Redface Is Just as Offensive as Blackface

Members of the Native American community are once again reminding the public that wearing a headdress is no more acceptable than dressing up in a sombrero, a yarmulke, or a hijab.

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Oct 31 2014, 5:28pm

Photo via Wikimedia

Anyone still thinking it might be fun to dress up as a Native American (aka a "sexy Indian" or "warrior chief") this Halloween should reconsider. Members of the Native American community are once again reminding the public that wearing a headdress is no more acceptable than dressing up in a sombrero, a yarmulke, or a hijab-which hasn't stopped celebrities like Pharrell Williams, Gwen Stefani, Paris Hilton, and even Princess Charlotte Casiraghi of Monaco from doing it, but still.

"It's 'redface.' Just like 'blackface,'" Deejay NDN, a member of the First Nations DJ trio A Tribe Called Red told the Huffington Post. The group has repeadedly asked fans to stop wearing "Indian" headdress costumes to its shows. Twitter users are speaking out as well, asking retailers like Party City to stop stocking the costumes.

Despite this public outcry, this Halloween "Native American" costumes are available online and in stores across North America, with online retailers offering over 100 options. "Sexy tribal princesses," Native American "Indian warriors" (found under the heading "Indian"), and "sexy Indian chiefs" (found under the heading "undergarments") are common examples. When sorted by popularity, the "American Indian Woman" is the 12th bestselling adult costume on Walmart.com, ahead of both Catwoman and Wonderwoman, and the site's 54th bestseller overall-out of over 3,000 options.

"Word just came in from the ancient Indian tribal gods that this Sexy Tribal Princess Costume will have you looking hot," reads the marketing copy for one costume. Another promises the feathered headband is "historically accurate" and notes "an Indian chief needs his squaw, and every squaw needs some nice accessories." Walmart, Kmart, Target, Party City, and HalloweenCostumes.com could not be immediately be reached for comment. 

Photo via Walmart.com

"We, as First Nation people, have never had control of our image in colonial media since its birth," notes Deejay NDN in his Huffington Post interview, explaining why dressing up as an historically oppressed minority is problematic. The award-winning group, known for its civil rights activism and support for the campaign to change the Washington NFL team name, asks its audience members to confront this historical appropriation via video installations at each of their shows. Each show presents a powerful, endless loop of movie clips in which white Hollywood actors appear in redface "playing" Native Americans. Old westerns are particularly guilty of this-white men wearing headdresses wielding tomahawks while chasing buffalo on horseback-but this appropriation is still visible throughout society today: from the Halloween costumes to the Land O' Lakes butter "Indian maiden," to Indian Motorcycles, to the Washington NFL team name and mascot.

In Thomas King's The Inconvenient Indian, a darkly funny book about the history of Indigenous peoples in North America, King writes, "North America no longer sees Indians." What it sees, King argues, are "war bonnets, beaded shirts, fringed deerskin moccasins, face paint, and bone chokers." The Native peoples represented by this reductive imagery are what King refers to as "Dead Indians."

To illustrate this King shares an anecdote in The Inconvenient Indian about Running Antelope, whose image appears on the $5 silver certificate that was in circulation in the US from 1899 to 1914. The story goes that Running Antelope was asked to wear his headdress for the photograph, but, feeling it inappropriate as it was only for special ceremonies, he refused. Another story has it that he arrived to the sitting without a headdress so was asked to wear a Pawnee headdress rather than the one of his own Lakota nation. He refused. The final image, however, features Running Antelope in a headdress-perhaps the product of an early photoshop-esque move by an official who was convinced he needed a "real" Indian for his photo.

A generic "Native American" Halloween costume is just part of a long tradition of a false representation of the culture. "Whatever cultural significance [headdresses] may have for Native peoples," King writes in the book, "full feather headdresses and beaded buckskins are, first and foremost, White North America's signifiers of Indian authenticity."

And therein lies the problem, note Tribe Called Red members. It's part of what the group calls "Pan-Indianism," which creates a false impression of what being a member of a First Nation means. Instead of a dynamic, diverse group of hundreds of nations each with unique language, traditions, culture, and dress, the "Indian" is reduced to a costumed stereotype that never truly existed, except as a construct by White North Americans. 

It's in light of this very recent history that many First Nations' members are reminding everyone this Halloween that it isn't OK to play dress up in someone else's culture. Unless a costume, like this one, that makes a mockery of genocide is your thing.

"Here's your chance to rewrite history, in this version the Native Americans slaughter the Europeans!"  

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