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Sexy Indian Costumes on Sale!

Picture taken from California Costume Collection, Inc.


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 Native Americans still exist; they are more than a historical reference and their clothing, accessories, and symbols have religious and social meanings.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?!

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9 Comment on this post

  1. Imagine, for example, a minority persecuted during National Socialism in Germany to be used as mascot of a German football team today…

    Zigeunerschnitzel (Zigeuner = gypsy) is still a popular dish in Germany.

    1. You are right, Alexander. I haven’t thought of this dish. It’s even often served under that name in University canteens. I also think that “gypsy” would be / is a more accepted Carnival costume than – to give an example that would create tremendous outrage – “Jew”. So perhaps Romani people are treated similar to Native Americans. And perhaps for similar reasons (romanticising movies and the like). It’s alarming in both cases, I think.

      1. But is this really comparable? Are people from Vienna discriminated by referring to “Wiener Schnitzel”? The reason to rename the “Negerkuss” (negro kiss) was more generally, I think, that “Neger” has come to be seen as an impolite word, not because it referred to colored people’s kisses.

        I wonder how useful such discussions about “discriminating” language really are. In Germany, for example, you cannot really use the word “euthanasia” in public debates, whatever you mean by it, because of the misuse of this term by the Nazis. People in the Netherlands, where I have lived for some years, and in the English ethical debate, as far as I can see, have much less trouble with using the word “euthanasia” in a different sense.

        All this does not change, though, that far-developed fetuses that would be capable to live more or less independently are now aborted – some even say “killed” – frequently in Germany, the Netherlands, and other countries, when signs of disabilities are detected; in Germany this is actually legally possible until labor pains begin, though not many are fully aware of the implications of these regulations. So no matter how you call it, the practice persists.

        So what should we do about this historically inadequate squaw Nadira has written about? Simply not using this stereotype in advertisements anymore would not be the best solution, I think; rather people should be informed about what the life of a Native American was like, too, when people from Europe started invading the continent. Then the modern and inaccurate stereotype could actually even have a positive value.

  2. Who is manufacturing the Native American costumes? It is well known that it is seen as more acceptable to caricature outgroups that are closest to your own ingroup e.g. for English to use stereotypes about the Scots, Welsh or Irish in a humorous way. (I went to hear a comedian, Marcus Brigstock, last week. He tried out lots of jokes about different racial groups to see which we laughed at, and confirmed this tendency. Most people laughed at jokes about the French but not about Jews or the Chinese. He asked why it is OK to do an impression of a Geordie accent (someone from Newcastle, North England) but not a Nigerian accent: again, it is the geographical/ cultural proximity that would explain it.) Therefore if the Native American costumes are manufactured in the US that would make sense in explaining their origins.

    The status of the group seems to be relevant too: despite their history, my intuition is that they are not portrayed as a low status group. (Perhaps this is the view of a non-American, however. No doubt discrimination is still experienced.)

    The costumes are also part of a wider stereotype about the role of women. Those who condone “sexy costumes” of any culture for women are more likely to find the Native American costume acceptable. Are there any cultures in which women are oppressed or seen as sexual objects where there are not these kind of costumes?

    1. “Are there any cultures in which women are oppressed or seen as sexual objects where there are not these kind of costumes?”

      Women are certainly oppressed in many muslim countries, and in some seen as such severely sexual objects that they are not permitted to show their faces, less they stir unwanted lust. But you’re unlikely to find such costumes in these societies, certainly not on open sale.

    2. American Indians are probably the poorest race in the United States. Many reservations, like the Pine Ridge reservation of the Oglala Lakota nation, have a majority of people living in poverty. So the issue at hand is mainly the ignorance and oftentimes contempt citizens have for the indigenous groups.

      And it seems the more we stand up for ourselves, the more hate we get. The Idle No More movement, which is now more or less an international movement and not just about indigenous people, gets a lot of hate particularly from Canadian citizens, simply because they take it as “us versus them”. There’s also often contempt for the perceived “freebies” that groups get from the government.

      So whenever indigenous rights come into play, it’s often cast aside as unimportant or frivolous, and we’re often told to “take a joke” or calm down, etc.

  3. I agree that something is not right with the use of stereotypes of oppressed minorities (or non-use, as is the case of jews and dark-skinned people), but I believe that a more important issue is our absolute ignorance of these minorities.

    Perhaps selling a Sexy Jew Costume is unthinkable because we know the history of that group. As Stephan pointed out, however, the general public does not know the traditions and history of native Americans. As was pointed out to me once, European colonization of America was a genocide of greater proportions than National Socialism. Unlike what happened during German fascism, in America high cultures were actually destroyed. Therefore, If no one sees any problem with discourses that reproduce this oppression (e.g. the “Cowboys and Indians” game), it is evidence that this part of history is not been taught properly.

  4. I find the use of racial minorities by sporting franchises really interesting. [I have a friend who works professionally on team culture and identity, and chat to him quite a bit about this stuff.]

    Here in New Zealand, we have a rugby league team called the New Zealand Warriors, who use very clear and explicit Maori motifs. One of NZ’s Super rugby franchises is called the Chiefs, and their logo is a dude carrying a mere, which clearly locates him as a Maori chief. Neither of these is remotely controversial, even though Maori have also experienced that particular mode of New World injustice: dispossession, lethal encounter with the portmanteau biota (in Al Crosby’s nice phrase), war, invasion. There are differences between Maori and Native American history (fairly big ones) but I think the core issue regarding sports teams’ use of native cultures is basically one of authenticity. Maori play rugby and rugby league, and play it really well. Routinely half the All Blacks are Maori, and always have been, even though Maori make up <20% of New Zealand's population. So these franchises are calling on something fairly authentic in the tradition of many of the players. The story in American sports is a bit more complicated, but given that Native Americans have not dominated the sports that draw on their influences in the same way that Maori have, it's easy to see how this can turn into illegitimate cultural appropriation. [Even then I'd caution against rushing to judgement. For one thing, there are positive* historical reasons why sports teams look admiringly towards Native American culture**; for another, can you describe whether and why sports teams in Mexico which draw on nativist motifs (eg the Tabasco Olmecs) are permissible while those in America are impermissible? Finally, polls of Native Americans suggest that a lot of Native Americans don't think the Washington Redskins, for instance, are being as disrespectful as a European academic might be tempted to assume.]

    *Not saying net positive, just that there are some positive features of this story.
    **In the NFL, the Washington Redskins have a name that some consider offensive, but the tradition being drawn on is (arguably) much more subtle than many people realise. One example: in the early years of the 20th century, an obscure, assimilationist Indian boarding school called the Carlisle Indian Industrial School happened to grow a college football program that was actually pretty remarkable. The overhand spiral throw (arguably the most distinctive part of the game) began there, and among Carlisle's alumni are the legendary coach "Pop" Warner – after whom children's football is named – and the phenomenal Jim Thorpe. In the early years of College football, Warner & Thorpe's Carlisle taught the big schools how to play. As Sally Jenkins wrote in the Washington Post:
    "The ease of Carlisle's victory over Penn startled and discomfited football traditionalists. The New York Times reported that the Indians' explosive use of the pass "put all the coaches at the large universities at sea." Clearly, the Indians were miles ahead of any other team. Unsurprisingly, the competition did not congratulate them for it, but resented them. In the past, the Indians had been a novelty act, a plucky little team that played over their heads. But now they were a powerful and undefeated machine, and they had made an opponent look slow and stupid."

    This story might be familiar to cricket fans: it's basically Fire in Babylon, but with pigskin instead of leather. The pity of it is that this football tradition faded – Native Americans don't occupy the same role in football that Maori do in rugby, or Polynesians do in both (Samoans, in particular, are massively over-represented (demographically) in the NFL). And this is why, I think, it is completely acceptable for the University of Hawaii's football programme to be called the Warriors, while it would be far dodgier for Yale, for instance, to try to draw on similar ethnic motifs.

    1. The Carlisle Indian School was nothing but a torture internment camp, so if that’s the history of the Redskins, that’s even more offensive.

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