Sexy Indian Costumes on Sale!
I’ve been to Cologne recently, one of Germany’s main Carnival cities. In the window of a shop I passed, I saw some residues of the just ended Carnival season for sale – amongst other things, a Native American costume. Like many others of the sort, it consisted of a brown faux suede suit, a colourful feather hair decoration, and a little fake axe. And – not to my surprise – it showed far more skin that it concealed. Unfortunately, I didn’t take a picture. However, “Indian” Carnival and Halloween costumes like that can be found all over the internet, may it be in the (sadly unavoidable) “sexy” women’s version like the one I saw, or in the male “warrior / chief” version.
Obviously, these costumes are not authentic Native American clothing, but a stereotypical mockery of it. In contrast to other costumes that refer to animals, to real or imaginary cultural roles like police men or princesses, to fairy tale and comic characters and the like, the Native American costume relates to members of a particular ethnicity. (Sometimes even to a particular tribe, as in this particularly gross example.) Of course, there are other costumes that do a similar job in imitating members of a certain country or ethnicity (e.g., the French or my fellow Bavarians). However, there is no denying that Native Americans have a special history in the sense that parts of it is characterised by war against a superior power, conquest and forced relocation. Native Americans still exist; they are more than a historical reference and their clothing, accessories, and symbols have religious and social meanings. Still, not only costumes but also a bunch of North American products (e.g., Natural American Spirit tobacco) and sports teams (e.g., the Cleveland Indians) use caricatures of Native Americans as their logos – and they seem to make profit with it.
I suspect such costumes and branding making use of other ethnicities would be perceived as more than just inappropriate in (more or less) comparable cases. Imagine, for example, a minority persecuted during National Socialism in Germany to be used as mascot of a German football team today… The outrage would be tremendous – and rightfully so. (To give a less extreme example for different standards: the popular European chocolate-coated marshmallows originally called “negro kisses” were renamed in several countries to avoid the racist connotation.)
Although there have been some debates about the use of Native American symbols and mascots in fashion and in sports, I have the impression that still only few people mind. Perhaps many don’t even notice. Psychologically, one reason for that might be that Native Americans often have been portrayed in a romanticizing “Hollywood” way in the media. People might think of them rather as figures from a fantasy world or a distant past than existing human beings. Maybe that is the reason why “Cowboys and Indians” seems to be a harmless child game to us rather than an inappropriate belittlement of the Native American’s cruel past and sometimes sad present. Despite these psychological explanations, I cannot think of a single reason why this large-scale ethnic stereotyping of Native Americans should be morally less unjustified than stereotyping of other groups. Can you?!