I'm acknowledging now that my decision was made from a place of ignorance, and that I can do better.

native american headdress feathers
Credit: Shutterstock

A picture appeared at the top of my Facebook timeline—my daughter in her "Indian princess" Halloween costume four years ago. Now 11 years old, she was beside me and said, "Oh, that was my favorite costume ever!" I cringed and said "Mmmhmmmm," quickly scrolling past. Coincidentally, it was Indigenous Peoples Day, a recognized holiday in Portland. The irony wasn't lost on me.

The photo was taken in October 2012. As usual, I'd procrastinated on Halloween costumes. I had opened my laptop and asked my four kids what they wanted to be, preparing to Google for homemade ideas, but knowing I'd most likely be spending an exorbitant amount of money at the pop-up Halloween superstore.

My oldest, in her Harry Potter phase, chose to be Hermione Granger. My youngest ended up being the cutest Dorothy Gale to ever walk the Yellow Brick Road, and my son was an eye-patched pirate captain. My 7-year-old daughter thought it over and said, "I want to be an Indian!"

Within a few days, the "Indian" costume was on our doorstep. Moms, I know you feel me; my biggest challenge now was to keep all these costume pieces safe from my children without crushing their happiness and dreams. "You can try this on once," I decreed, "and then I'll hide it to keep it safe and clean." I watched anxiously, to make sure nothing got torn or stained—it can happen in seconds—and soon a little white "Indian" girl stood in front of me.

She was beautiful. Her older sister had braided her hair to showcase the faux leather headband across her forehead. The fringed costume fit perfectly (and wasn't one of those awful sexualized costumes). She was happy. So why did I feel a twinge of...something? What even was this twinge?

I shoved the twinge aside. She was happy and that's all I cared about. I had already paid for this costume, so she was wearing it, twinge or no twinge. My children had a great time, ate way too much candy, and everyone thought their costumes were adorable, so it was fine. Right?

I'm acknowledging now that my decision was made from a place of ignorance, and I can do better. I've learned a lot over the last four years, and I know now that culturally appropriated costumes cause harm. Native Americans are real people, whereas Hermione Granger and Dorothy Gale are characters, and a pirate is an ancient criminal—call it a career if you feel generous. Native Americans, on the other hand, value their cultural dress—which people often take and caricaturize.

I met with Tawna Sanchez, director of Family Services at Portland's Native American Youth and Family Center, to talk about what it does to Native children to see their regalia used in such casual ways. "There's a big difference between what you can be—a fireman or policeman or something like that—but you don't get to be a Native American," Sanchez says. "That's not something you can be unless you're born that way." She compares wearing a Native American costume to wearing blackface. "When we get dressed in our traditional regalia, it is not a costume. It is who we are," she says. "And when you're almost cartooning that, into a costume, that is essentially making fun of who we are, as a people."

Sanchez and others also take issue with the sexy Pocahontas or hunky "big chief" styles of adult costumes. The problem, she says, is these costumes blur all Native American tribes into one sexualized character. Not only is this inappropriate and offensive, but it's also inaccurate. "You don't see a whole lot of skin in our regalia," she explains. "In some of the Eastern tribes, some of the regalia is a little more sparse, in terms of the men wearing more of a breechcloth type thing, or bare-chested, but it's very rare in the Northwest to see even men without a shirt."

Sanchez also points out that Native Americans have never had monarchies, so to dress as an "Indian princess" is completely inaccurate. That idea came from Europeans asserting their culture on Native Americans, and it persists today.

I realized, after my cowardly scrolling past the 2012 picture, that I need to have a conversation with my daughter about how I know better now than to allow that kind of costume to be worn—a culture's sacred dress carelessly borrowed for a night. When I mentioned this to Sanchez, she suggested I think again about using that language. She was concerned that my daughter would feel bad for wearing the costume, instead of having a positive opportunity to understand how other people feel: "What I think is really important for lots of people, is the word [to use] isn't necessarily that this is 'wrong.' This is something that we have to learn to do differently. And it really is about parents taking that responsibility to teach their children there is a big difference between wanting to be a movie character for Halloween, and wanting to be a different person...and that might take some work, on the part of parents."

I left our conversation understanding much more clearly what I needed to do and why and how I needed to do it. As Sanchez put it, "Change happens every single day. We are in a constant process of learning." Instead of using the words "bad" or "wrong," I'm going to talk to my daughter about how I've learned that taking from someone else's culture for a dress-up event or holiday isn't the best way to do things, and how we can move on and do better.