Totem poles were created by the indigenous people of North America’s Pacific Northwest as a way to document their history, with each massive carving recalling notable events and commemorating ancestors. But over the years, their story became one of commercialization and appropriation.
“Today, totem pole kitsch, plastic miniatures, and totem emblems are on everything from tea towels to water bottles, and from pepper shakers to Playmobil kits, and they can be found in virtually every tourist shop in Canada,” John Sutton Lutz, a professor of history at the University of Victoria and the author of “Makúk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations,” wrote recently in the Tyee, a Canadian media publication.
Such tchotchkes also can be found in the online stores of North America’s major sports leagues, some affixed with the logos and symbols of teams that have taken on Indian nicknames.
The Cleveland Indians totem pole is topped by Slider, the franchise’s longtime mascot. Chief Wahoo, the team’s logo featuring a smiling Indian, is not pictured; MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and team owner Paul Dolan announced earlier this year that the team would be retiring the image after this season. All merchandise with an MLB team logo on it is subject to “absolute approval” from Major League Properties Inc., according to a license agreement posted on the Securities and Exchange Commission’s website.
The pro sports totem poles didn’t sit well with Rebecca Thomas, a Mi’kmaq woman and former poet laureate of Halifax, Nova Scotia, who recently spotted some NHL-themed items at a Lawtons drugstore in the city.
Lawtons, a Canadian chain with stores in Atlantic Canada, quickly responded to Thomas via Twitter, saying it would pull the totem poles from its stores and apologizing.
W. Ron Allen is the chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe in Washington state, which has more than 40 totems on its properties. He’s also the treasurer of the National Congress of American Indians, which has had a long-standing opposition to athletic teams with Native American nicknames, logos and symbols. He said in a telephone interview that, while he had not seen the sports-themed totems, their mere existence was problematic.
“From our perspective, we’re offended by it,” he said. “We have been fighting for years to eliminate the use of American Indian images for the purpose of commercialization. That has something that has always been offensive to us.
“We think it’s absolutely inappropriate,” he continued. “It’s inappropriate for others to use our image, one, without our authority and two, for thinking they’re honoring us when then they’re not.”
He added that the fact that there are totems devoted to teams with Indian nicknames is “more offensive, without a doubt.”
“For the general public, who don’t know the cultural background, totem poles are a creative, artistic way for Native Americans to tell stories about their culture and their history,” he said. “They’re intended as a way of articulating history, such as honoring chiefs, honoring warriors, honoring medicine people. . . . So for a commercial entity to misuse a totem as a cultural piece is inappropriate, it’s wrong on a lot of different levels. It sends confusing mixed messages for the general public. They might buy it and think, ‘I got something Native and it represents my favorite sports team.’ “
The collectibles are made by a company called Evergreen Enterprises, which has long held licensing agreements with the NHL, NFL, MLB and NCAA. (In 2012, the company announced a licensing agreement with the NBA, though it no longer appears to sell items featuring pro-basketball logos). Along with the totem poles, Evergreen sells numerous products that are affixed with team logos, including Christmas tree ornaments, flags, bottle openers and wine-bottle holders. The totem poles are sold at the official online stores of the NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball along with retailers such as Home Depot, Target and Amazon.com. Along with the Indians and many other pro and college teams, they feature the logos of such Indian-named teams as the Washington Redskins, Chicago Blackhawks and Florida State Seminoles.
Home Depot, Fanatics (which operates the online stores for the major sports leagues) and Evergreen Enterprises did not respond to requests for comment.
According to Lutz, the appropriation of totem poles into a symbol of Indian life and Canadian culture at large began in the early 20th century, when railroads began bringing tourists to the First Nations tribal areas of British Columbia and southern Alaska where the poles stood. Soon the poles began appearing in museum exhibits in Canada’s eastern cities and elsewhere around the globe, on postage stamps and on the covers of tourists’ guidebooks. At the same time, the Canadian government was striving “to erase First Nations from Canada,” Lutz writes, via laws that banned tribal ceremonies – including the potlatch ceremonies often held when totem poles are raised, which were illegal in Canada from 1885 to 1951 – and prevented the First Nations people from hiring lawyers to reclaim their land.
Speaking specifically about the NHL-themed totem poles she found in Canada, Thomas told the National Post that they serve to further erase the history of the people who originally created them.
“They see totem poles as Canadian and not belonging to the nations that originated this tradition,” Thomas said. “People seem to love to consume indigenous culture but they don’t want the people that come along with it, and the history and the story.”
Allen said that he’s not against the general commercialization of totem poles, per se, but that he would prefer such items be crafted by Native artists, considering their importance to Indian culture.
“It’s extremely disappointing that they’re even out there,” Allen said.