Playing Indian: The Use and (Mostly) Misuse of Native American History and Imagery

The Cleveland Indians’ announcement in January that they would complete the phase-out of their “Chief Wahoo” logo — the bright-red, idiotically grinning, feather-wearing character that disgraced their uniforms — by the beginning of 2019 was a victory for the growing movement to ban Native American logos and team names from sports. The team finally succumbed to pressure from baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred to get rid of an image that many Natives, and non-Natives as well, regarded as offensive. The team already had taken baby steps to downplay the image, removing it from batting helmets and displays in the ballpark. However, the team will continue to sell gear with Wahoo logos, ostensibly to protect its trademark, and will continue to be called Indians, which advocates have urged it to change as well.

The Cleveland team’s move follows the growing practice of sports teams across the United States to drop team names and logos that demean and stereotype Native Americans. The greatest progress has been at the high-school level, with about one-third of schools that used Native names a half-century ago no longer doing so, but a few colleges and a handful of professional teams have also dropped Native names and logos.

Here in the Washington area, however, the local National Football League team continues to cling to a team name that is a dictionary-defined racial slur. Daniel Snyder, the team’s stubborn owner, has vowed never to change the name, despite pressure from nationwide Native organizations and activists and a growing grassroots movement among the team’s fans.

Clearly, Snyder needs to pay a visit to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, which recently opened an exhibition on how Native imagery and history have been used and abused for entertainment, profit-making, and painting a pretty face on the policy of Manifest Destiny. With the simple title of “Americans,” the show paints a stark picture of how one group of Americans — those whose ancestry in this country goes back millennia — sees things differently from the majority whose roots in the United States reach back only a few centuries or less.

The exhibit is dominated by more than 100 objects — advertisements, clothing, toys, movie posters and even military weaponry — bearing Native images or names. The objects date from the early 18th century to almost the present day. On the far wall, a giant screen plays clips of films that featured stereotyped Native characters.

The oldest image in the exhibit is a copy of the Virginia colonial seal from 1705 in which a Native kneels before England’s Queen Anne, presenting her with tobacco. However, most of the images in the display come from the 20th and 21st centuries. Sports images abound, including those bearing the Washington football team’s controversial name; one of them, a poster issued by the Philadelphia Eagles promoting a 1962 game with Washington, depicts the home team’s avian symbol having snatched the bow and arrow from its opponent’s clueless-looking Native mascot. There are plenty more Native-themed sports logos representing the baseball Braves and Indians, the basketball Warriors (which today no longer uses a Native logo but retains the name) and college teams.

Posters for cowboy-and-Indian movies are well-represented, including one for “Flaming Star” featuring Elvis Presley as a “half breed” — and the John Wayne/Henry Fonda film “Fort Apache,” which turned the name of a Native tribe into a catchphrase for a besieged outpost. A Tomahawk missile and a model of a Comanche helicopter borrow from the Natives’ warrior image.

The evolution of commercial appropriation of indigenous identity is represented by two “Native American Barbie” dolls, representing several attempts by Mattel to exploit popular images of Natives to sell toys. A 1996 version of the doll, advertised as “tribe-inspired” without resembling any particular tribe, bedecked in blue fringe and leather moccasins, “reflects generic interpretations of what Native American’s look like,” the explanatory panel says. In 2000 the company introduced a supposedly more culturally sensitive version, the “Northwest Coast Native American Barbie,” the “first tribally specific doll.” We observe that this “Tlingit-influenced Barbie, complete with a chillkat robe, has long dark hair and tan skin, but she hasn’t lost her Barbie essence.”

Elvis and Barbie were playing redface, but how about that iconic ad for the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign from the 1970s featuring the “crying Indian” that portrayed Natives as guardians of the environment? In fact, the exhibit notes, the actor in the print and TV ads was not even a Native (but in fact an Italian-American). Even some of the most authentic-looking representations of Natives were fakes.

What does it all mean? The display is short on analysis except for a couple of panels with brief introductory explanations. “Nearly all that can be named or sold has at some point been named or sold with an Indian word or image,” a panel explains. “What if the stories they tell reveal a buried history — and a country forever fascinated, conflicted, and shaped by its relationship with American Indians?”

“Americans are still trying to come to grips with centuries of wildly mixed feelings about Indians,” another panel reads. “They have been seen as both authentic and threatening, strange yet deeply appealing.”

The exhibit doesn’t explain the sudden explosion of Native images starting about a century ago, but a likely reason is that, by that time, Native resistance to white domination of the continent had been effectively squashed. Until the late 19th century, America’s indigenous peoples had posed a military and economic threat to unfettered white expansion and domination of the continent. By the 20th century they had been sequestered on reservations, and it was safe to romanticize them, to celebrate the courage and authenticity of a defeated people without having to actually engage with them. In doing so, the public lost sight of the fact that Native peoples represent a wide diversity of cultures with different languages, customs and ways of life, and popular culture collapsed them all into a single stereotyped “Indian” who wore feathers, lived in tipis, carved totem poles and brandished tomahawks, the equivalent of creating a generic “European” wearing a beret and kilt and carrying a plate of spaghetti into an onion-domed cathedral. As C. Richard King wrote in his book “Redskin: Insult and Brand,” a critical dissection of the Washington team’s racist moniker: “Most Americans have not received adequate historical instruction nor had exposure to indigenous peoples and perspectives as living, vital and valuable . . .[T]hey cannot read media, history or society in a critical fashion because they learn about these subjects, particularly as they relate to indigenous peoples, from movies and television shows, stump speeches and national monuments, football games and fashion trends.”

In addition to the display of artifacts with Native imagery, the exhibit delves into other topics that reveal the gulf between Natives and other Americans in their interpretations of US history. A film features an interview with museum curator Paul Chaat Smith, a member of the Comanche nation, that explores Native views of the meaning of Thanksgiving, which in the eyes of many Natives meant little more at the time than “brunch in the woods,” although we now know it was a prelude to future displacement and genocide.

Another room contrasts the real story of Pocahontas with the distorted, Disneyfied image most Americans have of her, reminding us, for instance, that she was only 11 years old when the English arrived at Jamestown, too young for a romance with John Smith; and that the story of her saving Smith from execution at the hands of her tribesmen was likely Smith’s invention, or at least exaggeration. The exhibit notes that some three centuries after her death, Pocahontas unwittingly kicked a dent in Virginia’s absurd racial taxonomy of the early 20th century when a proposed state law would have classified anyone with even a trace of nonwhite blood as “colored.” Elite Virginians who traced their ancestry to Pocahontas—through her marriage to John Rolfe, the founder of the commercial tobacco industry*mdash;howled, and an amendment to the code allowed those with 1/16 Indian ancestry to still be considered legally “white” and avoid being subjected to the harsh strictures of segregated society.

The exhibit also delves into the “Trail of Tears,” a term which specifically refers to the government’s forced march of the Cherokee nation from its ancestral home in the southeastern United States to Oklahoma but more generically has come to denote the forcible relocation of all eastern tribes to the west — that is, those who survived the trip. According to the exhibit, nearly 68,000 Natives were torn from their homelands, and between 11,000 and 13,000 didn’t survive the trip due to “disease, exposure, exhaustion, avoidable accidents, and warfare.”

Here, Andrew Jackson gets his due as the leading architect of Native removal, but the exhibit makes clear other revered Americans played their part. Thomas Jefferson, for one, opined that “should any tribe be foolhardy enough to take up the hatchet at any time, the seizing of the whole country of that tribe, and driving them across the Mississippi as the only condition of peace, would be an example to others, and a furtherance of our final consolidation.” A few dissenting voices against removal, such as Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey and missionary Jeremiah Evarts, were drowned out by those who were driven by racism and a lust for Native lands. The exhibit makes clear that the true story of the Trail of Tears might have been largely lost to us had not a number of female Native activists, led by educator Rachel Caroline Eaton and poet Ruth Muskrat Bronson, pushed the story into the national consciousness in the early 1900s.

Another room examines differing white-versus-Native views of the Battle of Big Horn. Although for Natives it represented a heroic stand by the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne in defense of their land, for whites it “sanctified the idea of manifest destiny,” according to the exhibit’s curators. While white images of the battle—in artworks, film and television – have proliferated in the 142 years since the battle, indigenous depictions are seldom seen. The exhibit corrects that oversight and includes two dramatic, large-scale pencil drawings by the Minneconjou Lakota artist Red Horse created only five years after the battle that capture the bloodiness and chaos of the fighting.

“Americans” is a welcome and overdue exhibit, but it leaves at least one question hanging. What impact have all the stereotyped images and the history written by whites had on Natives? One has to go elsewhere, such as the new documentary film “More Than a Word” by Kenn Little and John Little, for a first-hand view of how demeaning images and team names have assaulted the self-esteem of Native Americans, especially children.

Nevertheless, “Americans” adds a brief to the growing case against the misappropriation of Native images and history for fun and profit, and for seeing indigenous Americans as they are: a diverse collection of communities with unique histories and cultures, not a relic of cowboy movies but a living network of communities retaining much of their culture and identity. Natives suffer disproportionately from poverty and its related ills due to centuries of genocidal policies by the dominant white society, but among them is a strong core of activists who remind us that they are still around and will not submit quietly to abuse of their culture and heritage.

“Americans” will remain at the Museum of the American Indian through 2022.

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