“Reservation Royalty,” “Huron Honey,” “Naughty Navajo,” “Pocahottie”—two years after Cathy Walker, Sigrid Kneve, Carrie Lester and their lawyer, Natalia Crowe-Barillas, filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario against Spirit Halloween over their offensive, Indigenous-inspired costumes the retailer has *finally* agreed to do the right thing.
Last month, the women reached a settlement with Spirit Halloween and its parent company, Spencer Gifts. The terms of the settlement are confidential, but one key piece is Spirit’s commitment to removing the costumes from its Ontario stores. Yes, the agreement only applies to one province, but that’s still a significant win, especially since Spirit was initially hoping to simply change costume names, something they asked the women to help them do in a December 2015 meeting.
“They [respondent retailers] think we’re just talking about costumes. We’ve had to deal with so much loss [where] our voices weren’t considered. The settlement brings us one step closer to truth and reconciliation. But it also acknowledges we’re human beings. We have the same rights,” Walker, who is Anishinaabe, said in a press release.
Activists have been calling for an end to these racist and sexist costumes for years. In fact, this isn’t even the first time Spirit Halloween has been called out for similar offenses. Just months after Walker, Kneve and Lester (who has since passed away) filed their complaint in February 2016, Saskatoon-based Métis activist Zoey Roy gave the company an ultimatum: stop selling these costumes, or face a boycott.
The problem lies in the problematic stereotypes that these costumes promote. In the complaint, the women, “alleged that these offensive costumes promote negative and harmful racial stereotypes and sexual stereotypes about Indigenous peoples,” says Crowe-Barillas. “For example, the sale of fake Native headdresses, without a proper understanding of the significance of headdresses and without the input or participation of Indigenous peoples, is degrading and is a form of cultural appropriation. And the hyper-sexualized costumes objectify Indigenous women and girls, who are already some of the most vulnerable and marginalized in society.”
When other activists have reached out to costume sellers in Winnipeg, Calgary, Regina, Sudbury, Ont., Toronto and Truro, NS asking for these ensembles to be pulled from the shelves, they’ve achieved varying degrees of success. Some individual franchise owners have acquiesced, but head offices tend to be resistant—until now. That’s why, even though this settlement doesn’t set a legal precedent and doesn’t apply to all Canadian Spirit Halloween locations, it does signal a promising cultural shift.
“We did this as Indigenous women, as mothers, for the future generations. We felt it was our duty to do this, even if it’s hard,” Kneve, who is Haudenosaunee from Six Nations of the Grand River, said in a press release. “They [respondent retailers] did listen. Did we get everything we wanted? No. But it is a step in the right direction.”
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