Indigenous activists take action: 'Our culture is not a costume'

Halloween is one of North America’s favourite holidays. In the past few years, racist themed parties, white celebrities in blackface, and the normalization of “redface” costumes such as “Pocahottie” outfits have made headlines.

In Toronto, a group of Indigenous activists have had an annual stand-off with a Yonge and Dundas costume store, Spirit Halloween. The store continues to stock incredibly sexualized, Hollywood interpretations of Indigenous women’s clothing.

This year, the activists occupied the costume store itself, pulling the racist costumes down off the shelves, piling them on the floor, and speaking to shoppers on the ongoing epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The action drew a police response.

Sadly, he hypersexualization of Indigenous women’s bodies is nothing new. Many of the activists say that years of tokenization and fetishization of Indigenous cultures is related to the heightened violence and missing Indigenous women across the country.

Many of Canada’s top music festivals came together in banning Native headdresses at their venues, with the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, Montreal’s Osheaga Music and Arts Festivall, and the Bass Music Festival in B.C leading the charge. While music festivals ban racist appropriations of sacred regalia, Halloween stores across the country continue to sell violent appropriations to the public.

This year saw the creation of the ReMatriate campaign, an online photographic initiative facilitating Indigenous women reclaiming their personhood and identity by redefining what it means to be an Indigenous woman.

With this week’s action in Toronto being orchestrated and carried out by empowered Indigenous women demanding change, it’s not hard to see that First Nations women are answering a call across Canada, defiantly reclaiming their identities, sacred traditions, and public image.

While action against racist Halloween costumes may seem like a soft fight to some, it brings the public into a much needed discourse about the interactions between colonialism, genocide, and public disposability of Indigenous women.

Last week, the CBC reported that B.C transportation ministry staffer George Gretes could be facing charges after a privacy commission uncovered he lied under oath when denying “he intentionally deleted Highway of Tears emails and records.”

In a culture that celebrates beautiful beads while on the other hand burying evidence or murder and police brutality, it is vital to recognize that rampant sexual violence, appropriations of sacred dress, and racist Halloween costumes have more in common than we might think. Each is an illustration of how we continue to celebrate the beautiful, and bury the ugly. As Indigenous activists across the country and continent continue to tell us, the two are not mutually exclusive. As colonizers, a failure to recognize the ways in which we manufacture and produce violence is endangering to the lives of the first peoples with whom we inhabit Turtle Island.

Editors' note: Text and interviews by Maya Menezes, camera and editing by Nicky Young.

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