The cultural appropriation of Aboriginals is alive and well. The examples manifest themselves abundantly in our society, from the headdress-wearing hipsters, the students from the Université de Montréal who were photographed during frosh week dressed in red face, and H&M’s bright idea to sell neon pink headdresses. Then there are fashion designers like Nathalie Benarroch and her line “Inukt” that recently got pulled from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and all the “Pocahottie” costume selfies posted on social media this past Halloween.
While cultural appropriation happens to just about every culture, there seems to be a greater amount of ignorance towards the problem when it comes to Aboriginal cultures. Hence, the latest culprits,the Warwick-based company Croustilles Yum Yum, a subsidiary of Krispy Kernels Inc. Earlier this month, the chip company brought back its original 1960’s “little Indian” mascot and logo for the holidays.
Not surprisingly, the company was baffled when Aboriginal people expressed their displeasure with the imagery. By the many paternalistic and racist comments that can be found on social media or in the comment sections of news articles on the story, it seems that many Canadians also do not seem to “get it.”
In several interviews, Yum Yum’s marketing director claimed that the mascot was chosen based on a child’s drawing for a contest, that the company’s founder was of Aboriginal descent and the name of the company means potato in Algonquin.
For one, the word for potato in Algonquin is far from “yum yum.” Second, even if the rest of their claims are true, defending the imagery and racism of the ‘60s because it’s “vintage” is not excusable.
The bottom line is that if Aboriginal people say that the caricature is insulting, offensive and beyond inappropriate to use as a marketing tactic, then it is. Please do not tell us that you know better about what is and isn’t offensive to us. As a proud Mohawk from Kahnawake, I can assure you that our anger is about far more than an oversight in cultural sensitivity or political correctness.
Not only is the imagery offensive, but it is a flashback to a very racist era for Aboriginal people in Canada. Aboriginal women were prohibited from voting in federal elections up until 1960, Aboriginal children were literally taken from their homes and communities without the knowledge or consent of families. Then there was the 1969 White Paper that proposed assimilation.
Today, Aboriginal people are still affected by forms of institutionalized racism and inequality. Many Aboriginal communities do not even have access to clean drinking water, there are housing shortages, and chronically underfunded education.
While something like fashion, a Halloween costume, or a chip company’s logo may seem minor and frivolous in comparison to these issues, cultural misappropriation is still very much a concern.
Cultural appropriation reinforces stereotypes of our people. It undermines the diversity of all Indigenous people in Canada and the United States. There are more than 1.4 million Aboriginal people in Canada alone and that includes more than 50 distinct First Nations, in addition to the Metis and Inuit, all with their own distinct languages, cultures and traditions.
Whether or not Yum Yum had negative or offensive intentions, their actions and the continued acceptance and perpetuation of imagery like their logo dehumanizes Indigenous people. All our distinct nations become a one-dimensional and fictionalized representation without our consultation or any consideration to the fact that we are real people.
That’s offensive, hurtful, and has dangerous social, political and economic implications on how we are treated by the government, society and ourselves.