Jump to main content

So why can’t I dress up like an Indian, Pocahontas, or any other Native person?

Eryka Charley, Ph.D., Navajo, Director of NASS
October 25, 2020

So you want to honor Native people. Let’s begin with a brief history lesson.

Since the arrival of non-indigenous individuals to the continental United States, the question of what to do with Native people has erupted several times. The “Indian Problem,” as it became known, has been addressed with various policies, laws and enforcement, with one of the most enduring being the illegalization of Native culture and violent persecutions of Native people.

Over time, wars across the country were raged against Native tribal groups, forcing the removal of entire tribal nations to different regions. Schools were erected to assimilate young Native children into EuroAmerican culture. It was literally illegal to be Native American in the United States. Owning cultural items was illegal, as was performing ceremonial practices. Native children were violently disciplined for speaking their indigenous language or for demonstrating cultural practices. To survive, Native people held ceremonies in private and hid their cultural items from non-Natives.

It was not until 1978, with a revision made in 1990, when Native people were able to honor and practice spiritual ceremonies. Generations of Native people were literally marked as criminals for possessing cultural objects whether it be ceremonial gourds, feathers, dresses, or cultural items. This has continued to affect Native people today; I know of elders who still continue to hide and limit access to ceremonies from non-Natives. These elders still live and carry the fear of persecution for maintaining their cultural identity.

So it is more than a costume, it is more than culture, the symbols of Native America are sacred and carry with them a sense of honor and victory that are difficult to convey to non-Natives. There are few examples that I can offer to express the depth of meaning and history that are contained within these cultural pieces. Every Halloween I see individuals dress as nuns, or priests and don sacred symbols without consideration, and it often goes without controversy. It is not my place to speak to the appropriateness of another culture’s treatment, of what I perceive to be sacred objects, I simply share this to note that the comparison of sacred objects simply does not translate accurately to non-Native cultures.

However, the depth and magnitude of the cultural genocide and active persecution of Native people cannot be separated from what may appear to be simply a headband with feathers on it. Life, land and liberty were sacrificed for these cultural pieces to be passed across generations. Native people have gone to many extremes to secure these markers for another generation, and to witness non-Natives “play,” “perform,” and “pretend” at “parties” with these sacred markers, it should go without saying that it is not only inappropriate, but inexcusable.

My words and sentences often feel too constrained on this subject, so please feel free to email me if you would like to engage in further dialogue. In the least, I hope you can at least consider another perspective.

Eryka Charley, Ph.D.
Director, NASS and APASS

Native American Student Services

nativeamericanstudentservices@unco.edu | 970-351-1909