An insult for Halloween

October 21, 2014

EVERY YEAR in the fall, we see thousands if not millions of new "Indian" faces. But these faces are not welcome in Indian Country. Why? Because these are racist caricatures--mascots and Halloween costumes.

Why are these mascots and costumes racist?

Jennifer Kieth in The Manitoban:

Not only does this disregard the multiple, diverse and distinct nations across our country; it erases indigenous peoples' contemporary existence, their contemporary struggles, and their contemporary issues. In short, it trivializes and sustains the colonial practice of erasing indigenous peoples.

When it comes to deconstructing why we should stop using Native Americans as mascots, all you have to do as of this week, is watch the Daily Show--Hokahey! There is an international campaign to change the name of the Washington R*ds***s. Where is the campaign to end racist Halloween costumes?

Many Natives, including Ruth Hopkins, have written about the effects of costumes on Native psyche: "I try to teach my daughter to carry herself with pride and dignity. These racist costumes, that specifically target her purely because of her race, send her the message that Native American women are viewed as sex objects."

Image from

The sexualization of indigenous bodies is incredibly harmful when looking at the statistics. In a 2008 Centers for Disease Control study, "39 percent of Native women surveyed identified as victims of intimate partner violence in their lifetime, a rate higher than any other race or ethnicity surveyed." According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, "at least 70 percent of the violent victimizations experienced by American Indians are committed by persons not of the same race--a substantially higher rate of interracial violence than experienced by white or Black victims."

With one in three native women facing a form of sexual violence, the continued objectification of our bodies normalizes violence upon us. For centuries our bodies have been used as metaphors for conquered land. Although only recently considered a war crime, rape has historically been used as a weapon of war used to subjugate and humiliate entire populations. Women are viewed as pillars of the community and violence against them is a tactical assault aimed at destabilization creating mass intergenerational trauma. This lives on today as a continual investment in the colonization of America.

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Violence on our bodies is often ignored and erased, turning a systematic issue into one that is viewed as an individual problem and increasing the stigmatization of coming forward with the assault. Every year, we are erased in metaphors of what we look like and who we are, but also physically erased. When Native women go missing, it's rare the police intervene. Recently Canada has received spotlight about 1,200 unsolved cases on missing and murdered Aboriginal women. We are literally being erased from the world. Our bodies are viewed as a commodity that can be taken at the will of someone else for their profit.

THIS YEAR, while shopping in the Spirit Halloween costume store, not only can you find the usual array of fake Hollywood/stereotypical Native paraphernalia, you can also find Reservation Royalty.

Given that poverty rates for Natives on reservations is about 29 percent for individuals and around 36 percent of the population for families, there's nothing "royal" about impoverished people and often plays into the assumption that indigenous people get "free money" from the government while the rest of the world works. Issues of cyclical U.S. government planned poverty are dismissed and foisted onto stereotypes of unstable alcoholics, an image encouraged by costumed white folks dressing up to get drunk.

Native people have been consistently forced into conflict when it comes to control over our culture. With the ruling in Cherokee Nation v. State of Georgia in 1831, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall defined our legal status as "domestic dependent nations." The next year, the court decided in Worcester v. Georgia that the Cherokee Nation did have standing as a nation itself, and then Cherokee people were promptly forced from their homes.

In 1892, Congress decided to amend a reservation treaty and open 2 million acres of reservation land belonging to the Kiowa, Apache and Comanche tribes without the consent stated in the treaty. The Supreme Court decided by unanimous decision that Natives were, as Justice Edward White stated, "the wards of the nation," and matters involving Indian lands were the sole jurisdiction of Congress. Congress therefore had the power to "abrogate the provisions of an Indian treaty."

Prior to the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, the ways for Indigenous people to get citizenship was to serve in the armed forces, or give up tribal affiliation including land rights and assimilate into mainstream society. Naturally, the rights associated with citizenship were denied to them as they were subject to Jim Crow laws.

We are told to forget all of that, it is in the past. But today urban, rez, federally recognized and unaffiliated NDNs all face hardships to obtain health care, nutritious food, a living wage, education and housing. Our land is still being stolen by the government and given to corporations to destroy for profit, tribal governments are not truly sovereign, we are being killed by the police, and our women are still going missing. And yet we are not extinct. Indigenous peoples are resilient.

So why are we portrayed like we all died in the genocide?

Spirit is the largest most recognizable Halloween retailer. It is projected that there will be record numbers of sales this year. Forbes states, "About half of Spencer Gifts' estimated $250 million annual revenue now comes from Spirit Halloween--a number that wouldn't be particularly staggering except that the costume subsidiary operates on full steam for just two months of each year." "It's in the ballpark of 50 percent of our bottom line," Spencer CEO Steven Silverstein told Forbes.

Although Native costumes are only account for a fraction of those sales, no wonder they are so profitable! Because it sells. It sells because our society needs to reinforce white superiority. It sells because people, even with "good intentions," need to normalize the system we are in--that oppression is human nature. But that is not true. That is ahistorical and a lie. Racism is a tool of conquest, and is found only in a few cultures and time periods. Today it keeps us separated, and unable to rise together to end exploitation by retaining the wealth we the 99 Percent generates. So how do we stop racism from being profitable? We start by making cultural appropriation completely not profitable.

We can call for a widespread, beyond color lines, boycott. Like that of Indian mascots, like that of grapes by Cesar Chavez, we can stop those record profits. "Party-goers will splurge on spooky and fun garb to wear this year as $2.8 billion will be spent on costumes overall," according to the National Retail Affiliation. A real lasting boycott could potentially be the end of this international chain, giving us leverage to demand the end of selling the idea that races and ethnicities can be accessories. Hitting companies where it hurts--their wallets--is how we take charge of the discussion about cultural appropriation and erasure. We are witnessing that right now with the change the name mascot campaign.

Calling out mascots and Halloween costumes is not going to end white supremacy. Only resistance and community determined structuring of society will end oppression. But today we can end mascots. Today we can end costumes. #botcottspirithalloween
Caro Gonzales, Chemehuevi, and Kels Menchaca, Cherokee

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