As I sat in the schoolyard of my kids’ school in Berlin last year, a blond boy wearing a feather headdress walked past me. Then another one. Then several girls in buckskin dresses with face paint and headbands. It was Karneval – a dress-up day – and these costumes made my stomach lurch. White kids dressing up as ‘Indians’? Haven’t we already figured out that that’s not ok?
We had left our home in Toronto to spend a year in Berlin so this was our first Karneval and we didn’t know what to expect. In the end, the kids said it was just like Halloween but without the candy and the costumes didn’t have to be scary.
It looked pretty scary to me, however. And before I even noticed all the feather headdresses, I had been nearly run over by a mob of cowboys, Jedi knights, ninjas and police officers brandishing every manner of gun, sword and sabre. They shot and slashed at each other. They aimed at innocent bystanders. I witnessed one pretend suicide. My reaction was one of deep distaste. ‘No weapons!’ was the Halloween rule at the kids’ Toronto school where pirate swords and ninja nunchucks are confiscated by teachers and returned to parents at the end of the day with a look of righteous admonishment. Here in Berlin there was the unmistakable whiff of caps being shot off in the school yard. I felt like marching directly to the principal’s office and giving her a piece of my mind. How could they condone this level of violence?
Then a new wave of armed children swept past me and I saw the absolute glee on their faces as they chased and ambushed and shot each other. I decided to watch for a little while and take this in rather than try to stop it. I sat surrounded by the happy mayhem and started to relax. This was a good lesson for me. Things are different in Germany and even when I see something that strikes me as wrong, perhaps I should seek to understand it before taking action. I toned down the indignation.
When I looked around again I could see that there was no question this was just a game. The things in their hands were just toys. I thought of the tragic stories you hear about kids with real guns and the real damage they do, either intentionally or by accident. But that only happens in places where real guns are available. These kids can’t holster their cap guns and wander into a department store to buy real weapons and ammunition. Here, a kid with a gun isn’t going to be mistaken for a shooter and get one between the eyes from a police sniper. While we Canadians aren’t nearly as well-armed as our southern neighbours the proximity of a gun-mad culture has rubbed off on us and we’ve whisked toys out of children’s hands in response. But in Berlin gun play is still play. Shooting isn’t harming and as I watched the kids I began to see how obvious this was. There was no fear on the faces of the children who were taking bullets or being de-limbed by light sabers. The popping of caps was echoed by laughter, not screams.
I had walked into the schoolyard and been horrified to see both feather headdresses and an arsenal of weapons. But in a matter of moments, my horror at the toy weapons had fallen away. If I sat and watched some more, would my discomfort at seeing white children dressed up as ‘Indians’ fade too?
They’re just kids in costumes. And one could argue that they were not really dressing up as First Nations people; they were dressing up as well-known characters from German storybooks like Winnetou from Karl May’s books set in the American West. Couldn’t the kids dress up as their favourite storybook character? There were plenty of kids running around as movie characters, mostly from Star Wars. But the Star Wars universe isn’t real – it’s made up. Jedi knights and sentient droids don’t exist. But Native Americans and First Nations people do exist. The storybook story felt awfully thin.
I looked around and put the costumes into different categories. First there were the characters that don’t exist in real life: mermaids, Jedis, zombies, skeletons (yes, I know we have skeletons but they don’t usually walk around on their own like that). The second obvious group are animals: cats, rabbits, tigers. Fine. Then there were the kids dressed up as someone doing a particular job: police officer, pilot, cowboy/girl, pirate, flamenco dancer, soccer player. The princesses could arguably go here if one allows that inherited positions are also jobs. The last category were costumes that depict a whole people. There was only one example of that category on the schoolyard: Indians.
It’s ok to dress up as things that are not real or as animals or as a person doing a job. But dressing up in a costume that depicts an entire people – invariably an essentialized, stereotypical version of a people – that’s not ok. And the reason it’s not ok, even on this schoolyard in Europe where there weren’t any First Nations people around to offend, is because it perpetuates a view of indigenous people as stuck in a moment of time – in this case, the moment of westward expansion of European settlers into North America’s central plains. It erases the vast diversity of indigenous cultures and disregards their presence in, and contributions to, contemporary life. It allows these German kids to believe that indigenous people are just characters from the past or from storybooks; all sharing the same look and pretty much the same outfit.
I stayed quiet in the school yard. I didn’t march into the principal’s office and demand that the toy weapons be confiscated and that the mini-Indians be reprimanded and made to change into their gym clothes. But I did come away thinking that, for me, dress-up day had turned out to be much more than it first appeared. It had taught me something very unexpected: that a realistic looking plastic rifle is less dangerous than a soft leather headband gilded with feathers.