Duluth T-shirt shop accused of peddling racist messages
DULUTH - As an American Indian, Donna Blue Bird said she has had to deal with racism all her life, but it's not often as blatant as the kind the Duluth woman came across Wednesday in Canal Park.
Blue Bird found T-shirts at a tourist shop printed with the lines "My Indian name is 'Drinks Like Fish' " and "My Indian name is 'Crawling Drunk.' "
"I was shocked," said Blue Bird, 51, a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe. "It was like slapping the Native Americans in the face; giving us a black eye and letting the world see it."
Blue Bird went intentionally looking for the T-shirts with her two daughters after friends told her about seeing them at the I Love Duluth shop. Her daughters found them hanging on a rack outside the store.
"I didn't know what to think about it," Blue Bird's daughter Jamie, 17, said. "I got mad. ... They [were] just sitting right there where everybody could see them."
According to Simon Shaked, the store's owner, nobody will be seeing the T-shirts anymore. He sold the last ones off the rack Wednesday evening and has agreed to not buy any more.
The decision was prompted by a visit to the store last Thursday by Duluth's Human Rights Officer, Bob Grytdahl, and Donna Ennis of the Duluth American Indian Commission. They told Shaked the commission had been receiving lots of complaints about the T-shirts.
"We have a lot of joke T-shirts. ... When we bought this one we didn't know it would be offensive but he explained to me why [American Indians] would take offense and we agreed to take them down," Shaked said.
He didn't get rid of them altogether, though. He moved the merchandise off the wall and sold them at a deeply discounted price to get rid of the rest -- about 20 -- as quickly as possible. He sold the two to Blue Bird for $1.99 apiece.
Grytdahl, who doesn't have any authority to demand Shaked stop selling the shirts, said the store owner first offered to sell them all to him at cost but Grytdahl couldn't afford them.
"We didn't have the money. ... We appreciated him taking them down and not having them in his store," he said. "I don't want to make him out to be a bad guy. ... He seemed to listen and understand it and found a way to try and make it better."
Attempts to reach Ennis and other members of the American Indian Commission were unsuccessful Wednesday.
Shaked agreed to get rid of the T-shirts after Grytdahl explained that while some T-shirts about groups or nationalities could be found humorous for their shock value, the ones depicting American Indians were not.
"A lot of people don't immediately see the difference between the historical experience of American Indian people and everybody else. ... Most of us have made it through our period of discrimination, but American Indian people are continually shortchanged," Grytdahl said. "Those kinds of offensive depictions just add to the acceptance of that discrimination against American Indians today."
He said the incident could be used to open up an important community conversation.
"We should take a look at how the prosperity of Duluth is impacted when subsets continually live at such a disadvantage," Grytdahl said before quoting Hubert Humphrey. "He said how could he fully enjoy his freedom when his neighbors can't?"
Shaked said his store will not be carrying T-shirts like that anymore.
"We are here to stay in business, not to offend anybody," he said.
The Duluth News Tribune and the Echo Press are both owned by Forum Communications Company.