Not your Pocahontas

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author: alyssa prudat | contributor


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For non-Indigenous trick-or-treaters, October is an exciting month. Spooky Halloween stores appear out of the woodwork, candy is aplenty, and on the 31st, people will dress up. For non-Indigenous trick-or-treaters, costume choice is a non-issue where the biggest decision lays in who will be Ross and Rachel or Chandler and Monica. However, Indigenous families will likely see an entire aisle dedicated to the racist and sexist depictions of “Native American” themed costumes.  

At the start of October, a lingerie retailer called Yandy received backlash from a Handmaid’s Tale costume in its selection. The costume was immediately taken down for being offensive and perpetuating oppression against women. Yandy issued an apology for this. Yandy urged that this costume of a white woman was not a symbol of female empowerment in their apology. Yet, 40+ pieces of sexist “Native American” costumes remain on Yandy’s website. A petition with 13,000 signatures was delivered to Yandy, opposing stolen Native identities as Halloween costumes and yet the costumes remain, the CEO silent. These costumes are not, as in the case of the Handmaid’s Tale costume, a symbol of female empowerment, and yet they remain on the shelves. 

Which groups of women are we empowering? Clearly, not those implicated by the “Tribal Trouble Native American” costume that the company refuses to take down. This is not an isolated incident, either. For years, Indigenous people have had to experience gross misrepresentations of their culture. The number of Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women rises, and the large number of costumes perpetuating violence and rape culture refuse to budge off of the shelves. There are other culturally inappropriate costumes, but never to the extent of Indigenous costumes. 

There are arguments that are repeated every year around this spooky time. Such as, “I am offering homage by wearing this!” But homage is offered to those people, or cultures, who are already dead. Indigenous women are still alive. Indigenous cultures are still alive. Plastic, artificially coloured feathers of a headdress erase the culture behind that headdress. War bonnets, face paint, and bows and arrows all perpetuate a harmful narrative that capitalism refuses to move away from for the sake of profit. 

Another age-old proverb is, “It’s just a costume. Don’t be so sensitive.” But that costume leads to violence against Indigenous people, and upholds an epidemic of sexual violence against Indigenous women. Native women experience the highest rate of assault in the country. A stereotype dehumanizes people who are still alive and perpetuates rape culture.  

Another comment one may hear, particularly in reference to Pocahontas costumes, is “Pocahontas was a Disney princess, it’s not real.” Pocahontas was Disney’s whitewashed misrepresentation of the 10-year-old Matoaka. Matoaka was a real child and would have been one of todays’ missing & murdered Indigenous women & children. Pocahontas may not be real, but the person and culture she was based on is real. 

So if these costumes are so harmful, why aren’t more companies or stores removing the costumes from their shelves? Yandy is only one of the few examples of willful ignorance. For the Halloween consumerist this year, please remember that these stereotypes have harmful real-life implications on real people.  

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