Voices of Native Youth

Why You Shouldn’t ‘Dress up Like an Indian’

Our Tradition is not a Joke

Have you every dressed your kid up like an Indian for Halloween because it looked cool or funny? The problem with dressing up like a Native is that most Native American kids get confused about who they are when they see white people trying to pretend they are Indians.

Danny is proud of his Native heritage, and he'd like to urge non-Natives to think before they dress up like an Indian. Find out why. #Regalia #costume #Nativeyouth #nativeamerican

What you don’t understand is that it’s very offending and disrespectful to Native Americans. When non-Native people dress up like Natives it causes identity problems for Native Youth, it perpetuates the problem of distinguishing between a costume and regalia, and it makes Natives feel like they are the butt of a joke.

When non-Native people dress up as Indians, it causes identity problems. According to Jovannah Poor Bear-Adams, her son experienced an identity crisis when he attended a Vacation Bible School program where all of the kids wore headbands and feathers as part of the ‘Indian’ theme. Danny questioned his identity as an Indian because he never dressed like that.

This story notes that one Native American boy felt confused when he saw non-Natives dressing up as Natives, but he knew he was Native and didn’t dress like that. Therefore, if one Native American boy question if he was Native, imagine how many other Native boys and girls question the same thing. 

In fact, on western T.V. shows, Indians are always the people stealing and killing people. Therefore, Native kids may not want to be an Indian because they probably think that all Indians are bad. As a result, people will think that all Indians are bad guys. As you can see from these examples, when non-Native people dress up as Indians it causes identity problems for Native kids.

There’s a Difference between Costumes and Regalia

When non-Native people dress up as Indians they might not know that Natives consider their traditional dress to be regalia. You dress up in a costume to become something else. People wear regalia, on the other hand, as a part of important ceremonies. Indians do not wear regalia every day. Therefore, if non-Natives wear Native-looking regalia, people will think Indians dress weird and do it for fun, when in fact, we don’t. 

According to an article in HuffPost by Robbie Couch, “Most cultures prefer not to have their rich history reduced to drunken pageantry.”

George Nicholas, in an online article for The Conversation says, 

“For me, as an anthropological archaeologist whose career is very much focused on heritage, I draw the line when the use of an aspect of someone’s heritage is used without permission, or in inappropriate or unwelcome ways that cause cultural, spiritual or economic harm.”

George Nicholas

When I dress up in my regalia, I wear it to honor and represent my culture. Selling ‘Indian Costumes’ can cause cultural harm. Therefore, people should not wear Indian costumes because it puts a bad reflection on our culture and heritage. People shouldn’t dress up like an Indian when they don’t know the difference between regalia and costumes.

My Heritage is Not Your Joke

When non-Native people dress up like Indians they think it’s a joke. Take, for example, the costumes you can find on Amazon. Native Americans respect their regalia and traditions. In other words, Native Americans don’t like when their culture is shown as a joke.

Native Americans get offended when people call their regalia a costume. My uncle tells about an experience he had in college when some classmates dressed up as Indians and ran around with bows. The college thought it was funny, and everyone laughed. They didn’t know the students’ actions were disrespectful. People shouldn’t wear “Indian Costumes” and make fun of our regalia when it’s not a joke.

These reasons explain how we feel when non-native people dress up like Indians: We feel the disrespect. When non-Natives dress up like Indians, it makes Native kids question if they are really Native Americans. Companies need to stop making “Indian” costumes because it very offensive to Native people. 

Now you know. Native Americans don't like it when you dress up like an Indian. It's disrespectful. Click To Tweet
Danny takes pride in his Navajo heritage. When he’s not in school, he enjoys bull riding.

Native Regalia is NOT a Costume!

When I was younger I saw other girls wear a Native American-themed dresses for Halloween. Their dresses had a fringe and at the bottom it had a blue zig-zag line. After seeing this, I asked my mom why my traditional dress didn’t look like the other girls’ dresses.

My mom simply said, “Their parents are idiots. Also, you’re Navajo and your dress will look different than the dresses girls from other tribes wear.”

People should learn the difference between a costume and regalia because not knowing the difference confuses kids; regalia has a purpose; and wearing our regalia is a part of our identity. 

Why You Shouldn’t Buy “Indian Costumes” for Your Kids”

Did you know when other people dress up as “Indians” it could confuse Native kids? According to Jovannah Poor Bear-Adams, a Lakota Sioux, her son questioned his identity as a Native American because he saw kids at a Vacation Bible School program where they had an “Indian” theme and wore fake war bonnets. Since he didn’t dress like that, he wondered if was really a Native American.

This story tells about one Native child’s confusion, imagine how many other kids are confused about their identity. No doubt other kids are asking their parents if they really are Native American.

My grandma argues that dressing up as a Native American can confuse all younger kids. For example, a young non-Native kid could get the wrong impression about Native Americans and think they are all the same because of an “Indian” costume.

As a result, that kid could tell a Native child that he doesn’t look like an Indian and ask questions that would confuse the Native child. In other words, people dressing up as ‘Indians’ for simple activities or TV shows could leave an impression on Native kids and might confuse them.

Don't confuse kids. Learn the difference between a costume and Native regalia. #nativeyouth Click To Tweet

The Importance of Native Regalia

Natives don't wear costumes (and they don't all dress alike). Three things you should think about Native Regalia before you 'dress up like an Indian.' #nativeyouth #nativeamerican #costume #poccahottie
photo by Cabel Bumanglag

Do you know how important our regalia is to us Native Americans? Mike Dangeli talks about that when his school had an ‘Indian day’ and the other kids said, “You should wear your costume!”

He went home he asked his grandma about the costume situation. As a result she explained how Native regalia told stories and history. Our regalia is important because is shares stories and we also use it in our dance groups.

The dictionary points out that a costume is something that a person wears when they are on stage or when a person dresses up as another person. Therefore, a costume is when you dress up as something you’re not.

For example dressing up as Spider-Man is wearing a costume because you’re not actually Spider-Man. All in all, our regalia is not a costume because our traditional wear is a part of us and defines who we are. 

The Role of Regalia and Rediscovery

Our regalia has a big part in helping us rediscover our identity. Anthony O’Neal acknowledges that every teen is trying to discover their own identity and how they fit into the world. Now imagine going to school and seeing a white girl dressed in a “Pocahottie” costum. What would you assume about Native girls?

I am a Native youth trying to find my identity. For example, I know I am Native American and I’m proud of my heritage. But people question my Mexican half. When people find out about my heritage, they comment on my outside features. “You’re not Mexican because you don’t have curly hair or the bright eyes!”

These comments lead me to question who I am.  All in all, teens or other young Indigenous kids are trying to find themselves and you’re not helping by dressing up as one.

Think Before You Play “Dress Up”

Native American’s regalia is not a costume. Doing simple things or just watching certain TV shows could confuse any child.

The regalia that Indigenous people wear defines who they are and you shouldn’t make fun of their heritage.

Teens or other Native kids are trying find their identity and the regalia plays a really big part in helping them understand their heritage. In short, it’s not okay to dress up as a Native American nor should you call regalia a costume because it’s important to us Native youth.

Isis is a small human being who is Navajo and Mexican. She’s an anime lover who likes pizza hot pockets. A pet peeve is when she sees someone’s shoelace tucked in and the other side is hanging out.
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