Contributing a Native American Pocahontas ‘fancy dress’ costume to the Museum, Ruby Rae explores how the Columbian Exchange led to near eradication of cultures and ideals, and objectifying these concepts as a costume only enforces the victory of the colonisers and exacerbates a negative, historically selective concept of the Anthropocene.
Museum of the Anthropocene: “Indian Squaw Pocahontas Costume Ladies Sexy Fancy Dress Sexy”
“History is written by the victors.” This statement would explain the erasure of Native American history to what we see it as today; games of cowboys and Indians, names for baseball teams, the concept of undeveloped ‘Savage’ nations. The very nature of the Columbian Exchange led to the near eradication of an important set of cultures and ideals; objectifying these concepts as a costume only enforces the victory of the colonisers and exacerbates the concept of a bad and historically selective Anthropocene. Ask yourself now — how much were you taught at school about the Native American genocide in comparison to either World War?
During the Columbian Exchange, the door was opened to exploitation, slavery and environmental degradation, with the white man heralding the way for ‘development’ and ‘civilisation’. In a sense, the acts of Christopher Columbus and co. prove a tidy analogue for human-environment relationships as we know them; making a perceived tiny impact in one area that changes the world as we know it for years to come.
The concept of fashion alone is one that tests the environment. The world now consumes around 80 billion pieces of clothing every year, with issues ranging from the use of thirsty crops to chemical damage from dyes, not to mention the huge human rights issues that plague the sweatshops of major corporations. The want for things has surpassed the want for a healthy and long-lasting habitat — and many are already paying the price. The combined damage of this, and the degradation of the local environment, is being used as a weapon against Native Americans. The costume is just one way that direct environmental damage affects Native American communities and is echoed around the world.
In a political sense this item is damaging to women in particular; Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than white women, with 86% of perpetrators being non-native. As the name for this item reinforces, this costume is ‘Sexy’ (debatably) in an incredibly damaging sense; using traditional stereotypes set by white colonisers paints native women to be wild, savage and needing to be tamed. Mirroring the ‘Born sexy yesterday’ trope in modern cinema, women are romanticised to be profoundly naïve yet inexplicably wise; attractive and typically feminine, as well as needing to be guided by a strong, arguably forceful male presence. Whether it be the faux suede, fringing or lace-up elements of this garment, the imagery of a tamed animal is there — and I doubt that this is merely a design choice.
Culturally, the use of costume feigns any kind of nuanced conversation that otherwise could be had in celebration of native culture or tradition. Instead, a non-native appropriation of cultures they perceive to be attractive, and donning them when it suits them, seems eerily similar to the problems of performative activism.
This costume reveals many layers of the human effect on the environment, and I don’t know which is more worrying – its global relevance, or its availability at the low, low price of £9.
“Indian Squaw Pocahontas Costume Ladies Sexy Fancy Dress Sexy” was contributed by Ruby Rae: Since graduating from UEA, Ruby has become involved in local projects such as setting up Greenpeace Norwich and running social media for other local protest groups. They enjoyed this module as it allowed them to connect the human and environmental in a way that is not frequently seen elsewhere.
A more honest view of Native American dress is provided at Nationalclothing.org, with this example of Cherokee traditional costume in 1840-2019 based on a lecture by Tonia Hogner Weavel, Cherokee artisan and cultural figure.