“Native American” costumes harm indigenous communities, activists say

By Katie Rice
Medill Reports

Lingerie company Yandy made headlines this fall for releasing, and later pulling, a sexy “Handmaid’s Tale”-inspired costume from its online store. But the company sends a different message with its continued defense of its “Sexy Native American” line, activists say.

Activists took to Twitter with the hashtag #CancelYandy to decry the company’s appropriation of traditional American Indian regalia and disregard for the unique identities of distinct tribal groups in the line of risqué costumes. The conflict crops up every Halloween season. But this year, the presentation of a petition signed by thousands of people resulted in a protest and threats of arrest Wednesday at Yandy headquarters in Phoenix, said Amanda Blackhorse, a Diné activist from Phoenix.

“When you have so many Native American voices telling you, ‘This is wrong, we don’t feel appreciated by this, we don’t feel honored by this, we feel insulted (and) our community is hurting because of these costumes, I don’t see how anyone wearing them can say that they support us,” said Zoe Dejecacion, the creator of the petition and a makeup artist from the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

In an article published by Cosmopolitan last year, Yandy’s Co-Chief Executive Officer Jeff Watton said the company would continue selling its Native American line until the costumes reached “a point of contentiousness” or became “too hot of an issue” and sparked “significant demonstrations.” Yandy representatives did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Dejecacion created the Change.org petition in late September reading, “Jeff Watton: Stop Yandy From Using Our Culture As A Costume.”  One month later, the petition has more than 24,000 signatures and has been presented at Yandy’s offices in Phoenix twice.

“I think the majority of people who are wearing these costumes don’t realize exactly how they’re hurting the Native American community,” she said. “It’s hard to educate every single one of those people who don’t understand, so I think that’s why specifically we went to the brand directly. Instead of attacking the demand, we’re attacking the supply.”

Blackhorse first presented the petition to Yandy on Oct. 5, when it had approximately 13,000 signatures. She organized a formal protest for Wednesday in an effort to present the petition to Yandy a second time. She said representatives from the company did not want to interact with the activists and threatened to call the police when she first presented the petition. There was a police presence during the Wednesday protest, and Yandy representatives again did not want to speak with the protesters, Blackhorse said.

While presenting the petition was not her original goal, Dejecacion hopes it raises awareness of the issue. Through the petition, she wanted to create an online space where she could show the kind of “significant” support Watton mentioned, and she is pleased that the petition has enabled other Native voices to share their stories.

Diné activist Amanda Blackhorse and other activists protest outside Yandy’s headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona on Wednesday. (Sumayyah Dawud)

Dejecacion also hoped to educate people about issues indigenous women face that extend beyond cultural appropriation. American Indian and Alaska Native women are 1.2 times as likely to experience violence over their lifetime than non-Hispanic white women, according to a study published by the National Institute of Justice that Dejecacion linked in her petition.

The costumes “sexualize us and dehumanize us, and in a very serious sense, they also can harm the community,” she said. “They play into very harmful representations of us that lead to non-Natives committing assault towards Native women. We are by no means saying [Native American] costumes are the sole reason.” But she believes they are a factor, she said.

The issue of selling such costumes is not specific to Yandy but all Halloween retailers, including those in the Chicago area.

Infographic by Katie Rice/MEDILL

A local issue
In Chicago, Halloween retailers also offer “Native American” costumes. The Chicago area chain Halloween Hallway sells “Indian Maiden” and “Indian Brave” costumes and a product called “Texas Dirt Powder” that purports to “simulate Native American skin tones” and create “a weathered look.” Chicago Costume Company’s online store carries different shades of headdresses and a Disney-licensed “Pocahontas” costume. Neither Halloween Hallway nor Chicago Costume Company responded to requests for comment.

Wasabakao, chief of the Kayuana Luku Taino and the president of the Illinois Chapter of the Autonomous American Indian Movement based in the south suburbs of Chicago, agrees that these costumes are offensive — but he said he sees more important issues for indigenous communities than what people are wearing.

One such issue is federal recognition, he said. There are no federally recognized tribes in Illinois, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“It’s almost like we’re nonexistent in the state of Illinois,” he said.

While Halloween costumes may not be as big an issue as those of federal recognition and sovereignty, Wasabakao said they still contribute to a narrative of erasure of American Indian identities.

“Originally, Halloween was supposed to be scary,” he said. “So there’s still a kind of stigma or mentality behind that that a lot of people may not even realize. You’re dressing up like an Indian during Halloween, so it’s either a) we’re scary or b) we’re mythological beings.”

“Homage to the beauty of tradition”
Dejecacion hopes people who might otherwise dress in “Native” costumes will read the petition and the stories of its co-signers and realize how the costumes disrespect the cultures they claim to represent.

You cannot have respect for Native cultures and wear these costumes, Dejecacion said.

Over the past month, Yandy has changed the description of its “Native American Costumes” section several times, presumably in response to social media backlash. In the descriptions, the company claims these costumes pay homage to “indigenous culture.”

On Oct. 1, Twitter user @heather28df tweeted reported that Yandy had removed references in the description to “walk(ing) two miles in another’s moccasins” and encouraging potential customers to browse costumes for their “next pow wow (sic).”

In early October, the description read: “The most natural and sexy look, you’ll be the trendsetter of your tribe in these sexy Native American costumes! Share your love of the rich, indigenous culture by rocking a fun native costume for your next powwow.”

As of Oct. 25, the caption had once again changed, and simply read: “Pay an homage to the beauty of tradition in these sexy Native American costumes!”

For Dejecacion, Yandy’s sale of these costumes does anything but respect Native cultures. These costumes are offensive and appropriate sacred regalia, she said.

“Cultural exchange is all about consent, of two different cultures consenting to sharing different aspects of their culture,” she said. “But at no point have Native Americans wanted to share their sacred pieces of their regalia for these costumes.”

Blackhorse said dressing as a Native person is “blatant racism” comparable to wearing yellow- or blackface. Not only are these costumes offensive, but they create the impression that all of the 573 federally recognized tribes dress like the Plains tribes — “down here (in Arizona), we don’t wear headdresses,” she said.

“If your company, represented by white people, is telling us as Native women to get over it and to not be offended, to me that’s racism because you feel like your beliefs are far superior [to] what we believe as Native people and what we feel as Native people,” Blackhorse said.

“Everyone who makes Native costumes needs to stop,” she said — and ideally, retailers should retroactively donate the profits of these costumes to Native organizations.”

Photo at top: Diné activist Amanda Blackhorse protests Yandy’s sale of Native American costumes outside the company’s headquarters in Phoenix Wednesday, Oct. 24. (Photo by Douglas Miles)