Halifax's former poet laureate says she has received unprecedented online backlash for asking a drugstore chain to remove NHL merchandise that appropriates West Coast Indigenous culture.
Rebecca Thomas, who is Mi'kmaw, tweeted a photo of two garden statues designed in the style of totem poles with NHL logos, asking Lawton's Drugs why the culturally insensitive items were being sold.
Lawton's responded to say the products would be pulled from stores, but days later Thomas is still receiving a stream of negative and racist messages, some saying she is mentally ill and that Indigenous people are too sensitive.
Thomas said the deluge of comments speaks to the knee-jerk reaction often seen when the country's history of colonialism is pointed out.
"Some of the comments have been pretty harsh that have come out of that, which I find to be very telling, I think, of a public concern or understanding of Indigenous struggle and oppression in Canada," Thomas said Thursday.
Some comments negatively targeted Thomas' Indigenous identity, while others complained about "stupid natives" being offended over the products. One user told her to "climb back in your cave."
Thomas said the reaction draws attention to the "mob mentality" that often surfaces when Indigenous people speak out.
"It does kind of create this atmosphere where if you speak out you have to be prepared for what's coming after you, you have to grow a very thick skin to do this kind of work."
Thomas was Halifax's poet laureate until last spring, the first Indigenous person to hold the role. She wrote a poem that prompted regional council to reopen debate over how the city commemorates its controversial founder, Edward Cornwallis; his statue was later removed from a downtown park.
Thomas said her tweets about the NHL merchandise have drawn more online ire than any of her previous criticism of governments or her comments on missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada.
She said the response also shows the lack of understanding many Canadians have about the significance of Indigenous art forms and how Indigenous people are still disrespected.
Totem poles originate from a number of West Coast Indigenous cultures and often require a potlatch ceremony to be raised -- a ceremony that was banned in Canada under the Indian Act until 1951.
The intricately carved pieces became the subject of popular art by Canadian settlers, and in many cases were taken from communities to be displayed in museums around the world.
Thomas said items like the NHL totem pole knock-offs use the art form in a way that does not reflect the history of Indigenous people who had to fight to have their rights recognized and traditions preserved.
Thomas said many Canadians are unaware of the cultural specificity of totem poles and instead see them as a symbol of Canada, which erases their important history.
"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."
The gaudy usage of the totem pole with sports logos also does a disservice to their spiritual significance, Thomas said.
"To disrespect our symbols that we have fought so hard for, to maintain in secret, to pass down through generations that have survived things like residential schools and the potlatch ban, to then mock those and then get angry that we're saying 'Hey stop mocking our stuff,' I think that betrays a lack of understanding, a lack of empathy," Thomas said.
A Lawton's spokesperson confirmed to The Canadian Press in an email that the totem-inspired products have been removed from the nine locations that stocked them, and they will no longer be sold in Lawton's stores.
"We are in the process of connecting with the supplier to express our concerns and the feedback we've received," the statement read.
The items called 'Tiki Totems' appear come in a range of NHL and NFL team styles and seem to be sold online by a number of retailers.
Thomas said her experience highlights the need for greater understanding of what cultural appropriation is and what it means to Indigenous people who still face significant oppression in Canada.
- By Holly McKenzie-Sutter in St. John's, N.L.
The Canadian Press