Wooden Indians were once so common in Hang Dong (a suburb of Chiang Mai famous for making fake antiques) that they outnumbered people. Now their population has been devastated, only a few remain. Not long from now they will probably have disappeared completely. While there is still time, Private Tye has (Fenimore Cooper style) decided to document the history of these vanishing statues.
Decades ago Hang Dong established an furniture industry based on recycling wood. In those days most of the local villagers lived in houses made of teak. Enterprising builders persuaded the villagers that houses made of cheap concrete blocks were much better. So the teak houses started to come down and be replaced by hideous concrete structures that were hot as hell and had rising damp. The lumber from the demolished houses went to Hang Dong. There was soon a thriving furniture industry with Hang Dong supplying local demand, demand from Bangkok and a large overseas market. This was not surprising, because Hang Dong was the only place in the world with a supply of teak. What was surprising was that this teak furniture sold for less than the furniture in Department stores, which was made of plastic sheets, low grade steel, and fibreboard and held together with staples. Sadly, the teak houses were soon gone and, as Thailand's teak forests had been completely cut down twenty years earlier, that was the end of the furniture industry in Hang Dong. Valiant attempts to keep the industry going by making furniture out of pond weed seem to have failed.
Fortunately, there was another source of timber. Along the side of Thai roads you would find lots of self seeded trees, especially the Saman tree (Janjaree in Thai), and many of these grew to considerable size. These trees are hated by the Department of Highways and local authorities because they provide shade and encourage pedestrians to use the roads. Saman wood is soft and useless for making furniture, it can, however, be used to make large wooden statues.
The first of these were fake Buddhas and large statues of girls giving the “wai” (the traditional Thai greeting, now falling into disuse). Corrupt local officials and small town gangsters loved these. Wooden politeness was just their style, and at one time there was not a racketeer in Thailand who did not have two wooden "Wai" girls on either side of this front door. Then suddenly “Wai” girls were out and wooden Indians were in. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of them. Standing in shops, riding around on the back of trucks, queuing up at the local noodle stall. So where did they come from?
Wooden Indians started when Columbus “discovered” America. Unlike the Vikings, who had “discovered” America hundreds of years earlier, Columbus was a useless navigator and did not know where he was. He thought he was in India, so he called the native Americans “Indians”. The name stuck and even the British, when they ruled India with millions of real Indians, still called the American natives “Indians”. So, why are they made of wood? Native Americans were the first people to smoke tobacco, traders purchased tobacco from them and brought it back to London. Shop keepers put life sized wooden Indians outside their shops to show that they sold tobacco (because it was difficult to get a real native American to stand outside the shop in London's rain). It was just like Instagram, a way of communicating with people who have not learned to read.
By 1800 most people in Britain had learned to read and the wooden Indians disappeared from London. Nevertheless, this was not the end of them, because they became popular in 19th Century America because of the low literacy rate. That right, in the East of the country they were putting wooden Indians in front of tobacconists while in the the West they were exterminating the native Americans. Wooden Indians disappeared not because they were a sick genocide joke, but because of the modern non-smoking policies. Although they were gone from the tobacconist, they became highly prized as “folk art” by the American bourgeoisie. With decades of experience making fake Asian art, producing Wooden Indians was a perfect export business for Hang Dong's craftsmen.
The question is, why have Americans stopped buying fake folk art which mocks the victims of genocide and was used to sell a reputedly dangerous substance to an illiterate population? Private Tye has no answer to this.