Commentary | A haunting disguise indeed!

Think about the Halloween costumes you wear

It’s that time of year again. Halloween is amongst us and we have the opportunity to get creative and transform ourselves into anything our hearts desire. Many girls, from the time they are young, dream of sporting the long black locks of Pocahontas, while boys reminisce about their childhood games of cowboys and Indians. So, when Halloween rolls around and their yearning to express those long lost fantasies resurfaces, the nightly parties of disguise and masquerade offer the perfect setting to do so, no?

Well, before you go out and buy your polyester moccasins and chicken-feathered headdresses, take a moment to listen to the voices of your peers. The Natives you are trying to ‘emulate’ often find great discomfort seeing themselves represented in sexualized and mostly distasteful ways.

A popular Halloween merchandise-selling store said this in their description for the “Sexy Indian Adult Women’s Costume” they were trying to sell: “Hey cowboy – get a look at this Indian! Stop him in his tracks in this sexy Indian Dream Catcher adult costume and all your dreams will come true. There’s no need for a bow and arrow – just shoot him sexy looks and he’ll make tracks in your direction – it might get so hot he’ll put out smoke signals!”

This caption in and of itself is riddled with misappropriations of sacred objects and rituals belonging to various nations of Native peoples, let alone the heavily induced sexual undertones used to describe the Native woman. 57 per cent of Native women have been sexually abused, and more than one in three Native women can expect to raped within their lifetime, so you can see why such representations of objectified Native women send shivers down our backs.

At Brown University in the U.S., students are taking part in an anti-racist Halloween workshop. Some costumes, according to outsiders viewing the campaign, seem to be more offensive than others. Below is a response from Brown student Keil Oberlander, who is part of the Oglala Lakota Nation. The comment leading up to this response explained that a black face costume has an historical context of a different order of magnitude to dressing as a Native American. To this Keil responds:

“I am a Native American and it does have a history. If you think it doesn’t have a history, then you are greatly misinformed. Colonialism still exists today, and we as Natives have to remind the world every day that we still exist…and we don’t want to exist as your costume of choice at a party. We don’t want to exist as your caricature of a good time. When you think you aren’t doing something problematic by wearing a feather headdress, well, you are appropriating my specific culture – that of the Oglala Lakota Nation. A headdress is a symbol of honour, pride, and power, and that is not something a non-Native – I don’t care the skin color – should be wearing for ‘fun’ or Halloween.”

Here at McGill, the Indigenous Student Alliance has decided to weigh in on the discussion of Native Halloween costumes. I am no Stacy London, and I am not telling you “what not to wear,” but we are encouraging students to think critically about their costumes. More importantly, however, we want to invite you to learn about our various indigenous nations and cultures by attending both academic and artistic (beading, music, moccasin making, et cetera) workshops offered through ISA this year. Here we will be happy to provide an insight into our unique ways of knowing, and our practices. We look forward to meeting you! Have a safe and Happy Halloween!

Tiffany Harrington is the VP of the Indigenous Student Alliance. If you would like to learn more about the ISA’s upcoming events, you can contact them at

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