Every year around Halloween, however, it seems that our social media feeds light up with images of individuals dressed up as “Native Americans” in costume. At Western Carolina University, this is something we must address, especially because our university is situated on land that Cherokee people call home. The Cherokee place name “Cullowhee” is a reference to Judaculla, an important figure in Cherokee cosmology, and our campus is built on top of the Cherokee town of Tali Tsisgwayahi, or “Two Sparrows Town.”
In writing this short piece, we hope to educate our campus and surrounding community and explain that dressing up as a “Native American” for Halloween reduces our culture, and the other 574 federally recognized United States tribes’ cultures, to dehumanized stereotypes.
As members of the EBCI, when we see someone dressed up as an “Indian Princess,” “Sexy Pocahontas” or “War Chief” wearing a headdress, our first thought is to ignore it, because that person probably does not know any better. But it is hard to overlook, because these people do not understand how it makes us feel. Time and time again, we have served as “cultural explainers,” reminding people that Native American people are still here and that our culture is not a costume.
We are not Disney characters. Cherokee people never wore Hollywood-style headdresses. When we see costumes that imply this, we feel belittled as people. It is disrespectful, even if no harm is intended. Each tribe is unique, with different clothes and traditions that come together to make them who they are. Indigenous people are not remnants of an ancient “vanishing” way of life. We are not a stereotype. We are not fictional characters seen on a movie screen or a novelty to parade around.
We live in a country with a history filled with the unjust treatment of our Native populations and their identities, and we need to be aware of the ways in which that unjust treatment continues today. Dressing up in stereotypical costumes that portray other cultures is insensitive and disrespectful. So, before you choose your Halloween costume later this month, educate yourself on what is acceptable and what is not.
There are so many resources where you can learn about different cultures and just how harmful stereotypical images can be. To get started, check out the WCU Diversity Dialogue about Cherokee Culture here: https://www.wcu.edu/discover/diversity/diversity-dialogues/cherokee-culture/index.aspx. Another great resource is the Museum of the Cherokee Indian’s FAQ page about Cherokee culture, found here: https://www.cherokeemuseum.org/learn/faq.
One of the things that makes Western North Carolina unique is its deep connection with the Cherokee culture and history. This fall, do your part to respect and nourish that history by learning about our culture instead of treating it as a costume.
- The Officers of Digali’i, Western Carolina University’s Native American Student Organization