Why American Indian Regalia is no Halloween Costume

indian outfit

Not my Indian outfit

Halloweens engenders talk, tweets and op-eds about costumes.

What’s appropriate? What’s insulting?

When I arrived in the US for college, after living overseas for my primary-grade schooling, I discovered parties: Halloween was an excuse to kick back, drink cheap wine, and wear a costume.

At my first college Halloween party in the ‘States, one of the women college students—an Hispanic whose parents migrated from Mexico—was dressed in full Aunt Jemima countenance, right down to the blackface.

I was simultaneously repulsed and intrigued: Is it OK in American culture to don the persona of Aunt Jemima on Halloween?

Our social mores have since adjusted, and folks who wear blackface are criticized ferociously.

At least on social media.

But what about wearing war paint, feathers, and pretending you’re an American Indian?

My relatives get incensed at fake Indian dress, tomahawk chops and imitation war chants.

And Halloween costumes.
My guess is that most folks don’t know that our Indian regalia arise from long-held traditions and are treated with reverence.

Each piece of wool, each link of silver, and each inch of ribbon has a story, packed with meaning.

For example, the Osage men and women—and many other tribal folks—wear cotton shirts made from calico fabric resembling cotton brought by settlers.

Today we add ribbon to the calico to distinguish our look from the settlers’.

During the time of our removal from Indian Territory—including the Trail of Tears—Indians were deprived of their knives and shears, and had to rip cotton fabric to make clothing.

Shirts were named “tear shirts” because they had to be ripped apart without the luxury of scissors.

When making ribbon shirts for relatives I tear the fabric rather than slice it, in deference to our stories.

Women wrap wool fabric around our hips: skirts fashioned from Pendleton blankets.

The Osage men wear a length of animal hair—often porcupine—safely locked within a silver barrette on top of his head, giving a look settlers mistakenly call a Mohawk.

And there’s more: plain and beaded moccasins, fans made from turkey or eagle feathers, a shawl with your grandmother’s or auntie’s ribbon work, German silver buckles looped to the front of your shirt, a long ribbon that hangs down your back and descends from your necklace…and every single item of clothing has a history.

That’s what bother my relatives when an innocent Halloweener wears faux feathered head-gear or dresses like a Disney Pocahontas.

Missing is the backstory that got sliced away from an outfit meant to symbolize a prodigious culture that represents the backbone of North American society.

Instead Halloween ushers in an imitation of a great people in the form of a cheap outfits made in China, bereft of background or story.

No wonder my relatives are pissed.




About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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2 Responses to Why American Indian Regalia is no Halloween Costume

  1. Russ L says:

    Hi Cynthia,
    Nowadays, you don’t hear about it as often as a reason for not appropriating tribal regalia, but another reason why American Indians are incensed about Halloween costumes is because Halloween costumes disdain the traditional American Indian’s value of virtue, expressed through modest dress. As your picture portrays,one example is that women’s Halloween costumes are sexualized, whereas American Indian women’s regalia is modest.
    This translates into Halloween costumes that show a lot of skin versus traditional dresses and skirts, that range from falling below the knee, to ankle length, and the top part of the dress or blouse covering the body from the neck down. Footware covers the leg up to the calf or knee.
    For our non-native audience, just Google images for: “Jingle dress”, “Traditional women’s regalia”, “Women’s fancy dance regalia”, and “Shawl dance regalia”, and you’ll have a visual understanding of what I mean.
    Best Wishes,
    Russ L.

    Liked by 1 person

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