The day before Halloween in 2017, Amanda Blackhorse found herself protesting in the Phoenix, Arizona, headquarters of the popular Halloween costume retailer Yandy.com. She and a small but mighty group of demonstrators entered the building bolstering green, pink, and white signs. Blackhorse — a 37-year-old Dené woman, social worker, and advocate for native issues — asked to speak with one of the company’s higher-ups about the dozens of "sexy" Native American costumes sold on the site at the time.
She ended up shouting at no one in particular in the pink-walled office lined with cubicles: “Yandy.com, we want you guys to know that Native American women are opposed to the sexualization of indigenous women... We are people, not costumes.” The police were called, and she and her fellow demonstrators were told to leave the premises.
This was her first time protesting at Yandy, but not the last. She went back with a slightly larger group the following year. Blackhorse decided to make the Yandy demonstrations an annual thing, and began thinking about going back again this July. “Before we know it, Halloween will be upon us and we will be visiting Yandy yet again — three years in a row,” she tweeted on July 29th. But then, amidst the heat of an Arizona summer, when she least expected it, something that seemed surprisingly like social change happened. Blackhorse says she Googled Yandy’s Native American costumes on August 15, and none were there. They’d all disappeared from the website. They’d silently been taken down.
“When I found out, I was like: Is this a joke?” Blackhorse says. Just a few weeks before, she remembers, they were still there. Now that they were suddenly gone, she was elated. She then waited, and waited, and waited for a public apology and announcement.
But the statement never came. Neither did an apology. Yandy has declined to comment on this story twice since Refinery29 first reached out this September.
Of course, Blackhorse realized that Yandy would no longer profit off the costumes. This was what she’d worked for — it was undeniably a positive thing. But she was unhappy with the company for not going public about the costume retirement. “It feels like less of a win because they won’t acknowledge our existence,” she reflects. “It overshadowed a true victory. But we’re glad they’re gone.”
Arizona to Rally Against Native Mascots (Az Rally) put out a statement to the same effect, demanding Yandy “take responsibility and accountability for their actions” and for their “blatant misappropriation of Native American culture.” (Blackhorse is the contact on the press release.)
The many perils of cultural appropriation have been well documented, and Yandy’s Native American costumes played into particularly pernicious tropes about Native American women that people in the community were all too familiar with. Jaclyn Roessel — the founder and president of Grownup Navajo, which offers cultural competency trainings and helps integrate Native American teachings into museums and nonprofits — explains that indigenous women have historically been sexualized, disrespected, and mistreated, going back to the colonization of America. Roessel points to Justice Department statistics from a 2012 report: One in three Native American women have been raped or have experienced an attempted rape, and, on some reservations, indigenous women are murdered at a rate more than 10 times the national average.
“There’s a real problem with these costumes sexualizing the community because it perpetuates the historical idea that Native women are objects,” she says. “It’s dehumanizing.”
When I was a reporter at The Phoenix New Times in 2017, Yandy told me that the costumes were “intended to pay homage to the Native American community, not to offend.” A representative from the company implied that linking the costumes to the sexual assault of Indigenous women was “problematic” and akin to slut-shaming. "To say that women choosing to wear a costume or dress in a certain manner directly results in the rape of women, especially women of a specific culture, is victim-blaming, disheartening and problematic at best," Yandy said at the time. "At Yandy, we strive to empower all women to 'Own your sexy' and support our customer to be comfortable in their skin and in what they wear, no matter what that may look like. Dressing in a certain manner does not condone rape. Period."
However, Elizabeth Hoover — Ph.D., an associate professor of American Studies at Brown University who teaches classes about justice in Native communities — takes issue with that idea in this context. “I think it’s up to each individual woman to decide what she thinks is sexy,” Hoover says. “I’m not here to critique anyone for wanting to expose those parts of themselves if they feel empowered to. My criticism comes specifically when you’ve chosen a group of people to sexualize. If you want to be a sexy squirrel or sexy rabbit or sexy devil, that’s all you. But it’s a problem when you chose a group to sexualize that’s already facing the repercussions of having the general public think that they should be more accessible to sexual advances, regardless of whether they’re consenting or not. These costumes can reinforce those beliefs about Native people.”
Hoover explains that when colonizers came to America, they thought the land, the resources, and the women were at their disposal. “They were under the impression that women were just another resource for them, and that their sexuality was free and open for the taking,” Hoover says. “And that stereotype has persisted, and contributes to things like the current statistics of sexual assault that Native women are facing at a higher rate than any other ethnic group.”
All this background is fueling the anger of women like Blackhorse as months have gone by without a word from Yandy on the removal of the costumes. Blackhorse says the continued silence has an extra sting to it because the company quickly pulled a costume seemingly inspired by The Handmaid’s Tale off its shelves last year. Critics said it made light of rape, and the company swiftly put out a statement.
“They took that costume down so fast,” Blackhorse says. “And that one was based on a TV show. But we’re real human beings and an ethnic group, but don’t get the same respect as a fictitious character? That goes to show how Native people are disrespected as a society… It says something that it took us about three years to achieve something that clearly could have happened overnight.”
People who’ve been following cultural appropriation news have some hypotheses about why Yandy hasn’t said boo about the removal of the offensive Halloween garb. It could be that they don’t want to reignite the flack they got for profiting off the costumes (the revenue from which totaled $150,000 in 2016, as reported by Yandy to Cosmopolitan at the time). Alternatively, Hoover thinks they may be “trying to play it both ways by taking down the costumes so as not to offend people — but, at the same time, trying to not shame previous customers who may have bought these costumes.”
Regardless of the reason, Blackhorse wants to be acknowledged. “Maybe they did it out of ignorance — but we want to know that they learned something from all of this,” Blackhorse says. “They’ve angered and offended a lot of Native women, and we’ve tried to tell them for years. We’ve had to expend resources doing that, and that took time, energy, effort, and stress just to get them to hear us. I don’t want it to be all for nothing, and it’s not. But they could make this count by saying something.”
I covered the original demonstration in 2017 in articles published in The Phoenix New Times. The group that originally went to Yandy’s headquarters to call them out was small, but staunch. Without a statement from Yandy, we’ll never know for sure if the protests Blackhorse helped organize led the company to discontinue the costumes, but, as a witness, it would be hard to discount their influence. Even when the police were called, and their chanting had to move off the property, they continued to make their point of view known. If anything, Blackhorse and the people who demonstrated with her can be upheld as a lesson in perseverance. Even fighting locally on the smallest of scales could influence change.
Blackhorse knows she may never get her apology, but she’d still be open to listening if Yandy wants to talk. In the meantime, she’s focusing on the retailers who still sell sexy Indigenous women costumes, such as Amazon and Spirit Halloween. Armed with the knowledge that change can occur, Blackhorse says of future cultural appropriation-focused advocacy projects: “Nobody is safe. They could all be challenged at any moment.”