The Racism in our Shopping: Why We Should Think Critically With Our Pocket Book

Last week, I received a request to create some graphics for a potential vendor who wants to carry Native Anthro products in their store.  The vendor requested art featuring one of three choices: salmon, elk, or sasquatch.  I chose salmon because of its importance to my work and my culture.  

In creating images of salmon, I wanted it to be inspired by history.  Probably the most significant historical event involving our Pacific Northwest salmon were the creation of the hydroelectric dams which have diminished, even extirpated entire species of our fish runs.  I remember seeing propaganda about how good hydroelectric dams were for the Columbia River, the economy, farming and the general public.  "The propaganda was so commonplace that Woody Guthrie was commissioned to create a song in support of hydroelectric dams" according to Tom Keefe, Attorney.  The song is still the official Washington State Folk Song talks about "hanging all the Indians with smoke in their guns" and goes on to talk about all Indians put to rest on Memeloose Island, a well-known burial island.  As if we are all dead.  Really?  The racial undertones cannot be overlooked. You can listen below:


After this, I followed my curiosity about the industrial exploitation of the salmon runs via salmon canneries which inevitably devastated the fish runs along with the dams.  The next night, I was attending an event about Tradition on Trial and Salmon Scam.  At the event, Tom Keefe, the attorney representing the tribal fishermen in the Salmon Scam case, played "Roll on Columbia".  In part of his talk, he discussed the impacts to tribal fisheries as a result of the fishwheels constructed by the cannery industry. "A single fish wheel could harvest 40,000 pounds of salmon in half an hour.  The tribal fishery in comparison was minuscule, yet Washington and Oregon Stated Wildlife and Washington spend thousands of taxpayer money each year on harassing tribal fishermen living well below the poverty line" according to Keefe.  It seemed very strange and serendipitous that he would discuss this topic the same time I was researching it.  

The next evening, I found a bunch of canned salmon labels and marketing paraphernalia about commercial salmon sales in the Pacific Northwest.  The labels were very artistic, yet, blatantly stereotypical, and at times racist.  I was fascinated at the artistry and found some of the instruction labels humorous. Apparently, Americans needed instructions on how to eat canned salmon, a concept very foreign to Natives of the Pacific Northwest who've lived on salmon for at least the last 8-9000 years.  

Can label with "Directions" on how to eat canned salmon.  Add can to boiling water for half an hour if you would like to eat the salmon warm.  


British Columbia Packing Co. with "Indian Brand" label

One label I found from the British Columbia Packing Co. claimed fresh Columbia Salmon as the "Indian Brand".  There was something very off-putting about having an "Indian" on the brand label when 1) No Native was consulted in creating the label 2) No Native profited from the the company 3) There was nothing authentic about the "Indian's" style of dress for a British Columbia First Nation.  So, in order to rectify this problem (and the sickly looking salmon), I re-appropriated the image to make it more "Native".  I added a picture of my close friend from the Kamloopa Indian Band located in Kamloops British Columbia and a salmon I designed for the vendor to use on products in their store.  I figure if a company is going to claim a brand as "Indian" they should do it with a little more class.   

New and improved British Columbia Packing Co.

 This made me wonder: what other ethnic groups were exploited to sell food? Apparently, no one was safe from racist food labeling.

 A collage of racist food labels and advertising from the United States

 While some of these advertisements are older, I was able to find several modern advertisements that distastefully used our former President Obama's image to sell such things as fried chicken.  This billboard, however, appeared in China.  

 Today, we still see Uncle Ben's Rice and Aunt Jemima's Syrup.  Even in my own backyard companies are selling Chief Yakima Apples and Yakima Chief Hops.  If you drink beer, chances are the hops that were used to make your beer were grown in the Yakima Valley as it supplies 1/6 of the world's supply of hops.  

With the stereotypes of Native American's as drunks, it is appalling that this company still utilizes the tribal name (although the Tribe's name, as of 1994, is now spelled Yakama) and a chief as their label.  I was left was little choice but to write to the Yakima Chief Hops Company and request that they remove the word chief from their company name as well as the image of the chief.  

Be aware of the images utilized to get your money, the companies behind the consumer propaganda, and the source of the product.  

Can you think of other racially-charged images utilized in advertising?  How do those images tie into racial stereotypes and how might you as an individual make a difference by diffusing those stereotypes? 


Disclaimer: The views presented here are that of the author's alone. Many of the companies and their labels no longer exist, yet some still do.  I will make an effort to update this blog with new information when it becomes available.

1 comment

  • Monique Trudeau Olivier

    Hi There just wanted you to check out ,what I believe is Racist Advertising. Would love your input.
    It is in FOOD LAND INSPIRED WINTER 2017 …Page 6 Item #9
    I am curious to what
    IS it Indigenous, East Indian ,India
    What exactly is the definition. …should not be advertised with this wording
    Thanks Monique

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