Pocahontas Halloween costumes are back, and so is the debate over them

It’s October, which means it’s the time when some people get out their decorative gourds and paper skeletons, as Halloween stores begin stocking their shelves with superheroes, politicians, movie characters, and—that old standby—costumes that are sure to offend people.

Some find Pocahontas Halloween costumes offensive. (Photo: Fox Spears via Twitter)
Some find Pocahontas Halloween costumes offensive. (Photo: Fox Spears via Twitter)

The debate over cultural appropriation is back on the forefront of several people’s minds, particularly after Karuk artist Fox Spears pointed out on Twitter that, once again, Disney was selling Pocahontas costumes for the holiday.

“Seen today in a Disney Store. *sigh*,” he tweeted in September, setting off dozens of online conversations about who has the right to wear such outfits, and who has the right to define what is and isn’t offensive.

“If a little girl wants to be Pocahontas for Halloween because it’s her favorite movie, then let her! Y’all complain about everything,” Twitter user Tyler Gilmore wrote in response.

To unpack the argument, Yahoo Lifestyle turned to Ali Nahdee, a white and Anishinaabe/Ojibwa writer who created the Aila Test — a Bechdel test for depictions of indigenous women. Earlier this year, in Indian Country Today, she outlined the many harmful discrepancies between the 1995 Disney film Pocahontas and the woman’s real tragic history.

“Pocahontas was kidnapped, raped, abused, forced to assimilate, forced to convert to Christianity, forced to marry one of her captors, and the Mattaponi sacred oral history is convinced that her untimely death may have been the result of a poisoning rather than an illness,” Nahdee tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

The movie’s producers did their research, she said, but in their behind-the-scenes featurette, Roy Disney, Jim Pentecost, and supervising animator Glen Keane said they decided to ignore the fact that she was a child when she met the colonists, and she in fact never saved John Smith from being executed. They used the legend promoted by white Europeans and aged the girl up to be a sexy woman instead of a young teenager.

“There is something so sinister about this decision made by three white men about a native girl whose short life was already riddled with trauma and tragedy,” Nahdee says. “I really feel that Pocahontas deserves so much better than a whitewashed animated film and a Halloween costume, and yet that is how she is remembered and known throughout the world.”

Yahoo Lifestyle reached out to reps for Disney about its use of the costume but has not yet received a response. In 2016, Disney pulled its kids’ Maui costumes after critics pointed out that it was inviting people to put on the “skin” of an indigenous character.

As Jessica Metcalfe, creator of the site Beyond Buckskin, told Refinery29 in 2015, “Costumes are meant to be fantasy or fun or scary. Cultures or people are not costumes.”

When white people wear Native American Halloween costumes, Nahdee says it feels like a mockery of her own family’s tragic history. “My grandmother and her sister were residential school survivors who endured things too horrible for them to even say out loud,” she said. “Knowing that actual native children were beaten, abused, and tortured simply for being who they were, there’s a deep contempt I have towards non-Natives who feel entitled to pick and choose what they want from a culture that was forbidden to its own people. It’s even worse when they then insist that they’re ‘honoring’ you and your people.”

The rationale that it should at least be OK for children to dress up in these costumes is just as problematic, because it underestimates a child’s capacity to understand that racism is wrong, and it disregards the feelings of Native children, Nahdee says.

“We are the ones who grew up being spoon-fed the idea that Pocahontas on the other end of a white man’s rifle is supposed to be ‘romantic,’ ” she says. “The least a non-Native parent can do is explain to their child what’s wrong with this costume and this film, so the child doesn’t grow up to be a racist adult who causes more harm.”

By the way, it’s not a great idea for teachers to have young students make headdresses or war bonnets to learn about Thanksgiving either. If what they really want is to teach about indigenous cultures, educators could instead have a member of that culture come in and speak to the kids.

“For natives, it’s not a costume,” Nahdee reiterates. “It’s regalia. It’s culture. It’s religion.”
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