Appropriation and Redskins/Redmen

By Molly Swain and Lindsay Nixon

An excerpt from Decolonization 101

cw: racism, cultural appropriation, slurs

tanisi kahkiyaw awiyak, Molly Swain êkwa Lindsay Nixon nitisiyakâsonân, Molly otipêmsiw-iskwêw ôma wiya otôskwanihk ohciw, Lindsay anishnaabekwe/nêhiyaw-iskwêw ôma wiya Tootinaowaziibeeng Nation ohciw. nikîhokêwinân onatowêw-askîy êkwa pîtos nêhiyawak-askîy. osihchikawak Indigenous Women and Two-Spirit Harm Reduction Coalition. namoya wi-yôski-pikîskwawak.

I’ve stopped going out on Halloween, and there are two main and overlapping reasons: the rampant cultural appropriation and the inevitable racist caricatures they represent. They’re prevalent throughout most of the year, but become shockingly ubiquitous around Halloween, and it’s a lot less upsetting to just stay home and miss out on the “fun,” rather than go out and be confronted with the level of dehumanization Halloween has come to embody.

The issue of cultural appropriation has been kind of a big deal in mainstream media for a few years now, and it’s good to see folks start to take it seriously. If you don’t already know, cultural appropriation is the adoption of certain restricted cultural items or traditions by someone from another culture. What do I mean by restricted? A university degree, for example, is a restricted item in settler culture. You have to earn a degree through years of hard work and training, and that diploma represents something about your accomplishments. Not just anyone can stick a fake medical degree on the wall and call themselves a doctor—there would be serious repercussions. No one would argue that they actually just really, really respect the medical profession, and that’s why they have that fake Harvard MD in the living room. But that’s exactly what we Indigenous folks hear when people try to justify wearing a fake headdress, or eagle feathers, or when they talk about their ‘spirit animals.’ They really “respect” us, they want the “Native experience.”

Of course so much of this racism is bound up in capitalism. Urban Outfitters will sell you stolen “Native” prints on the cheap, some asshole on Etsy will sell you a chicken feather headdress, you can pay to take a test that will tell you what your “spirit animal” is. Capitalism and colonialism are complicit in centuries of ongoing genocide against Indigenous peoples. This has included banning many of our ceremonies, sacred items, and cultural practices, and now they are being repackaged as cheap knock-offs so settlers can play-act some fantasy of the historical “Indian” while our lands continue to be stolen, our children continue to be taken, and our women and girls continue to be murdered. Cultural appropriation is a big fuckin’ deal, so don’t be surprised if we get pissed off!

And yeah, Indigenous cultures have created some gorgeous stuff. And not everything is restricted! Moccasins, for example, are an unrestricted item and they’re comfy as hell and if they’re authentic will often have absolutely gorgeous beading. If you want mocs, go authentic. Seriously. They are expensive, but save up or go without, if you want to engage with some of our cultural items the least you can do is get them from us and appreciate the incredible craftsmanship that goes into their creation. Real Indigenous artists will not try to sell you restricted items, and if you’re not sure, ask!

Check out apihtawikosisan’s excellent piece on cultural appropriation here for an expanded discussion.

Now on to Redmen and Redskins!

In case you skipped the “Terminology” section of this zine, redman and redskin are slurs! So why are McGill’s men’s sports teams called the Redmen (they used to be called the Indians)? Why are there professional sports teams called the Redskins? The answer, unsurprisingly, is racism. Settler colonialism loves the idea of Indigenous peoples, but hates actual living breathing ones. Caricatures and stereotypes of Indigenous folks have been around just about as long as settlers have, and they have been used simultaneously to position Indigenous peoples as extinct or dying out (the only thing left is this smiling red face), and to dehumanize Indigenous peoples—just about every Indigenous person has a story (or dozens of stories) about being told that they “just don’t seem like a REAL Indian,” because of course, “real Indians” are supposed to live in tipis and hunt with a bow and arrow, not play too much Candy Crush and love Star Trek (actually that may just be me).

There are of course many other stereotypes that Indigenous peoples are faced with: the Noble Warrior, the Squaw, the Pocahottie/Sexy Indian Princess (a Halloween favourite!), the Shaman, the Drunk Injun, the list goes on and on and none of these are even remotely ok! For example, the sexualization of Indigenous women seen in Sexy Indian Princess costumes is resultant of “Squaw” narratives. Squaw narratives ascribe terra nullius on our lands to our bodies, marking our bodies as available for conquest by settlers and thereby rapable and disposable. These narratives actually condone ongoing sexualized violence against Indigenous women, Two-Spirit peoples, and girls. So, when you wear a Sexy Indian Princess costume at Halloween you are in fact enacting gendered and sexualized violence against Indigenous women.

Would you just stand by and accept it if McGill’s team name was a racist slur against another group? Wouldn’t you be embarrassed and angry? My point is that racism against Indigenous peoples is so normalized and engrained that it’s not
even on people’s radars, or it is and they just can’t be bothered to care. There has been lots of good writing on how stereotypes of Indigenous peoples are emotionally and materially harmful, so do that research and educate yourself and those around you! There are “Change the Name” campaigns and lawsuits being filed to pressure racist institutions to get their acts together. It’s well past time for McGill to follow suit, and as a student or Montréal community member you are very well positioned to start shaming them for their apathy and racism.

So yeah, as Halloween rolls around, skip the redface and institute a ‘no racist costumes’ policy at your party. Then maybe I’ll be able to join you this year.