Halloween is a magical time of year when adults and children alike get to play “dress-up”, when anime fans can cosplay as their favorite character on the street and in the clubs, and settlers get to indulge in pumpkin spice and as much candy they can possibly consume. Simply put, Halloween is a fun festival to mark the “death” of the summer, and symbolically celebrate the memory of the dead, in much the same way as the Mexican festival Dia de los Muertos, or, Day of the Dead.
Like Dia de los Muertos sugar skull tradition, Halloween masks originally had indigenous cultural roots. The Celts of Europe wore masks while engaging in traditional shamanism to ward off evil spirits. More than 2,000 years later as a result of invasion, conquest, and Christianity, those designs and examples have disappeared. Yet today they serve as the inspiration for the modern tradition of the Halloween costume.
There is a difference between being inspired by an indigenous culture and appropriating it, especially while that culture is very much alive; which brings me to the endless stream of Pocahotties and headdresses seen at almost every Halloween party or street parade.
Native Americans are very much alive and well, and we retain a large part of our cultural heritage despite repeated attempts to eradicate us, or force us to assimilate with Western cultural norms. We were called the “savages” yet we were the ones who had such unspeakable savagery perpetrated against us, and still constantly face erasure and attempts to drive us off our remaining lands by corporations and governments alike.
One example of this, is Pocahontas herself. Pocahontas (whose real name was Matoaka) was a victim of kidnap and repeated sexual assault, slavery, and forced migration. When you are wearing one of those Pocahottie costumes, you are not only appropriating Native culture and further sexualizing Native bodies, in the case of Pocahontas you are exploiting a victim of rape in a community where more than 1 out of every 3 women are raped – mostly at the hands of non-Native men.
When you wear a headdress you are not honoring Native and indigenous men who earned them literally feather by feather in most cases. The headdress, or warbonnet, is not only cultural among the Nations and tribes who wear them, it is also of spiritual significance. Putting a headdress on your head when you are non-Native and/or have not earned the right to wear one, is as offensive to Native Americans as artist Andres Serrano’s infamous piece where he placed a crucifix in a large vial of his own urine is to many Christians.
To add insult to injury, while you go clubbing in tacky faux-Native regalia without being called out, real Native people often face difficulties when wearing Native clothing and headpieces that some of us have a legitimate right to wear. Frequently, Native high-school graduates are barred from wearing eagle feathers or having traditional hair in graduation ceremonies. Native men are also frequently banned from having long hair in many US jails.
In a country where Native people are frequently disallowed from exhibiting our own culture, America, can YOU please NOT? Remember to enjoy yourselves responsibly, and have a safe and Happy (but respectful) Halloween.