From today’s New York Times:
For years, the N.F.L. and the Washington Redskins have defended the team’s name by claiming that it is a sign of honor and bravery, not a slur. When critics disagreed, the team pointed to a survey showing that a majority of Native Americans supported the name.
Making that defense may become harder. On Wednesday, a division of the federal government ruled that the Redskins name was disparaging. The team was stripped of federal protections for six of its trademarks.
That reminded me of something I’d written in a book (Branded for Life, now out of print). Slightly updated, here’s the relevant excerpt:
“Have You Ever Seen A Real Indian?”
That line was the basis of a public education campaign whose advertisements appeared in Rolling Stone, and several other magazines. The campaign promoted the American Indian College Fund.
What traits do you associate with today’s Native Americans? What do you know about them? If you met one, what questions would you ask? Would you ask about casinos, or alcoholism, poverty or living on reservations, the environment or restitution, or maybe the Crazy Horse monument? Maybe (then) new museum in Washington, D.C.? Maybe you’d discuss a book you had read about Indians, maybe a movie like Dances with Wolves?
Despite our newfound social awareness, we’re still struggling with the problem of Indians, or Native Americans. Neither label is okay: Indian was the result of mistaken identity (explorers believed were in India, not the New World), and American is a variation on the name of European explorer Amerigo Vespucci, whose maps helped to remove millions of native people from their homeland.
Children still sing “Ten Little Indians” and still play “cowboys and Indians.” Amos n’ Andy episodes are no longer shown on TV, there’s no such ban cinematic representations of Indians: bloodthirsty, lawless savage, tragic, inevitable, lazy, shiftless, drunk, oil rich, illiterate, educated half-breed, unable to live in either White or Indian world. We continue to envision the American Indian as noble hero, stoic, unemotional, first conservationist.
You can still buy a Jeep Cherokee (imagine buying a Chrysler Jew or a Ford Puerto Rican!), or a Pontiac, or travel in style in a Winnebago. You can buy a t-shirt with a grinning Cleveland Indian, or chew Red Man tobacco, or delight in the natural purity of Land O’ Lakes butter, whose Indian Maiden logo recalls the innocence of Hiawatha. The Tomahawk Missile was successfully deployed during the Gulf War. (First time around, I missed the Redskins completely.)
Nearly 30 percent of our native people live below the poverty line. Their numbers are few (4.3 million people, or 1.5% of the population–slightly less than all Americans claiming Norwegian ancestry). They are neither valuable to marketers nor are they powerful forces for change. (Tribal casinos are changing the situation, but not for all).
Today’s thinking. The elimination of Redskins trademarks is an appropriate first step, one that should have been taken decades ago. If I was a marketing executive at the Cleveland Indians, I’d be canceling all vacation plans this summer and instructing every employee of my advertising and marketing agencies to do the same. As this ball gets rolling, there will be a lot of clean-up work to do. Be sure to visit this link to see the HUNDREDS of high school teams whose names and mascots are based upon Braves, Indians, Redskins, Warriors, and more—and the dozens of professional and college teams named for Indians who, with or without their well-intentioned elimination of native warrior imagery who ought to be making alternate plans.
Okay, enough about this all-American misstep. Let’s talk about something far more important—the real lives of native peoples living in America today. Not in a museum, not in history books, but in contemporary 21st Century America. One powerful way to understand contemporary Indian life is to read the news and feature stories about their nation within a nation. Visit The Only Recognized National Media Platform Serving Indian Country
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