When Tommy Diabo was a student at Kahnawake Survival School (KSS) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he loved drawing. It was his passion for art that led him to a conversation with a school administrator in the 1980-81 school year, where he was asked to create something to represent KSS.
“I said ‘yeah, I can come up with something.’ So it was me, sitting down, sharpening my own pencils, a 2B pencil, and getting to work,” Diabo said.
Diabo declined to name that administrator, but explained that he submitted the finished piece to the school and graduated the following year. At the time, there were no conversations about ownership of the image.
Diabo has been making attempts to discuss ownership of the logo with the Kahnawake Education Center (KEC) in recent years. Though many community members have expressed on social media that they feel this discussion is happening 40 years too late, Diabo said it’s important to him that his work be appreciated and recognized, no matter how many years may have passed since its creation. In recent weeks, KEC has announced that a researcher found Diabo to be involved in the creation of the original logo but that they still assert ownership over the design.
Diabo said recent personal attacks against him on social media are the result of the community having an inaccurate picture of his intentions.
“I just wanted recognition,” Diabo said.
Diabo didn’t make any attempts at raising issues of ownership until 2018, when he heard that KSS’ 40th anniversary was coming up. He posted in reply to a Facebook post about the anniversary that he had never received the credit he deserved for the “Eagle in Flight” logo and was told by the then chairperson of the Kahnawake Combined Schools Committee (KCSC) that his concerns would be taken to the rest of the board.
“But it didn’t go anywhere,” Diabo said. “I never heard from anybody.”
Letters to KEC
Diabo said it was later that year that he heard students were asked to vote on whether they would like to keep the vintage logo or opt for a newer design for the school.
The school voted to drop Diabo’s older logo, which he explained is why he decided to claim ownership, as he considered the logo to now be in limbo, since it would no longer be used for KSS branding.
In December 2019, he sent a letter to KEC, informing them that he was the original creator of the “Eagle in Flight” logo and asking for the school to consider a discussion on options for usage of the image. He proposed that he lease the image indefinitely for $1, and that the school donate $100 per year to Onake Paddling Club as well as deposit $200 in his daughter’s account for each year that the image is used.
“I sent out these letters,” he said. “But there were no replies.”
Diabo followed up with KEC twice more, once on January 31, 2020, and another on March 2, 2020.
“They had plenty of time to reply in the proper manner, but it was going nowhere,” he said.
With the COVID-19 pandemic slowing down communications, Diabo’s attempts to speak with KEC continued into late 2021, even involving the Kahnawake Alternative Dispute Resolution Sken:nen A’onsonton. However, according to Diabo, KEC still did not respond to Diabo’s requests to speak, and so no progress was made.
KSS Pop-Up Shop
Throughout this time period, a shop known as the KSS Pop-Up shop was selling merchandise with the vintage KSS eagle logo. The shop, run by three local mothers, was selling out at events like the KSS open house.
Diabo reached out to the shop via Facebook in 2022, asking them to stop selling the merchandise, though he said that he did not initially receive a reply from the KSS Pop-Up Shop.
“I was told that all proceeds were going towards the students’ needs, and I found that a very noble thing for them to do,” he said. “But in the meantime, there’s a matter of recognition and of rights, so that’s when I asked them sternly to stop or I would have to get a court order.”
He said when he proposed to the shop that he lease the logo in return for donations to Onake and his daughter, he was told the shop would be closing their doors.
“I told them they don’t have to close their doors, but I said ‘if you do decide to close your doors, I’m willing to take all your merchandise off your hands.’ We’re talking thousands of dollars of merchandise,” Diabo said. “After that, I never heard from them again…I never asked them to close their doors, I simply asked them to stop selling their merchandise.”
Diabo said he mentioned lawyers to the KSS Pop-Up Shop after seeing that they were still selling KSS merchandise with the Eagle in Flight Logo in recent weeks. On November 3, the Pop-Up Shop posted on their Facebook account referring to the message.
“Due to a threat from a local community businessman who claims ownership over the original KSS logo, the KSS Pop-Up Store can no longer sell its vintage clothing line (with the original KSS eagle logo),” the post states. “Please be aware that any sales of this clothing line (with the original eagle logo) are from a private seller not associated with The KSS Pop-Up Store.”
Since then, Diabo said he has seen countless attacks against him on social media, which he said have been hurtful to read. He said it’s had an impact on his mental health.
“I can’t read them anymore. It’s just too upsetting.”
Research from the KSS Oral History Project
Diabo said he did not formally hear from KEC until 2022, when he was contacted by Wahéhshon Whitebean, a KEC education research consultant tasked with researching logo artists at KSS throughout the years for the “KSS Oral History Project.”
Whitebean identified Diabo as a contributing artist for the KSS Eagle in Flight logo, Owisokon Lahache as a contributing artist for the Digital Eagles KSS logo and existing KSS logo, and Babe Hemlock as a contributing artist for the KSS Diploma Eagle design.
Diabo said Whitebean was convinced by an initial sketch that included Diabo’s Kanien’kéha name Tioneratate, as well as his explanation that he had hidden the letters T-O-M-M-Y in abstract writing within the eagle’s left wing. Diabo was also able to provide official copyright documentation dated July 2022 that he filed proactively, as well as a signed statement from Cookie McComber – who was a teaching facilitator for Diabo’s class at the time – dated May 2022 stating that he attests to Diabo being the creator of the logo.
Diabo said that Whitebean had explained that she would turn her research over to KEC, who told Diabo three weeks ago that they agree that he is the artist, but that they are still claiming rights to the design.
KEC told The Eastern Door that they were committed to continuing to find a peaceful resolution.
“The recent controversy has brought to the surface how important the collective is for our community. We will continue to work towards a peaceful resolve that acknowledges the rich history of KSS and builds on its future,” said Robin Delaronde, director of education via email.
Seeking a solution
Diabo said that since the controversy erupted, he has reached out to KEC to attempt to find a different solution. In the letter, Diabo made two simple requests, not related to revenue or rights, and he is hoping to come to an amicable solution with the KEC.
“It’s my olive branch, not only to KEC and the KSS Pop-Up Shop, but also to the community of Kahnawake,” he said.
He said that a date has been set for a discussion to take place between KEC and himself next week.