The Associated Press reports that Danish toy maker Lego has agreed to change the names of characters in its popular series of Bionicles toys (see 'Bionicles Biggest for Holidays?'). After meeting with representatives of the Maoris of New Zealand, Lego has decided to discontinue the use of Maori words such as 'Tohunga' (Maori for 'priest'), 'Pohatu' ('stone'), 'Kanohi' ('mask'), and 'Whenua' ('earth'), and in the future will refrain from using names taken directly from other cultures. As evidenced by the movement in the U.S. against the use of indigenous names for sports teams, cultural sensitivity to the exploitation of indigenous language and culture is increasing.
The basis for the elaborate series of Bionicle toys, games, and comics is an elaborate back-story, which draws heavily on Polynesian (and Maori) legends and lore (see 'Bionicles: Lego's Integrated Approach To Creating A Toy Boom'). The vowel-laden names of the Bionicles characters are clearly reminiscent of Polynesian names and the elemental (earth, fire, water, stone, air) nature of the characters also relates to the spiritual beliefs of Pacific islanders.
There are a series of questions that are important to retailers as Lego makes changes in order to avoid the appearance of exploiting the cultures of the South Pacific. Will the characters just get a quick name change, or will the very nature of the Bionicles saga be altered significantly? Will the Bionicles boom continue or will the changes and unscheduled repackaging throw a spanner in the works of a very well oiled toy-merchandising machine? What will happen to the Upper Deck CCG--will it, other licensed products, and promotional uses of the property have to follow suit? And will the first release toys, which are already in very short supply, become major collectibles due to being discontinued? Stay tuned.