The Carolina Indian Circle held a talking circle titled “My Culture is Not a Costume" Tuesday. Student attendees discussed stereotypes and cultural appropriation in costumes ahead of Halloween.
The talking circle was intended to be a sacred space where students felt comfortable discussing their thoughts on the appropriation of Native American culture in Halloween costumes and in general, said Lydia-Ruth Mansfield, a first-year who belongs to the Lumbee Tribe, said.
People often wear costumes like Pocahontas, or those that focus on sports teams with Native American mascots, during Halloween. Mansfield said the CIC aims to make the Native American students’ presence on campus known and provide support to students who might be concerned about the portrayal of their culture on Halloween.
At the start of the talking circle, students watched two videos — one by UNC students presenting on Native American issues and the other from PragerU, in which a white man wore stereotypical Native American attire to a college campus.
Students then told stories of their own encounters with people wearing offensive costumes, with many of them referencing Halloween on Franklin Street.
CIC president AJ Hunt-Briggs, a senior who belongs to the Lumbee Tribe, described a past personal experience from Franklin Street Halloween.
“I had to use both hands to count the amount of Native American costumes I saw,” Hunt-Briggs said.
The attendees, when asked what they would say if confronted with someone wearing an offensive outfit, said they'd mainly ask, “Why?”
“It’s 2021 — why are we still doing this?” Jalyn Oxendine, a first-year who belongs to the Lumbee and Tuscarora tribes, said.
Those at the event said they'd heard different excuses from white people who wore Native American costumes — such as the costumes are historical figures, that they are “honorary” Native Americans or that it’s OK because Pocahontas is a Disney character. Attendees emphasized that it is never OK to use someone else’s culture as a costume.
They said the burden of educating white students who dress in offensive costumes always falls on them.
“I feel like Native people are always asked to explain why it’s offensive, and it's exhausting,” Hunt-Briggs said.
The appropriation of Native American culture every year on Halloween, attendees said, takes a toll on Native American students who feel their cultural identity is being stolen and mocked.
“They can take off the headdress, they can take off the face paint," Oxendine said. "We can't do that. Every day, we are Native."
Many discussed how vital it is to establish safe spaces for Native American students on campuses and left Tuesday’s talking circle with a sense of shared experience.
“The notion that I'm not alone and I have a community behind me," said Juanita Paz-Chalacha, a junior anthropology and American Indian and Indigenous studies major who belongs to the EBCI Eastern Band Cherokee Tribe.
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