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Jessica Deer

Jessica Deer

Jessica Deer

Why your one day as a ‘sexy Indian maiden’ is dehumanizing Add to ...

Jessica Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist and youth leader from Kahnawake.

Sitting down at a sports bar on Saturday, I watched as the Florida State Seminole’s mascot galloped to centre field with a flaming spear in full regalia. Then the camera cut to a Clemson Tigers football player mock shooting an arrow with a bow, a sellout crowd performs the tomahawk chop, and my phone buzzes with notifications from racist and sexist online trolls.

That moment of disdain was just the latest of a Halloween weekend filled campaigning against offensive “Pocahottie“ and “Indian Warrior” costumes.

This year, the Kahnawake Youth Forum (KYF) collaborated with Missing Justice /Centre for Gender Advocacy by dispatching a small group of volunteers to retailers across Montreal, encouraging them to remove the discriminatory merchandise from their shelves.

While some stores were receptive, things didn’t turn too well after one hostile manager called police livid with our peaceful act of dissent, resulting in threats of criminal charges. The crime? Tacking stickers, which could be peeled off, on nearly two dozen “Sexy Indian Maiden,” “Wild at Heart,” and “Eskimo Kisses” costumes and accessories.

While thwarting vandalism charges by purchasing $1,503.65 worth of polyester fringe, fur and feathered products was not the ideal outcome, there’s a silver lining: A handful of offensive costumes are off the shelves of at least one Montreal store.

More importantly, a seed has been planted in the consciousness of more Canadians about cultural appropriation, indigenous representations and identity.

In addition to photo scavenger hunts, art-based workshops and presentations, the stickers have been the most successful in helping youth exercise self-determination over their identity and indigenous representations. It’s a type of culture jamming the Youth Forum has been doing for the past three years as a part of a cultural appropriation awareness campaign.

Even during a time of reconciliation, indigenous people are still faced with having to defend their identities from being mocked, used as a trend or form of entertainment every single day.

The representations in sports, on television, on the runway or costumes on the shelves of a Halloween store shape much of what people know and think about us.

As they are highly inaccurate and dehumanizing portrayals that are rooted in colonial ideology, peeling away the layers of misinformation they create isn’t as easy as removing a sticker from plastic packaging.

While Canadians who wear these costumes often do not have racist or harmful intentions, their actions contribute to a larger issue. We’re placed in the realm of cavemen, cave trolls and woodland fairies and that affects how society understands the real social, political and economic issues we face.

Not only do these costumes paint all indigenous people with the same pioneer spaghetti-western-dipped, wagon painting brush, many objectify, victimize and romanticize indigenous women and girls as an “exotic Other.”

While one may think they look supercute as an “Indian Princess,” or “Reservation Royalty” for a fun and harmless evening, they have the privilege to remove that costume at the end of the night.

Indigenous women do not.

We have to deal with ongoing marginalization and the lingering effects of colonization – like a culture that normalizes violence against indigenous women and girls.

Friday’s reaction from the store’s management also demonstrated the extent some Canadians will go when they feel threatened by us no longer being “good little Indians.”

People don’t seem to like when indigenous people are offended. We’re not allowed to be upset about anything.

Resisting my own objectification and dehumanization was viewed as a threat. Vandalism implies deliberate destruction or damage and that was far from what transpired. Our act of defiance used stickers – a harmless piece of paper that can be peeled off the packaging.

Our campaign is meant to provoke, spark dialogue, foster change, and empower.

Education is at the centre and all Canadians can play a small role in promoting that, but I guess sometimes you just have to ruffle a few neon plastic feathers.

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