When Russ Davis erected conical-shaped structures in Hubbard Park last week, he says he never intended to offer a "Native American experience." Instead, he says, he chose the style of tent because he wanted to create gathering spaces that could accommodate a fire pit inside the structure.
"These types of tents are available for rent in Wisconsin campgrounds and airbnbs throughout the country," says Davis.
Davis, who is not Native American, says he purposely used the words "tall timber tents" rather than "tipi" (alternatively, "teepee" or "tepee") to describe the tents because he was adamant about creating a nature-based entertainment experience that was unconnected to the Native American experience.
However, some feel that regardless of what they’re called, the concept – which includes hourly rental by groups of eight to 12 people with the option of food and drink packages – is disrespectful to Native American culture. Others responded on social media forums that it was not Davis’ place to make decisions like this and just because someone doesn’t mean to be offensive, doesn’t mean they aren’t.
"Looking at the canvas structures in Hubbard Park and saying they are not tipis, is like looking at a cup and saying indeed it’s not a cup, it’s a container," says Mark Denning, an Oneida tribal member with an ancestral line to Menominee, Stockbridge-Munsee and Ojibway. "This isn't just a little dust-up about style, or entertainment options for a targeted market. It's about using a race of people and their past so others can feel good about themselves."
Denning says regardless of Davis’ intention, this is an example of cultural appropriation and Davis should apologize, remove the structures and donate them to a homeless organization.
"The gentrification and commodification of our culture so someone can go glamping next to a beer garden is not new, nor is it original, and it remains disrespectful," says Denning. "They need to take them down. Then the Village of Shorewood and the hired managerial company for the park need to revisit the mission and vision of the park with cultural inclusion work."
Davis says he provides information about the history of tents and tipis to renters which discuss the prevalence of these or similar structures in multiple cultures including Finnish, as well as Siberian and North American indigenous cultures.
Davis also says he would like to host fundraisers for Native American organizations and donate proceeds.
"I’m learning and I want to make it better," says Davis.
Stay tuned to OnMilwaukee for this developing story.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.