Sunday, October 21, 2007

Halloween Costumes

With Halloween approaching, a lot of people---teachers, parents, students, children---are thinking about what they will "be" this year.

Costume shops down the street and on-line include all manner of apparel for those who want to be an "Indian Brave" or a "Sassy Squaw." It is interesting to study the photographs of the models in these costumes...

Some little boys and little girls smile at the camera, others stand with arms crossed, and still others hold one hand up in that goofy and classic "how" pose.

The women stand seductively.

I saw one that especially troubled me... It is for a little girl, it is the "Indian Princess" costume, and the selling line is "Every chiefs little dream."

The men? They stand tense, ready to spring, with tomahawk raised and a threatening scowl on their faces.

The ways in which these models are posed tell us a lot about what people think about American Indians. We are taught to think these ways from our earliest years. Images on television, and in children's books, and in the market place.... they all play a role in what Americans think they know about American Indians. Below is a post I made to the blog last year about Halloween.

I hope that you will think carefully about choosing a costume this year, and that you will choose not to dress like an "Indian."

Friday, October 13, 2006

"An Indian?" in Clifford's Halloween

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, we 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, soldiers, football players, princesses, belly dancers…. 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?


1 comment:

Africakid said...

It surprised me when I first came to Germany three years ago, how many people like to dress up in that same type of "Indian costume" during Fasching (like Mardi Gras) here. Very strange.

Thought-provoking post, thanks!