It was hard not to wonder what kind of publicity Warwick, Quebec’s Yum-Yum Chips was hoping for last week when they announced the return of the company’s “Little Indian” logo, featuring a cartoon of a long-haired Aboriginal child wearing a cowboy-movie-style headband and feather. The brand’s web-page and Facebook fan site are full of images of the new bags featuring the “Little Indian,” as well as ads for in-store cardboard displays of the character with the face cut out so customers can have their picture taken as what the company (in La Presse) called its “famous Indian” and try their luck at winning a t-shirt with the logo on it.
Outcry on social media was swift, and within two days of the announcement, calls to the company’s CEO Valérie Jalbert and its marketing director Renée-Maude Jalbert were being directed to Montreal marketing executive Philippe Bertrand, who identified himself as, “Not a member of the company, [but] just a spokesperson for [the] English news.”
From the first, Bertrand disagreed with the statement that “people are angry about the logo.”
“Actually, we don’t believe that everyone is unhappy,” he said. “I think some people might have been offended by the image. The image is part of a logo that has [existed] for 50 years. It was […] from a contest that was won by a schoolgirl to design the logo of the company—that was a marketing idea 50 years ago.”
“Looking at everything that was said in the last week or so, Quebec people are quite attached to the logo,” Bertrand added.
Repeating a statement made by the company, Bertrand explained that the logo was created for the family of Yum Yum founder Robert Bergeron, of Laurierville, Quebec.
“The family was of Indian origin—Algonquin,” Bertrand said. “From what we know from the grandson of the founder, ‘yum-yum’ would mean potato in Algonquin.”
However, when contacted by the Montreal Gazette’s Don MacPherson, Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council director-general Norm Odjick said, “That’s a good one. “I’ve never heard of ‘yum yum’ as the word for potato in Algonquin. For us it’s ‘padak’ for ‘potato,’ and ‘padakan’ for ‘potatoes.’ Another word that can be used is ‘opinig.’” He closed his response to MacPherson with, “Thanks for your email. I needed a laugh today.”
In response to a letter of complaint to the company, Toronto anti-racist activist Todd Ferguson received an email explaining, “The character depicted on this packaging evokes the likely original developer of the potato chip, George Crum, a Native American. Such was the inspiration at the time for our founders, who also were of Native ancestry. […] Far from being a derogatory caricature, the little character represents a homecoming for Yum Yum. It is witness to our roots and origin, a nostalgic look at our history, but also an opportunity to revive our customer’s memories.”
Available images of George Crum, however, show a stately, dark-skinned gentleman of Huron-Wendat and African American descent who bears no resemblance to the Yum-Yum icon. On the Yum-Yum Facebook fan page, Montrealer Cristian Genete argued, “If you really respected your roots, you’d be brave enough to honour them in a more mature and responsible way than through the use of a caricature—because it is indeed a caricature, regardless of the way you choose to mask that through persuasive words.”
Idle No More organizer Melissa Mollen-Dupuis added that the icon was originally retired in the 1990s in response to the Oka crisis, while Montreal Métis activist Chelsea Vowel took the company to task on its Facebook fan page for claiming that it could not be racist because the image was designed for a Native-owned company. After all, she noted, that the character Aunt Jemima was played for 33 years by former slave Nancy Green.
“The participation of an African-American woman in the propagation of a racist caricature did not make that caricature less racist,” she said. Responding to the company’s appeals of nostalgia for the ‘60s, she reminded readers that Aboriginal peoples were given the right to vote in Canada for the first time in only 1960, and that the Sixties Scoop took Aboriginal children from their families and adopted them out to white people.
“For you, the ‘60s were able to be [worthy] of a moment of nostalgia,” Vowel said. “For Aboriginal peoples, they are a reminder that the racism in this country is not far off from the present.”
Asked whether he considered the image racist, Philippe Bertrand replied, “Not at all. We never wanted to offend anyone. We take notice of what happened, but once again it’s a logo of a company. It’s their logo.”
Bertrand underlined that bags featuring the icon were for a limited marketing campaign.
“It’s not the new image of the company: it’s a packaging that will be there until January. It was produced on a very small scale, for the next two months.”
The company, Bertrand said, is sad about the controversy over the image. “We’ve learned from that.”
Asked if the packages will be recalled, however, Bertrand replied, “Not at all. We will not recall the chips.”