Halloween stores starting to get the 'appropriation' message

Halloween costume stores seem to be getting the message about cultural appropriation, but some are still stocking offensive costumes, says an Indigenous social media activist.

However, 'offensive' costumes can still be found, says Indigenous social media activist

Some Spirit Halloween stores carry adult costume outfits with names like 'Reservation Royalty' and 'Indian Warrior.' (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Halloween costume stores seem to be getting the message about cultural appropriation, but some are still stocking offensive costumes, says an Indigenous social media activist.

Chippewa woman Alicia BigCanoe's social media campaign, #IAmNotACostume, has been spreading awareness for several years about how costumes depicting Indigenous stereotypes during Halloween negatively affect First Nations, Métis and Inuit people. 

"[I feel] a little bit of anxiety around [Halloween], especially knowing that children see these images and First Nations, Inuit and Métis children still see themselves being romanticized in these costumes," she said.

However, this year is little different, she said.

"The intensity is not as strong as it has been in previous years. I think that's because of the amount of spotlight that has been put on this issue. It seems that as each year passes more and more folks are starting to ask questions," said BigCanoe, who posts a picture of herself yearly in traditional Indigenous garb, along with her #IAmNotACostume hashtag.

Beginnings of change

Some costume stores say they're doing their best to make sure their costumes are inclusive and don't appropriate from Indigenous and other cultures.

"People want Pocahontas costumes, people want Mexican ponchos, people want stuff that really isn't appropriate," said Alana Sambey, manager of Malabar Limited in downtown Toronto.

In the two years Sambey has been stocking Malabar for Halloween, she said she has actively put a hold on purchasing products that appropriate other cultures.

"People need to recognize that it is in fact culture, not costume," Sambey said.

"I think it's really important that people do not wear for costume or for fun something that is from a culture that is not their own because it dehumanizes that culture," she added.

Malabar Limited in downtown Toronto has made an active effort to eliminate costumes of a disrespectful and culturally appropriating nature from its seasonal stock. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

The manager from the LaSalle, Que., location of Halloween Depot, a corporate chain, told CBC he is not stocking his shelves with costumes that appropriate Indigenous cultures this year.

Across the country in Kelowna, B.C., Deborah Lawless, store manager of Halloween Alley — another line of franchised stores — said her location is also not stocking Indigenous costumes this year, although she noted they have in the past.

"We have a lot of respect for different cultures and this should be a fun time of year for everyone," said Lawless.

Not all stores agree

In Peterborough, Ont., a staff member from the local costume shop K&C Costumes confirmed by phone the shop carries "Native American" costumes for men, women and children.

CBC called another store in Vancouver to inquire whether it was stocking Indigenous costumes.

"We sell everything. We're a costume store," said the manager of the Vancouver Costume Store.

A staff member from a local costume store in Guelph, Ont., said it carries Indigenous costume items, including tomahawks, spears, and bows and arrows.

We sell everything. We're a costume store.- Vancouver costume store manager

Algonquin teen Maddie Resmer said she and her friends went to a Spirit Halloween store in Kitchener, Ont., in September.

There, the 17-year-old found six full costumes based on Indigenous stereotypes that left her both enraged and heartbroken.

The costumes were labelled with the names "Native American Princess," "Indian Warrior" and "Noble Warrior," but Resmer said the worst offender, "Reservation Royalty," left a particularly bad impression on her.

"No Native child wishes to spend their life on the reservation that imprisoned their ancestors, and yet they have no choice. They boil their drinking water, they walk 35 kilometres to get to school, they watch their friends, family, community members fade away into alcoholism, abuse, and suicide — this is the way of the Canadian reservation," said Resmer.

"There is no 'reservation royalty.'"

Franchisee's choice

A pop-up location for a different Spirit Halloween location in downtown Toronto displayed no Indigenous costumes on the walls.

The store manager, who said she has been told by her head office not to identify herself to media, confirmed to CBC the store would not be stocking its shelves with Indigenous-based costumes this season.

Another staff member told CBC the store had trouble in the past with displays of Indigenous-based costumes being repeatedly torn down.

Spirit Halloween's head office was not available for comment by phone and did not respond to email requests by CBC about the costumes found in the Kitchener location.

However, it did send CBC a statement in 2016 about the Indigenous costumes they carry.

"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," a spokesperson from the company said in a statement.

"We have not directed any of our Spirit Halloween stores to remove Indigenous-themed costumes from our shelves, nor do we plan to have these costumes removed."

Safety issue

The cultural appropriation of Indigenous cultures carries with it the weight of colonization and discrimination, said BigCanoe, adding it makes Indigenous people feel unsafe in their traditional homelands.

"It's very upsetting to not always feel safe in these homelands where our ancestors have been for 10,000 years plus, because there are these sexualized images of our women. At night we don't feel safe going around.

"It's very disrespectful, it's hurtful and harmful — we need to be valued members of society," she added.


Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with CBC since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences.

With files from CBC Manitoba