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Quit Playing Indian: Unearthing Indigenous Historical Trauma around Halloween

October 23, 2020 Dr. Tiffany Smith Oklahoma City University

‘Tis the Halloween season, which is a spooky time of year indeed…particularly for those of us who are Indigenous. Unfortunately, it’s not always the “fun” spooky we associate with this time of year. As I enter a Spirit Halloween store, I am scared and traumatized when I see costumes mocking our diverse tribal cultures each year. Inevitably, they are always there. As a Tsalagi (Cherokee) and Mvskoke (Muscogee Creek) womxn, I know that I have to endure yet again, another white womxn dressing up as a “Pocahottie,” which leads to inaccurate and dehumanizing stereotypes, as well as the continued sexualization of Indigenous women. This unearths generations of historical trauma for me, and many other Indigenous peoples. This is appropriation – not appreciation – of my culture. My culture is NOT your costume.

Consequently, I have made it my mission to ensure this taking of culture – or cultural appropriation – is shared with students on my campus. There is a lot of unlearning to do. As student affairs professionals, we need to question why our students think that these more animated depictions of people of color and our cultures are accurate and/or are okay to depict in such a demoralizing manner. This often stems from what our students are being taught and the messages they see from an early age, that continue to be perpetuated repeatedly throughout time. Take a moment to travel back in time with me…you are back in elementary school. Do you remember ever having to dress up as pilgrims or Indians to depict this image of a “happy” Thanksgiving time? I know here in Oklahoma K-12 education, many of us had to reenact the Land Run at this time – which for those of us who know Indigenous history, this was no happy occasion to have settlers claiming our land as their own. We view the land as sacred, as it gives so much to us to allow us to survive. Much of this false narrative continues to create misconceptions and stereotypes about our existence today, much of which paints this portrait of us all getting along and coming to an agreement to give up our lands. No, we were forcibly removed by colonists – otherwise known as the concept of settler colonialism. I mean, you already stole our lands, so why not other sacred objects? Cultural appropriation also takes away our distinct differences as tribal citizens of sovereign tribal nations by considering Native Americans as all the same. Do you know there are 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States? This does not even include several state-recognized tribes. And we have 574 different cultural practices, traditions, and languages.


With all that being said, I return to my earlier point of this perpetual problem of cultural appropriation. It can take shape in many forms, and many notable examples are in the fashion industry or pop culture. Have you seen the kid tents that look like teepees? Yes, that is cultural appropriation. Let me take a minute to define what I mean by cultural appropriation. It is the taking of intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without their permission, and in many cases, for profit or gain. Scafidi (2005) notes that it is harmful when the source community is a marginalized group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, like sacred objects. The difference comes down to power – white people are the group who control the narrative and norms in our society. This causes our tribal communities to lose our cultural markers, and makes them exotic, edgy and desirable when white folx wear them. For example, I see headdresses on t-shirts and other apparel everywhere. Did you know that headdresses were not even worn by all tribes? Reserved for the most powerful and influential among many Plains tribes (such as the Sioux, Crow, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, and Plains Cree), feathers were added each time a chief or warrior committed a brave act. To be given a headdress is the highest honor in certain tribal communities, and today they are primarily worn for ceremonial occasions. It is a slap in the face when we see non-Indigenous folx doning them for fun, or wearing them on a shirt. This brings about historical trauma and actually reproduces harm against us and our communities. Just like Native mascots, they are harmful because they remind us of the limited ways people view us, and can often constrain how we see ourselves, having psychological repercussions (Fryberg et al., 2010). It continues to deem us invisible as contemporary Native people.


So this Halloween, please think before you attempt to dress up as another culture. It is important that you constantly challenge yourself and question your intentions, purposes, and goals of why you are choosing to dress up in this harmful manner. I always say: when in doubt, do without!

  • Compliment our jewelry and/or regalia instead of buying knock-offs that steal our sacred symbols, etc.
  • Support Indigenous-owned businesses working to keep our traditions alive through attending events, purchasing our arts and crafts, and giving to our non-profits (this way the profits go back to our families and nations)
  • Acknowledge the stolen lands you are on and inhabit daily
  • Read, or GOOGLE what Indigenous folx have to say about what they need to feel supported, instead of making us feel invisible
  • Listen when we tell you that a part of our culture or traditions is off limits
  • Question the white-washed history you learned and whose narratives are silenced
  • Actually build reciprocal relationships with us

So besides doing your own reading on cultural appropriation by googling the many resources available, check out the NASPA Indigenous Peoples Knowledge Community web page of helpful resources and Dr. Adrienne Keene’s (Cherokee) Native Appropriations page. Have a Happy Halloween and remember… quit playing Indian! Appreciate, don’t appropriate. Wado/Mvto!


Fryberg, S. A., Markus, H. R., Oyserman, D., & Stone, J. M. (2008). Of warrior chiefs and Indian
princesses: The psychological consequences of American Indian mascots, Basic and Applied Social
Psychology, 30:3, 208-218, doi: 10.1080/01973530802375003

Scafidi, S. (2005). Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law. Rutgers
University Press. Retrieved October 13, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hj7k9