The totem pole was constructed by non-Indigenous students in the 1970s when the building was a high school. (Heather Hughes/LKDSB) The Lambton-Kent District School Board has decided to remove a student-made totem pole from Tecumseh Public School in Chatham, Ont. over concerns it is a "symbol of cultural appropriation."
"It came to our attention from our transformation committee," explained LKDSB director of education Jim Costello. "Our trustees had voted to consolidate Tecumseh Public School with another school, John N. Given Public School — and when we do that we form a [committee] and part of their role is to look at mascots, school colours, nicknames, symbols."
The totem pole was constructed by four non-Indigenous students in the early 1970s when the building was a high school. Chief Tecumseh was a key figure during the War of 1812. (Government of Canada) "They did it with the best of intentions — they wanted to do something to honour Tecumseh," Costello said. "[We now know] that totems poles are actually a reflection of … west coast Indigenous citizens and are not really appropriate in this part of Ontario."
Tecumseh was a Shawnee chief who allied with the British during the War of 1812, eventually dying during the Battle of the Thames near Moriaviantown in 1813.
"The Shawnee don’t use totem poles," Costello said, explaining the board consulted with Dr. Robin Gray, a Ts’msyen from Lax Kw’alaams, B.C and Dr. Mark Aquash from Walpole Island, in making the decision.
"Not only is it an example of cultural appropriation, there’s no logical connection to the legacy of Tecumseh."
Costello noted that while many in the community have been supportive of the decision, some former students are not pleased and have launched an online petition to keep the totem pole in place.
"My counter to that would be it’s about doing what’s right, doing what’s appropriate," he said. "We have an obligation to our current students in the school — now that we know more than we did in the 1970s — to provide appropriate symbols."
Costello said the amalgamated school will continue to be called Tecumseh Public School and he hopes to work with descendents of the historic figure on a new plan for honouring him.
The totem pole will be removed when the school undergoes renovations this summer and will be returned to the students who created it.
Jonathan Pinto is a reporter/editor at CBC Windsor, primarily assigned to Afternoon Drive, CBC Radio’s regional afternoon show for southwestern Ontario. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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