Say it isn't so! Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer has invaded Lakota country again, this time through the Happy Meals sold to little children at McDonald's.
Bobbie DuBray, Administrative Assistant for the Lakota Peoples Law Project was not only shocked by this apparent display of racial insensitivity, but also angered by it.
DuBray says, "I went through the drive thru at McDonalds on East North Street to get a Happy Meal for my five-year-old son. I got home and my brother opened the meal and found the Custer doll." She said he then asked her to come and look at what he found. To her shock it was Custer toy. Her son wanted the toy and she told him, "No. that's a bad toy." She said that her 10 year old daughter did not understand why the toy was bad. She and her mother, Betty Handley, then gave the girl a history lesson "My daughter was not taught about this in school. What are they teaching our children?" she asked.
DuBray, visibly upset by this experience, said, "I think it's insulting. It's like handing out KKK dolls in the south where there are a lot of Blacks."
Belva Morrison, Indian Child Welfare Specialist for the Lakota Law Project, said that DuBray told her about the doll incident this morning. Morrison said, "It is insensitive for local merchants to hand out these dolls where there is a large Indian population. They should have thought twice about promoting these figurines. I don't believe we're overacting. I think we are not tolerating things like this anymore. They're targeting young kids whose minds are easily impressed."
Pam Duncan, executive director for United Sioux Tribes, when asked about the Custer figurines said, "Why are they honoring Custer? I don't know how they [McDonalds] could be so insensitive. Especially the way we are experiencing racism right now. That's teaching our kids the wrong culture."
Dana Knight a mother, and a United Sioux Tribes employee said, "I don't want no Custer in my house."
Tim Swimmer who happened to be nearby offered his comment. He said, "It's like history is repeating itself." He was bothered by the apparent insensitivity shown by the McDonald's chain to a very sensitive issue in Lakota country. Custer is best known to the Lakota as an "Indian killer," and as the man who attacked an encampment of the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho at the Little Big Horn and paid the ultimate price for this folly. He was the head of the 7th Cavalry unit that attacked a sleeping camp of Cheyenne/Arapaho on the Washita in Oklahoma ruthlessly slaughtering men, women and children.
Josh Ullmark, Restaurant Manager of the McDonald's on East North Street, the McDonald's most frequented by Native Americans, said he was aware that the Custer figurines were being distributed in the Happy Meals. When Ullmark was asked for a comment he offered an 800 number for McDonalds Midwest Regional Office in Peoria, Illinois and refused to comment.
The Happy Meal prize shows the man they labeled "General Custer" (he was a Lt. Colonel) riding a motorcycle and his figurine is accompanied by a card explaining a bit of Custer's history. "Ever hear of Custer's last stand? It was named after George Armstrong Custer who lead (their spelling) his troops into the battle at Little Big Horn," the card reads.
The question that immediately came to the mind of Jason Wolters, an Oglala Lakota, was, "I don't think the big shots at McDonald's realize what an insult this is to the Lakota people. Here was a man responsible for the death of many Lakota and a man responsible for discovering the gold that eventually led to the theft of the Sacred Black Hills of the Great Sioux Nation, and they have the audacity to hand out his likeness to children here in Rapid City, a town now fighting to prove it is not a racist community?"
Wolters compared the insult to putting a figurine of Adolph Hitler in a McDonald's Happy Meal served in Tel Aviv, Israel. "Most white people would never understand our perspective on this horrible faux paux, but to every Indian in America, the insult is obvious," he said.
He added, "Most advertising agencies are in the east and the people who put the ads and flyers together have absolutely no idea about the demographics out here in Indian country. We Lakota never see an Indian in the flyers of Kohl's, J. C. Penney's or Wal-Mart. They never stop to consider that our Lakota children never see people like themselves in the flyers and ads they send out here and yet you can go to Chicago or San Francisco and see ads with African Americans and Asian Americans.
Yesterday several customers, white and Indian, visited different McDonald's shops in Rapid City and ordered Happy Meals. They soon discovered their packets did not contain a Custer figurine and motorcycle. They went to the counter and specifically asked for a Custer memento and were told there were none to be had. Customers buying Happy Meals without the Custer figurine were offered refunds on the meal if they so requested. It became apparent that McDonald's withdrew the offensive Custer figurines quietly and without comment.
Tim Giago is the editor of Native Sun News and this story will break in his newspaper tomorrow. He is the founder of the Native American Journalists Association and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991