Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The word "costume" and American Indians

When I dance at Nambe for our ceremonial gatherings, I put on a dress called a manta. I put on other articles of clothing, too. I don't call it a costume. It is traditional clothing, and each piece of it has its own name, in English, and in Tewa (our language).

Somewhere along the way, as Native peoples and Europeans began to interact, the word "costume" was applied to our clothing. And, some of us also used that word to refer to the traditional clothes, or regalia, that I wear as a Pueblo Indian woman, or that someone of another tribe wears. I'm guessing "costume" was a term of convenience.

When is something a "costume" and when is it "regalia" or "traditional attire"?

Course, the context in which the item is a "costume" or "regalia" is what is important. I refer readers to posts on this blog around Halloween, when a lot of people wear "Indian costumes" as they trick or treat.

We will have conversations---many without an agreement---about when or why a non-Pueblo person can/should put on a manta, but one thing is certain. I would like people to refer to my attire, NOT as a costume, but as my traditional clothes.

What does this mean for teachers and librarians? When you're talking about the clothes that American Indians wear, call them clothes, or traditional attire, or regalia. If you know the specific words for the items you're talking about, use them. But it'd be great if we could all stop using the word costume.

Maybe an analogy is helpful? When a Catholic priest is in his robes, it is not proper to call it his costume. If you want to dress up like a Catholic priest for a play, or for Halloween, then what you put on IS a costume.

Does that analogy work? If you think so, consider pausing with children, when you're reading a book about American Indians that uses the word "costume" to refer to the clothing they wear.

Whether the analogy works or not, I invite your comments.


annie said...

This would be a good lesson in how word meanings change through history. And the difference between denotation and connotation. And the number of denotations a word can have. And the colloquial meanings of words. And how connotations of words are what can offend. It would be a good dictionary exercise.

The only English-English dictionary that I have at hand (I'm in Japan) was published in 1974. In it, the first definition of the word "costume" is "the prevailing fashion in coiffure, jewelry, and apparel of a period, country, or class." No mention is made of dressing up to _mimic_ a period, country, or class. It would be interesting to compare this dictionary with a new one. The progression of thought and the progression of how we view the world is interesting.

I understand and respect your point and I am glad you have a platform and the will to speak about these things. Our worlds have been so separate in the past, but hopefully with time, effort, and exposure there will be more bridges.

I am interested in learning about efforts to nurture and promote Native American children's writers.
And am wondering if there is a list of books that would get the stamp of approval. The Japan Foundation has come up with guidelines for accuracy in portraying Japan. I understand that the native American community is vast, but are there or could there be guidelines for Native American communities for publishers to refer to? It would have to be general.

Anonymous said...

This issue of costume versus traditional dress has bothered me for years. The Indian in my life is from India while I grew up near the Sioux and Crow reservations of the American West. (The negatives I learned in school regarding the Native peoples could fill this blog and many more.) When I wear a sari or other East Indian dress it is often referred to as a "costume" and the suggestion comes up for wearing it on Halloween. How can what I consider dress for attending a wedding or other party one day suddenly become a "costume". Costume, to me, often suggests a bit of ridicule and certainly relegates the clothing to something not worn in "real life". Traditional clothing either is or once was real life clothing and should be referred to and respected as thus. By calling the clothing that a group wear a costume, the dress and the people who wear it regularly are somehow put into the category of somehow being lesser.
OK, I will get off my soapbox. Thank you for being such a strong voice not just for Native Americans but for all peoples of the world.