By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

Dr. Debbie LaCroix walked into the Keizer Station Petco last week and stopped in her tracks when she saw a merchandise display near the front entrance.

The collection is labeled “Pets on Safari” with a sign specially made for the merchandise table. It includes a variety of stuffed animals and chew toys alongside the largest item on the table, a teepee-shaped pet house.

“I froze, it was just so incongruent with what they are trying to promote. You would never see that kind of thing in relation to Hispanic or black communities,” said LaCroix, a former teacher at Chemawa Indian School.

The $80 teepee was an affront to LaCroix’s heritage as a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota Oyate. An oyate means a people or nation in some Native American dialects. Placing the product near a “safari” sign brings up supposedly by-gone notions of Native Americans as savages.

“I think it is important that people know it would be like putting a cathedral or synagogue there. They would find that sacrilegious. The spiritual and religious significance of the teepee is the same to us.,” LaCroix said.

LaCroix, who lives in south Salem, said she still does most of her shopping at Keizer Station and is a frequent Petco customer. LaCroix said she talked with the assistant manager and store manager at the store, but felt her complaints were falling on deaf ears.

“It frustrates me as a Native educator that this kind of thinking and perspective isn’t given a second thought,” she said.

She felt as though some action might be taken after talking with someone from a Petco corporate headquarters, but the display featuring the teepee was still in the front of the store on Tuesday, May 23. The teepee is also featured under the keyword “safari” at www.petco.com. Keizertimes reached out to the Petco press office, but had not received a response by press time.

Teepees are more than just a catch-all emblem of all Native American cultures, La Croix said. Many native nations didn’t even use teepees.

“When a teepee is put together, the poles are cut from certain kinds of trees and those represent values like humility, honor, respect, family, generosity. There are prayers that are said as it is being put up. Some are ceremonial and some are homes. There are even certain ways to enter a teepee,” she said.

LaCroix hasn’t sworn off shopping at Petco, but she wants others to understand the ramifications of even “innocently displayed” items like a pet teepee.

“We’re trying to educate people on sensitivity and we can’t heal the wounds or racial divides unless people are aware of what is wrong,” LaCroix said.