Image description: A tweet, retweeted by Red Thunder Woman (@N8V_Calgarian). 

Dear non-natives, dismissing Native voices fighting against the stereotypical racial imagery seen in things like mascots and Halloween costumes because you “don’t think it should be considered offensive” is ignoring the harm it does to us.

This is a guest post by Nathan Viktor Fawaz. Nathan is a settler on Treaty 7 land, the traditional territories of the Blackfoot, Siksika, Piikuni, Kainai, Tsuutina, and Stoney Nakoda First Nations, including Chiniki, Bearspaw, and Wesley First Nation. This land is also home to Métis Nation of Alberta, Region 3.

This post is part of the Feminism from the Margins series.

This post is an expansion of a comment that Nathan was going to share on this CBC article. In the article, Michelle Robinson said, “Our culture is not a costume. We are real people with a real culture and depicting it incorrectly just adds to negative stereotypes and adds to violence we face.”

The comment section on this article became full of comments that ranged from aggressively racist to casually ignorant.

Some of these comments included:

“As a doctor, ought I be offended at those who dress as doctors for halloween?”

“I’m pretty sure that most kids dress up like this or firemen or police men or… the list can go on an on… because it’s admirable, not because any racial or heritage put down. By this account even my 4 yr old son is being disrespectful?? Why is everyone quick to assume their a victim?”

“This is what causes magnified racism. There are cowboys, bakers, fat suits, etc. I could go on and on. Your indigenous clothing is chosen for its beauty. Be proud you have beautiful clothing to be replicated. I am fat and they are not wearing that fat suit because it is awesome.”

“Most cultures have costumes depicting them. Shouldn’t it be seen as celebrating the culture?”

Nathan did not share this comment, in part, because it is too long for a comments section, and in part because this is such a tricky topic to speak about as a settler. In many ways, this Feminism from the Margins post is different from others because it is the margins aligning with the margins to speak to the centre, it is an attempt at allyship and accompliceship from a position of different marginalization.

Nathan wrote:

I wanted to respond to these comments, because I am working on decolonizing practices and incorporating them into my everyday life. Using my privilege to comment, as a settler, on news articles and social media is one small way I am learning how to be clear and unapologetic about pointing out ways in which individuals are reinforcing the oppression of indigenous people while also trying to keep people (in this case settlers) engaged in thinking about how what they have said is out of line with how they might think of themselves as good people.

I do not do this often, because as someone experiencing disability, and as a non-binary transperson of mixed race, I do and have experienced an amount of violence on these threads, and I still struggle to read them.

I am writing about how, as settlers, we are expecting that Indigenous people, who are still in the same generation of people with direct experience of residential schools, let alone having descended from parents and grandparents who were in those schools — schools that were so harsh, in part, in order to make Indigenous people more like white people — we are expecting people who experienced abuse and torture to heal. I think we use the phrase: ‘get over it’.

And, I can see a good intention there. Trauma that isn’t transformed gets transmitted. But, being human, we all know how hard the work of transformation is.

Having never attended a residential school, nor having been raised in whole or part by someone who has, in a community of people who have, I can only think about this from an outside perspective and in terms of analogies.

It seems to me that for many years, Indigenous people have had their suffering denied, and in fact have been told that they should be grateful for their treatment, and this seems to me somehow related to the way that many marginalized people are denied self-knowledge and accurate medical care.

So, Indigenous people have worked to find language for a problem that was imposed on them and then denied by the people who imposed the problem.

When something similar happens to anyone, for example, a person seeking medical care for anything related to a brain (trauma, concussion, mental illness, injury), first we experience our health problem, and then we learn about it, and then we accept we have to do something to address it, then maybe we plan, and then we take a first action. And often, this first action is met with resistance by people in power. And sometimes also met with internal resistance, because we have not learned how to trust our own self-knowledge, and even our own dignity, or even our own integrity. I know many people who can attest to this. Many people’s experience of this is denied because doctors are supposed to be the experts, and people’s self-knowledge is often denied. As Indigenous self-knowledge has been repeatedly denied, and rendered invisible, both by people in power and people watching from the outside.

This can happen even with the best of intentions, and even by people who are well-trained in their fields. This can happen even with the best of intentions, and even within people who think of themselves as strong, who do not like to complain or raise a ruckus. The invisibilization of Indigenous experiences has been baked into our education systems, our political systems, our healthcare systems. I’m not making this analogy in an effort to devalue the knowledge of doctors, policy makers, and other authority figures, but rather to note that sometimes things are missed, and by things, I mean people and their experiences. These missing people and their experiences then become rendered as non-existent, non-compliant, or insignificant outlier rather than acknowledged as missing. Unacknowledged people and their experiences are being overwritten by what is often called the ‘common-sense’ understanding of how things are into the fabric of Hallowe’en costumes, postcards, snow globes, the names of roads, healthcare policy, access to housing and clean water.

It seems to me, that Indigenous people have a hundreds-year long history of being taken from, spoken for, and assimilated into settler culture and, it seems that Indigenous people are doing the work they need to in order to assess, make plans, and take action toward healing.

It seems to me that Indigenous people have a 112 year long wound that has been inflicted and re-inflicted on them, and that has been denied over and over, and that one part of this wound – the residential schools – only officially ended 22 years ago. Through this time, they have had the experience of being told their personal integrity is inferior to settler integrity, and that their dignity cannot be earned from us, no matter the effort.

If Indigenous people do have a history of experiencing undignified treatment and are taking collective and individual acts of integrity to reinforce the boundary of dignity, then, it seems to me, we are the people who can either acknowledge this fact or continue a history of denial.

I cannot undo hundreds of years of colonization. But I can do present day work to separate the past and present by taking a stand with my own integrity and saying: Indigenous people are calling for these costumes to be taken off store shelves, they are calling the their right to sacred practice, which is parodied in these costumes, to be restored to them.

I cannot change what a priest at St. Anne’s might have done, but I can choose to not buy a halloween headdress, or white sage, with almost no effort.

Like, I had to listen to someone explain why these costumes are a problem. Which took three minutes of time. And then simply not buy something.

This is much less dedication than it takes for me to make breakfast in the morning.

No one person can give another their dignity. But when someone, like Michelle is doing, stands up to claim it, I can certainly listen, consider the information, and support her in claiming it.

I can work to acknowledge and honour the history.

And I am delighted to do so.

I have noticed that many people do not share my delight or my perspective. And so I am wondering if you can help me understand the needs that are informing your frustration and anger and irritation.

I do not want to change your mind. And I do not want you to change mine. Because we could only ever both be defensive in that context, we could only ever fight: me to be heard, and you to be right, or vice versa. So, let us speak in the space between minds. In the pause that exits between attack and counter-attack. We just have a split-second, don’t you see?

Let’s pause it right here.

I would like to know more about your integrity. About what makes you the good person you are and how that lines up with what you have written here today.

I do not expect much in the way of exchange here. This is a comment section after all, but, I thought I would ask. Maybe there is some wounding in your world, maybe some healing transformation you are trying to make that I am not seeing.

Please help me understand.

Now. Don’t kid yourself. We cannot stay in this place of pause forever. At some point, we will each have to decide in thought, word, and action where we will land. What side we will end up on. But, for now, we have a moment, a breath, five minutes between meetings to ask ourselves if our thoughts, words, and actions are lining up with our intentions and our values.

People writing these comments wrote of Halloween as: fun, of costumes being celebrations of beauty. I agree. As we consider what Hallowe’en costumes we will and will not purchase, let them be fun, let them be beautiful, let them be celebrations of our intentions and values. Let them be on the right side of history.

Further reading:

  • From Michelle Robinson: ‪In light of the Truth and Reconciliation’s 94 Calls to Action; Business and Reconciliation, Call 92, Section iii, we the undersigned hereby demand Spirit Halloween LLC, End All Sales of Racist Indigenous Costumes #cdnpoli #IndigPoli‬ Sign the petition.
  • Michelle Robinson’s podcast interview with Naomi Sayers of Kwe Today.
  • Native Appropriations by Adrienne Keene is an important blog about native representation and the appropriation of native cultures.
  • Âpihtawikosisân blog by Chelsea Vowel, particularly these posts on the topic of costumes.

This post is part of the year-long Feminism from the Margins series that Dulcinea Lapis and Tiffany Sostar will be curating, in challenge to and dissatisfaction with International Women’s Day. To quote Dulcinea, “Fuck this grim caterwauling celebration of mediocre white femininity.” Every month, on (approximately) the 8th, we’ll post something. If you are trans, Black or Indigenous, a person of colour, disabled, fat, poor, a sex worker, or any of the other host of identities excluded from International Women’s Day, and you would like to contribute to this project, let us know!

Also check out the other posts in the series:

Tiffany Sostar is a narrative therapist and workshop facilitator in Calgary, Alberta. You can work with them in person or via Skype. They specialize in supporting queer, trans, polyamorous, disabled, and trauma-enhanced communities and individuals, and they are also available for businesses and organizations who want to become more inclusive. Email to get in touch!