(CNSNews.com) – A nine-year-old girl was recently asked to remove her “Indian” costume before entering the Wampanoag Homesite of the Plimoth Plantation, a historical site that allows visitors to experience Plymouth, Mass., as it was in the 17th century.
The outdoor museum features a 1627 English village beside a Wampanoag home site. The purpose of the museum is to educate visitors (school-children and adults) about what happened between the Native Americans and the colonists, especially during the first Thanksgiving.
The nine-year-old was one of thousands who flock to the colonial museum during the Thanksgiving season. She dressed as an Indian and her friend dressed as a pilgrim to celebrate the occasion.
Linda Coombs, associate director of the Wampanoag Indigenous Program, asked the girl to remove her homemade beaded costume before visiting the site, reducing the child to tears and upsetting her mother, the Boston Globe reported on Nov. 24.
“Native people find it offensive when they see a non-native person dressed up and playing Indian. It’s perceived as us being made fun of,” Coombs told CNSNews.com.
Coombs said she understands it was not the girl’s intention to be offensive – that she was only trying to “honor the Indians.”
“I could see that she’d put a lot of effort into making this dress and that it meant something to her … I could see by taking this dress off, I was dashing this whole thing that was going on in her mind,” Coombs said.
So she gave her a necklace from the gift shop in exchange.
“I wanted to acknowledge that she was giving up something that meant something to her and that I could appreciate everything she was feeling,” said Coombs. “Typically, in our culture, you give something away to show you appreciate what someone else has given up. And I wanted to mark that moment with her.”
Coombs said good intentions do not matter because she and the other Native staff members perceive the costumes as mockery before the wearer has a chance to explain his or her intent.
“Costumes are offensive because of what has happened in history – the Hollywood pseudo Indians, the Italian actors playing Indians, the crappy dress they put them in, the Halloween costumes. When other people dress up as Native people it’s offensive, period,” Coombs said.
She compared people wearing Native American costumes to white entertainers who put on blackface in old minstrel shows.
Visitors to the Wampanoag home site are asked not only to refrain from dressing up like “Indians” – they are asked not to use words like “how” or “chief” or “squaw.”
Cultural sensitivity requests are posted on signs in front of the museum and on their Web site, plimoth.org.
The Web site also advises visitors not to refer to the Wampanoag people as either Indians or Native Americans. “The term Native American suggests that Native People were always American but this country was populated by Native People long before it was called America,” the site states.
Instead, they prefer to be called Native People or Indigenous People.
Guests are asked not to engage in stereotypical “Indian” behavior, such as war-whooping and dancing around the fire.
The museum also requests that people not ask questions like, “Are you a real Indian?” Not just because of the word “Indian,” but because of the world “real.”
“The tour guides here are real people, Native people. Our nationalities are not fodder for joke material, because then you get into the aspect of racism and historical erasure,” Coombs said.
Most people have no idea that what they say or wear might be hurtful, insulting or offensive, she said.
“That’s why we’re trying to educate people about our culture and to correct stereotypes and wrong information,” she said. “We’re here to make a bridge between people, not to just send them packing.”