Written by Sam Ross – Edited by Emilia MacDonald
Halloween is one of the most highly anticipated times of the year. From young children trick-or-treating, to university students clubbing, this festive occasion is celebrated by people of all ages. This is a time for everyone to relive their childhood fantasies and pretend to be someone else for the evening, using their finest creative skills to create the perfect costume. As fun as dressing up for Halloween may be, there are often instances of costumes being disrespectful, even when done with the best and most innocent of intentions. One of the biggest forms of this disrespect appears in the form of cultural appropriation.
For those unfamiliar with the term, cultural appropriation in simple language, is defined by the act of taking some characteristic from a culture that’s not their own, and utilizing it for their own personal agenda. Usually, the individual adopting the culture is a member of the majority population, while the people whose culture is being appropriated are part of the minority. This minority group is typically one that is oppressed, and is frequently the target of ongoing and persistent racism (We R Native, 2021). Cultural appropriation is an issue that affects several cultures, and can be seen anywhere from characters on television, to models on the runway.
Cultural appropriation is a heavily discussed topic in the month leading up to Halloween. This is a result of the questionable costume choices people have used in years past.These costumes most often target the Indigenous community, and the open ridiculing of their culture has become increasingly problematic each year.
When looking across the shelves of any costume store, one will see several variations of an offensive Indigenous outfit. The most common examples of these costumes are marketed towards women (Begay, 2019). These costumes are aimed to be overly sexual, containing a short dress or skirt of some sort decorated with feathers and beads. The name of the costume often reflects the misconstrued message portrayed in the costume, something along the lines of “Native Princess”. Some of these costumes go as far as to use the offensive, outdated term “Indian” (Begay, 2019). Indigenous women have an extensive history of being sexualized. From the moment colonizers stepped onto their land, they have been treated as sexual beings rather than women. Costumes that overly sexualizes Indigenous culture, reinforces these harmful, Eurocentric, narratives that have tainted society for centuries.
It’s not uncommon for there to be sacred accessories involved in some of these costumes. A common example of this is seen in the male variation of these costumes: a Headdress. There is a lot of symbolic importance behind a headdress – it’s not just a piece of clothing that any Indigenous person owns, let alone someone from outside of their culture. Headdresses are awarded to Chiefs of Indigenous tribes as gifts, and there are rituals and procedures that must be followed. The headpiece represents their obligation to the group, as well as all the effort they put in to earn it (Monkman, 2016).
A lot of people don’t see an issue with wearing these costumes, and back their beliefs with the fact that they’re not being offensive, but rather, that they’re just broadening their horizons by learning and appreciating a new culture. However, there’s a very big difference between appreciating a culture and appropriating it. Trying cuisine from an Indigenous restaurant or purchasing goods from a local, Indigenous-owned small business, can demonstrate your appreciation for their culture without reinforcing harmful stereotypes.
The selling and wearing of culturally insensitive costumes minimizes the significance behind traditional dress within these cultures. Think about it this way: what messages does it send, and how do you think it makes a person in the Indigenous community feel, when they see something that’s supposed to be reminiscent of their culture placed on a shelf next to a dragon costume. How can something so reminiscent of a very real and active culture, even compare to costumes of fictitious creatures?
Perhaps what adds insult to injury in all of this, is that Halloween follows so closely to Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. This is a day in September where Canadians across the country collectively commemorate survivors of Residential Schools, as well as those who lost their lives from it. It makes no sense for a nation to mourn this tragedy one month, only to offend and appropriate their culture the next.
Despite cultural appropriation being an ongoing problem for years, it has only recently come to public attention. This is a positive sign, as it’s indicative that as a society, we are becoming more aware of these issues. Of course, the first step in overcoming ignorance is to educate oneself about the subject. By encouraging others to reflect on the impacts of cultural appropriation, and why it is problematic, it will hopefully lead to fewer insensitive costumes in the following years.
Begay, D. (2019, February 18). Why you shouldn’t ‘dress up like an Indian’. Voices of Native Youth. Retrieved October 15, 2022, from https://voicesofnativeyouth.com/why-you-shouldnt-dress-up-like-an-indian/
Native cultural appropriation. We R Native. (2021, July 21). Retrieved October 14, 2022, from https://www.wernative.org/articles/native-cultural-appropriation
Neylan, S. (2018, June). Canada’s Dark Side: Indigenous Peoples and Canadian heritage. Origins. Retrieved October 15, 2022, from https://origins.osu.edu/article/canada-s-dark-side-indigenous-peoples-and-canada-s-150th-celebration?language_content_entity=en
Nicholas, G. (2017, November 27). Victoria’s Secret does it again: Cultural appropriation. The Conversation. Retrieved October 15, 2022, from https://theconversation.com/victorias-secret-does-it-again-cultural-appropriation-87987
Monkman, L. (2016, March 26). Behind first nations headdresses: What you should know | CBC news. CBCnews. Retrieved October 14, 2022, from https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/behind-first-nations-headdresses-1.3506224