News / Winnipeg

'Offensiveness for profit': Spirit Halloween won't pull indigenous costumes

The University of Manitoba’s head of native studies is tired of exploitative Halloween costumes being sold in local stores.

The “Reservation Royalty” and “Little Chief Native American” costumes at Spirit Halloween.

The “Reservation Royalty” and “Little Chief Native American” costumes at Spirit Halloween.

Trick or treat – or cultural appropriation?

For far too long, Halloween has entailed a mix of all three, according to indigenous activists.

After hearing Spirit Halloween, an international costume outlet with three stores in Winnipeg, refused to stop selling indigenous-themed costumes, Dr. Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair said, “they should be ashamed of their actions. Period.”

“Spirit of Halloween is choosing ignorance and offensiveness for profit, instead of a historical relationship with indigenous people that’s respectful and ethical,” said Sinclair, who is the head of native studies at the University of Manitoba.

“(The costumes) are not going away because North America is invested in the oppression and misrepresentation of indigenous peoples. It’s part of the fabric of Canada and the United States,” he said. “For 150 years, and even longer in some areas, we’ve been invested in hatred instead of peace and these kind of costumes exemplify that.”

'Proud of our costume selection'

In an emailed statement, Spirit Halloween said they won’t be removing indigenous-themed costumes from store shelves this year, nor do they have plans to do so in the future.

Their website catalogue lists a range of indigenous costumes for all ages — from a fringed dress and feathered head piece called “Reservation Royalty,” to a toddler’s “Little Chief Native American” costume, complete with headdress, bow and arrow.

“Since 1983, at Spirit Halloween, we have offered a wide and balanced range of Halloween costumes that are inspired by, celebrate and appreciate numerous cultures, make believe themes and literary figures,” the statement reads. “While we respect the opinion of those who are opposed to the sale of any cultural or historical costumes, we are proud of our costume selection for men, women and children.”

Sadie-Phoenix Lavoie, a University of Winnipeg student from Sagkeeng First Nation, said she was angered by Spirit Halloween's language choices. 

"I don’t understand what they’re trying to ‘celebrate.’ Celebrate colionalism? Celebrate putting indigenous peoples onto reserves? Celebrating assimilation? Celebrating residential schools?" she said. "There’s no appreciation when you are twisting the image and the portrayal from a colonial perspective that does not appreciate indigenous people or their culture."

Students 'know better' than to wear indigenous costumes

Radean Carter, spokeswoman for the Winnipeg School Division, said there are no rules explicitly banning indigenous costumes from their schools, but the division considers cultural sensitivity paramount.

“We do so much education around cultural awareness, human rights and inclusiveness. It would be really surprising if any of our students actually wanted to wear that kind of costume,” Carter said.

“Children are smarter than Spirit of Halloween. Children know better,” Sinclair said. “It’s people who don’t know better that wear these kinds of offensive costumes.”

Pembina Trails School Division's superintendent Ted Fransen said they "have never faced a situation where we had to take a stance" on indigenous costumes. 

"Our schools celebrate diversity and there are many inclusive events taking place all year.  We pride ourselves on being respectful of others," he said in an email.

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