South Fellini, a T-shirt company with a store on Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia, couldn’t keep its neighborhood-pride tees in stock over the holidays. The tees feature a drawing of an indigenous person wearing a Western headdress.
That logo, which dates back a couple decades, has been getting around lately. The East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District uses the image in orange. And the symbol can be found on maintenance holes up and down the corridor’s sidewalks.
Talk to neighbors and you’ll hear that the iconic image acknowledges that the place name “Passyunk” is thought to derive from Lenape language, oft-translated to “in the valley.” But not everyone sees this as tribute.
For one, Lenape people native to the region did not wear such headdresses.
“It doesn’t really represent us,” said J.R. Norwood, chief justice and councilman-at-large of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribal nation’s Supreme Court. “Anything that’s appropriating Native history should have deference to the history.”
Donna Fann-Boyle, an indigenous rights activist of Cherokee and Choctaw ancestry, takes similar issue:
“It’s a stereotype. That’s exactly what it is,” said Fann-Boyle, of Langhorne. “Native people are very diverse. Using this stereotypical image lumps us as one people who are nonexistent.”
The logo recently was the subject of an article in the City Lab news site, headlined “The Casual Racism of a Philadelphia Neighborhood’s Manhole Covers.” The South Philadelphia-based writer Imran Siddiquee notes in the Dec. 24 piece that the corridor lacks historical plaques or signs to teach people about the Lenape history of the area.
In an interview, Siddiquee described walking along the corridor, a foodie haven, and growing curious what people thought of the logos, which Siddiquee connected to the racially insensitive “Indian Head” imagery. Popular in the 19th century, the image was used in print advertisements that offered bounties for killing indigenous people.
“There’s a casualness in the way that people replicated the same kind of oppression over time,” said the writer, who researches racial representation in media. “A lot of us grew up with these images without thinking of how they make people feel.”
Steven Burton, a member of the Ramapough Lenape Nation and commissioner on the New Jersey Commission on Indian Affairs, isn’t optimistic that the logo will be swapped.
“It would be nice if they did, but I doubt it,” said Burton, of Pine Hill, N.J. Burton said that many indigenous people are met with resistance when expressing complaints around optics.
Adam Leiter, the executive director of the improvement district, responded to an interview request with a statement: “We are open to furthering the discussion, connecting it with education, and making sure the neighborhood continues to evolve. We do recognize the sensitivity around the current usage of the logo, and are actively discussing the issues that have been raised both internally and with neighborhood stakeholders.”
John Zito, co-owner of South Fellini, said the company will no longer sell the T-shirts bearing the logo. He’s in favor of the district scrubbing it.
“After reading the article, we agree,” Zito said. “The idea that something we were making would make someone feel excluded is devastating to us. We’re doing our best to make sure we’re coming down on the right side of this.”
Not everyone in East Passyunk feels that’s necessary. Anthony Critini, the owner of A. Critini Realty, said the criticism is a sign of the times, where too many people have “paper-thin skin.”
“First of all," he said, “it’s ancient history what happened with the history. No one here was involved back then.”
Critini figures he first saw the logo in the neighborhood as long as 30 years ago. “One feather, two feather, three feathers — what does it matter. We’re trying to pay homage.”
Richard Lepore admires the image so much he had it tattooed on his right arm four months ago. No one’s found it offensive, he said, while visiting the Plenty Cafe. He doesn’t see it that way, either. “To me, it don’t really have so much to do with being an Indian symbol as it is a symbol of the neighborhood,” he said.
Karléh Ashanta Wilson, who has Black Creek heritage and lives in Folcroft, disagrees. “That symbol, as person of color with Native ancestry, would make me feel unwelcome,” Wilson said. Indigenous people, she went on, continue to face racism and threats to seize sacred lands. “That symbol? It has residue, and it resonates with things that are happening today.”
According to Leiter of the improvement district, to create the logo several years ago, the district consulted with a Lenape tribal member in Florida, and that person said that while the headdress was not accurate, it was not objectionable.
Norwood, the tribal official, said he’s available for further consult.
“I think it’s wonderful for a community to want to honor their indigenous history, but it needs to do so accurately and respectfully," he said. "If they’re not willing to not ensure they’re doing it in the right way, then they’re willing to do the wrong way and they shouldn’t do it all.”