In my insular world of email and Facebook there’s a load of chatter about Indian costumes worn at Halloween. After searching the internet, I found plentiful websites that sell Native American “costumes” as “part of the American Halloween scene” where “Kids bedeck themselves in Indian costume jewelry and traditional Indian costumes and are able to live out a slice of American history.”
Many of my friends and colleagues are incensed that folks would want to dress up in Indian attire for Halloween. Once, when I attended a pow wow and was walking toward a gymnasium before grand entry, dressed in my Osage regalia, someone stopped me and asked me about my “costume” and about my belt.
My mother made my belt. She learned finger weaving from Maudie Cheshewalla, an Osage elder and artisan who worked with the Smithsonian on Native American collections. My mother was fortunate to learn finger weaving from her before Maudie passed away.
I told the young chap that my mother made my belt, and then he asked me where he could buy one.
Hard to explain to someone unfamiliar with cultural etiquette that the question is rude, but it wasn’t intended in a mean-spirited way. Osage weaving patterns are truly unique, at least until someone discovers a way to mass-produce finger-weaving and our regalia goes the way of the ubiquitous Kokopelli, who is now plastered on coffee mugs and welcome mats.
The idea that something is sacred or immutable is difficult to assess in a world where Van Gogh’s The Starry Night can be purchased on a canvas tote bag.
But the costumes I’ve found on the internet are as far a cry from traditional regalia (at least—as far as I can tell) as is Pocahontas’ off-the-shoulder mini-dress in Disney’s cartoon. Some get-ups are laughable, like the “Indian Princess” garb posted on the Toys-R-Us website (posted here). The sleeveless dress features fringe under the bust and hem, which falls into four V-shapes. But the kicker is the high-heeled boots festooned with fake fur—boots with pointy toes and tapered heels—just what you need for gathering roots and berries.
Truth is that when I was little we were poor and my mother made our costumes using construction paper and crayons. A favorite was a rabbit outfit: my three sisters and I would wear hooded sweatshirts with paper bunny ears safety-pinned to the hood and a cotton ball stuck to our bum.
And once my mother made paper headbands and with paper feathers and we went trick-or-treating dressed as Indians. Or so we thought. Today we know better. Our regalia was made lovingly by hand, item by item, from the calico shirts to the ribbon-work shawls, and is safely stored, waiting for the proper time and place to dress appropriately and respectfully. And it won’t be Halloween.