native or not (a global, cross- cultural perception). Ho! think I will dress as a lawyer for Halloween.
duwaynesmith's picture
Wow, what a stereotype!! Think I will put on my Shark outfit.
lynnj's picture
Thank you so much for this excellent article!!
lynnj's picture
Kathy, thank you for thoughts. I, too, did the same. I felt that by donning what society told me was "Indian dress" that I was somehow elevating myself to a higher level, although admittedly, my 10 yr old mind was not using those exact words. It was as though I could make myself a better person by assuming the personna of a Native American. When I was older and learned the truth of what had been done to all indigenous people, I felt so ashamed of my society. I decided to fight such ignorance where ever I was and to support the efforts of all indigenous peoples. Ignorance will always be with us, but we can fight it with knowledge and respect.
debbie1115's picture
With all do respect for this article and your other writings that I have admired, I offer the following. When I was a child my favorite Halloween costume was either Indian or Gypsy. I had the choice of many others but they were the ones that I admired. Maybe it was for a psychological-spiritual void that even at an early age I recognized was missing from the culture I was living in but it was never for exploitation. I am a third, possibly fourth generation mix breed. The ancestry that I am sure of is Native American, German, and Irish, pretty typical for the working class poor. To say that main stream media is psychological, propagandist brainwashing doesn't come close to describing the power it has had to shape our cultures and beliefs. Take me for instance, I used to believe that Native Americans were completely innocent of their own demise. Do not get me wrong, I cried like a baby when I found out the depth of the atrocities that my Native American ancestors were subjected to. It makes me angry, it makes me sick to my stomach. I felt the same way when I found out how my other ancestors were rounded up off the streets as children and sent here to work and to interbreed and become the working poor that enabled the Europeans to dominate this land. They have only been able to dominate, and still continue to dominate, because they have kept the people of this land divided by our own prejudices and stereotypes. I am a native American because I was born here. The blood of all of my ancestors runs through my veins. I am not one that can claim any ancestry because I am not a pure blood of any ancestry, but then technically neither is anyone else except for maybe in Africa. I support all efforts of indigenous peoples everywhere in protecting their cultures which hold information I believe is going to be vital for future generations. I applaud, admire and am grateful for the fight of those that have held on to, and continue to hold on to, those traditions. I am concerned about my country and all of the people in it. Maybe when those ancestors who we share "allowed" their children in to the white man's culture they hoped for a day when all of their children would reunite in the spirit of our forefathers and learn from all of our mistakes and take back control of this nation and save the planet for future generations. With all respect I ask you to consider that everyone who is interested in Native American culture is not interested because they want to exploit it or want to be it. It is because the same Great Spirit is a part of our lives now and we admire the ways of our ancestors even when we are not allowed to claim them.
whiteeagle9's picture
Wado (thanks) very well written - keep it up! Blessings!