Duluth T-Shirt Shop Accused of Peddling Racist Messages

Duluth News Tribune, Aug. 6, 2009

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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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Shaked said his store will not be carrying T-shirts like that anymore.

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One day after angrily calling out a retail shop in Canal Park for selling T-shirts offensive to American Indians, Donna Blue Bird, an American Indian woman from Duluth, was shaking hands with the store’s owner.

The gesture came after Simon Shakad, owner of “I Love Duluth,” agreed Thursday to issue an apology to Blue Bird and all American Indians for selling the shirts in his store. The shop carries tourist merchandise as well as various “joke” T-shirts.

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11 a.m. By 12:15 p.m., Shakad was sitting down with Blue Bird to draft an apology, which included the phrase: “I am apologizing to the Native American people for their concerns.”

He read the statement standing next to Blue Bird in front of his store and then shook her hand.

“I am happy [Shakad] was a big enough person to apologize,” Blue Bird said. She added that the battle to fight discrimination against American Indians still is far from over. “This conversation needs to continue. . . . We are not to the bottom of it yet.”

DeFoe said the bigger issue is contending with major corporations that make their living by selling racist merchandise.

“He is the smallest on the chain as a shopkeeper, but the solution has got to start somewhere and it started here today,” he said. “Two people came together today and that’s a good thing. . . . This apology goes a long way in looking to create a racially just city.”

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