Appropriation (?) of the Month: Playing Dress-up — 'Cowboys and Indians'

"cowboys and Indians”

By Hannah Turner

On January 29th , 2013, a group of friends celebrated a birthday party at a local bar in Toronto, Ontario. As several major publications later reported (including the National Post), the group of about 15-30 people dressed up as “Cowboys and Indians,” complete with full headdresses and war paint. 

This example raises important questions about how we deal with public displays of appreciation versus racism, and how critical citizens become engaged in open and honest conversations about these kinds of Indigenous appropriations.

A survey of any college Halloween party Facebook page, or a Google search of adult Pocahontas costumes, shows individuals dressed up in a wide range of stereotypical costumes that embody essentialist and mythical views about culture. It’s likely that the partygoers at the Toronto bar had been privy to criticisms of these kinds of cultural appropriations, particularly as these criticisms have been addressed in many popular publications and blogs recently. The Cowboys and Indians party also happened in the wake of the Idle No More campaign, which had jumpstarted a public discussion about Aboriginal rights in Canada.

While this party in Toronto was not initially covered in news publications, once a group of outraged people responded to the partygoers’ actions through Twitter, a series of debates in local Toronto news outlets was spurred. The Tweeters commented on the party as it was happening, and for a short while intended to “#boycott” the bar that this group attended. The event, and the Twitter outrage that ensued, even made Reddit.

This party was publicly criticized as outright racist. But as George Nicholas has recently asked; What is the line between “inspiration and copying, artistic license and mischief, or respectful borrowing and harmful appropriation?” (See the IPinCH blog post). Contemporary culture is indeed based on borrowings and remix, especially in the context of a ubiquitous Internet. But how do we negotiate between intended (and thus appreciative) remix and dressing up for a party?

In this case, the Twitter “protest” resulted in some individuals going down to the bar to have a conversation with the group of friends about the problem of playing “Cowboys and Indians” (Toronto Star). As Now Toronto reported, one of these individuals felt that this moment of ignorance was an important one, and saw it as a way to take advantage of the situation and have a peaceful conversation about the problem of embodying stereotypes.

The appropriation and representation through embodied practices of “dress up” and “play” by non-Native individuals has been a topic of recent criticism (see Collier-Wise 2010; Maxson 2012; Moller 2012). Particularly prominent as a cultural movement in Europe (Wernitznig 2007), it has been argued that “playing Indian” in these contexts conceals the ongoing colonial violence that positions Indigenous peoples everywhere as continually disappearing in order to construct a White subject (Maxson 2012). Cultural appropriation appears in many activities, from dressing up on Halloween to the naming of entire sports franchises. In addition to the academic literature, popular outlets such as blogs have addressed these issues in appropriate and nuanced ways (Native Appropriations 2013).

Are all appropriations harmful and hurtful? Where do we draw the line between appropriation and appreciation? For example, Thanksgiving celebrations in the United States often involve dressing up and acting out early settler and Aboriginal relationships, and there have been attempts to de-stabilize this narrative as well (Loewen 2007). Germany has also had a “long standing fascination with the American West and Native American culture” (Hesse 1998). The Karl May festival in Germany, for example, is a festival that reenacts an early vision of the North American “West” popularized through Karl May’s adventure novels (Hess 1998). This festival now sees Indigenous engagement through film and performance (see the recent call for submissions).

The Canadian musical group, A Tribe Called Red, have been particularly active on this issue, recently petitioning to convince a local sport’s team, the “Nepean Redskins” to change their name, and they have also targeted the “Ottawa Tomahawks.” Ian Campeau, one of the group’s members, posted a call for support on Facebook and Twitter last year to the Redskins, which has yet to be formally addressed (See the homepage of the team). However, the Ottawa Tomahawks did recently agree to a name change after recently unveiling their poorly chosen name in February of this year (National Post 2013).

I have proposed that this example of the Cowboys and Indians party in Toronto touches on some fundamental concerns about appropriation versus appreciation. Was this dress-up party less harmful than, for example, the yearly celebrations of the National Thanksgiving holiday in the United States? Or is it these “everyday” experiences of racism that facilitate the continued invisibility of harms committed against Aboriginal peoples?

As Hess has argued, “today the intersection and mixing of cultures through tourism, immigration, colonialism, and wars has blurred the clearly defined boundaries of cultural identity and history”  (Hess 1998: 3). Was the party in Toronto an innocent example? When we consider that, this summer, thousands of people will cheer for sports teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and the Cleveland Indians, many will don their “Hipster Headresses” at music festivals, and next Halloween and Thanksgiving there will be more than a few “Pocahotties” – a line should be drawn.

Photo: A photo from the “cowboys and Indians” party at Parkdale’s The Rhino Restaurant and Bar on Saturday night. Twitter (@lisanbz) via National Post



But Why Can’t I Wear a Hipster Headdress?” 2013. Native Appropriations. Accessed May 13. .

Collier-Wise, Kelsey. 2010. “Identity Theft: A Search for Legal Protections of Intangible Indigenous Cultural Property.” Great Plains Natural Resources Journal 13: 85.

Maxson, Natalie. 2012. “Tee Peez, Totem Polz, and the Spectre of Indianness as Other”. Thesis. 

Moller, Franzisca E. 2012. “Native Spiritual Appropriation?: Words of Power, Relations of Power - Creating Stories & Identities”. Thèse ou Mémoire numérique / Electronic Thesis or Dissertation. June 1. .

Open Letter to the PocaHotties and Indian Warriors This Halloween.” 2013. Native Appropriations. Accessed May 13. .

Ottawa ‘TomaHawks’ Basketball Team Changes Name after Outcry.” 2013. National Post. Accessed May 13. .

Wernitznig, Dagmar. 2007. Europe’s Indians, Indians in Europe: European Perceptions and Appropriations of Native American Cultures from Pocahontas to the Present. University Press of America.

Hesse, Gary. 1998. Introduction to Exhibition “Bavarian by Law and German Indians” curated by Andrea Robbins and Max Becher. Contact Sheet.

Further Reading and Resources

Beard-Moose, Christina Taylor. 2009. Public Indians, Private Cherokees?: Tourism and Tradition on Tribal Ground. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Bird, Michael Yellow. 2004. “Cowboys and Indians: Toys of Genocide, Icons of Colonialism.” Wicazo Sa Review 19 (2): 33–48

Columbus Day, Thanksgiving – Unbiassing Social Studies. Accessed May 19.  

Green, Rayna. 1988. “The Tribe Called Wannabee: Playing Indian in America and Europe.” Folklore 99 (1): 30–55.

I’m An Indian Too. The 1491s. 2012. 

Kierstead, Zandra. 2006. “Contesting the Construction of the Black Female Body in Popular Culture.” Accessed May 11th, 2013.

Loewen, James W. 2007. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. Touchstone Press.

McGrath, Ann. 2001. “Playing Colonial: Cowgirls, Cowboys, and Indians in Australia and North America.” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 2 (1).

Playing Indian: Endemic Issue of Indigenous Stereotyping Back In The Spotlight.” 2013. Intercontinental Cry. Accessed May 2. /.

Thanksgiving Mourning Class. Accessed May 19. 


'Dress up in Cambridge'

Also see for a similar occurrence in Cambridge, UK.