Last week the online retailer Yandy pulled a sexy "Handmaid's Tale" Halloween costume following public outcry on social media. The outfit, dubbed, "Brave Red Maiden" was immediately pulled and the company issued a formal apology, stating: “Our corporate ideology is rooted in female empowerment, and gender empowerment overall… it has become obvious that our ‘Yandy Brave Red Maiden Costume’ is being seen as a symbol of women’s oppression.”
In the fictional Hulu television series based on the novel by Margaret Atwood, handmaids are held captive, raped and forced to give birth. One twitter user wrote, "there's nothing like fighting the patriarchy by sexualizing a show about misogyny and rape." While the handmaid represents characters who experience sexual violence in a fictional TV show, “Indian Costumes” represent Native women who are experiencing crisis levels of violence in the real world.
Now, Native women are pointing out a clear double standard. The same company has an entire section of Indian costumes with over 40 dehumanizing depictions of Native women including "Native American Seductress," "Sexy Pocahontas" and "Chief's Desire." One product description promises customers they can “be the queen of the tribe in this Cherokee Inspired Hottie costume.”
Where is the outcry?
Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be raped, stalked or abused in their lifetime than any other racial or ethnic group. Eight in 10 Native women will be raped, stalked or abused in their lifetime, and one in three Native women will experience violence every year. While no national database exists, on some reservations Native women are murdered at a rate ten times the national average.
The National Institute of Justice reports that 97 percent of Native female victims “have experienced violence at the hands of at least one interracial perpetrator in their lifetime.”
See Related story: MMIW: The Curiously Different Tales of Violence against Indigenous Women
Native advocates are calling for a boycott until the company removes its Indian costume section with the hashtag #CancelYandy and an online petition. Previous calls for the racist costumes to be removed have been met with a flat no. The company reports it makes $150,000 annually from the Indian costume section and the “Native American Sweetheart” costume is one of its top 10 sellers. Last year, when faced with protests at their headquarters, a company spokesperson stated the costumes “pay homage” to Native Americans. At the time of this publication, Yandy has not replied to a request for comment.
While the company argues that the costumes do not harm Native Americans, extensive public opinion and psychological research states otherwise. Research on the impact of Indian mascots on the mental health and self esteem of Native youth has shown that “stereotypical representations of Native Americans resulted in lower self-esteem, even if the images were labeled as positive.”
The same research showed that exposure to stereotypical and outdated images of Native Americans led non-Native people to be have more prejudice and negative views against Natives, even when the depictions were deemed to be positive or honoring.
A 2010 study on non-Native student support for the Fighting Sioux mascot—a mascot deemed to be honoring Native Americans—at the University of North Dakota, found that non-Native students who “indicated support for Native American mascots actually expressed ignorance of and disdain toward Native Americans.”
The harm of these stereotypes is compounded by the fact that they exist within a complete vacuum of accurate, contemporary and human portrayals of real Native people. The recently released report “Reclaiming Native Truth” found that contemporary Native Americans are erased and invisible in all aspect of U.S. society and “where narratives about Native Americans do exist, they are primarily deficit based and guided by misperceptions, assumptions and stereotypes.” This invisibility, more than any other factor, was found to erode public support for policies meant to address the vast inequities Native Americans face today.
The safety of Native women in the United States hinges on public policy. Due to a complex network of overlapping federal laws and statutes, non-Native perpetrators can commit rape, child abuse, sexual harassment, kidnapping, and even murder on tribal land and the tribe is prohibited from prosecuting them. Congress has the power to close this jurisdictional loophole.
The landmark Violence Against Women Act, that contains a special provision for tribal jurisdiction over domestic violence, is set to expire this week, with congress refusing to vote on a reauthorization bill. A second bill, Savanna’s Act, introduced by Senator Heidi Heitkamp, (D- North Dakota) has not seen congressional action for nearly one year. Named after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind (Dakota), who was kidnapped and murdered in 2017, the bill requires the federal government to track national statistics on missing and murdered indigenous women, but contains no requirement for the federal government (the only law enforcement agency that has jurisdiction over kidnapping and murder on tribal land) to do a better job investigating or prosecuting these crimes.
Last year following similar objections to the offensive outfits, Yandy stated they would only pull the line if it became “too hot of an issue.” So far, public outcry from Native women has not been enough. While women on social media mobilized to discontinue the offensive Handmaid's tale costume, their collective buying power is keeping these dehumanizing depictions of Native women alive and profitable
This fall, while Indian Country is mourning the death of ten year old Ashley Johnson-Barr, reliving the full horror of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind’s murder, protesting Justin Schneider’s sentence to zero jail time after strangling and then ejaculating on an Alaskan Native woman, and still looking for missing Ashley HeavyRunner Loring, non-Native women will likely be dressing up as a “Lusty Native American Maiden” for Halloween.
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