Not Your Costume: Yes, You’re Racist AF

Kalhwa7alap! Renee’ nskwatsitsa.  Aang! Renee’ asaxtakuq, Unangax, St’at’imc akuq. Hi everyone!  I am Unangax and St’at’imc.  My ancestors come from Tsal’alh and Lillooet, British Columbia, and Unalaska and Atka, USA.

It’s the time of year many Native Americans absolutely dread- Halloween.  Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the whole vibe, as do many others.  It’s the “culturally appropriative” costumes that bring negativity.  Granted, we have to put up with this year-round, but it’s especially prevalent around this time of year.  Plus, the whole fake Thanksgiving story thing, too… uggghhh.  It’s actually HARMFUL.  You are causing actual HARM.

I find it deeply disturbing that there are so many people on my social media timelines who are overtly and unashamedly racist.  People I’ve known for years, who would never think of themselves as being racist. I recently read an article about redface being just as offensive as blackface (read it here).  If someone had mentioned blackface or brownface to said people, they would cringe- they would absolutely know it’s wrong.  Yet, these same people have no problem with redface- they even go so far as to advertise it and flaunt it, proudly.

Redface is when you dress in a “Native” costume, appropriate Native apparel and imagery, etc.  It’s not only racist af, it’s demeaning, and causes actual harm to Native people.  You see, you’re not just dressing up as someone from the past- you’re dressing up as a living, breathing human being.  We’re not a figment of the past; we are still here.  We survived genocide, only to see non-Natives parade around like a parody.  Would it be appropriate to dress in striped pajamas and capitalize on the Holocaust?  Absolutely not- you’d be impersonating a victim of genocide.  It would be a disgusting mockery.

You may think the atrocities that happened to Native Americans occurred hundreds of years ago.  Well, that was only SOME of the atrocities.  It’s important to keep in mind that research suggests intense psychological trauma can have an impact on the DNA of future children and generations (PBS, 2015).  There are myriad studies being conducted in this area.  But, there are other horrific events that are far more recent- having directly affected Native people still alive today.

Currently, one of the largest problems plaguing Indigenous peoples is MMIW/MMIWG- missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.  Native women go missing or are murdered at ten times the rate of other ethnicities. According to the CDC, homicide is the third leading cause of death for American Indian and Alaska Native women (Hovland, 2019). Further studies have found all those “sexy Indian” costumes have a direct effect.

Not all Indians lived in teepees, yet I can’t begin to count the number of teepee photo shoots I’ve seen.  My St’at’imc ancestors lived partially underground, as did my Unangax ancestors.  Teepees were used by the plains people, yet this imagery has created a false stereotype.  People claim they’re doing this because they love or respect “Native culture.”  There’s not just one “Native culture,” we’re not homogenous.  There are nearly 600 federally recognized Tribes in the colonial states alone, each with individual languages, practices, beliefs, cultures.

Ever heard of stolen valor?  Not all Nations wear warbonnets, or headdresses.  The Nations who do wear them, they’re earned.  Each feather has significance; one doesn’t simply make and wear one.  JoDe Goudy, Chairman of the Yakama Nation actually earned his headdress, yet he was denied the right to wear it in Washington, D.C. (Agoyo, 2018).  So yet again, non-Natives all over my timelines are donning these fake headdresses that were never earned, while an actual Native was denied the right.  It’s beyond insulting.

My Unangan ancestors were forced into internment camps by the US government, despite being US Citizens, during WWII.  They were left to languish without food or supplies.  Many died of exposure to the elements, starvation, or disease.  Official cause of death has even been listed as “pain” (Lamb, 1987).  Meanwhile, Nazis in a POW camp 30 miles away were provided ping pong tables and hot meals, courtesy of the US government, thanks to the Geneva Conventions.  Yet no dignified treatment for my ancestors.

Many Native families living today are only partial families.  They were torn apart under the motto “kill the Indian, save the man.”  This is the reason the Indian Child Welfare Act exists.  Prior to ICWA, a third of Native children were forcefully removed from their families simply for being Native, and placed into white foster homes or adoptive families, even when relatives were available (NICWA, 2019).  My own mother was one of them, but she was one of the lucky ones actually placed with a very good family.  That didn’t stop her feeling of disconnection; and unfortunately, didn’t prevent her early tragic death.

Those who weren’t placed with white families were forced into boarding schools where they were starved, raped, beaten- abused just for being Native.  There are photos of these Indian schools, and there are signs on the walls forbidding any language except English.  It wasn’t until 1978 that Native parents were allowed the right to refuse these schools for their children (AIRC, n.d.).  I have family members, still alive, who were torn from their parents, and forced into these schools.  The trauma is very recent.

I am so grateful for my mother’s and my adoptive families.  There was never a time I can remember that I didn’t know I was Indigenous.  I’ve always been encouraged to learn about my ancestry, and have also had the privilege of knowing my mother’s adoptive family.  Without their support, I wouldn’t be who and where I am today.  I couldn’t have asked for better family than what she and I ended up with.  But that doesn’t take away the pain of what has happened to my ancestors.  That doesn’t change the fact that my bio families were all but destroyed, torn apart, courtesy of colonization.  That doesn’t change the fact that only in recent times have my Nations been able to engage in our own cultural practices without fear of punishment.  That doesn’t change the fact that our languages were literally BEATEN out of us, and less than 300 people speak my ancestral language.

We’re not all the same.  All of our Tribes and Nations have our own individual cultures and languages, yet many of the languages are extinct or on the verge of it, thanks to non-Natives.  Native women live in constant fear of being kidnapped and/or murdered.  Our families have been torn apart, with children being taken for assimilation into white society.  Our mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, were separated from family members and put into boarding or residential schools where they were raped and abused.  Instead of advocating for us,  actually trying to learn about our histories, non-Natives want to appropriate our identities, free from the actual trauma.  And to the guy who said, “But it’s a free country,” of course it is.  Just because it’s legal for you to wear blackface or redface doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, does it?  It’s perfectly legal to eat your own poop, but is it a good idea?

I have lost so-called “friends” because I’ve spoken out on this issue.  I have lost followers for speaking on Indigenous issues.  I refuse to separate my Indigeneous self from my website and social channels- it’s who I am.  I have had other friends tell me they “understand,” but that I’m still wrong.  No, unless you’ve been through these same things, unless YOU are Native (not your great grandma, not your distant ancestor, but YOU, yourself), and your family has been ripped apart, your culture, language, and identity stripped from you, you cannot possibly understand- because if you DID understand, you would also “get” why it’s insulting to appropriate our cultures and imagery.

What we have here, what Natives are experiencing, is having to watch non-Natives dress like us, dress their children like us, appropriate our sacred objects and images, and even profit off us and anything having to do with us.  You can unfriend me, delete me, hate me all you want, but that doesn’t make it okay to be a racist piece of crap.  Yes, I said that.  If you appropriate us, especially after all that we’ve been through, all the trauma we’ve experienced, I implore you do some serious soul-searching and think about the type of person you are and who you want to be.

P.S. If you’re one of the guilty ones, I don’t hate you.  I just hope you learned something and that you’ll think twice before appropriating any Native cultures again.

Sources:

Agoyo, A. (2018). Leader of Yakama Nation denied entry into Supreme Court hearing. Indianz, October 30, 2018. Retrieved October 17, 2019, from www.indianz.com.

AIRC (n.d.). History and Culture: Boarding Schools. American Indian Relief Council. Retrieved October 17, 2019, from www.nativepartnership.org.

Hovland, J. (2019). Testimony of Jeannie Hovland on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) and Girls.  Statement of Jeannie Hovland, Commissioner, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved October 18, 2019, from www.acf.hhs.gov.

Lamb, D. (1987). Forgotten victims of : Twilight of the Aleuts: A war story. Los Angeles Times, September 4, 1987. Retrieved October 18,2019, from www.latimes.com.

NICWA (2019). About ICWA. National Indian Child Welfare Association. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from www.nicwa.org.

PBS (2015). Can trauma be passed to next generation through DNA? PBS News Hour, August 31, 2015). Retrieved October 18, 2019, from www.pbs.org.

Renee'

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