Stop selling costumes that sexualize Indigenous women

Costume company Yandy erases Indigenous women’s voices, even as it pays lip service to female empowerment.

 

This story is a collaboration between AJ+ and High Country News.

Three weeks ago, I was threatened with arrest for presenting a petition with more than 14,000 signatures on it to a Halloween-costume maker. Yandy, a Phoenix, Arizona-based lingerie distributor, sells around 40 different styles of Native American-themed costumes. Most of them are for women, and most are sexualized.

It’s past time to speak up about America’s unwillingness to address the racism and discrimination directed at Indigenous people, particularly women.

A group of Native women gather to protest at Yandy‘s Phoenix headquarters in 2017.
Sumayyah Dawud

In September, Yandy bowed to criticism over its “sexy” Handmaid’s Tale costume — a mini-skirted version of the outfits worn by the surrogate sex slaves in the hit Hulu show — and removed the item from its website. It took only a few hours for online outrage to force the company to pull the costume and issue an apology. “It has become obvious that our ‘Yandy Brave Red Maiden Costume’ is being seen as a symbol of women’s oppression, rather than an expression of women’s empowerment,” the company wrote in a statement. “This is unfortunate, as it was not our intention on any level.”

And yet the company continues to sell costumes that disparage Native women and reduce us to sexual objects, despite protests from Indigenous communities nationwide. A company spokesperson tried to justify this, telling the Phoenix New Times that “the costumes are influenced by powerful fashion elements derived from the culture and are intended to pay homage to the Native American community, not to mock or offend.”

Last year, Yandy CEO Jeff Watton told Cosmopolitan magazine that he had no intention of pulling the line of Native-themed costumes, unless backlash resulted in “significant demonstrations” or reached a point of contentiousness “along the lines of the Black Lives Matter movement,” Watton said. “Then it’s become too hot of an issue.” It’s easy to see why the company wants to continue selling racist costumes: Sales of the line totaled $150,000 in 2016 alone.

When Blackhorse presented Yandy CEO Jeff Watton with the petition, he threatened to call the police.
Sumayyah Dawud
And so, a few days after the Cosmopolitan story ran, I joined other Native women in a protest at the company’s headquarters in Phoenix, taking Watton at his word that Yandy would consider responding to a backlash. But Watton refused to even meet with us, and his staff threatened to have us arrested if we didn’t leave.

In other words, the costumes are still for sale.

This fall, when it discontinued the sexy Handmaid’s costume, Yandy praised the women who wore non-sexualized Handmaid’s Tale costumes to protest the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in September. But the company’s support of female empowerment has its limits: Instead of listening to Indigenous women, Watton has chosen to suppress our voices and call for our arrest.

Four days after the sexy Handmaid costume came down, a petition created by Choctaw activist Zoe Dejecacion to stop Yandy from selling Native-themed costumes went up on Change.org. Within just a few days, there were more than 14,000 signatures. But when I brought the petition to company headquarters, Watton again threatened to call the police. “I remember you from last year; you’re not allowed here,” he told me. So far, there are more than 22,000 signatures on the petition, yet Watton has refused to comment.

Historically, Indigenous women have always been targets of violence. Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than white women. More than half of us have had direct experience with sexual violence, while homicide is the third leading cause of death for Native women. In Canada, Indigenous women are 12 times more likely to be murdered or missing than their white counterparts. As legal scholar Sarah Deer notes: This is not a sudden epidemic. Violence against Native women has been happening for centuries, and it is rooted in oppression and colonial violence. By sexualizing and stereotyping Native women, Yandy perpetuates oppression in costume form.

Yandy diminishes our cultures, strips away our humanity, and remakes us in the image it desires. Yandy erases who we are, even as it pays lip service to women’s rights and female empowerment. And unlike those who protested the sexy Handmaid’s costume, we are not even afforded the right to be offended. To Yandy, we are nothing more than costumes and mascots — a form of entertainment and a source of profit.

This week, I will go back to Yandy with other Native women and demand that the company discontinue its line of offensive Native-themed costumes. The company needs to be accountable to the very people it claims to honor. Stop selling those offensive costumes, Mr. Watton. It’s past time.

Editor's note: On Oct. 24, Blackhorse went to Yandy headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona, to protest and deliver a petition with more than 23,000 signatures requesting the retailer no longer sell its Native-themed costumes. Video by AJ+

Amanda Blackhorse (Diné) is a social worker, mother and advocate for Native people. 

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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