It's the great Eskimo debate

Last updated 13:00 23/04/2009

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OPINION: A claim we have been collectively guilty of gross cultural insensitivity by biting into marshmallows called Eskimos for the last 54 years caught the country on the hop this week.

Canadian tourist Seeka Lee Veevee Parsons claimed the 190g bags of lollies on New Zealand shop shelves were an insult to her people, both in terms of the name, which she said had racial overtones, and the shape, which stereotyped her people as igloo dwellers. She has also complained about our icecream Eskimo Pie. Ms Parsons maintained the term Eskimo was an insult and had been replaced with Inuit. The 21-year-old from the Nunavut territory in northeast Canada planned to make Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and her grandfather, an Inuit tribal elder, aware of the Pascall lollies.

So should the Eskimo and Eskimo Pie be condemned as another gollywog, redesigned and renamed? Despite Ms Parson's claims, while the word Eskimo has fallen from favour in parts of Canada, it is still widely used.

She claimed seeing it aroused painful memories because white children teased her as a child but it seems strange that she had to travel halfway around the world before finding a theatre to make a complaint. The city of Edmonton, in her own country, has turned out to cheer the Edmonton Eskimos hockey, soccer and baseball clubs over the years. It's likely the confectionary on sale at those games would have included many Eskimo Pies. It was a chocolate icecream dreamed up in the US, not New Zealand, in 1920 and sold worldwide. Edmonton is in Alberta. So is Calgary, where Canadian Prime Minister Harper has been MP for the last seven years.

It's a contradiction in terms, but the marshmallow Eskimo has become something of a Kiwi tradition. Last year we ate 19 million of them. The Eskimo lolly has already stood the test of time, and it should not be condemned on the basis that the word is not as popular as it once was. What would come next? Parent groups complaining about jelly babies ginger groups getting heated up about gingerbread men and Aucklanders demanding Cadbury stops selling Jaffas?

The story brought to mind the outrage caused when tobacco giant Philip Morris was caught selling "Maori" brand cigarettes in Israel. It also exposed an unexpectedly high level of antagonism to an overseas visitor's cultural concerns. New Zealanders have, it is thought, become more culturally aware in recent years, and the eskimo allegations were worth airing. Yet the reaction to Ms Parsons being offended were of the familiar New Zealand "if you don't like it here, go home" variety which was once the standard reaction to any perceived criticism from immigrants.

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Pascall says the Eskimos will stay, and the decision is well founded and logical. However, Ms Parsons' claims may have contained flaws but her point about the lolly being a stereotype was valid. Perhaps views here might be different if Canadian confectioners launched a new range called "Horis", featuring tattooed Maori faces.

- Waikato Times

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