Welcome to October: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has set up a National Research Centre at the University of Manitoba, the CBC is actually using the word “Indigenous,” and stores in Vancouver, Regina, Sudbury, and Truro, N.S., are selling Halloween costumes that allow people to dress up as a Warrior Chief or an Indian Princess. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Clearly, these costumes support common myths and stereotypes about Indigenous peoples. But they’re not just the product of ignorance. Far from it: these costumes come from the place where colonial myths are created and structural and systemic marginalization begins. These costumes tell us who has power and who does not – and what we need to change if we want to end the racialization that continues to marginalize Indigenous peoples in this country.
The first thing we need to change: our stories.
Stories tell us who we are and where we come from. Stories orient the individual within the collective and locate each person within multiple relationships. Stories tell us what we need to know about other people and about ourselves. Problem is, some of the most well-known stories about Indigenous peoples and cultures have been fabricated or misunderstood. It explains, in large part, why the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the settler population is as problematic and incomprehensible as it is.
Since the Indian Princess is one of the most enduring Halloween costumes, let’s take the story of Pocahontas as an illustration of these misunderstandings.
In the settler version of the story – told in the abbreviated Disney movie, the history of the state of Virginia, and the history of the church where she is buried at Gravesend, England – the “Indian princess” Pocahontas saves explorer John Smith from her savage relatives, then goes to England and becomes English herself. In the Indigenous version of this story, told by the Powhatan Nation, Pocahontas wasn’t turning English – she was kidnapped, held hostage, and forced to convert to Christianity. And what John Smith portrayed as an attempted murder was actually a ritual adoption ceremony – which means Pocahontas’s father, Wahunsenaca, the leader of the Tsenacomoco Confederacy, turned Smith into a Powhatan.
Imagine what would have happened if John Smith had understood what was happening to him. If he had understood the purpose and meaning behind the ritual, Smith would have been forever obligated to the Powhatan people – and there might have been a much different ending for everyone involved. The Tsenacomoco Confederacy might not have been decimated, but would have been full partners with the English in creating a new society. Pocahontas would not have been kidnapped by the English and used as a pawn in negotiations with the Powhatan, or taken to England as a curiosity to secure royal support for the flagging Virginia Colony. After the ceremony, Smith – who as a result of the ceremony called Wahunsenaca “father,” as Wahunsenaca called him “son” – would have been expected to be loyal to the Powhatan people. The same would also have been expected of the treaty negotiators on the Canadian Prairies when they signed the numbered treaties, a process during which the Plains Cree, Blackfoot, and other Indigenous nations called the Queen “grandmother.”
Instead, we get a story about a “good Indian” who saved a white man from her people’s supposedly savage ways, and who renounces the supposed inferiority of her people in order to become “civilized.” This story tells us that colonialism is a good thing; an inevitable march toward “progress.” It places Indigenous peoples in a lesser position. The Indigenous version of the story, on the other hand, is about creating connections and relationships. This tells us that Indigenous peoples were attempting to rebalance the world in the face of massive change in an attempt to (re-)create harmony – which shows that Indigenous cultures were at an advanced stage of human social development and organization.
Wahunsenaca was attempting to understand Smith and his countrymen by adopting them and getting to know them as people. Smith and his countrymen, meanwhile, were demonizing Indigenous peoples in order to justify genocide and land appropriation.
Once an entire group is demonized, it becomes a lot easier to dehumanize them by dressing up as a Warrior Chief or any number of other convenient stereotypes. To this way of thinking, Indians aren’t real – they exist somewhere in history, before they were “civilized.” So why not dress up as one? Even when Indigenous cultures eventually gained noble status, they were still the equivalent of cartoon characters. If you doubt this, consider the following: Spirit, the online costume retailer, lists the Indian costumes alongside fairies, French maids, and pirates.
The Indian Princess is a positive stereotype, the “good Indian” who enables the colonizer, is one with nature, and who often preaches an environmental message. This positive stereotype is one end of the colonizer’s spectrum of female Indigenous identity. “Squaws” and other negative stereotypes are on the other end. Somewhere in the middle of that spectrum – simultaneously good (because she is desirable) and bad (because she is dangerous) – exists the sexualized Indigenous woman.
Objectified and romanticized, the Eskimo Babe and the Huron Honey – to name but two of the available Halloween costume choices – exist to power male fantasies. They, like the land, are there for the taking – indeed, they want to be taken and will thank the colonizer when the deed is done. (See the Pocahontas myth, above.)
The Medicine Woman exists to serve the colonizer – suffering from scurvy? Here, let me help you – and her sexualized nature suggests that the cure will involve some sort of sexual wish fulfillment. (Apparently, that spear isn’t just a spear. And check out the hollow vessel she’s holding in her other hand.) At this point, the whole thing devolves into camp – but the ridiculousness can’t hide the fact that Indigenous women are still expected to serve the colonizer and conform to the colonizer’s vision of her identity.
Interestingly, two of the models selling the sexualized costumes hold men’s tools, which suggests gender variance. For the Indigenous reader, this is hilarious, because it is clearly not the online retailer’s aim. In a larger sense, it highlights the dangers of cultural appropriation.
The Indian princess and the sexualized Indigenous female are stereotypes that fuel the worst part of the colonial relationship, particularly around the issue of control. These stereotypes present Indigenous women and girls with a limited range of identities in the colonial world – and they don’t at all reflect the many identities Indigenous women are free to choose within Indigenous cultures. They also, of course, fuel the degradation and violence that is so often directed at Indigenous women as a projection of colonial anger (anger that exists because Indigenous people refuse to disappear and get with the colonial program).
Imagine what would happen if non-Aboriginal people truly understood what a bow and arrow means within Indigenous cultures – that this tool is not just an artifact to include with a cool Halloween costume, but is actually central to the survival of the people. They might understand how advanced Aboriginal cultures were and are – and how much they have to learn from them.
Imagine what would happen if settler cultures truly understood the role of the medicine woman and Indigenous concepts of health and well-being. It would revolutionize conventional allopathic medicine.
One of the definitions of “reconciliation” is “to harmonize and make compatible.” Let’s start by reimagining our stories and ditching the destructive stereotypes. Then we will have, as Wahunsenaca tried to have, the “right relations” that are required to create equitable partnerships.