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Assignment: Radio is where you'll find news and public affairs content produced by students studying journalism and/or broadcasting at the University of Oklahoma's Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Some of these student-produced news reports focus on issues and events on the OU campus; others have a broader interest.

When Cultural Expression Becomes Inappropriate: Native Halloween Costumes

child in a native american halloween costume
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The idea of “cultural appropriation” and the use of Native American attire made headlines earlier this year after Gov. Mary Fallin’s daughter Christina posted a photo of herself wearing a Native headdress on Instagram. But if you explore any Halloween costume shop this October and there is a good chance you will find Native American costumes, many featuring a feathered headdress.

But this year, some costume manufacturers are experiencing pushback from people that believe the costumes are culturally insensitive.

SahandFard, general manager of the Los Angeles-based Roma Costume, a company that designs and distributes American-made outfits, has noticed some complaints.

“Yeah, people have been calling in,” Fard said. “We have segments on TV shows and the TV shows are okay we have these costumes but they are saying ‘Don’t bring the headdress to the segment because it might come offensive a little bit,’."

Fard says they start designing and manufacturing their costumes over a year in advance and sometimes don’t foresee upcoming trends and movements, like the backlash against Washington, D.C.’s NFL franchise and other sports teams that have historically used Native American mascots.

Some Norman residents believe that it is about time costume companies were pressured to stop producing Native American themed costumes, specifically ones that include the feathered headdress, called a war bonnet.

Warren Queton is a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, and a U.S. military veteran who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The reason I chose to sacrifice and be a part of the military was that I wanted to fulfill an obligation to my tribe and that was to be a warrior, to protect people,” Queton said. “We no longer have warrior societies that we had in the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth century but we have the United States military."

Warren says the war bonnet has a long tradition in Kiowa society, but not as a conventional garment.

It was a trophy and it was captured in a battle probably from a neighboring tribe that used war bonnets in their regalia,” Queton said. “They display the war bonnet as a trophy of a battle than occurred. So it symbolizes a veteran’s deed in battle."

While Queton is concerned about costumes featuring the war bonnet, Fard insists no disrespect intended.

"As we know the definition of a costume is like we’re just trying to be another character,” Fard said. “Either the person is trying to respect the other culture to making fun of the culture. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re trying to make fun of this character or this culture or whatever it may be the costume."

Native American groups insist that regardless of what the intent is, the final product is hurtful.

The heart of the debate is where the line is drawn between cultural appreciation, and cultural appropriation. Cross-cultural sharing like popular turquoise jewelry and Indian tacos happens every day, and is accepted and often celebrated as what makes America special. Queton believes that the difference is in context and the amount of care that is put into getting the details just right.

"Every tribe has a way that they dress and it’s a big part of their cultural identity,” Queton said. “People from other tribes can tell what tribe you are by the way you dress. People invest a lot of money into making their Indian clothes – making it look a certain kind of way wear certain designs whether its beadwork or cloth-ribbon work. We still have a culture that’s very alive and it exists in our Native communities. And we still wear our Indian clothes and we wear our war bonnets, we wear our headdresses, we dance our dances, we sing our songs, but it’s all done with great ceremony."


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Sarah Hurd has worn many hats at KGOU. She worked as Development Assistant, entering pledges and payments. She served as intern for World Views for the Fall 2014 semester, transcribing and webifying interviews. She was also a student in the Radio News class that fall. When Sarah isn’t camping out at the KGOU headquarters she can be found biking around Norman, supporting her favorite local bands and studying for her classes at the OU College of International Studies and Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
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