By Benjamin Hoy
Each year numerous calls go out encouraging the public to choose respectful Halloween costumes. No more redface, faux headdresses, plastic tomahawks, or war paint. Newspapers run articles attempting to defeather Halloween, denounce the sexualized Indian maiden costumes, and highlight the problems created by using ceremonial objects such as headdresses in disrespectful ways. From buzzfeed videos to John Oliver’s How is this still a thing?, the breadth of outreach is extensive.
The calls go out and each year we are treated with the same stories. University teams dress up like Cowboys and Indians and sororities and fraternities host Consquistabros and Navajos themed parties. Massacred Indian costumes compete with black-faced cheerleaders and drug using Mexicans. Apologies, sensitivity training, and public relations measures follow.
A year passes and history seems to repeat itself. More apologies. More public relations. With the tens of thousands of Halloween costumes out there, why does offensive costuming persist?
Apathy, ignorance of the issues at stake, and a desire for controversy provide partial answers. Solving this problem, however, requires a much broader focus than is often provided by the media. This is not a one day problem and it is not a problem divorced from its historical context. Playing Indian and the selling of stereotyped imagery are year-round industries. Selling stereotypes persists because they draw upon hundreds of years of momentum supported by thousands of commercial products, television shows, sports franchises, movies, games, novels, magazines, youth organizations, New Age shamans, and cartoons. Attacking Halloween costumes addresses the most blatant displays of stereotyping but does little to undercut the support structures upon which these stereotypes take shape.
The roots of the problem are deep because the same kinds of stories that early explorers told about Indians persist to this day. In these stories, Indians serve as metaphors for innocence, savagery, freedom, and purity rather than as historically grounded people. These stories have encouraged Europeans to imitate or dress as Indians as a way of accessing these qualities.
The form this practice takes changes over time and by context but it is persistent throughout much of American history. In the early twentieth century, youth programs such as the Camp Fire Girls and the Boy Scouts created programs based on their interpretations of Native American traditions using crafting, songs, dress, Indian lore, and ceremony to encourage European children to gain exposure to nature. American revolutionaries dressed up as Indians during the Boston Tea Party, Hollywood actors frequently cross racial lines to depict indigenous characters, and attendees at Grateful Dead concerts during the 1990s garbed themselves in face paint and buckskin. Halloween is part of a long history of racial role playing.
Nor is North America alone in its practices. In Europe, Indian hobbyists still dress in Indian regalia and live ‘authentic’ Indian lives during their vacations. In 1981, for example, 3,000 hobbyists dressed up in a variety of western costumes in Nidda, Germany. The centerpiece of the event was a 200 tepee Indian village filled with Indian hobbyists dressed in historically inspired costumes with elaborate quill and beadwork. Festivals like this continue to this day.
The marketing of Indian imagery over the past one hundred years has underwritten and perpetuated these stereotypes by reinforcing the associations between nature, purity, freedom, and savagery and the ahistorical Indians who serve as their visual stand-ins. Indian Motorcycles, Indian Princess Barbies, Land O’Lake butter, Red Indian Motor Oil, American Spirit Cigarettes, Wigwam Village hotel chains, and Calumet Baking Powder provide a short list of the numerous Indian themed products that have been marketed to North American audiences. During the 1980s, do-it-yourself ceremonies, indigenous spirituality workshops, and Astroturf Sundances all became available for a price.
Changing Halloween requires more than just changing popular perceptions about appropriate dress. It requires breaking entrenched business practices that have profited from stereotyped identities for decades. It requires that children grow up learning that Indigenous people are historic people with complex and ever-changing cultures and traditions. History has been part of the problem and it offers part of the solution.
Benjamin Hoy is an assistant professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan.