Oct 28, 2015 - BUZZFEED’S “WATCH NATIVE AMERICANS TRY ON ‘INDIAN’ HALLOWEEN COSTUMES” By Dr. Myrton Running Wolf
An amused and disgusted Sheila Chalakee, a Muscogee Creek Indian actor/comedienne, laughingly says, “Argh! Just get this over with!”
Music crashes in and the BuzzFeed opening logo tumbles on screen. Jump-cuts to several young professional American Indian interviewees – actor Jenny Marlowe (Algonquin), actor/writer Darrell Dennis (Shuswap), and student/intern Shane Whitaker (Sioux). The Native Americans offer their general feelings of “Indian” Halloween costumes.
Shane Whittaker says, “I sort of always dread this time of year because of racist costumes.”
Sheila Chalakee returns, “I’m so nervous! I’m so nervous!!!”
Smash-cut to a title card that reads – “We gave each person a different costume.”
Sheila laughs/cries/screams as she looks at her plastic-packaged Indian costume, “Oh, my god! What …!?!” She reads the costume labeling out loud, “Tribal Temptations.”
Shane looks at his costume and smirks, “Oh, sweet Jesus! … Well, right off the bat the first thing I notice is the axe …” He adds sarcastically, “‘Cause we’re savages!”
It’s like a game now, right? Here we are again talking about this same old crap. On one side we have Halloween partiers, warbonnet wearing music festival hipsters, and Washington Redskins owner Dan Synder and, on the other side, we have cultural critics, Native American activist/advocacy groups, and angry bloggers. In the middle, refereeing the whole thing, are comedians and satirists like BuzzFeed and Jon Stewart to make light of it all. They give us perspective and a good laugh.
It’s a sport. Good fun, where all sides get what they want – attention, conflict, an important issue to champion or mock … except … it’s not a sport. It’s not a game.
Reading the comments section of the BuzzFeed video (or any other internet posting on stereotypical American Indian depictions), quickly produces the same litany of snappy retorts – “They [Native Americans] are getting offended over nothing,” “Some American Indians like it,” “The makers of the costumes like Native American culture; they’re honoring them. What’s the problem?” “My culture is not a costume!” “IDGAF, I wear an Indian costume every other year and will continue to do so!”
Just to be clear – symbols like these are no more trivial than other caricatured depictions and images used to suppress entire populations. Similar portrayals were used successfully as World War II propaganda cartoons against Jewish and Japanese people as well as during America’s slavery era and American Indian wars. Today, the remnants of these practices continue on in the swastika and the confederate flag. These depictions, images, and stereotypes have real power. It is not a frivolous matter.
Contrary to dismissive “it’s just a fun costume” arguments, these clichéd representations generate real sentiments in our shared cultural awareness. Scholars have demonstrated how “Indian Brave” and “Exotic Indian Princess” depictions mass-produce singular ideas of America’s indigenous people as foreign outsiders. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger played on these trumped up fears and cultural stereotypes when he issued a public decree condemning all Native Americans, “The Indians are ripping us off!” This sentiment helped generate a state-wide vote to levy taxes against California tribes. Similarly, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg used his weekly radio show to urge his state’s governor to, ”get yourself a cowboy hat and a shotgun – the law of the land is this and we’re going to enforce the law [against those American Indians].” And today, Donald Trump famously turns the United States / Mexico border into the dangerous Wild West – American “Good Guys” against those dark-skinned evil “Bad Guys.”
Study after study shows how popular “Indian” depictions do real harm to Native American youth, to their self-worth, their community worth, and their hopes for the future. These stereotypes, like World War II propaganda, isolate and stigmatize our American Indian kids. They remove these children from our shared society as the butts of our Nation’s jokes before they’ve even had a chance to explore their potential.
I must say, first off, that I hate policing this stupid issue just as much as good-time-loving hipsters and/or Halloween partiers hate being coerced into taking off their stereotypical headdresses and slutty Indian Princess costumes. The same binary arguments go around and around and nothing comes of it accept mutual animosity, a handful of Youtube videos, and maybe an angry advocate at the end of a cable television news broadcast in the “human interest” section just before the trending and adorable Panda story.
Like before, it’s going to take me a few posts to talk about this stuff. I’ll try to point out overlooked aspects, difficult matters for both sides of the binary to come to terms with.
For now, what strikes me the most, and what a few people have pointed out to me, is perhaps a hugely overlooked aspect of BuzzFeed’s video – each Native American participant wears a glued-on polite grin.
Invited to speak to this issue, they all try to sound cordial and witty. Actress Sheila Chalakee starts off laughing with her hands over her face and wanting to get the whole experience over with ASAP, “Argh! Just get this over with!” Like many American Indians, Sheila appears to wrestle with having to speak the unpopular, the embarrassing, and the obvious reaction of Native America. She is torn about being the spokesperson and hesitant authority for this “fun video” on a popular website. It is, after all, an exhausting conversation being broadcast for the umpteenth time.
These Indians, and Indians in general, don’t get to talk back to white people. America’s indigenous populations don’t get to complain about the legacies of colonialism and white cultural power without first having to slap on prerequisite smiles and apologetic eyes. They must first apologize for standing up for themselves and they must somehow demonstrate that there is no actual threat behind their words.
As a Native American, speaking up for yourself, your people, your culture, your heritage, your beliefs, your family, and your children is not and never has been oversensitive “political correctness,” nor aggressive revisionist history, any more than a Jewish person who talks about the Holocaust, or a Black person who talks about slavery, or a Japanese person who talks about World War II internment camps. These voices should not be silenced. Their thoughts and perspectives are not an attack against white people, hipsters, or Dan Snyder’s Washington Redskins.
Non-Natives who defend these harmful stereotypes just don’t want to make room for suppressed indigenous voices. We’ve all been taught that “defeated” American Indian voices don’t matter and never did matter. Halloween costume wearers, tomahawk choppers, and warbonnet hipsters simply don’t understand, nor have to acknowledge, the hypocrisy of the cultural and social boundaries they themselves construct, enjoy, and staunchly apply whenever it comes to protecting their own family and friends.
Dr. Myrton Running Wolf (Blackfeet) (Stanford PhD, USC MFA, & Tisch-NYU MA) is a multi-award winning artist & scholar creating high quality original scripted content for film, TV and theater.