By Shari Narine
When Montana Courts saw the replica of a cigar store Indian in front of a newly-opened candy store in West Edmonton Mall she was shocked. Others around her shared the same disbelief. The statue was sporting a headdress of colorful lollipops. It was holding a tomahawk in one hand and what looked like a ceremonial pipe in the other.
Courts, who is Métis and lives in Edmonton, said she heard comments like “politically inappropriate” coming from people, who were visibly non-Indigenous. Encouraged by her friend, Courts spoke to a staff member in the store Bubble and Gum Aug. 12 and was told the manager was unavailable, and Courts was denied any contact information.
Still upset, her friend suggested she post photos of the lollipop Indian to Facebook. Courts wrote the statue was “inappropriate and not acceptable whatsoever!!” and “I’m beyond offended.”
The post blew up with almost 175 shares in two days. Comments ranged from “good on saying something” to the more numerous responses of “shut up” and “people complain about everything”. Comments included a large number of vitriolic personal attacks. Courts says she stopped reading the responses after the first few, but her friends have been keeping her informed.
Numerous digs at Courts and the stand she has taken have come from people who either claim to be Indigenous or who have obvious Indigenous names.
“People don’t understand that this little micro-aggression, even if they think ‘It doesn’t bother me’, subconsciously it eats at you,” said Courts, who wasn’t surprised at the reaction.
The use of lollipops for a headdress and the holding of the pipe are both culturally inappropriate, she said, and belittle First Nations’ beliefs and culture.
That the candy is aimed at children, the statue, complete with breechcloth and buckskin, contributes to ongoing stereotyping throughout the generations, and the belief that Indigenous people are anachronistic, of a distant past. A recent survey in the United States found that 40 per cent of respondents believe that Native Americans no longer exist and could therefore not be discriminated against.
“I’ve been accused of being oversensitive, but I feel like if I don’t speak up, who else is going to speak up?” said Courts. While she was not raised traditionally, as an adult she has become involved in her culture.
At one time, back in the mid- to late-1800s, cigar store Indians would sit outside of tobacconists’ shops. It was a time when the general population could not read very well, and the Indian carving would be used as a marketing tool—undoubtedly because of the First Peoples’ historic spiritual relationship with tobacco—to tell customers that the shop sold a wide range of tobacco products.
A 2001 story in the Navajo Times said images that “depict Indian people as cartoonish caricatures with the stereotypical big nose and red skin, wearing breechcloths and brandishing tomahawks” was “outright racism.”
In a collectors’ magazine about the value of these rare original carvings—they can fetch up to half-a-million dollars—the magazine quotes the Navajo Times:
The story describes “a wooden chief Indian mannequin placed in storefront windows of pawn shops, curio stores and ‘forts,’” standing among various odds and ends, “as if some official Indian greeter.”
“I have never seen an Indian statue portraying [a Native American] as anything less than noble,” said one collector. “I used to have a store on Fifth Ave. in New York City,” which sported one of these Indian mannequins.
“Every once in a while, I’d have an Indian coming in and say, ‘You’re degrading us.’ Of course, we told them to stick it in their ear,” the collector said.
Clara Sue Kidwell, a history professor and the director of the Native American Studies program at the University of Oklahoma, told a different story about the cigar store carvings, which she says contribute to the stereotyping of Native Americans, perpetuating Native Americans as the exotic other.
“Oh, aren’t these quaint and funny little figures? I guess Indians must still go around in headdresses carrying bundles of cigars… Like all stereotypes, it allows the viewer to conceive of the Indian as a singular and static entity. It is hard to think of cigar store Indians [and by extension the lollipop Indian] as representing real people.”
This is 2018, said Courts, in a country that has signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and has promised to move toward reconciliation.
“(The cigar store Indian) is that small little thing that’s part of that big picture,” said Courts.
Tanya Harnett, associate professor in the University of Alberta's Native Studies and Arts and Design faculties, agrees with Courts.
“It might be sweet and it might be unassuming, but the sucker Indian headdress reveals much more than one might think. The diminutive scale, the suckers, the pulling of the peace pipe and tomahawk is culturally inappropriate,” she said.
Harnett refers to the candy in the headdress as “suckers”, not “lollipops”. She says that the sucker headdress “is quite an insult. In no time at all it said in my mind, ‘Who’s the sucker? Is it the people, who are the suckers, or is the sculpture itself that is the sucker?’ Either way, it gives off the wrong message.”
However, Harnett says she also understands the reaction Courts’ posting has received on Facebook from Indigenous peoples.
“I understand the tone being we need to take a look at other issues… We’ve got bigger fish to fry. It’s absolutely true, but that doesn’t make this less wrong. I think people are just frustrated with all of the wrongs that are being put on Indigenous people,” said Harnett, a member of the Carry-the-Kettle First Nation.
She easily lists those bigger issues: substandard housing, poor education, poor health, murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, and the high number of Indigenous children in government care.
So where does a candy store or cigar store Indian sit on the list? It’s no Sir John A. Macdonald, whose statue outside Victoria City Hall has been embroiled in controversy and this past weekend was removed. But the lollipop Indian is an iconic reflection on society, said Harnett.
“Does a candy store Indian seem wrong? Yes. Is it more wrong than other wrongs through the Canadian perspective on Indigenous people? It’s just wrong,” she said.
“Art represents society. Art mimics what is happening in society. So this is an expression, in a small capsule, of what is wrong.”
Bubble and Gum Manager Jacki Zahariuk could not be reached for comment. However, she told The Edmonton Journal on Monday that the statue had been removed from the store’s entrance and put in a back room.