I read protests recently on Native Appropriations’ Facebook page over the use of a totem pole from Stanley Park in Vancouver in a liquor store logo.
This image brings to mind the question of public vs. private art. Lou-ann Ika’wega Neel a descendant of the the artist who created the totem pole writes:
“My great-grandfather, Charlie Yakudlas James, carved a totem pole that has stood in Stanley Park for many years. It is the most photographed and replicated totem pole of the collection. The images on this pole belong to our family, our tribe, our people; they have great meaning and significance to our cultural and spiritual ways. Over the years, this pole has been replicated into everything from cheap plastic souvenirs to a central figure in shaping BC and the ‘Pacific Northwest Coast’ in terms of tourism marketing and branding. It’s always bothered me that this image that comes from our family is being used for individual and corporate gain. And when I saw this today I was absolutely outraged!
Our family’s crests are NOT to be used to promote a product that is completely contradictory to everything the pole represents!
I will be sending a letter to the owners of this liquor store to ask them to stop using this image.”
I sympathize with her distress, but from the outside I wonder about the fact the pole is in a public park. When art is put in a public park, do not images of that art become part of the public domain? There is a statue called the “Free Stamp” in Cleveland. If someone opened “Free Stamp Liquor” I doubt the artists’ families would complain or that their complaints would be taken serious. The art is in the public domain. The same principles apply were Grant Wood’s family to complain about misappropriations of “American Gothic.” In this case though, the pole has religious and familial significance so its commercialization is particularly off-putting. I would think it would all come down to original intent–whether the original carver carved the piece as a public work, or as a private work (with it later being moved to a park).