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These costumes objectify Native American women. Retailers won’t stop selling them.

After Yandy pulled a Handmaid’s Tale-inspired costume following backlash, activists want to know why it won’t do the same for indigenous women.

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A woman in a Native American headdress. Many indigenous groups have said their attire, especially ones with religious significance, should not be sold for public consumption.
A woman in a Native American headdress. Cultural appropriation on Halloween, at music festivals, and other occasions has been increasingly called out in recent years.
Getty Images

The online retailer Yandy quickly pulled a Halloween costume from its website on September 20 after critics said it made light of rape. Clearly inspired by the dystopian novel and TV series The Handmaid’s Tale, Yandy’s “Brave Red Maiden” costume resembles the outfits women forced into concubinage wear in writer Margaret Atwood’s fictional hellscape. There’s just one notable difference: Yandy reinterpreted the floor-length robe that handmaids wear as a body-hugging minidress, eroticizing a garment many fans of the book and TV show associate with the sexual abuse of women.

“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 said in a statement. “This is unfortunate, as it was not our intention on any level.”

Likely to avoid a copyright infringement suit, Yandy’s controversial red number does not directly reference The Handmaid’s Tale, but it looks enough like the outfits women wear on the series to leave no doubt about its inspiration. While the retailer quickly pulled the offensive knockoff, Yandy’s critics argue that the company has routinely ignored the plight of a real-life group of women often subject to abuse: Native Americans.

They say Yandy, and outfitters like Party City and Spirit Halloween, sell costumes that sexually objectify indigenous women. In fact, Yandy has an entire collection of ensembles described as “sexy Indian” or “sexy Pocahontas” looks. Also known as “Pocahottie” costumes, these getups are a stereotypical and provocative take on Native dress. With fringe and feathers, the frocks are hiked up to the thighs, low-cut, or belly-baring.

The ensembles disregard not only the struggles of indigenous women historically but also the fact that today, Native American women experience high rates of sexual assault, often perpetrated by non-Native men. Outraged that Yandy pulled a costume linked to the oppression of fictional white women while ignoring Native women’s very real oppression, more than 8,000 people have signed a petition asking Yandy to remove its “sexy Indian” collection.

The hashtag #CancelYandy is circulating on Twitter, and a small group of protesters recently demonstrated outside Yandy’s corporate office in Phoenix. These efforts aren’t new. Native American scholars, organizations, and individuals have described these costumes as harmful for years.

Like sports mascots, they say, these costumes make caricatures of indigenous peoples. They portray them as mythological princesses and maidens rather than contemporary Americans facing overlapping forms of oppression — environmental racism, police violence, and sexual exploitation. Yet “Pocahottie” styles continue to be sold.

The backlash to “Pocahottie” costumes is about far more than Halloween

An online search for Native American costumes reveals that hundreds of retailers sell these ensembles. Often labeled “Indian maiden” or “Indian princess” costumes, they also sometimes bear the names of women like Pocahontas or Sacagawea or of tribes like the Cherokee. They come in straight sizes and plus sizes; they’re available for men, kids, toddlers, and babies. Frankly, they’re everywhere.

Native Americans like Zoe Dejecacion are well aware of this fact. In September, the San Diego makeup artist started the petition to get Yandy to remove its inventory of Native-style costumes. She told me that the brand stands out because it immediately pulled its Brave Red Maiden costumes after complaints that they were insensitive, while ignoring earlier concerns about its “sexy Indian” collection.

Last year, Yandy executives told Cosmopolitan that the company had made $150,000 on its Native American line, one of its most popular. It has no plans to scrap the costumes unless “it gets to the point where there is, I guess, significant demonstrations or it gets to a point of contentiousness that maybe is along the lines of the Black Lives Matter movement,” Jeff Watton, now Yandy’s co-CEO, told Cosmo.

Yandy did not respond to requests for comment from Vox about the current petition to pull the costumes, but Dejecacion said she considers the retailer’s response, or lack thereof, “a slap in the face.”

“We [Native Americans] are not worth more than $150,000 to them,” she said. “The fictional costumes have been pulled, but these costumes that are meant to show real, living people are still being sold. These costumes paint Native American history like it’s part of a fairy tale. But we’re real people. We’re still here.”

Starting the petition is one way for Dejecacion to show the retailer that indigenous peoples have a voice and won’t tolerate costumes that erase their reality. She points to the story of Pocahontas to make her argument. Glamorized by Disney and sexualized by a slew of retailers, Pocahontas was a child when she first encountered the English, who later kidnapped and raped her, according to the Mattaponi tribe’s oral history.

Sacagawea, another mythologized Native woman, was also kidnapped and sexually exploited. Her French “husband,” Toussaint Charbonneau, reportedly purchased Sacagawea when she was a young teen and regarded her as his slave. (He bought other indigenous girls too.) The grim true stories of Pocahontas and Sacagawea are disregarded by costumes that frame them as sexy or mythical “Indian princesses.”

“These costumes are taking our real stories, twisting them, and sexualizing them, and furthering the dehumanization of Native women,” Dejecacion said.

Dani Miller of St. Paul, Minnesota, started the hashtag #CancelYandy because she had similar concerns. Of Dakota ancestry, she said that Halloween and Thanksgiving are particularly trying times for indigenous peoples due to how they’re represented during these occasions, but she acknowledged that Native Americans are dehumanized year-round — whether as mascots, at parties with racist themes, or in society generally.

Miller said the costumes intersect with the colonialism, imperialism, and erasure indigenous peoples face on a global level. She calls Yandy’s decision to yank the Brave Red Maiden costumes while keeping its “sexy Indian” collection in place “hypocrisy.”

“We need a paradigm shift in general,” she said. “We need people to stop normalizing these costumes. They create an exotic ‘other’ for people who are not white. People are making a choice; they are participating in upholding colonialism by purchasing these costumes. They’re reinforcing the fetishization of indigenous women without our consent. It sets up a slippery slope to be dehumanized and invisible-ized.”

Miller also takes issue with the idea that the opposition to Native American costumes and mascots stems from a new trend toward political correctness. She references books like 2015’s The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America or 1992’s The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions that examined pressing issues in the lives of indigenous women years before the #MeToo movement. Additionally, blogs like Native Appropriations and books like #Notyourprincess: Voices of Native American Women have countered stereotypical representations of Native people in popular culture.

“This has been a movement,” Miller said. “It’s not going away.”

Native mascots and costumes affect the psyches of indigenous peoples

Fifteen years have passed since Emmy Scott saw one of her white high school classmates walk down the hall in buckskin and fringe, but she still remembers how the encounter made her feel.

“It was one of those spirit days, and it was supposed to be like cowboy day,” she said. “I went to a majority-white school but lived on the reservation. I saw this girl dressed in one of those costumes. It made me upset to my stomach, but I wasn’t confident enough to either confront her or bring it up to the administration.”

Now a law student at Michigan State University, Scott has grown more outspoken. As a college student in North Dakota, she said she took part in a lawsuit about the state’s embrace of Native mascots. More recently, she has taken to Facebook to tell her law school classmates to skip the “Indian maiden” costumes, although she faced opposition after making the request, she said. She’s also tweeted about the Yandy controversy.

“The costumes themselves — they’re the ultimate deprivation of agency,” she said. “What you’re trying to do is achieve a Native look while removing the Native voice.”

The anguish she felt after seeing a white classmate dressed in such a costume isn’t unique to her. Scholarly research on stereotypical depictions of indigenous peoples, such as sports mascots and Pocahontas costumes, found that they lowered the self-esteem of Native American children. These portrayals remind them of the narrow lens through which others see them, adversely affecting their self-image. This is especially troubling given that Native American youth have high rates of suicide compared to juveniles from other groups.

Scott said Native sports mascots and costumes contribute to these alarming trends by denying indigenous peoples their humanity. Mascots essentially equate Native Americans with animals, she said, while hypersexualized Halloween costumes silence indigenous women, framing them as fictionalized characters.

“We’re living people,” Scott said. “We may be your neighbors. We may go to school with you, and you don’t even associate that we’re human beings. That’s the issue. It’s a form of othering that’s kind of insidious.”

Scott, who is of Ho-Chunk, Spokane, and Arikara heritage, said that people who sell and buy Native-style costumes ignore the religious significance of the ensembles. She dances at powwows and receives each piece of regalia she wears for the events during religious ceremonies. The designs and colors she wears have been customized, and the eagle feathers she’s given are considered so sacred that they’re not allowed to touch the ground.

Yet mass retailers sell the feathers as if they have no spiritual significance, she said. Meanwhile, Native American students have had to fight to wear eagle feathers at graduation ceremonies, and indigenous peoples have had to overcome barriers imposed by the US government to practice their religions.

“We’re not in a place where we’re able to fully wear our religious items in school, and yet non-Natives can wear them for fun,” Scott said. “The underlying messages [of the costumes] are, ‘You’re a bunch of savages, and everything you have is up for grabs. You don’t own your land. You can’t own your body. You have no rights.”

Since Native Americans have painstakingly explained why the ensembles are “more than just costumes” and affect their everyday lives, Scott contends that consumers should know that it’s wrong to dress up as another race for Halloween or any other occasion. In addition to Native American costumes, ensembles that appropriate Mexican and Romani dress have faced criticism in recent years. Blackface controversies tend to surface around Halloween as well.

But over the past decade, poster campaigns such as “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” have tried to educate the public about why racial drag is wrong. Given the efforts of activists to teach the public about cultural appropriation, Scott said retailers can no longer claim ignorance of the issue as an excuse.

“They know it’s wrong. They understand that it’s harmful,” she said. “But because it makes them money, they don’t care.”

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