State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2016 - Case study: Challenging cultural appropriation in Canada: the misuse of indigenous symbols in Halloween costumes
By Mariah Grant
In October 2015, Jeffrey McNeil-Seymour walked into a Halloween costume shop in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada with his sister and teenaged nieces. McNeil-Seymour, an instructor of social work at Thompson River University and a Tk'emlúps Tee Secwépemc, quickly found what he had suspected the shop was selling – costumes poorly mimicking the dress of indigenous peoples in Canada. From Facebook posts and group pages, he already knew how upset many were that shops in Canada continued to stock and advertise costumes that culturally misrepresented indigenous peoples, despite years of protests. For this reason, as McNeil-Seymour puts it, he took it as 'a call to action' – 'because,' he says, 'it is an issue that I've dealt with before'.
Within the Halloween shop, he and his family came upon costumes such as one titled 'Chief Many Feathers' and others that McNeil-Seymour described as a 'hypersexualized Pocahontas costume'. But when he decided to speak with an employee at the checkout stand, he found them unreceptive to his appeal to have the offensive costumes removed. In response to the employee's justification that Canada was a free country, McNeil-Seymour responded, 'How is it a free country when racism still prevails?' McNeil-Seymour decided to address the issue with the store's head office and also raised the issue publicly over social media. Subsequently, in response to attention from local and national media, the shop released a statement claiming that the costumes were not meant to offend but were simply part of the 'fun' of the Halloween festivities. However, as highlighted by the response of many activists and community members in the following weeks, this sort of misrepresentation is often a source of deep hurt and humiliation for Canada's indigenous population.
But are not most cultures mocked during Halloween? For McNeil-Seymour, this argument is a familiar one. Indeed, during his visit to the costume shop he also observed stereotyping costumes of Mexicans and Saudis. Nevertheless, he does not concede that this means the discussion on the harm of misrepresenting indigenous people during this holiday, or in other forms throughout the year, should be muted. Nor does it imply that one costume is absolutely worse than another. What is important, though, is that for some indigenous peoples these costumes perpetuate a long history of discrimination that trivializes their lived experiences.
McNeil-Seymour sees the issue of Halloween costumes as one that goes far beyond the problem of one night of fancy dress. Instead, it is an opportunity to highlight the deficiencies in Canada's education system regarding its history of colonization and the continued typecasting of indigenous peoples as primitive: in his words, 'the vibrancy of the culture is relegated to the past versus looking at it now as a culture of revival, of renewal'. As he has highlighted, this overlooks the fact that indigenous peoples in Canada are part of a 'resurgent culture', evidenced by many established and emerging indigenous fashion designers. Projects such as the Toronto.based Setsune Indigenous Fashion Incubator also provide spaces for designers to learn new and traditional pattern, clothing, jewellery and accessory-making techniques.
Even more troubling, however, is McNeil-Seymour's assertion that the costumes are a clear 'metaphor' for the continued violence inflicted against indigenous women and girls. Communities have faced decades of deadly inaction, at many levels, and of failure to confront and address the disproportionately high rates at which indigenous women, girls, transgender and two-spirit people are murdered and go missing in Canada. These Halloween costumes, he argues, serve to reinforce the invisibility of this issue by normalizing the role of indigenous women and girls, and also transgender and two-spirit people, as readily consumed and discarded: 'Here are people going out and purchasing these cheap plastic costumes, and they're for a one-time use, and they're easily disposed of afterwards.' By sexualizing even those most sacred and respected of traditional roles and symbols, he believes, these costumes have the effect of casting indigenous individuals as objects and thus targets for gender-based violence.
Ultimately, McNeil-Seymour does not see these costumes being entirely removed from store shelves before the next Halloween, despite the attention his protests have attracted. But he does see promise in the way social media has been used to mobilize and educate. Open dialogues on the internet and public platforms have also brought to light other important issues surrounding cultural misappropriation and intellectual property rights for indigenous communities. A month after the controversy over the Halloween costumes, for example, another story broke about the apparent wholesale lifting of a sacred Inuit design by a Canadian clothing company. While this was hardly the first time that indigenous heritage has been appropriated, what was more surprising was the retailer's subsequent apology and the withdrawal of the offending article – a small but promising sign of progress for Canada's indigenous population.
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