Friday, October 13, 2006


Across the country, kids know who Clifford the Big Red Dog is. A long-time favorite in a series of picture books by Norman Bridwell, even more kids are meeting Clifford by way of his television program, broadcast on PBS.

In the book Clifford's Halloween, Emily Elizabeth is trying to figure out what Clifford will be for Halloween. One option is an Indian. That page shows him in a large multi-colored feathered headdress, with what Bridwell must have intended to be a peace pipe in his mouth.

Many books about Halloween have illustrations of kids dressed up as Indians, and due to society's embrace of things-Indian and playing Indian, most people don't give it a second thought. 

Let’s pause for a moment, though, and think about this seemingly innocent act of dressing up as an Indian for Halloween.

What else do kids dress up as at Halloween? I don’t mean animals or superheroes, but people-costumes. They can be policemen, firefighters, cowboys, doctors, nurses, pilots, astronauts, baseball players, cheerleaders... All these are occupations or positions one can, in fact, be at some point, with the proper training.

Now---what about an Indian? You can’t train to be an Indian. You can’t become one. It is something you are born into.

Does that distinction matter? A lot of people would say “No. It’s all in good fun, no harm done.” So you help your child apply his/her “war paint” and put on feathers and other items that complete the costume. Can you imagine yourself painting the child’s face so he/she could be a black person? A minstrel performer, or perhaps a slave, or even Martin Luther King? I’m guessing a parent wouldn’t do that. That parent would know it was wrong. (Doing it in another context----a school play, for example, is a different context.)

Another question to consider: What sort of Indian are we encouraging children to be when we endorse an Indian costume, and what does it teach them? Are they savage Indians, the ones who, according to history books, were murderous, bloodthirsty killers? Or are they the tragic ones, heroic, last-stand, looking into the sunset, riding away despondent over loss?

In either case, the costume they wear is stereotypical. And—savage or heroic—both place Native peoples in the past, not the present, reinforcing the idea that we are an extinct people.

If the book you select for a Halloween read-aloud in storytime has characters that dress up as Indians, turn that illustration into a teachable moment with your students. And, if you’re the parent of a child who wants to dress up as an Indian, talk with your child about that choice and what it means.

In choosing NOT to think about this, are you, unwittingly, fostering the development of stereotypes?


Rob said...

Dressing up as Indians may seem harmless, but it's not. If everyone can be an Indian, no one's an Indian. Here's a quote from Oneida scholar Pam Colorado on the subject:

The process is ultimately intended to supplant Indians, even in areas of their own culture and spirituality. In the end, non-Indians will have complete power to define what is and what is not Indian, even for Indians. We are talking here about a complete ideological/conceptual subordination of Indian people in addition to the total physical subordination they already experience. When this happens, the last vestiges of real Indian society and Indian rights will disappear. Non-Indians will then claim to "own" our heritage and ideas as thoroughly as they now claim to own our land and resources.

tigerkat said...

I don't get upset if kids dress up as a witch for Halloween, even though that is my religion and I don't think just anyone can be a Witch (you actually have to practice the faith to be one).

Someone can dress up in cultural or religious aspects of someone else's culture or religion without it being an insult.

Anonymous said...

I know of a young girl who will be dressing up as a japanese princess for Halloween. I dressed up as a Pilgrim AND an Indian at school many times. I was also a Hobo one year. I believe cowboy costumes are also popular. Being a cowboy is probbaly more of a cultural identity than an occupation choice.

I don't think that there is anything unique about dressing up as an Indian.

Muffin said...

I'm part Native American and I don't see a problem with it. It's just kids playing. Didn't you play Cowboys and Indians as a kid? If it was malicious then I would possibly have an issue, but it's not. There's such a thing as taking PC issues too far...

J. L. Bell said...

Theoretically, what if a child dressed up not as "an Indian" but as a particular Native American (e.g., Sitting Bull, Pochahantas)? Would that be significantly different from dressing up as another historical figure (e.g., Lincoln, Earhart)?

What if the costume is a replication of garb specifically associated with a particular culture and perhaps even a particular role or event in that culture, rather than being labeled generically as "Indian"?

Debbie Reese said...

Dressing up as a specific Native person? Interesting question. With enough context and attention to detail, it might work. If, for example, it was a school play, the audience would have context necessary to know who the child was dressing up as. But, if the child was portraying Seattle, the attire would have to be Suquamish. And as shown in the popular BROTHER EAGLE SISTER SKY, a lot of people mistakenly thought it would be ok to portray Seattle as a Plains Indian.... From the illustrator of that book to the editors at the house that published it to the reviewers who favorably reviewed it to the people who buy it... Nobody is making a necessary distinction!

Anonymous said...

I think the lack of distinctive Northwest landscapes and plant and animal species in "Brother Eagle, Sister Sky," really upset me. My husband grew up running around in the forests and seascapes of Northern Washington; he can identify tree species while driving down the road here in Washington! So he educated me a lot about what real clearcuts look like and about the animals and plants that grow here. I think I missed seeing a whaling scene the most in the book. If you've ever stood on or near one of the rough Washington coastlines and beaches, the monstrous waves, the huge rocks, the cold, cold water and then think of those brave, brave men in their comparitively tiny cedar boats risking their lives out in that wild ocean...oh, it is incredible to think that they did that. Then you look at an intricately woven basket made by one of their women...and you marvel. Its breathtaking. Indians are so DIMINISHED in that book...

Carol Maltby said...

Tigerkat, you are in error when you say, "you actually have to practice the faith to be" a witch.

While witches work magic, and some witches do consider the practice of magic to be an integral part of their religious path, there are many witches who do not consider their magic to be religious-based. Wiccans consider themselves to be witches who practice a religion using magic as one component of their spirituality, but not all Pagans or witches are Wiccan.

I'd be careful of nuances when posting about witches in a Native American context. While we may consider being a religious witch to be a benign or positive usage of the word, in some Native American cultures the term that "witch" is used to translate has far more negative connotations.

Carol Maltby

tigerkat said...


Being a Witch I do know that not all Witches are Wiccans and not all Pagans are Witches. That is why I said what I said, in that to be a Witch (notice the capitalization I used) that you must practice a faith. Faith and religion are not the same word. But to be a Witch and to do magic you must have faith that the magic will work and faith that you can actually perform the magic.

As for posting about the nuances of being a Witch on a Native American site, honestly I am not worried. If someone is offended by my faith that is their problem not mine. Although I must say I am surprised to see you bring this up as to how Witchcraft might be offensive on this blog. Because my husband and no one in his family has ever said anything about Witchcraft being offensive to anything other than maybe some of their Catholic faith.

Anonymous said...

I played cowboys and indians as much as any other little boy when I was younger. It's important to remember that children do not always understand these PC distinctions. We can not take offense to kids playing around. If a child were to dress up as a Native American for Halloween, it would be nice if they decided to dress specifically to a particular tribe or denomination. If the child does not pay attention to such detail, I don't believe that he or she should be observed as if they are trying to offend people of Native American descent. We should not take these things so far when dealing with kids.

B. said...

I have to disagree on certain points regarding dressing up as a Native American, an African American, or so forth in the context of a play. I think it might be acceptable to dress up as a specific person in the context of an educational play as well, but as Debbie Reese said, much attention would have to be paid to detail and cultural sensitivity. However, I don't think that it would be acceptable to paint your child the color of the person they are supposed to represent as that would be evocative of blackface and neo-minstrelsy, or redface in this case (see Also, children of color must be allowed to take the part of characters who are of their own ethnicity or race as opposed to putting white children in main roles that would require them to wear blackface/redface/yellowface while relegating children of color to lesser roles, and the roles of people of color must not be stereotyped regardless of who is playing the part. If an educator is planning to put on such a play, then they really have to do their research. For instance, a teacher might more accurately portray the historical manner of dress of Native Americans partaking in a Thanksgiving feast while still spreading misinformation and myths about Thanksgiving and Native American roles in or current viewpoints on the holiday.
Some commentators have stated that stereotypical Indian costumes or "games" do not have a negative impact on children. However, such costumes and games do spread misinformation. If you are interested in learning more about how stereotypes are harmful to those who view them as well as those who perpetuate them, I would encourage you to read Debbie Reese's blog post here:
And this article - The Harm of Native Stereotyping: