A peace of the reaction


By Drew Hayden Taylor

Originally published in April 2015

I was driving down the main street of Peterborough, Ont. when I saw it. It had been sitting there for years I’m told, a non-descript shop selling a wide set of accoutrements for those who enjoy smoking a variety of substances. I believe they are called head or bong shops.

I make no judgement on the recreational activity, but up until now, I never bothered to notice the actual name of the store. That’s where the issue lies. The establishment was called The Peace Pipe.

I found myself doing an old fashioned comedic ‘double take’ when I saw it, which is not a good thing to do while driving down a busy main street.

The reason for the ‘double take’ is I am Native—Anishnawbe to be specific—and the Peace Pipe (we actually refer to it simply as the Pipe) is a sacred part of many Aboriginal cultures.

Frequently it is used to begin sacred and important events or occasions. The tobacco used in these rituals is also one of the sacred herbs, the others being cedar, sweetgrass and sage.

Those who carry a Pipe, logically called a Pipe Carrier, consider it a great honor. So needless to say, it was not meant for recreational purposes.

To top things off, the logo of the store is that of a muscular Indian man with the stereotypical war bonnet emerging from the bowl of the Pipe. It was sheer cliché.

Still driving, I found myself going ‘hmmm’. I was trying to imagine how anybody could have thought this was a fabulous marketing idea.

I am aware that Native people have long been associated with smoking, since it is we who first cultivated tobacco. I don’t think I have ever seen a smoke shop without the fabled cigar store Indian standing guard out front, the patron saint of smokers it seems.

But this was different. This seemed to be a bit of profaning the sacred. Cultural appropriation of the most unpleasant manner. In plain terms, disrespectful.

Any different, I wonder, than opening a wine shop, urging the customers to sample the 2015 ‘Blood of Christ’. Try the Savage Nun… I mean the Sauvignon.

Or opening a restaurant called PETA, short for People Eating Tasty Animals. As I said, it can make you uncomfortable.

Yes, I realize it’s a play on words in its own way, the kind of peace that can come from the use of certain plants and so on, but truly, I do not believe that is the kind of peace that was originally (or Aboriginally) intended.

Still, in these politically correct times, one would think a little more thought might have gone into the naming of their shop, or shops in this case, as there are three other stores located in Newmarket, Oshawa and Toronto.

Perhaps they were using some of their own product when it occurred to one of them ‘Hey, let’s name it after a sacred symbol of the First Nations spirituality.Maybe nobody will notice. Or they will feel flattered that we named a store selling things called bongs, dirty ricos, crystal fogs, and herbies after one of their most sacred implements.’

I wonder if Native people even get a discount.

Using a clever play on words is old news in the retail business. I understand that. There is another business just outside Peterborough that caters to the needs of local pets. It’s called The Paw Spa. Even in my own community, there is a cigarette shop called Smoke Cignals.I find those clever and amusing.

I remember once attending a powwow and seeing a food stand with the name Nish Chalet, ‘Nish’ being a colloquial term for First Nations people. But I don’t believe the actual Swiss Chalet is in anyway a religious or spiritual representation, though their sauce is divine.

Perhaps I am being too politically correct. It’s possible. There are some who have political issues with Thanksgiving, long considered one of the first North American potlucks. But soon afterwards, luck changed and we lost the pot.

I have mentioned the name and contents of this store to several other people of Aboriginal ancestry and they too go ‘hmmm’.

Admittedly, sometimes you just want to give the finger to P.C. inspired perceptions. Recently I gave a keynote at the University of Victoria on Native humor.

Because it is a form of survival humour and is reflective of 500 years of colonization, our funny bone can sometimes test the boundaries of acceptability.

Especially in an academic environment, evidently. For that, I got my wrist slapped. Yet ironically, there seems to be a lot of bong shops in lower B.C. Hmmm...

So, my question is: Is naming a shop that specializes in selling equipment for the recreational use of various substances The Peace Pipe any different than say calling a woman’s entrepreneurial organization The Eager Beavers? I wouldn’t think so.