Sombreros, bindis, warbonnets. The history of Halloween would be incomplete without racist cultural appropriation and consequently its dehumanization of several collective groups of people.

Every year before Halloween, midterm season survivors scramble to put together last-minute costume ensembles and often siding with safe crowd-pleasers: a vampire, a witch, a ghost made of your grandmother’s tablecloth, and… a Native American?

While recent outcries and yearly controversies have cemented the significance of avoiding costuming people’s culture, it’s essential to understand the history of cultural appropriation and contextualize the pain inflicted onto a community when they’re reduced to caricatures and stereotypes.

The Native American warbonnet, so often carelessly replicated by a random assortment of colored feathers on Halloween, holds a sacred and spiritual significance to the Native American communities. Feathers within the piece of regalia are earned through acts of bravery and honor. The highest form of recognition lies within the eagle feathers, whose valor resembles the contemporary practice of medals for military service.

But the modern-day depiction – or caricature – of Native American regalia stems from a snapshot in history during their darkest hours. Hardly anyone received eagle feathers in such a significant amount as to fashion a wearable warbonnet.

The Native American figure Roman Nose, a Cheyanne warrior of the Great Plains, is known for his bravery during battles with the United States army. He was likely the most influential warrior during the Plains Indian War in the 1860s, earning his distinctions for his bravery and leadership skills. He was able to cross between Native American and the United States boundaries unscathed. Although he earned his feathers by honor, it imprinted the notion in the mind of the United States military that this is what Native Americans are typically like, when their attire is that of protecting their tribes against the United States’ genocide and wars. The Native American headdress, in its modern costumed depiction, doesn’t seek to tell a story about the diversity, culture, or greatness of the Native American, but is instead a constant reminder for the community of the violence endured by their ancestors, such as the Dakota wars, alongside all the other battles fought in the name of American colonialism and genocide.

The mass death during this period inspired ‘ghost feasts’ and dances of which the clothing closely resembles modern costumes of Native Americans. What was explicitly spiritual protection against the violence and death of the era is now contemporarily worn to trashy Halloween parties.

The worst costumes are those who mock cultural practices that are seen as significant, spiritually or religiously. The bindi in desi culture is no exception. While not any old bejeweled gem in the center of a forehead is considered a bindi, purposefully imprinting a red dot on your forehead and adorning yourself with ‘oriental’ (see: stereotyped through colonial gaze), Indian clothing is actively degrading a culture.

The bindi has been a controversial topic of cultural appropriation in the past because the bindi, also known as tikli, is usually a word spoken by a married woman and is indicative of their religion. According to the rishi-muni who were ancient Hindu philosophers, the word bindi originates from Sanskrit and has spiritual significance to the relationship and unity between a person and the cosmos.

The past has shown that cultural appropriation is not limited to just garments. The brownface trend is also associated with ‘Indian’ or ‘Arab’ costumes, as seen by Justin Trudeau’s yearbook photo of him depicting an ‘Arabian Nights’ character through brownface. Brownface and Blackface, in particular, have held a disappointing significance in the United States on Halloween. In the 19th century, minstrel shows became one of the most popular entertainment acts. According to History, “The appeal of blackface declined after the 1930s and into the civil rights movement. However, the negative stereotypes of African Americans and mocking of dark skin have persisted in recent decades”. What was regarded as a ‘harmless’ costume was, in fact, racist. These costumes reinforced negative stereotypes by white people who would offensively exaggerate African American behavior and vernacular, ultimately downplaying their struggle. 

If for some reason, you’re still adamant about changing your skin color, recreating Gamora, Hulk or Smurfette is the way to go. However, if you find yourself wearing a costume that is a caricature of an existing or historically marginalized community, it’s time to bust out your grandmother’s tablecloth again.

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  • Injeel Abdul Aziz

    Injeel is a Politics and Economics major, writer, and artist attending university in Lahore, Pakistan. Spending her life fleeting between Bahrain, London, and Pakistan, she's got a knack for international travel and is willing to explore and write about anything about cross-culture finds.