It’s OK to Wear an Indian Costume for Halloween if…

In 2016 is this costume culturally appropriate?
Halloween is approaching and many are scrambling to find the right Halloween costume to wear. When I was young my friends and I did not care about being sensitive to different cultures. It never crossed my mind in the year 2000 that I should not dress up as an Iraqi terrorist, which I did (It hit me a year later that I could have made a better costume selection). I have since learned from my insensitivity. This year controversy surrounds the upcoming Disney movie, “Moana.” Disney has contracted the fabrication of a costume depicting the demi-god Maui which will be distributed this Halloween. The costume has caused public outcry from the Polynesian and Indigenous communities for not being culturally sensitive or accurate.  One of the most popular and controversial Halloween costumes is the Indian.  Not the Indian from India, but the Native American Indian.
Maui Costume
For years Native Americans have voiced discontent for the chief, brave, injun, Pocahontas (or Sexy Poca”hotties”), and Indian Princess Halloween costumes. This is understandably so. These costumes do not reflect Indigenous cultures.  Many feel that Indigeneity is not something that you can take on and off like a Halloween costume. Native Americans consist of over 500 federally recognized tribes or nations, and many more communities that are only recognized by certain states, or are not recognized at all but have Indigenous ties. There are also Indigenous nations that cease to exist having been exterminated. Most Halloween depictions homogenize all these cultures into one costume that was more inspired by Hollywood westerns than actual Indigenous people. Genocide plagues America’s history and relationship with Native Americans, and many Indigenous people see the imagery depicted in Halloween costumes as an assault on their identity.
So, the big question: is it always in bad taste to dress up as a Native American for Halloween? The quick answer is no. I’d like to offer three suggestions before you choose to dress yourself or your child up as an Indian for Halloween.
1.       Don’t dress up as a stereotypical Indian. Toss out the Deerskin hides, headbands, and headdresses. Most Indians have never worn these types of clothes. Some do wear a few of these items, but Halloween costumes often appropriate these symbols incorrectly, so just stay away from anything tacky, cardboardy, leathery, feathery, or something that you’d wear in a second-grade Thanksgiving recital.
2.       Stay present and stay real. Use current or recent historical figures. Depict admirable real people. Stay away from fake Indians such as Tiger Lily and Land-O-Lakes butter girl. Stay away from historical figures such as Chief Joseph, Pocahontas, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, or anyone who can’t, or whose family can’t defend the costume.
3.       Don’t paint your face red. Seriously, that is just racist. Don’t think about it. Don’t do it. Also, stay away from “war paint.”
Let me make a couple of suggestions for culturally appropriate Native American Costumes:
Will Rogers
Dress up a Will Rogers. He was a vaudeville performer; humorist; cowboy; writer; and TV, movie, and radio personality. He was a Cherokee from Oklahoma. The Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City is named after him because of the positive impact he had in media. For this costume wear start with a traditional cowboy ensemble. Wear a double breasted collar shirt, a neckerchief, a cowboy belt, and some chaps. To accessorize you can round up a straw hat, some cowboy boots, and sling a lasso rope on your side. For extra credit you can carry around a vintage 1920’s-style bullet microphone.
Jacoby Ellsbury
Jacoby Ellsbury is a baseball player who currently plays for the New York Yankees. He is the first Navajo to play Major League Baseball. The costume is very easy. Pick up some Yankee pinstripes, a Yankee hat, and some baseball cleats. It is as simple as that. I naturally object to wearing “war paint,” but an exception can be made when the Indian is a ballplayer. “Black eye” is black grease that athletes wear to keep the glare out of their eyes, and it is culturally appropriate in this context. If Yankee pinstripes leave a bad taste in your mouth (which I completely understand) than you can also pick up his Red Sox uniform, since he also played for Boston.
 Jim Thorpe
Many consider Jim Thorpe the greatest athlete who ever lived. He was a member of the Sac and Fox Nation and was the first Native American to win a gold medal in track and field. He also played professional football and semi-pro baseball. For this costume you can wear a white t-shirt, white shorts, and mismatching shoes. Thorpe faced much racism in his time, even during the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. Someone stole his shoes before the medal events. In order to compete he found old mismatching shoes in a dumpster, and won gold medals in decathlon and pentathlon despite his inadequate footwear.
Maria Tallchief
In her prime, Maria Tallchief was the considered one of the greatest ballerinas in the world, and America’s first “prima ballerina assoluta,” which was a term used for those who were exceptionally talented. She was a member of the Osage Nation from Oklahoma. Her work as the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker transformed the obscure ballet into a world-wide phenomenon. This Halloween costume requires a leotard, tutu, ballet slippers, stockings, and makeup appropriate for a ballet dancer.
Carrie Underwood
Carrie Underwood is an enrolled member of Muscogee Creek Nation. She won Season Four of Fox’s American Idol, and has had one of the most successful careers of any former American Idol winner. She has produced many Gold and Platinum records, won Grammy Awards, toured the world, and starred in movies. She returned to Oklahoma after winning American Idol to attend Northeastern State University, which is a public school that used to be a Cherokee female seminary. It enrolls more Native Americans than any other non-tribal affiliated college. For this costume you can wear a cute dress, carry some platinum records and a microphone.
There you go. These are great non-controversial Native American costumes that you may wear on Halloween that will not attract scorn from the Indigenous community. Don’t like them? That’s fine. You can always cut a few holes in a white bed sheet and go as a Charlie Brown ghost. Be sure to be culturally respectful, and most of all…


Happy Halloween!  

Do you have any ideas for culturally appropriate costumes? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

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