It’s Not A Costume

My seven-year-old daughter’s obsessed with American Dolls. She knows every doll’s name, pet’s name, and horse’s name. She’s sent numerous letters to Santa, asking for a particular doll named Kaya, which is short for Kaya’aton’my (she who arranges rocks). Kaya, a fictional character who came out in stores in 2002, is from the Nimíipuu, or Nez Perce tribe, and the first Native American doll of the American Girl line. The website promises authenticity in every aspect, but I still frown at it, imagining her on doll collector’s display shelves. I’m torn between applauding them for including an original, Native American in their line, or scoffing at them for not doing it sooner (American Girl dolls have been around since 1986).

Then my daughter wanted to dress like her for Halloween.

We live in western Montana, a state that is home to twelve Indian Nations, many of whom are still located on seven reservations. Thirteen percent of the student population at my daughter’s school identify as Native American, most from the Blackfeet Nation, according to a friend of mine who works at my daughter’s school. I could only imagine the reactions of the families of her classmates seeing my well-intentioned child dressed in a fake, fringed, deerskin dress on Halloween. My daughter wanted to dress like a character she was enamored with, but how could I tell her how inappropriate that was and why? There are no kid-friendly terms for genocide.

I made a few calls to ask for help with the conversation.

“What does it feel like to see white people dressed as Natives?” I asked.

“Do you really want to know?” said Robert, a friend of mine and member of the Confederated Salish-Kootenai tribe. “It’s making a lifestyle a costume.”

“It’s very mocking,” said another friend from the Baa’oogeedí, of the Navajo Nation. “We don’t consider those outfits costumes. They’re symbolic and blessed. They have a spirit to them. They’re viewed with the same beauty and symbolism they represent.”

In a recent article for the Huffington Post, Gyasi Ross spoke up about the artist Pharell Williams wearing a headdress for a magazine cover photo. He said, “Native people utilize headdresses as one of our highest honors, reserved for those select few people who did something so valorous and special—oftentimes in battle, fighting off genocide—that we must identify them by putting pieces of the soaring eagle on their head.”

It’s hard to explain these in a seven-year-old’s terms. I thought of an episode of the sitcom Gimmie a Break that I saw when I was about her age. A young Joey Lawrence came out on stage to an all-black audience at Nell Carter’s church to perform a song wearing blackface. When Nell confronted the older sister, Sam, who dressed him that way, she said seeing him made her feel like she was calling her racist slangs through a mocking costume.

“It’s better to dress like a made-up character for Halloween,” I said. “If you dress like a real person, it’s like you’re making fun of them.”

The point didn’t get across until later that week, when the Northern Native American drumming group The Black Lodge Singers performed during an assembly at her school. Three children her age dressed in their pow-wow regalia, accompanied by two teenaged performers. Kenny Sabby Robe spoke to the audience before the older girl performed in her jingle dress, describing the process and care in making it. Before they performed a Friendship Circle song, he pulled my daughter up by the hand to dance with the others. “Be proud of who you are,” he said in parting. “Be proud of what race you are. Be proud of that. Because we’re all the same.”

When I asked my daughter how it felt to dance in front of the school, she said she liked it, and tried to mimic the jingle dress dance. I asked her if she still wanted to dress up like Kaya for Halloween, and she said no, and added, “Those are special outfits. They’re not for Halloween.”

She’s decided on dressing like a Monster High Doll now. Despite the make-up, high heels, and huge wig, I told her that’s a great costume idea.

By Stephanie Land, YWCA Racial Justice Intern