WRIGLEYVILLE — A Boystown party company known for its extravagant costumes and huge themed parties is in some hot water for what critics call a derogatory and offensive party.
But the "Savages" theme and promotional poster riled some who say the company is appropriating symbols of indigenous culture for a party with a racist name, prompting Neverland to change the name Wednesday afternoon.
After dozens of posts slammed Neverland for the party, it's changing the name to "Origins," co-owner Anthony DiFiore said Wednesday afternoon.
"We chose the word 'savages' because we thought it was a cool name to define the kind of fierce production we intend on creating. We absolutely did not choose the name to try and disrespect any cultures," DiFiore said in an email.
Ariel Cheung says social media outrage was swift:
Organizers said the party has no connection to Native American culture, but rather focuses on ancient tribes like Mayans, Aztecs and the Huns.
Still, Neverland is crossing the line by turning native culture into costumes and a party theme, members of the American Indian Center of Chicago said.
"The regalia they're wearing [in the poster] are still used today — people don't understand that we still do this. We don't call them costumes because we're not pretending to be someone we're not. That's traditional ceremonial clothing. These are not parties we attend, it's prayer," said Cyndee Fox-Starr, who is of Omaha and Odawa descent and the center's special events coordinator.
With colonization eroding native history and culture, it's critical to preserve what is left of indigenous religion, language and rites of passage, said David Bender, the center's community science facilitator.
"So when we have outsiders adopting our culture and making it their own, to us, all that is doing is contributing to the further loss of our heritage. We have to remain diligent at all times, and we do want to respond with force, but we also want to respond with education, too," Bender said.
In the original poster, Neverland co-owner Martin Luna is depicted wearing red face paint and a large headdress. Luna is Mexican by way of Campeche, an area dominated by the Maya between the years 600-900.
"We never had the intention of doing this to be disrespectful. Our vision was to stay true to the design and headdresses worn by ancient tribal cultures, never to exploit them. We choose themes that challenge our team to create something visually magnificent," DiFiore said.
Metro Chicago, where organizer said the party will take place, replied with a statement that "Metro Chicago has not announced any events or performances for this date. More information will be made available at a later time."
Regardless of whether the party is meant to depict native tribes from the United States or ancient Mexico, seeing the poster Wednesday stung, Fox-Starr said.
"Why do you think that we're always the savages? You want to take and take everything, and I think I would have to flip that around and say it's actually the ones trying to take everything over that I think are the savages," Fox-Starr said.
The use (or misuse) of indigenous-related items and words has come under fire in recent years, with the most prominent controversy swirling around the Washington NFL team. Last year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled trademark registrations for the name "Washington Redskins," calling it "disparaging to Native Americans." (The Chicago Blackhawks have largely avoided controversy, and here's why.)
Headdresses are a particularly sore subject, as many Native American tribes allowed only chiefs or warriors to wear them after earning them though acts of bravery. Pharrell Williams, Victoria's Secret and Chanel all apologized after their use of war bonnets was deemed as appropriation of indigenous culture.
Unlike Plains tribes, the Mayans' headdresses were not connected to war heroism, but were a status symbol reserved for kings and leaders of the tribe, according to Prasad Mahabal, a specialist in ancient civilizations.
"I think people were jumping to conclusions when assuming it was a Native American, but you can see pyramids in the background" of the poster, signifying the Mayan theme, DiFiore said.
To DiFiore, the use of the headdress is on par with movies like the Mayan-focused "Apocalypto" or Brazilian dancers donning headdresses for Mardi Gras.
"Is no theater or movie studio ever allowed to create a tribal outfit? Are these outfits forbidden? Anyone who says that is too restrictive," DiFiore said.
But there's a difference between honoring a culture and turning it into "a caricature," said Andrew Johnson, executive director of the American Indian Center of Chicago.
"People say, 'Well, they can't take a joke, it's nothing personal,' but when it's done time after time, it's something you live with on an almost daily basis, and it's very disconcerting. It's a perpetuation of these stereotypes and make-believe rather than realizing these are real people with an extensive and honored history," said Johnson, who is part of the Cherokee Nation.
Neverland spends months crafting its sets and costumes to match its drum-centric tribal house music, with staffers researching designs and themes to "try to keep it very accurate," DiFiore said.
"We're just throwing a dance party. We don't want to be offensive. We're just trying to create something cool and fun," he said.
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