The one stop for all your “Indian costumes are racist” needs! (Participation)

The one stop for all your “Indian costumes are racist” needs!

Originally Posted at Native Appropriations

Spirit Halloween Tonto

It’s that time of year again! Halloween. Time for folks to grab the nearest Indian costume off a shelf, put it on, and prance around a costume party as they get schwasty on witches brew. Or even better, for parents to grab an *adorable* little Indian outfit to socialize their child super early into an oppressive system that benefits from the genocide and ongoing colonialism of Native peoples. But the excellent thing about this time of year, besides the fact that it will be over in a month? No, not pumpkin spice lattes…

The fact that I’ve already covered this issue so. many. times. And many different angles. So I was going to write another piece, mostly about that hideous Tonto costume above, which is about 8 feet tall in the window of my local Spirit store, but I’m over it. The bottom line is this: Don’t dress up like an Indian for Halloween. No, Pocahontas and Tonto aren’t ok because they’re “fictional” and/or “historic” “characters”–they’re based off tired stereotypes that continue to marginalize Native peoples. No, you can’t wear your Boy Scout Order of the Arrow regalia, even if a “real Indian” taught you how to make it. It’s not respectful to wear it as a costume, and I’ll argue that it’s not respectful for you to wear it ever, but that’s another post. No, the fact that you have a distant Indian ancestor does not make it ok for you to wear a $19.99 costume shop monstrosity. Especially if he/she was “Cherokee.” Our traditional clothing looks nothing like that. No, this is not the result of “PC culture” gone awry. This is about basic human decency and respect. My culture is not a costume. There are 566+ tribes in the US alone. We don’t wear skimpy dresses, fake buckskin, pony beads, and neon feathers. No, it’s also not ok to dress as a “Mexican” with a sombrero and a mustache. Or a Geisha. Or a “phat pimp.” Or a “phat rapper.” Just stay away from the racialized costumes. It’s pretty simple. There are like ten-thousand-million other things for you to dress up as. Any other objections?

So, for the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be re-posting my Halloween posts from the last few years, because the argument is still the same, and will forever be the same. First up, from 10/27/2011:

Halloween Costume Shopping: A sampling of the racism for sale 

Update 10/1/13: All the links still work, so all these costumes are still available for purchase. But interestingly, the descriptions have changed. So I’ve updated each of the descriptors with the new one from this year for comparison. In my opinion, it doesn’t make the costume any better, but it is noteworthy that they’ve toned down the blatant racism and misogyny. Not completely, but a bit. 


After my open letter yesterday, I feel like some people still aren’t getting it (maybe it was the 100+ comments telling me to eff off?). Despite my appeals to emotion and greater human decency, it seems that many people in the world of thar’ intranets need some more physical reminders as to why dressing like a Native person this Halloween might be a problem. So I, dear random-probably-racist-internet-not-friend, am happy to oblige. Because, as a person of color, that’s my job, right? To prove to you that racism exists? To teach you why these things are wrong? To offer evidence of such wrong-doings? What fun it must be to never have to worry about such things! What a privilege!

To state my case, I wandered to the Spirit Halloween website. I did a simple one word search: Indian. I got 56 results, all Native-themed. I chose a few at random to share with you below. Hooray!

To start off,  I give you the description for that “Sexy Indian” above:

Hey cowboy – get a look at this Indian! Stop him in his tracks in this sexy Indian Dream Catcher adult costume and all your dreams will come true. There’s no need for a bow and arrow – just shoot him sexy looks and he’ll make tracks in your direction – it might get so hot he’ll put out smoke signals!

Awesome. Cowboy/Indian stereotypes, mentions of dream catchers, bows and arrows, and smoke signals! (New Description: Stop everyone in their tracks when they catch you in this Sexy Dream Catcher adult womens costume. Give Pocahontas a run for her money in the tan, faux suede, spaghetti strap mini dress, complete with an open back, faux wood and turquoise bead work and a fringed mini apron.)

But it gets better (worse?):

Put the wow back in pow-wow when you go native in this very sexy Tribal Trouble Indian adult women’s costume. They may need to break out the peace pipe because the other squaws will want to torch your teepee when their menfolk see you in this foxy costume!

“The other squaws will want to torch your teepee?” That’s….great. (New description: You’ll put the wow in pow-wow when you go native on Halloween in this sexy Tribal Trouble Indian adult womens costume. The brown, stretch, faux suede dress features a long fringe and plastic bead detail, complete with a feather embellished headpiece.)

But the “menfolk” are included in the fun too:

Go native American in this classic adult men’s Indian Brave costume. Your job – to hunt. Hunt for prey like food and beer or pretty women in this comfortable costume. Get what you want then lay back and enjoy – pass the peace pipe!

Glad women are equated with food and beer. Glad the costume is “comfortable” too. God forbid you be “uncomfortable” when you’re being an ignorant misogynist! And I won’t even with the peace pipe comment. (New Description: Go native American in this classic Indian Brave adult mens costume. Your job – to hunt. Hunt for food and beer in this comfortable costume and get your fill. Take what you want then lay back and enjoy – pass the peace pipe!) 

and don’t forget the teens and tweens…they want to bring boys back to their tipi’s too!

You are an Indian Princess, able to hunt, gather and lead. In this cute Indian Princess tween costume it will be a snap to gather and lead the boys back to your tipi! Dance to celebrate the harvest or welcome a full moon in this fun costume trimmed with lots of fringe, feathers and more.

I’m sure every parent wants their daughter to be gathering boys and leading them back to the tipi. but only while they’re mocking Indian spirituality by “dancing to celebrate the harvest,” of course. (New description: Dance to celebrate the harvest or welcome a full moon in this Indian Princess teen costume. The brown, 100% polyester dress is trimmed with tan fringe and comes complete with a matching arm band, hair ornament and tan boot covers.)

and saving the worst for last:

Girl, you won’t be sitting around the campfire stringing beads in this Pocahottie Pow Wow costume! The work is done and it’s time to play cowboys and Indians, only this time the Indian picks off the cowboys that she wants. Put the wow in pow wow and practice some native American rituals in this sexy Pocahottie costume. Is that an ear of corn in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?

Yeah…I can’t. (New Description: Go native on Halloween when you don this Pocahottie adult womens costume. The brown, microsuede stretch dress features intricate Indian beading and a layered fringe hem, complete with matching feather headpiece. The pow wow won’t start until you arrive!)

I hope these can serve as examples as to why I’m so pissed off. The dripping misogyny and stereotyping is so blatant, it almost reads like satire. But these are real products, for sale on websites and in thousands of Spirit stores nationwide. Thousands of people are seeing, reading and internalizing these messages.

These costumes are hurtful and dangerous because they present a false and stereotyped image of Native people. The public sees these images, and it erases our current existence, so the larger, contemporary issues in Indian Country then cease to exist as well. When everyone only thinks Indians are fantasy characters put in the same category as pirates, princesses, and cartoon characters, it erases our humanity. Have fun thinking through that one.

But let’s be real for a minute. Can you seriously read those descriptions and still say that this is totes ok? Really. Be honest with yourself. Read them again. Think about if these descriptions were describing you and your family. Then tell me I’m being “over-sensitive.”

Thanks for playing, and have a happy, healthy, racism-free Halloween!

Other Halloween posts (I’ll be sharing some of these in full later this week):
Open Letter to the PocaHotties and Indian Warriors This Halloween
But Why Can’t I Wear a Hipster Headdress?
Nudie Neon Indians and the Sexualiztion of Indian Women
A Cowboys and Indians Party is just as bad as a Blackface Party 
Paris Hilton as a Sexy Indian: The Halloween Fallout Begins (includes lots of links about the costume issue)
Mid-Week Motivation: I am not your costume


8 thoughts on “The one stop for all your “Indian costumes are racist” needs! (Participation)

  1. Halloween is a good example of discrimination in examples like this. I have never personally thought much about this but after reading it, especially the descriptions of the costumes this is a perfect example of discrimination. When I was in high school, my rival school had to change their mascot which was an Indian, because of the offense many took to it. I never really understood what they meant, but especially after being in this class, it puts that action into more perspective. Many think this kind of stereotyping is harmless because its not really putting them in negative light, but how do they feel? how would we feel if put in that position? This arrogant behavior is something that contributes to why America is not over being racist.

  2. I honestly do not even know where to begin. I think that this article speaks for many, if not all Native Americans. I have been trying to explain to my friends for YEARS why I do not think that is okay to dress up as an Indian for Halloween. They always come up with the same answer, “ You’re too sensitive. It’s just a costume.” I would think well, what if I dressed up as your race and made fun of your culture, but I realized it was not that easy. Every single year until I was 8 years old, I was an angel. From there until about sixth grade I was a witch. In sixth grade I had a friend who was Greek, and her and I wanted to dress up like a Greek Princess and a Native Princess. My mom had made me a buckskin dress for powwows and after fighting with her forever about even dressing up, my only option was my traditional buckskin dress. My mom made me talk with my grandma about it. My grandma said, “Sequoia, why do you think your mother and I made you that dress?”, and I said, “I know, for dancing!” At that moment it clicked, dancing was sacred, colors, feathers, decorations were sacred. They all had a purpose. If I would have dressed up that year, I would have been wearing something traditional, something sacred to my tribe and family on a night associated with messing around, games, sex, and scary things. Traditions and sacredness did not fit in any of those categories. So now, I believe out of respect, that these costumes should not be made, one, because they are a fake representation and mockery of all native cultures into one, and two, this is not a sacred event, time, or place. So even the claim that you are part native so you can do it, doesn’t work as an excuse, for me at least.

  3. I have never thought about the implications of what dressing up as another culture would mean. Especially what it would mean if the costume of said culture was to objectify oneself to be looked at as only a “Sexy Indian” or whatnot. This shows that the institution is not sensitive to what is inappropriate and/or disrespectful because it can be called a costume, not an outfit used in disrespect. Granted, most people who are buying these costumes probably don’t think about the harm they are causing the people of the culture their costume is so they should be informed about how the people of the culture feel to better understand the issue.
    On the other hand, using this article specifically, it is obvious that there is a gender difference too. All of the women costumes are described as “sexy” seeming to objectify women, even the teen costume. It’s insensitive to have traditional Native American wear used only to try to hook-up (obviously this is not traditional wear but as far as the costume companies are concerned). There are just many things wrong with the valid points that this article addresses and I think it is important to keep in mind when thinking of a costume this Halloween.

  4. This article related to me in a sense because where I am from, culture and tradition are of great importance. My whole life has been structured around my culture, and I couldn’t imagine something that is so sacred to me being disrespected as expressed in the article. The way the indian culture is being portrayed is wrong because the costumes degrade the woman and put them in a negative light to the public eye. “Hunt for prey like food and beer or pretty women in this comfortable costume […] pass the peace pipe!” That is what the caption of the men’s indian costume read. This is so stereotypical it’s just ridiculous to me. It is just saying that all indian men are good for is hunting, drinking, or treating women poorly. And to top it off they proceed to say that because you’re dressed as an indian man you can just sit back and relax and smoke a pipe like the “real” indian men do. The fact that these incorporations have no empathy with this subject blows my mind. I can relate because I know if anyone at my school disrespected my culture I would be furious. This article opened my eyes to society and how corrupt it really is, and now with halloween coming up, if I see anyone dressed up as an indian or disrespecting another race or culture I am going to tell them that it is not okay and that they need to think about how they would feel if someone was mocking their heritage or race.

  5. Halloween had never been an issue of racism where I come from, primarily because I guess we never saw racism even possible through the dressing up of cultures that we assume as interesting or it looks good, also due to the fact that we do not really celebrate Halloween in general. I have never met native Indians before, and neither do I have background knowledge in American history so I cannot relate as to how this affects them, however now that I know dressing up as other cultures without proper respect would offend said cultures, and rub salt on old wounds, I would refrain from doing so, and also inform anyone whom I encounter who do.

  6. I totally agree with the article. The costumes are clearly offensive, clearly inappropriate and not teaching kids the right thing. They portray obvious stereotypes and I get it. As the author stated this argument has been made so many times and is like a worn out record and obviously not much has changed, it has gotten worse actually. But what can really be done to fix this? Just place an advertisement in the local paper saying stop this is racist? I do not think that would be the solution.
    My solution I suppose would be to start from the bottom, from the youth. Seems easy right? Tell 5 year olds that they cannot be a cowboy or a ninja or his favorite movie character Tanto? They have imaginations and I remember when Halloween was the greatest thing on earth when I was 4 to about 13 years old.
    The stereotypes seemed harmless until I really thought about it. If I was Native American and those costumes were being worn I wouldn’t exactly feel comfortable. It is tough for a kid to wrap their heads around that concept, the concept of affecting others.
    I do not really know a solution to this problem. The advertisers are obviously way off the map after seeing their description of the costumes. There is no converting them at all. Even as a fraternity brother, 20 year old kid I think the descriptions are a bit vulgar. The problem is that I want to just say” this is part of life” and there is not much that can be done about it but it truly is wrong. I think it is a small example of our society and how ridiculous it has become worshipping drugged out celebrities doing anything to get a little attention. But that is another discussion.
    In conclusion I do not know what to do about this tough problem because it is wrong. I leave this conversation a little confused( as you can probably tell by the writing) and truly split on how to deal with racist Halloween costumes.

  7. Halloween is when many people can dress up but when someone dresses up like an Indian or another race it is rude and wrong because you are going by their stereotype plus people think that since it is Halloween that it is ok to go as an Indian or a Mexican or a geisha. They think that since it is Halloween that the racial stereotypes of the race are ok to show. Don’t people see that it is very offensive to people of that race? This is something that should not be taught to the next generation. Its true Halloween is there for people to dress up but not to by rude to other races. Something should be done but not many things can be? But instead of buying something that is offensive to different races choose something that has nothing to do with race at all.

  8. My friends and me were talking about this same thing a few days ago. It was mainly about the men who dressed up for the Indian game in redface. I was trying to explain to them it wasn’t any different if the mascot was a different race, African American, Chinese etc. and they had a cartoon as their symbol (mascot). They were arguing that it has always been the mascot and that dressing up (like the men did) was only to match the mascot and saying that its just like dressing up as a pilgrim. I continued to say that how the men dressed, in redface, is no different than dressing in blackface, it is offensive to that group of people and others and it mocks those people. There is no way to calculate how offensive something is to someone else based on your own feelings, especially when you are not the group being turned into a mascot. All in all, Native Americans are people and not mascots. This also relates to the Halloween theme. Like the article said, dressing up as an Indian for Halloween and using them as a mascot makes them seem like “fantasy characters”. It normalizes false stereotypes and erases “contemporary issues in Indian Country”. It is difficult to understand how this feels since I have never experienced such issues. The ignorance of individuals who dress up like Native Americans, either in a game setting or Halloween, I would imagine to be frustrating. But because of the extent of people that still do it, normalizes this type of racism.

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