October 17, 2009

Hudson Bay Company invented Cowichan sweaters?!

Someone forwarded this e-mail to me. It was was addressed to several First Nations chiefs and apparently meant to be an open letter:Subject: Blatant colonialism, territorial theft and knock-off sweaters

Good morning chiefs. I am sure you have all been following the news of how the Hudson's Bay Company and the Vancouver Olympic Committee has knocked off the Cowichan sweater to produce their own version for the official uniforms for the 2010 Olympics, and which are being sold at the HBC stores for $350 each. This rip-off is getting heavily criticized in the media, and Cowichan, I understand, is looking into their legal options with respect to their Trademark for Genuine Cowichan.

This morning, the Hudson's Bay Company released a TV ad promoting their sweaters, and it is the most inflammatory, colonial, racist thing I have seen in a long time. You can watch it here:
It tells the story of the coming of the white man to the new world, an empty place of rock and snow, which white man tamed and made into Canada. There is a half-second flash of seeing Cowichan-like sweaters hanging in some early settlement early in the ad, hinting that these came with the Europeans too. Through the ad, old Hudson's Bay Company symbols (blankets, chests, crests, etc.) are flashed, as the white man expands their presence.

The history told in this ad writes-out indigenous presence on the land. It popularizes the legal fiction of Terra Nullius, the idea that North America was an 'empty land' here for the taking. It erases the whole place of indigenous people over the last 350 years, from the resistance to colonization, to the contributions made to the building of contemporary society.

I believe that the political leadership of aboriginal communities should be aware of this vulgar portrayal of history by the Hudson's Bay Company, to promote their stolen sweater. The theft and profiteering off the genuine Cowichan sweater, along with the ironically parallel promotion of a re-telling of colonial history without indigenous people on the land, needs to be seen for what it is. Please pass the information along widely to help generate what should be an anti-colonial response.


Brian Thom

* * *

Brian Thom, Ph.D.
Hul'qumi'num Treaty Group
web: www.hulquminum.bc.ca

Comment:  This ad is about as bad as Thom says. And the taming of the supposedly empty land isn't the only problem. The Hudson Bay Company's claim that it led the march of civilization across Canada is offensive. Wasn't anyone else involved in colonizing and "settling" Canada? And naturally there's no mention of how the company might've exploited, cheated, or even killed the indigenous population (through disease and warfare).

Possibly the worst claim is that the Hudson Bay Company has brought Cowichan sweaters to Canada and the world. Hello? The sweaters are a product of the Cowichan Tribes. The tribes bid for the Olympics concession and lost. HBC won by ripping off the Cowichan design and mass-producing it more efficiently than the tribes.

Yet there's no mention of any of this. The video implies that the noble Hudson Bay traders saw the tribal design while swarming across Canada and turned it into a commercial product. This isn't just advertising hype, it's flat-out false.

HBC proud of ripping off Natives

Not only that, it's arguably malicious. It eliminates the long history of the Cowichan Tribes producing Cowichan sweaters to justify HBC's exploitation of Native people. It plays like HBC thumbing its nose at tribes. "Ha ha, losers. We stole your land and now we're stealing your sweaters."

HBC could've and should've done this ad differently. Imagine the white interlopers meeting and trading goods and ideas with the tribes. An homage to the tribes' history of making sweaters. And a tagline such as: "Now Hudson Bay Company is bringing this exquisite tribal design to the world." This would've acknowledged that HBC is doing nothing more than building upon (i.e., profiting from) the tribes' invention.

For more on the sweaters, see Non-Cowichan Sweaters Are Fakes and Cowichan Tribes Won't Make Cowichan Sweaters. For more on the glorification of Hudson at the expense of Indians, see Hudson Websites Omit Indians and Indians Not Invited to Hudson Anniversary.

P.S. As usual, I've corrected a few minor mistakes in Thom's letter to improve its readability.


dmarks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dmarks said...

Too bad the author couldn't avoid using the word "theft" without meaning. When one reads of stolen sweaters, one thinks of actual stolen sweaters. You know, something that involved theft. Not some sort of copyright infringement.

jas faulkner said...

That advert looks like it was written by Ann Coulter. For shame, Hudson's Bay Company! You would have done Canada a greater service by offering to market actual Cowichan sweaters via fair trade agreement. The world would have been made aware of that particular craft tradition and at the very least you would have gotten some new fans/customers for doing the right thing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for fixing my typos Rob. A version of the piece later got published as an op-ed in the local Cowichan newspaper to the snide jeers of some. Eventually the HBC and Cowichan Tribes did come out with a deal to market authentic Cowichan sweaters, but those offensive ads keep ticking along.