In early October, Métis artist and activist Zoey Roy called for a boycott of costume superstore Spirit Halloween because of its collection of Indigenous apparel. Roy gave Spirit Halloween a deadline of October 25 to pull costumes such as “Reservation Royalty,” “Wolf Dancer,” “Feathered Chief” and the like from its shelves.
Today that deadline has come and gone, and Spirit Halloween’s corporate office has said the costumes will remain. “We have not directed any of our stores to remove Indigenous-themed costumes from our shelves, nor do we plan to have these costumes removed in the future,” said spokesperson Lisa Barr in a statement she shared with FLARE.
The statement continues: “Understanding certain sensitivities, we always strive to present our costumes in a responsible and respectful manner. 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.”
A quick scan of Spirit Halloween’s website today reveals at least 61 Indigenous-inspired ensembles.
Roy, based in Saskatoon, says she became aware of the costumes when she was searching for matching Halloween outfits with her family. Roy and her 14-year-old niece were at their local Spirit Halloween, trying on pug dog masks, when she spotted a buckskin-style kid’s costume with a beaded headband.
— Zoey Pricelys Roy (@therealzoeyroy) October 9, 2016
That’s when Roy decided to find the store manager and tell her the costume was upsetting. But instead of engaging in a conversation, she says the manager promptly escorted her out.
“A lot of people don’t have access to their own culture, and they can have complications with identity issues as a result,” Roy says. “So you look for yourself wherever you can, and if you can’t find a proper representation anywhere, you may end up going to some dark places.”
Roy says she voiced her concern because she wanted to be a good role model to her niece. “I kindly asked the owner to remove the costumes. I wasn’t trying to make a scene. I just let her know that offering that kind of stuff for sale was problematic, especially given Saskatoon’s large Indigenous population.”
Instead, Roy was met with words she felt were quite hurtful. “The manager said, ‘Well, you were just trying on pug masks—don’t you think it could offend pug owners if you wore those?’”
“Likening my upset about costumes that offend an entire race to the owners of a particular dog breed wasn’t right,” says Roy. “We can’t compartmentalize racism for one day just because it’s Halloween.”
After Roy announced her boycott, Gerald Lemcke, the owner of the Spirit Halloween stores in Saskatoon, said he removed the costumes—a decision he made despite instructions to do otherwise from Spirit Halloween’s head office. “We did it consciously just to make sure there are no issues, and it is degrading, and we make sure we’re aware of those issues,” he told the Saskatoon Star Phoenix.
While Lemcke may have successfully removed the costumes from his stores, the same couldn’t be said for Kim Peters, a Nebraska-based manager at the chain, who tried to remove dozens of Indigenous-themed costumes from her stores this year, but had to return them to shelves after being ordered to do so by Spirit Halloween.
This isn’t the first time frustration has been voiced over culturally insensitive costumes. Just a few weeks before Roy’s boycott, Niigaan Sinclair, head of the University of Manitoba’s native studies department, spoke out about the offensive stereotypes such costumes can encourage. And two weeks following Roy’s boycott, a group of Laurentian University students petitioned the owner of a Spirit Halloween in Sudbury, Ont., to remove those same costumes, even going as far as to reach out to federal and provincial ministers.
“It’s the same story told every year for as long as I can remember,” Sinclair told CBC News.
And it actually is. If we look back to October 2014, Mary Swain asked costume outlet Halloween Alley in Winnipeg to remove its “Pocahottie” costume, saying “that’s my culture; it’s not a costume.” And a year later, Stacey Marshall Tabor, a Mi’kmaq woman from the Millbrook First Nation, asked Halloween Central in Truro, N.S., to remove its First Nations-themed outfits. “People in this day and age need to realize that we are not costumes,” she said.
In both those instances, Halloween Alley and Halloween Central pulled the costumes off their shelves. Halloween Alley even apologized.
FLARE followed up with Roy about what she’s planning to do in light of Spirit Halloween’s refusal to remove the costumes. “I plan to continue the conversation to raise consciousness among Canadians,” she says. “All people deserve humanity, and they deserve to be proud of who they are and where they come from. Costume retailers shouldn’t capitalize off our oppression.”
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