My Culture is Not your Costume

Every October I, along with literally everyone else, am faced with the impossible dilemma of what to dress up as for Halloween. I haven’t decided on a costume quite yet, but I can tell you what I won’t be dressing up as: Reservation Royalty.

Before you write this off as another rant about cultural appropriation, just hear me out as to why this is a really important issue.

If you’re wondering what’s wrong with this costume, let’s start off with the its name, “Reservation Royalty.” First of all, there has never been a monarchical system used by North America’s Indigenous peoples. To dress up as an “Indian princess” paints a historically inaccurate picture, and let’s be honest, Indigenous people have had to fight hard enough to have their history portrayed correctly (and no, Pocahontas is not historically accurate). In fact, the Indigenous peoples of (what is now) North America directly suffered due to colonialism as directed by the French and British monarchies.

The label “Reservation Royalty” also implies that reservations are some sort of magical kingdom for Indigenous people. That’s simply not the case. Today, there are 132 drinking water advisories in effect in 89 First Nations reserves across the country, excluding British Columbia. The housing crisis is so bad in Attawapiskat First Nation that they cannot get full-time nurses to stay in the community. In truth, not every reserve is facing these challenges, but too many of them are. It sounds just like a fairytale, right?

Another one of the numerous problems with this costume is that it turns the sexual objectification of Indigenous women into a commodity. Indigenous women have long been victims of human trafficking and have gone missing by the thousands. This costume perpetuates the notion that Indigenous women are only good for sex, which sets us back in our efforts to combat the ongoing injustice of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in this country. I should also mention that this isn’t the only “Native American Indian” costume available. This website has so many costumes that sexualize Indigenous women that I don’t know how anyone could ever just pick one!

This isn’t about political correctness; it’s about respect. There’s a reason why people were outraged when Macklemore dressed up as a Jewish man or when Julianne Hough used black face when dressing up as Crazy Eyes from Orange is the New Black or that this “sexy burka” costume even existed—because these cultures have been plagued by systemic oppression and racism for centuries. Likening yourself to a culture for one day out of the year doesn’t make it yours.

You might argue that dressing up in a cultural costume simply shows your respect for/desire to learn about the culture in question. After all, Oscar Wilde did say “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” However, there are an infinite number of other ways that you can learn about another culture without dressing up in an unauthentic, blatantly offensive Halloween costume. If you go to Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre’s website, you will find a list of educational workshops and events open to the public, regardless of whether or not you’re Indigenous. Taking the time to speak with elders and community members will be far more enlightening than a night of partying in a very offensive costume. If you still want to add elements of Indigenous culture to your wardrobe, check out She Native Goods and various online stores owned by Indigenous artisans.

14633289_1084154628349296_3302331692820133766_oKingston is situated on traditional Anishnaabe and Haudenosaunee Territory. If you choose to go out this Halloween, please have respect for those who walked these lands before you.

And before you go, please check out QNSA’s suggestions for some non-offensive Halloween costumes here. Happy Halloween!

Natasha Kornak is a second year Métis student at Queen’s University majoring Life Science. She is the 2016-17 Blog Director for Queen’s Native Students Association.

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