Open Letter to the PocaHotties and Indian Warriors this Halloween

by Guest Contributor Adrienne Keene, originally published at Native Appropriations

Dear Person that decided to dress up as an Indian for Halloween,

I was going to write you an eloquent and well-reasoned post today about all the reasons why it’s not ok to dress up as a Native person for Halloween–talk about the history of“playing Indian” in our country, point to the dangers of stereotyping and placing of Native peoples as mythical, historical creatures, give you some articles to read, hope that I could change your mind by dazzling you with my wit and reason–but I can’t. I can’t, because I know you won’t listen, and I’m getting so tired of trying to get through to you.

I just read the comments on this post at Bitch Magazine, a conversation replicated all over the internet when people of color are trying to make a plea to not dress up as racist characters on Halloween. I felt my chest tighten and tears well up in my eyes, because even with Kjerstin’s well researched and well cited post, people like you are so caught up in their own privilege, they can’t see how much this affects and hurts their classmates, neighbors and friends.

I already know how our conversation would go. I’ll ask you to please not dress up as a bastardized version of my culture for Halloween, and you’ll reply that it’s “just for fun” and I should “get over it.” You’ll tell me that you “weren’t doing it to be offensive” and that “everyone knows real Native Americans don’t dress like this.” You’ll say that you have a “right” to dress up as “whatever you damn well please.” You’ll remind me about how you’re “Irish” and the “Irish we’re oppressed too.” Or you’ll say you’re “German”, and you “don’t get offended by people in Lederhosen.”

But you don’t understand what it feels like to be me. I am a Native person. You are (most likely) a white person. You walk through life everyday never having the fear of someone mis-representing your people and your culture. You don’t have to worry about the vast majority of your people living in poverty, struggling with alcoholism, domestic violence, hunger, and unemployment caused by 500+ years of colonialism and federal policies aimed at erasing your existence. You don’t walk through life everyday feeling invisible, because the only images the public sees of you are fictionalized stereotypes that don’t represent who you are at all. You don’t know what it’s like to care about something so deeply and know at your core that it’s so wrong, and have others in positions of power dismiss you like you’re some sort of over-sensitive freak.

You are in a position of power. You might not know it, but you are. Simply because of the color of your skin, you have been afforded opportunities and privilege, because our country was built on a foundation of white supremacy. That’s probably a concept that’s too much for you to handle right now, when all you wanted to do was dress up as a PocaHottie for Halloween, but it’s true.

I am not in a position of power. Native people are not in positions of power. By dressing up as a fake Indian, you are asserting your power over us, and continuing to oppress us. That should worry you.

But don’t tell me that you’re oppressed too, or don’t you dare come back and tell me your “great grandmother was a Cherokee Princess” and that somehow makes it ok. Do you live in a system that is actively taking your children away without just cause? Do you have to look at the TV on weekends and see sports teams with mascots named after racial slurs of your people? I doubt it.

Last night I sat with a group of Native undergraduates to discuss their thoughts and ideas about the costume issue, and hearing the comments they face on a daily basis broke my heart. They take the time each year to send out an email called “We are not a costume” to the undergraduate student body–an email that has become known as the “whiny newsletter” to their entitled classmates. They take the time to educate and put themselves out there, only to be shot down by those that refuse to think critically about their choices.Your choices are adversely affecting their college experiences, and that’s hard for me to take without a fight.

The most frustrating part to me is, there are so many other things you can dress up as for Halloween. You can be a freaking sexy scrabble board for goodness sake. But why does your fun have to come at the expense of my well-being? Is your night of drunken revelry really worth subjugating an entire group of people? I just can’t understand, how after hearing, first-hand, that your choice is hurtful to another human being, you’re able to continue to celebrate with your braids and plastic tomahawk.

So I know you probably didn’t even read this letter, I know you’ve probably already bought and paid for your Indian costume, and that this weekend you’ll be sucking down jungle juice from a red solo cup as your feathers wilt and warpaint runs. I know you’re going to scoff at my over-sensitivity. But I’m telling you, from the bottom of my heart, that you’re hurting me. And I would hope that would be enough.


Adrienne K.

PS- I wonder if you saw these posters? Because I think they illustrate my point really well.

UPDATE 10/27: Have a look at some of the costumes I’m talking about. I think it makes my arguments a lot clearer.

But Why Can’t I Wear a Hipster Headdress?
Nudie Neon Indians and the Sexualiztion of Indian Women
A Cowboys and Indians Party is just as bad as a Blackface Party 
Paris Hilton as a Sexy Indian: The Halloween Fallout Begins (includes lots of links about the costume issue)
Mid-Week Motivation: I am not your costume

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  • Drhiphop85

    I think that’s a point that probably gets overlooked because there is sometimes an assumption by POC that “we all understand each other”. When in fact we all come from different places, cultures, etc. In a way we reinforce this idea that POC are all one group with a unified mind. Instead of realizing that not all of us are “fighting the good fight” so to speak and are just as guilty as anyone else.

  • Jack Acid

    @Adrienne Great article.

    What is your opinion on Mardi Gras indians?

  • laura

    I think the issue is that people do not even realise the racism which underlies this costume, people will wear the Native Indian costume thinking they look like a ‘Indian Princess’ not thinking the ‘dance to celebrate the harvest’ comment could hurt those they are imposing. I have seen multiple people wearing the costume and until I read this blog I did not stop to think about the upset it could cause those from a Native decent. The ‘I am not a costume’ slogan is a powerful one- noone would dress up as a white person for Halloween so i do not think it is fair to dress up as a different race, especially with so many other costumes that can be worn. 

  • K*

    I think the issue is not that your uncle had a genuine interest and respect for Native culture, but that your sister wore another culture’s actual dresses and jewelry as a costume. I think that makes it offensive and hurtful.

    Cultural appreciation is a whole separate and distinct thing. While it’s probably not as bad as your sister dressing as, say, a Pocahottie, it’s still treating a culture like a costume.

  • Momsomniac


    The “Cherokee princess” comment is one I have not heard in years (yay!) but it too hurts.  There are those of us out here who are actually of Cherokee descent. People claiming this heritage to avoid dealing with internalized racism erases us too.  I will admit, I am not above mentally smacking people who make foolish comments by responding with my concern about what has happened to the Cherokee Freedmen (it’s fun to watch them sputter and try to reconcile their delutions). 

    There are few “Indian” costumes to be seen where I live.  I am in the state where an intermural (largely Native) basketball team called themselves the “Fighting Whities” and a local highschool changed it mascot to “Reds” with little commentary.  Don’t give up and don’t give up hope.  It’s slow. And there will always be stupid people, but change comes.

  • KJ

    Excellent points in this article. I thnk Kourtney Kardashian was dressed as a native American in the audience at  DWTS yesterdy. I cringed  when I saw it. I used to work at Cleveland stadium for the Indians.They wanted us to all wear the chief  Wahoo  hat , but I always covered mine up with a price button. My brother’s friend was telling me Natives should not be offended.I tasked him “how can you decide what’s offensive to someone else?”

  • murt

    Great post — thanks for this!

  • A P

    Thanks for this piece.  Usually the “Comments” section of anything like this is pervaded by privilege-denying whites who are annoyed due to their bizarre perception that you are impinging on their self-appointed First Amendment rights; maybe you shamed them into silent compliance (but I doubt it.)

  • Anonymous

    Very very powerful. I will pass it round.

    In an odd unintended way you have just managed to put words there that describe perfectly what I feel like as a woman, sometimes (sex object etc) and with rape and violence as jokes.  I mean this section:
    “You don’t walk through
    life everyday feeling invisible, because the only images the public sees
    of you are fictionalized stereotypes that don’t represent who you are
    at all. You don’t know what it’s like to care about something so deeply
    and know at your core that it’s so wrong, and have others in positions
    of power dismiss you like you’re some sort of over-sensitive freak.You are in a position of power. You might not know it, but you are.”

  • KTW

    This is not a Native American appropriation, but it is relevant: Raffi Torres, who plays for the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes, dressed up as Jay-Z (blackface included) for a private Halloween party. There have been a couple of good articles about why it was wrong for Torres to wear blackface, but the writers of those very reasonable articles have been shouted down by hordes of angry, anonymous internet commenters who encourage them to shut up/lighten up/stop playing the race card. It’s funny how the backlash is always more vile than the initial controversy.

  • Rachel Kantstopdaphunk

    thank you.

  • Leo the Yardie Chick

    I decided to stay off of Tumblr until Christmas after seeing the ‘splaining going on about how “it’s just a costume”, “damn, you minorities are whiny!”, the dismissive parodies, etc regarding the “we are a culture, not a costume” campaign. Some people just will not even try to understand, and I can’t even beat some sense into them. >_<

    • Mickey

      All of that anger just wreaks of white privilege. They are white, therefore, they are superior, they can do whatever the they want and your feelings and opinions don’t count because you are not their equal.

  • Afro-chan

    I will direct people to this post this year and in the future.  Is it possible that next year any new articles about Halloween costumes could be published earlier?  I know so many people who may have thought twice but since they finished making/buying their costume a month ago they are not willing to change at the last minute.
     @90fc102137e8978ab1894faf41309d97:disqus  the author-I agree with you 100%.

  • Eva

    Thank you for this very timely piece.  The sad part is that there are people who want to do what they want when they want it and nothing you say will change their minds.  However, there are those who will listen and think and tell you, “I never thought about that.  I’ll dress up as Princess Lea from Star Wars or Arwen from “Lord of the Rings” this year,” or something like that.