This is my first Halloween as a dad. As the October days have waned, I’ve grown increasingly excited to check out the nearby Halloween costume store to find a perfect trick-or-treat outfit for my new baby girl.
The other day, with permission from baby’s mama, we finally went. The ghoulish masks, wicked wigs, and gory décor were truly a site to behold.
But then the real fright came.
Nestled between a swarm of cute bumble bee costumes and a pen of little piggy noses, a display of “Native American Warrior” costumes, complete with headband and mock tribal designs, stared back at me. Intended for kids aged 5 through 14-years-old, the packages said. Bloody tomahawks and plastic black hair, next aisle.
I immediately thought of all the reporting I’ve done involving Indian mascots and team names that some Native Americans have decried and have worked for decades to have removed and changed.
The West has been home to some of the most famous of these controversies, including battles over the long-time Fighting Sioux logo of the University of North Dakota.State leaders, realizing that many Indians want the mascot removed, have promised to begin phasing it out come this Saturday, which happens to be Halloween.
North Dakota’s Board of Higher Education has said it will drop the nickname and logo unless the Sioux tribes in the state approve 30-year agreements, which doesn’t seem likely at this stage.
Opponents of Indian mascots, including well-known Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee activist Suzan Shown Harjo, have long made the case that their use is hurtful, racist and just plain wrong.
Science tends to back up those claims. The latest research by a few of the nation’s top psychologists finds that the effects of American Indian sports mascots are especially harmful to Native youth, tending to lower the self-esteem of Indian children and young adults. Past studies have shown that exposure to Indian sports mascots depress the self-esteem and feelings of community worth and limit the aspirations of Native high school and college students.
It’s hard not to think that similar harmful effects might also derive from Indian “warrior” Halloween costumes.
Supporters of such team names and imagery have contended that they are harmless, or even meant to honor Native Americans.
Sometimes the debates seem so ephemeral. But, somehow, the presence of those kids’ costumes helped the arguments to feel all the more real to me. As I looked at the grinning child “Native American Warrior” on the package, and then to my own innocent 5-month-old baby girl, who’s soon to be enrolled in my tribe, I failed to see the honor.
I saw horror.