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Duluth store owner apologizes over T-shirt controversy

Simon Shakad (left), owner of the retail shop I Love Duluth, reaches an accord with Donna Blue Bird as the two work together to craft a public apology about some offensive T-shirts Shakad was selling. Shakad read the apology to the public afterward in front of the Canal Park store. (Bob King/Duluth News Tribune)

DULUTH - One day after angrily calling out a retail shop in Canal Park for selling T-shirts offensive to American Indians, Donna Blue Bird, an American Indian woman from Duluth, was shaking hands with the store's owner.

The gesture came after Simon Shakad, owner of "I Love Duluth," agreed Thursday to issue an apology to Blue Bird and all American Indians for selling the shirts in his store. The shop carries tourist merchandise as well as various "joke" T-shirts.

"It was the right thing to do," Shakad said about making the apology. "I don't want to offend anyone."

The shirts at the center of the controversy were printed with the lines "My Indian name is 'Drinks Like Fish' " and "My Indian name is 'Crawling Drunk.' "

About 10 American Indians, including four from Blue Bird's family, gathered outside his store Thursday to demand Shakad issue an apology to American Indian people. Ricky DeFoe, co-chairman of the Duluth American Indian Commission, was among them.

"When shopkeepers sell these kinds of images, it perpetuates racism. ... Our people are doctors, lawyers, all kinds of things," DeFoe said. "The myth that American Indians are drunks is a lie. You have free speech, but how far should that go? No one should make a profit off lies and offending people. We deserve an apology."

Shakad agreed last week to stop carrying the shirts after his shop was visited by Duluth Human Rights Officer Bob Grytdahl, but only after the last had been sold off the clearance rack. Blue Bird bought two of the shirts Wednesday after spotting them on a rack outside the store. Shakad said the last were gone by Wednesday evening.

"I won't be carrying them anymore," he said.

The informal protest started about 11 a.m. By 12:15 p.m., Shakad was sitting down with Blue Bird to draft an apology, which included the phrase: "I am apologizing to the Native American people for their concerns."

He read the statement standing next to Blue Bird in front of his store and then shook her hand.

"I am happy [Shakad] was a big enough person to apologize," Blue Bird said. She added that the battle to fight discrimination against American Indians still is far from over. "This conversation needs to continue. ... We are not to the bottom of it yet."

DeFoe said the bigger issue is contending with major corporations that make their living by selling racist merchandise.

"He is the smallest on the chain as a shopkeeper, but the solution has got to start somewhere and it started here today," he said. "Two people came together today and that's a good thing. ... This apology goes a long way in looking to create a racially just city."

Not all members of the Duluth American Indian Commission liked the way the incident was handled Thursday. Michelle Gordon, secretary of the commission, said she would have preferred letting the process play out that Grytdahl and the commission's co-chair, Donna Ennis, put in place last week.

"Our concern is that when you come at something with anger and protesting, it is almost like the oppressed becomes the oppressor -- and then where does that end?" Gordon said. "There are many ways to look at something like this and [Ennis and Grytdahl] had begun a process that was yielding a peaceful solution. ... I would have preferred to let that follow through."