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Beyond "My Culture is Not a Costume": The Negative Impacts of Dressing as a 'Native' for Halloween

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

Halloween is here, which means that children and adults alike are dressing up in costumes and outfits to become someone (or something) else for the night. Some of these costumes may have been painstakingly planned and created over months, while others were picked up last minute at the large temporary Halloween stores that strangely pop up in abandoned buildings across many cities. Nonetheless, Halloween is an occasion where people are free to dress up to become something that they aren’t, but it’s all in good fun, right?

Over the last couple of years, there has been a public outcry against dressing up as a “Native” person, especially as a “Native woman”, as these costumes are often sexualized, compounding the negative effects. Many things come to mind when I consider, “What is wrong with dressing up as a “Native” person for Halloween?” The first thing I think of is that large companies are making money from creating these poorly-made, mass-produced outfits that perpetuate stereotypes and offend Indigenous people. Many of these costumes also include a “headdress” of some sort or some other type of culturally significant item. The inclusion of replicas of culturally-significant items can be damaging because the sacred teachings intertwined with these items are obviously not known or followed, thus, the introduction of them into the mainstream is misinformed and damaging.

Sask Against Racism

SCAR and Colonialism No More put “warning labels” at Spirit Halloween in Regina #racistcostumes”

These costumes can also reinforce the idea that Indigenous people are ‘savages’ when accessories like axes and spears are pictured with the costumes (sold separately of course). This portrayal not only perpetuates the negative stereotype that Indigenous people are violent but also lends weight to the misconceived notion that Indigenous people are a type of historical figure and an extinct people. In reality, tens of thousands of Indigenous people continue to exist and practice their culture and their laws, each as unique groups and nations.

This brings me to my final point, despite having individual and unique nations, almost all the costumes being sold are of an identical nature. After a quick google search, I am greeted with hundreds of ladies’ costumes consisting of a short, low-cut “buckskin” dress, a headband, and a braided wig.[1] This homogeneity of costumes points to a significant issue that can have devastating ramifications. The Indigenous nations across this country and the United States are vast. The Government of Canada estimates that there are at least 630 First Nations communities in Canada, which represent more than 50 Nations and 50 Indigenous languages.[2] By assuming that “all Native people look the same,” and all wear buckskin dresses and headbands, we are discounting the beauty, diversity, and importance of all of the Indigenous communities that do not fit into that mold.

It should be enough to be told that dressing up as someone else’s culture can be damaging and offensive to Indigenous people. If you still need more convincing, it has been found, time and time again, that the demeaning image of a “native” woman in a short “buckskin” dress with a low neckline is more than symbolic. These images have “helped to facilitate the physical and sexual abuse of Aboriginal women in contemporary society.”[3] The images of a “Native woman” often presented in the movies, and in Halloween costumes can play a role in dehumanizing Indigenous women, subjecting them to violence and poor treatment by others. So, if you want to play your part in reconciliation, don’t buy a “Native person” costume, and call out those who do. It is the very least you can do.

Until next time,

Team Reconcili-ACTION YEG

[1] “Indian Costumes”(last visited 29 October 2022), online: <>. [2] “Indigenous peoples and communities (last modified 08 August 2022), online: Government of Canada <>. [3] John J. Borrows & Leonard I. Rotman, Aboriginal Legal Issues: Cases, Material & Commentary, 5th ed (Toronto: LexisNexis Canada, 2018) at 795.

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