Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting (First Run Features, NR)

America has never really come to terms with the original inhabitants of North America, foregoing real understanding in favor of a series of images based on partial truths and outright falsehoods. Stereotypes like the fierce warrior, the noble savage, the Indian princess, and the vanishing race are far more pervasive in American popular culture than any real representation of Native Americans.  

Many ethnic groups have been stereotyped in popular culture at some point in American history, but such representations have been largely abandoned today except for those regarding Native Americans. Coupled with the lack of authentic representations of Native peoples and cultures, the result is that a lot of people believe the stereotypes. The question is why, given everything we know today, anyone defends such limited and demeaning images.

The principal subject of Aviva Kempner and Ben West’s Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting is the use of Native American names and images for sports teams, but it covers a lot more ground to create a context in which Chief Wahoo and the tomahawk chop can be understood if not excused. This documentary explores a rich mine of popular culture, including paintings, comic books, toys, and posters as well as clips from movies, cartoons, and live-action television programs.

A variety of experts interpret these materials and explain how they have been affected by them, including Suzan Shown Harjo (recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and President of the Morning Star Institute), Secretary Deb Haaland (United States Department of the Interior), Kevin Gover (Under Secretary for Museums and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution), Joy Harjo (23rd Poet Laureate of the United States), Billy Mills (Olympic gold medalist and co-founder of the nonprofit Running Strong for American Indian Youth) and Derrick Johnson (President and CEO of the NAACP).

Most of the people interviewed in Imagining the Indian have no patience with arguments defending the use of Native American names and images for sports teams—in their point of view, it’s offensive, certainly not an honor or a tribute, increases stereotyping and discrimination and is psychologically damaging to both Native people and other people of color. Given the worthiness of the cause, it’s a shame this documentary is not better constructed–it often meanders from topic to topic with the desire of including everything possibly relevant, from the Olympic victory of Billy Mills to the Gold Rush practice of paying bounties for dead Native Americans.

The good news is that things are changing. More movies and television programs, like Reservation Dogs and The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, are being created by Native writers, directors, and producers. Many school and professional sports teams are changing their names and mascots, although often after decades of protests and negotiations.  For instance, Stanford changed their mascot from the Indian to the Cardinal, The St. John’s Redmen are now the Red Storm, the Marquette Warriors are now the Golden Eagles. Some professional teams have also made the change, two notable examples being the Washington Commanders (formerly the Redskins, a particularly offensive name) and the Cleveland Guardians (formerly the Indians). There are many more examples, and some teams have banned offensive practices like wearing headdresses in the arena while retaining their names. These instances counterbalanced by the fact that some teams have refused to change, making this an ongoing story.

The fight to change the name “Washington Redskins” receives the most attention in Imagining the Indian, and to someone looking in from the outside the most remarkable thing is how many people resisted even the concept that the name and logo were offensive. Now that change has come, it’s hard to see how anyone was hurt by it, and management should be particular happy because of the market created for merchandise bearing the new name and logo. Resistance may come down to the fact that some people just don’t like change when it comes to their favorite teams, coupled with the unfortunate reality that some also take a particular joy in being offensive. Bad news, guys: life is all about change, and history is seldom kind to those who try to stand against the tide. | Sarah Boslaugh

Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting is distributed on DVD and streaming by First Run Features.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *