Sunday, October 29, 2006

More on Indian Costumes at Halloween

In the comments section for "Cowboys and Indians and Tacos and Tequila," a mother who identified herself as a "Caring and Concerned but Decidely UN-PC-Mom" defended her decision to support her daughter's wish to be an Indian at Halloween.

Jean Mendoza, my friend, colleague, and co-author, submitted a reply to Un-PC-Mom. I think these two comments are important and should be read by all (not all visitors to the blog read the comments), so I'm posting both comments here. Directly below is the comment from Un-PC-Mom (her comments were not broken into paragraphs), and below it is Jean's reply to her.

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Comment from "Caring and Concerned by Decidely UN-PC-Mom"

OK, I get that you don't want people to be insensitive to the Native American Culture. However, I do believe that children should be allowed to feel what they feel and want to be what they want to be. My daughter wants to be an "Indian." This is interesting because one of her best friends is actually Indian, from India. Different to that, she is fascinated by the Native American Dress and calls it Indian. We, as a family, are not disparaging of any ethnicity and she is immersed in many cultures, living here in New York City. We are middle class people who work hard for a living, and yet we do go to a private school. That school is not for profit and is of a developmental philosophy. We pay far less than the "privelaged class" of NYC, but we consider ourselves lucky to have found our cool school. One thing I find interesting about your blog is that it does not allow that historically, Native American Indians had a certain dress and look, and why is that not OK to observe as a costume? People dress as Marie Antoinette, don't they? People dress as Vampires. The point is, people dress as things that they find intriguing and actually might want to learn more about. I am very sorry if you find it offensive, but honestly, I find it an opportunity to talk organically with my child about what she finds interesting and then that opens the door to what is there academically. She certainly means no offense, being 6, and I, most certainly do not either. In this day and age, when so little is actually taught correctly about native american indians, I find it a great "in" to talk about everything with my daughter. I am sorry if it offends your sensibilities, but then, that is something for you to deal with. At the end of the day, do you want people to be insinserely NOT talking about Native America Indians, or do you want them to learn, by hook or by crook, what is real?

Signed,
A caring, concerned, but decidedly UN-PC Mom
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And here is Jean's reply:

Response to Un-PC-Mom in New York

I appreciate your participating in a conversation that you probably didn’t expect to encounter when trying to find information about Indian “costumes”. I’ve read your post a couple of times & think you may have misread Debbie’s work. I don’t see Debbie saying that supporting children’s mistaken ideas about Native Americans “offends sensibilities”. Instead, she is inviting you and the rest of the world to consider why you would want to continue to support a child’s mistaken ideas about other people – or about anything, for that matter.

You (un-PC Mom) said: historically, Native people had “a certain dress and look”. In fact, you probably know that there were/are HUNDREDS of ways of “dressing and looking”, historically, depending on one’s culture, gender, age & experience, time period, etc. You probably have yet to see a culturally authentic, historically accurate “Indian costume” for kids sold anywhere. The ones available (even the patterns sold for those who sew) are a hodge-podge of Hollywood Indian stereotyping and foolishness.

I’m wondering what resources you and your daughter would use to find information about “Indian” ways of dressing and looking? Without the most accurate resources and careful choices, the result is likely to be a pseudo-historical mélange of styles and inaccuracies that will add to her misinformation about what it means to be Indian, in either the historical or contemporary sense. Even if the costume is 100% authentic/accurate, you still run into the problem of allowing your child to think that "playing Indian" is somehow on a par with pretending to be a vampire or Marie Antoinette, which it isn't.

If your daughter’s wearing an Indian “costume” is “an opportunity to talk organically” with her, which then “opens the door to what is there academically” – where will you look for materials that won’t add to the misinformation she already has? Debbie has suggested Oyate; so do I. A lot of non-Native people are uncomfortable when they look at Oyate for the first time. The perspective is very different from that of the dominant culture. It can be painful to come face-to-face with the fact that much mainstream “knowledge” about indigenous people is actually false, inaccurate, even stupid. Good books by Native people are an excellent antidote for the misinformation that dominates popular culture.

"Mom", you mention that your child’s school is “developmental”. Many schools with that approach also implement an anti-bias approach to diversity. You might want to ask the principal and the teachers whether they use the anti-bias curriculum, and then check out the materials, yourself. One tenet is that it’s educationally and ethically appropriate to proactively support children’s authentic understandings of cultures, groups, and lives other than their own. That means challenging or doing away with activities that keep the misunderstandings alive. Anti-bias curriculum materials are available from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Maybe a question to ask is, “If there were Native children in my daughter’s school, would I be caringly, proudly ‘un-PC’ and let her dress that way for Hallowe’en? Or would I make a point of being sure that she did nothing that reflects my/her ignorance about someone else’s history and culture?”
If the answer is, “That would be something for THEM to deal with; let her dress as she likes” – then what does that show her about how to get along with other people? “Let them eat cake?” “It doesn’t matter what I don’t know, as long as I don’t MEAN to offend?”

I should probably identify myself: I'm white, married to a kind, intelligent and talented tribally enrolled Muscogee Creek man; we have 4 wonderful children and (yay!!) four amazingly wise and beautiful grandchildren. I've known Debbie for about 12 years and am honored to have worked with her from time to time.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

I found this vintage Sesame Street clip and am curious what y'all think (esp you, Debbie, but everyone else too):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PuJzKVF_gxQ

-Rebecca Rabinowitz

Susan Rardin said...

Dear Debbie,
I am a school librarian who often reads and learns from your blog. When my daughter was around 7, she's now 26, she wanted to be an American Indian for Halloween but not just any Indian, she wanted to be a Lenape. We researched her costume and I made it to correspond to the native dress we found in an reference book. It's been so long that I don't remember the book. I still have dress. My daughter loves Sherman Alexie's work and wrote about one of his novels in one of her college English classes.
My comment is that I continue to learn how to be sensitive to American Indian culture.
I got one of my 3rd grade teachers to read The Birchbark House after reading your comments on the Newbery
Winning offensive read aloud...the title escapes me right now.
I'm not going to remove Little House on the Prairie but I am going to try to stike up a dialog about the treatment of American Indians in the book. Sensitivity and censorship are two different things. I was fascinated by the L.I. Wilder series when I was young and totally missed the reference to the "only good Indian is a dead Indian." It didn't register to my young mind, thank goodness. I'm still trying to research my background to see if my father was correct that we are related to Chief Joseph Brant, Mohawk Indian.

J. L. Bell said...

Jean Mendoza wrote: "Even if the costume is 100% authentic/accurate, you still run into the problem of allowing your child to think that "playing Indian" is somehow on a par with pretending to be a vampire or Marie Antoinette, which it isn't."

I didn't see evidence or argument to support this statement.

Let's put aside vampires because they're not real (at least for the sake of this argument), and look at the issue of dressing up as a real person.

What are the significant differences in dressing up in these ways?
1) as a member of a different ethnic group, in a costume associated with that ethnic group.
2) as a historical person, now dead, such as Marie Antoinette.
3) as a real person still alive, such as Tom Brady.
4) as a current profession, such as a firefighter.

Let's also assume that, as Jean says above, "the costume is 100% authentic/accurate," and the child wishes to dress this way out of interest in or respect for the person he or she portrays.

What defines the differences?

Rob said...

There's no evidence that un-PC Mom actually talked to her daughter about Indians. Let's hear what she said and what her daughter learned from the experience, if anything.

One difference between dressing up as a minority and an occupation is clear. No one controls the definition of a cowboy or firefighter, but Indians have (or should have) the right to control their own images.

This thinking applies to real people, living and dead, which is why they or their managers license their images in the media. They know their images can be distorted or misused, so they control them.

On my Indian Wannabes page, I quote Oneida scholar Pam Colorado, who describes the problem with playing dress-up:

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...

Rob, you talk about how people dressing up as Indians means that Indians are giving power of themselves over to the people. Do you feel the same way about children who dress up as nuns, witches, monks, or any other religious figure?

I doubt that any children or very few at the most are dressing up in a hope to stage a coup and "supplant" Indians within their own culture. It is more likely that the children want to dress as someone that they like and admire.

J. L. Bell said...

In re:
One difference between dressing up as a minority and an occupation is clear. No one controls the definition of a cowboy or firefighter, but Indians have (or should have) the right to control their own images.

I'm afraid I don't see the logic of this response.

To begin with, any profession with uniforms, such as firefighters, police officers, nurses, etc., does define its own image. That's the point of the uniform.

Second, the premise of my question was that the child (and parents) had created a 100% authentic costume. In the case of dressing as a member of a minority culture, that would mean conforming to the image as defined by that culture and/or best historical evidence. The minority group would thus still be defining its own image.

Jean Mendoza said...

Jlbell listed 4 significant ways of dressing up, including “as a member of a different ethnic group, in a costume associated with that ethnic group”. Cases in point include what Debbie alluded to earlier: fraternity/sorority parties where white students don costumes meant to portray pregnant Mexican women, black “gangstas”, etc. No respect or honoring there! Those students aren’t indicating any desire to BE those they are imitating-via-stereotype. Maybe what they are doing instead is rehearsing/celebrating their own skin- and class-privilege.

We all know that imitation often is NOT the sincerest form of flattery; it can be a blatant form of insult.

But isn’t dressing up as someone else also essentializing; an assumption that appearance (or one’s own altered appearance) somehow captures the “essence” of the individual or group being portrayed? Someone who wants to dress as Marie Antoinette is probably not going to put on a historically accurate wrinkled nightdress like one she (possibly) wore staring into the just-woke-up-no-wig-or-make-up-yet mirror. It’s about the glamour, the notoriety, not about the everydayness of the actual person.

The Smothers Brothers, back in the ‘60s when popular culture intensely romanticized cowboy life, summed up the essentializing-through-costume impulse to the tune of “Streets of Laredo”:
“I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy.”
“I see by your outfit that you’re a cowboy, too.”
“We see by our outfits that we are both cowboys.
If you have an outfit you can be a cowboy, too.”

Jlbell wrote of the possibility of someone creating a 100% authentic costume to make him/herself look like a member of a group to which s/he is an outsider. “In the case of dressing as a member of a minority culture, that would mean conforming to the image as defined by that culture and/or best historical evidence. The minority group would thus still be defining its own image.”

I don’t see that. If for some reason, somebody should decide to impersonate Joe Ordinary, even with scrupulous attention to detail -- then what the person chooses to wear/do while impersonating is NO LONGER DEFINED OR CONTROLLED BY JOE. S/he is “being” an interpretation of Joe, not “Joe” as Joe knows himself. Maybe that’s related to the Wannabe problem to which Rob refers? The outsider is not an insider, despite “good intentions” and primary sources. Along that line, tigerkat may have misread Rob’s quote from Pam Colorado – neither Rob nor Ms. Colorado says that Indians are GIVING power of themselves over to the people who are trying to look/be “Indian”. It’s not that Native people “give up” the power of self-definition; maybe it’s that a piece of autonomy, the right to self-name, has been publicly co-opted.

“I’ve always wanted to be an American Indian” is a work by James Luna, a Luiseno performance artist. It starts out, “I had heard this before, but for whatever reason the quote affected me not like before: The White Man looked me in the eye and quite honestly said, ‘Gee, I’ve always wanted to be an American Indian.’” Luna goes on to describe positives and negatives of his home community, and closes with, “…this place, like other places, is the reality that we Indians live; this is it. This isn’t the feathers, the beads of many colors, or the mystical, spiritual glory that people who are culturally hungry want. … Hey, do you still want to be an Indian?” (from Strong Hearts: Native American Visions and Voices).

DearReader said...

"...you still run into the problem of allowing your child to think that "playing Indian" is somehow on a par with pretending to be a vampire or Marie Antoinette, which it isn't." If a child dressed as a specific Native American historical figure, then it would be the same as dressing as Marie Antoinette, and equally appropriate.

Anonymous said...

I think decisions about dressing up as a historical figure should always be considered in light of the political history of that figure. We can't take this issue out of context, no matter what the individual motivation is for dressing up. Marie Antoinette is a French historical figure, not American. The history of the relationship between Native Americans and the colonies and the U.S. is one of genocide perpetrated against the Native American nations, glorified for decades thereafter in Westerns. Today "Indians" are everywhere as stereotypical icons, and they remain nearly invisible as real people.

Rob said...

No one organization controls the image of cowboys, firefighters, police officers, monks, nuns, or witches. If it did, it might well have reason to promote honest images and criticize dishonest ones.

In contrast, corporations and celebrities do control their images. That's why they quickly respond when anyone tries to sully their reputations.

Anonymous said...

Jean Mendoza wrote: Jlbell listed 4 significant ways of dressing up, including “as a member of a different ethnic group, in a costume associated with that ethnic group”. Cases in point include what Debbie alluded to earlier: fraternity/sorority parties where white students don costumes meant to portray pregnant Mexican women, black “gangstas”, etc. No respect or honoring there!

Actually, those cases are off the point of my question because they ignore the stated condition: "Let's also assume that, as Jean says above, 'the costume is 100% authentic/accurate,' and the child wishes to dress this way out of interest in or respect for the person he or she portrays.

What defines the differences?"

It's true that dressing up as someone in an ethnic group is not automatically respectful. The question is whether it's automatically disrespectful. And how does one tell the difference?

Anonymous said...

Rob wrote: One difference between dressing up as a minority and an occupation is clear. No one controls the definition of a cowboy or firefighter, but Indians have (or should have) the right to control their own images.

This thinking applies to real people, living and dead, which is why they or their managers license their images in the media.


And then: No one organization controls the image of cowboys, firefighters, police officers, monks, nuns, or witches. If it did, it might well have reason to promote honest images and criticize dishonest ones.

Does this mean that cowboys, firefighters, etc. are not "real people" while individual celebrities and Indians are?

Does a person or group need a formal organized body (estate, tribe) to lay claim to its image? And if so, why would a fire department or association of fire departments not serve that function for firefighters?