When Halloween costumes cross a cultural line

Dog Halloween Parade
Dog "Biggie" is dressed as a Native American at the 13th annual Dog Halloween Parade in Tompkins Square Park October 26, 2003 in New York City.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Halloween is time for traditions like pumpkin carving, trick-or-treating and, to hear some tell it, all-too-predictable displays of racism.

The holiday has never been a poster child for political correctness. Costume shops offer getups with names like "Shanghai Delight Geisha" and "Mexican Tequila Party Guy."

And then there are the countless reinterpretations of American Indians.

Dakota artist and activist Bobby Wilson swears he has seen them all, from the "Noble Warrior," complete with a headdress of dyed chicken feathers, to the "Pocahottie," a mini-skirted version of Pocahontas, which promises to "put the wow back in powwow."

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

"They even have little kid versions of that costume, the "Sassy Squaw," said Wilson, a member of the Sisseton- Wahpeton Dakota. "The word 'squaw' has been used and continues to be used as a derogative word for an American Indian woman."

Wilson's frustrations have been echoed in nationwide campaigns like "We're a Culture, Not a Costume."

"You feel like you're just a hamster on a wheel saying, 'Hey, that's racist. Oh, here comes racist again. Oh, racism coming back around.' Am I gonna say the same thing as last year? Am I gonna try to mix it up?" Wilson said. "I hate repeating myself, but I'm going to do it again. That stuff is stupid and racist."

This year, Wilson is supplementing his "that's racist" rant with a little humor. The Minneapolis resident is part of the 1491s, a multimedia sketch comedy group known for edgy YouTube videos.

"We have over 1, 200,000 views on our channel," Wilson said.

Named for the year before Christopher Columbus made his way to America, the 1491s apply their brand of humor to skits about medicine men, Indian names and Native-inspired Halloween costumes.

They created a mock public service announcement called "Halloween Responsibility." (Warning: language)

"It's the idea that native people are frozen in time... That there is a real authentic Indian and he looks like one of the guys who just steps off the set for 'Dance with Wolves.'"

"It's almost Halloween and you're going to need a costume," intones the announcer. "Now, I know some of you think playing Indian is cool — hipsters, college professors, those of you who are fans of teams with Indian mascots..."

"I understand that Halloween is all about dressing up as something fantastic, I want to be Batman. I'm going to dress up like Batman," Wilson said.

But, as far as he's concerned, saying, "I wanna be an Indian, I'm going to dress up like a Indian" is akin to "I want to be an African warrior. I'm going to go as blackface."

Wilson lets loose, "You would never do that. You don't dress in blackface. That's messed up, dude. But for some reason I have to explain why it's messed up to dress in Indian face."

Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University, said "In America we have made progress in addressing race, but there's still a lot of work to do."

Treuer is also the author of the recently published "Everything You Wanted To Know About Indians, But Were Afraid To Ask." He said the appropriation of American Indian images certainly isn't exclusive to Oct. 31. They've long been used to market items such as butter, baking powder and beer. Though not all of the advertising icons are blatantly negative, he said they are almost always based on a simplified stereotype.

"It's the idea that native people are frozen in time," Treuer said. "That there is a real authentic Indian and he looks like one of the guys who just steps off the set for 'Dances with Wolves.'"

Over the last few years, Treuer said, Indian-inspired imagery has hit new heights of popularity. Today you can find everything from Sitting Bull T-shirts to Navajo-print fingernail decals. Fashion models walk the runways in high-heeled moccasins and war paint.

"Native people are lauded in some circles as a group of people who have been able to live free," Treuer said. "Some of this warrior motif stuff is also something that appeals to certain American sensibilities."

That, he said, plays into the commercialization of the American Indian.

The idea of taking a culture and making it a trend is the premise of a new video by the 1491s. Set to a disco version of the song "I'm an Indian, Too," it features images of American Indian college students mixed with photos of popular musicians, reality TV stars and even pet dogs donning feathers and fringe.

Clothing companies have said their styles are a salute to Native Americans. Wilson has heard the same sentiment from Halloween revelers in Indian war bonnets smoking out of replica pipes.

"Who are you to tell Native American people what is respectful?" Wilson said "I'm going to be the one to judge what's respectful and what's disrespectful to my culture, to my race, to my tribe and no one else. That's just the reality of it."

At the end of the day, Wilson's not an angry guy. He's just one who thinks Halloween would be a lot better with fewer Indian braves and many more zombies.