Halloween offers opportunities to dress up as your favorite fictional character or supernatural creature, but there are costumes that can detract from the fun spirit of the holiday. Recently, several articles discussing the problematic usage of “Indian” stereotypes in Halloween costumes made their way onto various social media platforms. Many of these were written by Native Americans who were voicing their concerns over these hurtful, yet common, “Brave Warrior” and “Indian Princess” (among others) costumes. Although superhero and vampire costumes, for example, are based on fiction, “Indian” costumes are hurtful, in part, because they depict stereotypes of people who are real. These kinds of stereotypes are deeply rooted in our historical representations of Native Americans.
In her article (recently published with U.S. History Scene), titled, “Why a Mascot Matters: A Listicle History of US Redface,” Theatre Arts Ph.D. Candidate Christiana Molldrem Harkulich examines the history of “Indian” stereotypes through eight key typical representations. Among these stereotypes are the “Tragic Native Chief,” whose origins lie in the colonial battles that killed indigenous people, and the common Pocahontas myth of a “Native American princess who chooses white culture over her own.” Christiana provides these examples in order to contextualize a discussion surrounding recent controversies over “Indian” mascots.
Christiana opens her article with the question of “What does it matter that they have an Indian head in a feathered headdress for a logo and mascot?” and the simple answer she provides is that “representation matters.” This is a question that Christiana tackles in her dissertation, titled, “Standing between the Reservation and the Nation: Indigenous performance in North America after the end of the Indian Wars.” This project focuses on Indigenous women’s performances in the twentieth century and examines just how much “representation matters” when performance can make visible the people who have long been invisible and forgotten.
Christiana’s research and interrogation of “redface” tropes provide a crucial historical background for the question that she leaves readers. In considering the topical discussion of team mascots and redface, she asks,
“So what’s so bad about having Braves, Chiefs, Warriors, and Redskins as your mascot? ... Having a Native American as your mascot reaffirms all of the negative stereotypes in a very public way. Every time the football team, or the baseball team, etc, goes out onto the field they are reaffirming the less-than-human and past position of Native Culture. This type of representation makes the living and contemporary Native Americans who live across this nation invisible, and it makes it okay to think that these cultures are gone, when they aren’t.”
Representation matters, indeed.
Read “Why a Mascot Matters: A Listicle History of US Redface” here.