Dressing Up as Indians

Posted on July 12, 2012


When Princess Liz (as she then was) arrived in Vancouver, she and her significant other were welcomed to a teepee and a phalanx of (presumably) real Indians dressed up as (obviously) fake Indians.  It was 1951.  With revisions to the Indian Act, Canada had just made being culturally-Indian legal that year, and most Indians didn’t actually know what Indians were supposed to look like, any more than anybody else.

So Hollywood Indian images prevailed, even where they made no sense.  There were definitely no teepees indigenous to Vancouver or its environs.  As far as Aboriginal people went, the entire coast was longhouse country.

It would be a while before reality began reasserting itself in terms of culturally-correct representations of Aboriginal people.

A couple of years before Liz’s visit, the provincial voting laws were changed to allow status Indians to vote.  Proud of their enlightenment, the Province staged a photo-op of an Indian casting his vote.  For maximum propaganda purposes, of course, that Indian had to look like an Indian … Isaac Jacob obliged.  I know nothing about Isaac Jacob or his ancestry.  His dress, though, fit and fits Euro-Canadian notions of what Aboriginal people look like.

In 1960, the Vancouver Province newspaper featured a picture of Chief Joe Mathias of Squamish wearing a headdress, horn-rimmed glasses and adjusting a knob on a television set.  The picture was supposed to be ironic or cute, I guess, a juxtaposition of modern and traditional, White-man’s television and Aboriginal costuming.

Of course, such an interpretation would have to ignore the fact that Joe Mathias is himself in dress-up.  Coast Salish chiefs did not wear headdresses or beaded buckskins.

The juxtaposition of a television with a television-version of an Indian is a different kind of irony, perhaps, than intended.

Joe Mathias had been dressing up as an Indian since at least 1950, when he did a photo shoot with a teepee and a 1937 Packard.  Perhaps the photo shoot was intended as a reference to the famous 1905 photo with Geronimo wearing a top hat and sitting in a Locomobile.

The latter photo is generally known as the Geronimo Cadillac photo, and it was taken while Geronimo was still living as a prisoner-of-war of the United States government. 

In the 1960s, other Indian politicians also dressed up as Indians.  For instance, Simon Baker, who added Northwest Coast iconography to his headband just to mix it up.

Why shouldn’t Aboriginal politicians dress up as Indians?  Euro-Canadian politicians do it all the time.  In the 1960s, Prime Minister Diefenbaker got chief’d.  He gave Indians the federal vote in 1960.  Other, modern, much less notable politicians (from an Aboriginal point-of-view) have been chief’d too, but we’ll leave their pictures out.

And if the politicians are doing it, you shouldn’t be surprised that Aboriginal girls sometimes want to princess-up.  Like this picture from a canoe race in North Vancouver in 1962.

Buckskin, head bands and feathers?  Pure Hollywood.  And moccasins would just shred in the damp and pebble beaches of the Northwest Coast.

Reportedly, the head bands appeared in Hollywood movies in order to tie on the wigs that all the White actresses wore while playing Indian dress-up.  Now they are mandatory for all Indian “Princesses.”