On most days, I love the products that Hobby Lobby sells and have chosen to overlook many of the reasons the company has received negative press in recent years. However, after shopping at the store in Onalaska, Wisconsin, recently, I am saddened by the ignorance or obliviousness in the choices made about a current line of home décor. I choose to make this letter public because not only does Hobby Lobby need to reflect inwardly about its role in society, but also customers who buy the home décor products pictured need to reflect on their biases and understanding of cultures other than their own.
Wisconsin is home to no fewer than 11 Native American tribes. A few miles west of Onalaska, in Minnesota, there are at least 12 tribes (http://www.indians.org/tribal-directory.html). In my 40 years of living primarily in the upper Midwest, I have witnessed racism towards and negative stereotypes about Native Americans. I have seen firsthand the negative effects of white privilege and the lingering effects of the European decimation of tribes across the United States. Racism is both individual and systemic; sometimes people and institutions are even unaware of their racist behaviors. Through the pictured product line, Hobby Lobby has knowingly, or (ignorantly) unknowingly contributed to the negative stereotypes about people who surely form part of their clientele.
This product display harkens back to a cowboy versus Indian mentality and indicates that interactions with Indians would be equivalent to a grand summer adventure. There are paintings of teepees, and arrows along with the message “your adventure awaits.” These images might lead one to believe that Native Americans all lived in teepees or still do, which of course, isn’t true. What’s worse, the image with the multiple arrows (bottom of photo) states, “You are our greatest adventure.” I was shocked by this phrase, as was Moses Cleveland of the Ho Chunk Nation of Black River Falls, WI who asked upon seeing my photo, “So it was an adventure to try and kill off my people and take our lands?” As a European American, I had the exact same thought, so if there is a different interpretation of this “artwork,” for those of us who grew up in pluricultural communities, I don’t see it.
The indigenous cultures in the United States should be a source of pride for the country. The traditions, arts and beliefs of Native American tribes are varied and beautiful. Though I am not an artist, interior designer or store manager, I can imagine a product line that is not only trendy, but honors indigenous cultures. As noted by Cleveland, “[your products] are nothing we would design or try to sell.” According to the Digital Public Library of America, “The current thriving state of culture in Native Minnesota owes a tremendous amount to the dedication of the Native…elders who struggled to keep it alive during the 19thcentury. The 20th century saw further challenges…yet Indian people have always managed to make the best of a bad situation…Art is a principal bearer of indigenous survivance. The maintenance of endangered traditions requires constant care.”
As a major retail chain that serves clientele in Indian Country, Hobby Lobby needs to ask what it can do to care for local endangered traditions, not what it can do to exploit negative stereotypes. Perhaps their retail buyers could find inspiration and education through attending events and cultural exhibits such as the Great Dakota Gathering in Winona, MN or the Ho Chunk Nation Pow Wows every Memorial and Labor Day weekends in Black River Falls, WI. It’s obvious that they and the store managers who agree to carry these products show minimal awareness of cultural differences and perspectives in relation to the history of the United States.
The only “adventure that awaits” Hobby Lobby is that of removing these home décor products from their shelves, which I urge them do immediately.