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.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Pocahontas and the stories about Jamestown

The media carried many reports last week about the Queen's visit to Jamestown. Today, I direct your attention to the editorial in Indian Country Today, for an assessment of her visit and the commemoration itself, from the perspective of the editors of the paper, all of whom are American Indians.

Here's an excerpt:

Just as the legend of Pocahontas as Jamestown's princess heroine persists in the American psyche, so does the myth of the ''founding'' of an American society based on the rights and dignity of the individual. Pocahontas, the young daughter of Powhatan, is almost always depicted as a love-struck teen who willingly aided the hungry settlers. Rarely is she imagined as a child captive of an unhygienic man twice her age. She is one among the handful of internationally famous Native Americans because she helped the Europeans in their quest to tame the New World. The message is loud and clear: The only good Indian is one who can be honored as a symbol of colonization, of a better life through white ''civilization.''

The Virginia tribal representatives who attended the events commemorating Jamestown hoped they might raise awareness of their survival and contemporary struggle for federal recognition. Despite a few vague euphemisms regarding historical or modern relations with the tribes of the Chesapeake area by either the queen or President Bush, the Native peoples of Virginia were clearly not considered one of the nations that, as Bush said, ''hold fundamental values in common.''

The editorial is called "The emperors have no clothes". Many of you will dismiss it as whining or political correct nonsense. I find the editorial crucial reading for anyone who teaches children, be it in the classroom, driving to the park, walking to the library, or flying to Disneyland. Engaging children with the content raised in the article is important---that is, if you wish them to be critical thinkers. Read the editorial, discuss it with your friends and colleagues, and consider the editorial as you plan and teach about America's founding, or about Pocahontas, or John Smith.