Playing Indian for Tricks, Treats, and Greed: A Columbus Day Reflection

"The issue isn’t that non-Natives don’t know how we feel. It’s that they simply don’t care," writes Two Spirit journalist Jen Deerinwater.

During the month of October, non-Natives in the colonized Unites States celebrate the near extinction of Indigenous people via Columbus Day and then play Indian by falsely dressing like us for Halloween.

Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays, but as I’ve grown older, I become more anxious and depressed with every fall. As a resident of D.C., I am assaulted with the use of my people as mascots for the Washington D.C. NFL team, but I also have to see non-Natives making a mockery of my people and our tragedies through Halloween, including by my beloved LGBTQIA2S community.

U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell speaks about the “Change the Mascot” campaign during a press conference with Oneida Indian Nation leaders on Capitol Hill.

Columbus Day was created by the Knights of Columbus as a way to celebrate Italian-American heritage and Catholicism, and was signed into federal law in 1937. Columbus is responsible for the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade, the rapes and sex trafficking of countless Indigenous women, the slaughter of Two Spirits, and the genocide of the Arawaks, Tainos, and Lucayans. To this day, we are still suffering from his egregious actions and those of European nations. As a response to the false heroic narrative, Indigenous Peoples Day was first introduced as International Solidarity Day with American Indians at the 1977 United Nations International NGO Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas conference. There are numerous cities and states that now celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day or some variation of it. But these changes are a far cry from the justice we deserve.

When asked I Chris Wilson (Lumbee) how they feel when they see non-Natives playing Indian, they said, “It plays into the ’mystical native’ trope. White people look for identity because there is no cultural identity in whiteness. They get to be ’special’ and ’mystical.’”

Dezba Whitebear (Diné) responded to the same question: “Because we’re not real to them. We are a caricature. An idea. This is further enforced by reducing us to brands. Mascots. Slang. We’re a fashion accessory instead of a living, thriving culture.”

Universal History Archive/UIG
The landing of William Penn by J.L.G. Ferris, 1754.

In response to non-Native people of color’s Native appropriation, Nhyira Adtatau (Afro-Native Ashanti and Wampanoag) said, “I think non-Native POC choose to dress up in that caricature because they, like many of us as colonized people, idealize the American project, and want to feel good about themselves, to feel included in that from which they been refused constantly, by partaking in a cultural ritual that upholds the State’s self-aggrandizing mythology about nativeness.”

What many non-Natives cease to care about is that our languages, ceremonies, and very lives were criminalized. Our children were stolen from us and placed in Indian boarding schools where their hair was cut off, were given English names, beaten, starved, sexually abused, and tortured simply for being Native. The boarding school system haunts many of us to do this day. We have family members who are still alive who were subjected to this torture. I cannot speak my language or know my ceremonies because this part of my Tsalagi identity was stolen from my family. This hurts in a way that I cannot properly describe. As I type this, tears are rolling down my face.

Our rates of murder, death, kidnapping, sexual assault, and incarceration have never fallen. Native people have the highest rates of incarceration and murder by law enforcement per capita in the U.S. We can see our ceremonies and lives still being criminalized through the sentencing of peaceful Water Protectors in the Dakota Access Pipeline fight. Forty-two percent of the total Native population in the U.S. is comprised of youth aged 24 and younger. They are suffering from epidemic rates of suicide, which have been tied to the use of Native mascots.

Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty
A #NoDAPL protest in New York City.

The catastrophic legacy of Columbus has created the dire situation of our murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. Roughly 84% of Indigenous women in the colonized U.S. have suffered abuse in our lifetime. Every year one in three of us will be assaulted. More than one in two of us have been raped. Eight out of 10 of our sexual assailants are white men.

It is particularly enraging to see Pocahottie costumes that fetishize our women and femmes, sold alongside unicorn and fairy costumes. These costumes spread lies of the real Matoaka who was kidnapped as a child, forced to marry an Englishman, trafficked to England, repeatedly raped throughout her life, until she was murdered at the age of 21. England still refuses to repatriate her remains to the Mattaponi people.

As a survivor of numerous sexual assaults, it triggers me to see non-Natives dressed in this manner. Yandy, lingerie and costume peddlers, received criticism from primarily white women that led the company to pull its sexy Handmaid’s Tale costume, though it continues to sell hyper-sexualized Pocahottie costumes. In a public statement, Yandy owned its mistake through the sell of the fictional costume, however, they refuse to acknowledge what they’re doing to living, breathing Indigenous women. In 2017, Yandy twisted sex positivity and the fight against rape culture as its excuse for allowing this hyper-sexualization of Native women.

Yandy CFO Jeff Watton said he wouldn’t pull the costumes without a significant demonstration. Indigenous people make up 0.9% of the total U.S. body. This is directly linked to the history of Columbus. We will never have an impact with our numbers alone the way other ethnic groups may have. If anything, this is further proof to support our arguments that the sell of these costumes must end.

Zoe Dejecacion (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma) launched a petition that has garnered over 13,000 signatures demanding that Yandy stop selling these costumes. Amanda Blackhorse (Diné) delivered Dejecacion’s petition to Yandy’s office and Watton refused to engage in conversation and threatened to call the police if Blackhorse didn’t leave. Despite this, we’re supposed to believe that Yandy isn’t racist and violent towards Indigenous women and femmes.

“I think all of the comments the CFO made about why he’s not going to pull these costumes is extremely offensive… They make the company too much money, about $150,000 a year, and to us it seems that our lives, our culture isn’t worth more than $150,000 a year,” Dejecacion told me.

Many non-Natives feign ignorance as to why this commodification and celebration of our genocide is so harmful. They claim that they don’t understand even when we repeatedly create media and take political actions against their harm. Violence and the assertion that white lives are worth more than ours is the response we are met with. Even as I write this, I cannot escape the fact that this piece will be in a publication under Logo TV, which has aired two episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race with contestants playing Indian through their costumes and words with RuPaul making derogatory snipes at our expense. We never received an apology for this injustice.

The issue isn’t that non-Natives don’t know how we feel. It’s that they simply don’t care. To truly acknowledge us means that they have to own their complicity in our genocide and the privilege they have as a result of all that we have lost.

Jen Deerinwater is bisexual, Two Spirit, multiply disabled, and mixed-race Tsalag. After a decade spent in the trenches of U.S. politics, you can now find her stirring the pot of radical discourse à la journalism and organizing across Turtle Island.