Custer Street fair drops ‘Last Stand’ from name

Just in time for summer, Evanston’s lively Custer Fair returns this weekend to the Chicago-Main-Custer area with its customary mix of crafts, food, street performers and music entertainment.

But they’ll be something missing, too, in this, the 43rd edition of the fair: part of its name.

Organizers have decided to drop “Custer’s Last Stand,” from the popular street fair name, and just go with Custer Fair, in deference to concerns from Native Americans that the old name was offensive, said John Szostek, the fair’s longtime executive director.

Fair organizers originally featured “Custer Last Stand” in the title, playfully making reference to Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s death in 1876 when he and all his men were killed in a battle with a coalition of Native American tribes at the balttle of Little Big Horn.

Custer Street, one of the streets in Evanston where the fair takes place, was named after Custer because of his exploits in the Civil War, Szostek said.

The fair has always paid strong tribute to the name’s Native American roots, working with contacts at the American Indian Center of Chicago, booking performers of authentic Pow Wow dances and featuring Indian lore.

“Over the years, the attitude of the American Indian Center has changed,” explained Szostek. “In the beginning of the fair, he was still considered rather a comic blunderer, but in the past few years the people at the Native American Indian Center didn’t understand why we were celebrating that person.”

He said questions were particularly raised by the center’s young people who came to the fair to perform in the Native American Pow Wow dance featured every year.

They began to question, “voiced their concern to their allies,’’ about an event that paid such homage to Custer, said Szostek.

“So last year I listened to them, and I think they were right.” Szostek said. He said he was left with a choice of, “can I try to force the situation ­— try to make it make it an educational experience; or we can just make the event about celebrating life in Evanston or the North Shore — have it become more of a contemporary festival than a historic look-back festival.”

He chose the later, not wanting to go down the road of some sports franchises, like the Washington Redskins, resistant to change even though consensus was mounting that such names were offensive.

“We we’re primarily interested in being allies to the Native Americans,” he said.

He said the change means a rebranding of the fair, which until recent years played up prominently the “Custer’s Last Stand” theme on art, T-shirts, posters, even a mustachioed George Armstrong Custer mascot head, celebrating the award-winning fair.

“It will still be called the Custer Fair; to eliminate that name would be really confusing,” said Szostek. “So it’s what most people know the event as, Custer Fair, with the dropping of Custer’s Last Stand as a name.”

Getting rid of the Custer mascot outfit was no great loss, he insisted.

“It was pretty used,” he said. “Over the years, I think things were living in it.”

Some other features of the fair:

• The fair runs from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m., this Saturday and Sunday at the corner of Chicago-Main St., and Custer and other streets around. There is no fee.

• 350 artists and craftspeople from across the country have signed up to exhibit and sell paintings, ceramics, pottery, graphic arts, wearable art, antiques and other items.

• Two entertainment stages, where performers such as FlashBack Chicago, the Terre Cohen Orchestra, Corky Siegel and Howard Levy and others have entertained.

• At the same time as the fair, roughly 150 local businesses and commercial exhibitors will put on an old-fashioned sidewalk sale.

• In Eiden Park on Washington Street, youngsters can receive free balloon sculptures from the teen clowns of the Starfish Learning Center or also take in the exploits of master juggler Adam Zeisler.

• The fair will once again feature an Eco-village, sponsored by Whole Foods. Fair goers will find makers of solar energy and wind energy devices, plus purveyors of organic and fair-traded products.

For other information, including entertainment times, visit www.custerfair.com

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