Against the theft of cul­ture on Hal­loween

What it means to democra­tise SSMU

The McGill Daily - - Contents - Den­zel Suther­land-Wil­son Com­men­tary Writer

One of my first mem­o­ries is of my grand­fa­ther Ts’basa, a hered­i­tary chief of the Fire­weed clan, wear­ing his full re­galia in the feast hall. I couldn’t have been more than three years old. In my mem­ory his but­ton blan­ket and head dress have the pres­ence of a mountain. I would like noth­ing more than to gain the knowl­edge and re­spect nec­es­sary to be­come a chief, and wear tra­di­tional Gitxsan chiefly re­galia. How­ever, in Gitxsan cul­ture, it is unlikely that some­one like me, an aspir­ing an­thro­pol­o­gist with an am’shu’wa (non- Gitxsan) mom, will be cho­sen to lead. I re­spect this and would never know­ingly dis­re­spect Gitxsan pro­to­col. I can un­der­stand why peo­ple who don’t un­der­stand the his­tory and laws be­hind re­galia would want to dress like one of our chiefs— even on Hal­loween. But please, don’t.

This is just my story. I’m not the voice for Indige­nous stu­dents at Mcgill, or my na­tion. I am only speak­ing on be­half of my­self. I find it both funny and tragic how Indige­nous peo­ple have to con­stantly clar­ify that. Be­cause maybe there are Indige­nous peo­ple who don’t re­ally care how you dress up this Hal­loween, and they have ev­ery right to their opinion. I’m also fairly cer­tain those peo­ple wouldn’t mind if you did not dress up like them. It would be nice if I didn’t need to have an opinion on a Hal­loween costu cos­tume, but that’s not my re­al­ity. I hav have to take a stance on this—be­cause of where I come from, and be­cau be­cause of the hard­ships that my an­ces an­ces­tors had to per­se­vere.

Be Be­cause of this re­spon­si­bil­ity, I re­cen re­cently emailed some­one at “Hal­lowe loween­cos­” in­quir­ing about why they still car­ried cos­tumes that in­ac­cu­rately (and dis­re­spect­fully) de­pict Indige­nous peo­ple. The rep­re­sen­ta­tive as­sured me that such “cos­tumes” were mostly for theater pro­duc­tions and his­tory projects. Firstly, I would be con­cerned to see a “sexy Poc­a­hon­tas” in any school, both be­cause of its re­in­force­ment of the trope that sex­u­al­izes Indige­nous women, and its le­git­imiz­ing of in­ac­cu­rate por­tray­als of re­galia in a learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment. Nev­er­the­less, all I could think was how silly it was of me to as­sume that peo­ple shop­ping on hal­loween­cos­ would be search­ing for Hal­loween cos­tumes, when they are clearly look­ing for ed­u­ca­tional pieces on my cul­ture.

Usu­ally, peo­ple would be quick to la­bel this as “cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion,” but I loathe that term. What does it even mean? The first re­sponse to come up on Google is Wikipedia’s def­i­ni­tion: “the adop­tion or use of the el­e­ment of one cul­ture by mem­bers of an­other cul­ture.” When I see some­one wear­ing an “In­dian Brave Brave” cos­tume, it doesn’t feel like an “adop­tion” of an Indige­nous cul­ture. How­ever, it does feel like a dis­re­spect and des­e­cra­tion of many Indige­nous cul­tures. Those cos­tumes do not rep­re­sent Indige­nous peo­ple, and they never have. They ac­tu­ally rep­re­sent some am’shu’wa fan­tasy of how an “In­dian” looks. Maybe the cos­tumes are only sup­posed to honour the dead In­di­ans that they al­legedly de­pict. wouldn’t that be ironic, eh? Dis­re­spect­ing liv­ing Indige­nous peo­ple in an at­tempt to honour the dead ones.

Still, most of­ten peo­ple claim that they are hon­our­ing Indige­nous peo­ple by ap­pro­pri­at­ing Hol­ly­wood iconog­ra­phy. In Grade 10, my French teacher wore a painfully in­ac­cu­rate cos­tume that was most likely mar­keted as “Reser­va­tion Royalty” or “In­dian Maiden”. When I told her that I did not ap­pre­ci­ate her cos­tume, she in­sisted that it was meant to “honour In­di­ans.” I thought, “Well, there’s a real life ‘In­dian’ right in front of you, and I don’t feel so hon­oured.” It would be nice if I didn’t have to ed­u­cate my own teacher on what’s hon­our­ing, and what’s in­sult­ing. It would also be nice if clue­less re­tail­ers didn’t make any prod­ucts that des­e­crate the power of re­galia. Not only are the cos­tumes dis­re­spect­ful, they are a re­minder of the geno­cide that needed to hap­pen for am’shu’wa to feel le­git­i­mate on this land. The same geno­cide that led to me writ­ing this ar­ti­cle.

These cos­tumes usu­ally de­pict a ro­man­ti­cized chief/war­rior for men, or an eroti­cized Indige­nous maiden/princess for women. Firstly, in Gitxsan cul­ture, the re­galia that peo­ple on Hal­loween ( poorly) at­tempt to recre­ate is re­served for use in cer­e­mony, and should only be worn by those with the hered­i­tary right. I’ve seen more non-indige­nous peo­ple wear­ing head­dresses as Hal­loween cos­tumes than I’ve seen Gitxsan chiefs in their full re­galia. Yet what angers me the most are the cos­tumes meant for women. I do not iden­tify as a wo­man, and I do not mean to speak on their be­half, but it feels ob­vi­ous to me that these cos­tumes stem from, and re­pro­duce, the fetishiza­tion and ob­jec- tifi­ca­tion of Indige­nous women. I find this espe­cially dis­re­spect­ful since, like many Indige­nous na­tions, Gitxsan are ma­tri­lin­eal and have many fe­male chiefs.

Some­one truly con­cerned with hon­our­ing Indige­nous peo­ple would have the re­spect to not dress as a dol­lar store ver­sion of one. That is the part that never made sense to me. Indige­nous peo­ples have been quite out­spo­ken against the use of our iden­tity as mas­cots or cos­tumes, but still, cer­tain am’shu’wa in­sist that they are hon­our­ing ng us. They don’t seem to think we un­der­stand iden­tity pol­i­tics, or, r, maybe they don’t be­lieve we man­aged an­aged to sur­vive the at­tempted cul­tural ul­tural geno­cide. We are still here.

If you’ve made it this far r in the ar­ti­cle, you’re most likely ely not the prob­lem. At the same time, I wouldn’t be sur­prised to see some­one in a poorly crafted Poc­a­hon­tas cos­tume this Hal­loween. I wouldn’t be sur­prised, but I’d still be sad. So please, for my sake and for the sake of many other racial­ized stu­dents on cam­pus: go as a jel­ly­fish or any­thing re­ally. But please, do not dress up as an In­dian, or wear black­face, or find some other new fun way to be racist. It is dis­heart­en­ing to see these cos­tumes keep in­ex­pli­ca­bly pop­ping up in stores. The only rea­son they are still there is that peo­ple keep buy­ing them. The stores that sell them aren’t in­ten­tion­ally racist, they’re just ig­no­rant and greedy. So, please don’t buy them, and dis­cour­age a friend or two as well.

Don’t go as a jel­ly­fish just be­cause I told you to, or be­cause go­ing as an In­dian is of­fen­sive or “not PC”. Wear any (non-racist) cos­tume you want be­cause you are a good per­son, have a strong sense of so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity, and be­cause you can get a lit­tle more cre­ative than that.

Go­ing up to an am’shu’wa per­son to con­front them about their cos­tume is and has been ex­tremely stress­ful for me, and prob­a­bly for other racial­ized folks as well. It’s funny how mad peo­ple can get when you take away their free­dom to dis­crim­i­nate. Us Indige­nous folks have a lot of other things to worry about, so I would re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate it if I didn’t see any dol­lar store In­di­ans this Hal­loween. Sabax. (The end.)

There will be a panel and dis­cus­sion on cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion Mon­day, Oc­to­ber 30th, 5-7 PM in the SSMU Ball­room. Check out the event on Face­book, De­col­o­niz­ing Hal­loween: Cul­ture Vul­tures & Us.

Not only are the cos­tumes dis­re­spect­ful, they are a re­minder of the geno­cide that needed to hap­pen for am’shu’wa to feel le­git­i­mate on this land.

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