"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Wisconsin Orders First School to Drop its Indian Mascot under New Law

Breaking news from the world of Indian mascots!

Here's the headline from FOX 21 News Duluth/Superior:

Wisconsin officials issue first order against Native American mascot

On May 5, 2010 a new law went into effect in Wisconsin creating a legal avenue for individuals to challenge school mascots they deem racially offensive.  It states:

"a school district resident may object to the use of a race−based nickname, logo, mascot, or team name by the school board of that school district by filing a complaint with the state superintendent."

If the complaints are considered valid and the mascot or logos are considered race-based, there is a hearing in which

"the school board has the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that the use of the nickname or team name in connection with the logo or mascot does not promote discrimination, pupil harassment, or stereotyping, as defined by the state superintendent by rule."

If there is ambiguous evidence that the mascot or logos are race-based then:

"the school district resident who filed the complaint... has the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that the use of the nickname or team name by the school board promotes discrimination, pupil harassment, or stereotyping, as defined by the state superintendent by rule."

If the state superintendent rules it is race-based and offensive, the school district has 12 months to remove the offending mascot and name but can appeal for up to 12 more months.  Thereafter, the district can face fines upwards of $1000 per day for keeping the mascot past the allotted time.

The full text pdf of the law is available here:



I heard about this law back in the Spring and am finally glad to see it put into action.  I am so glad the law uses the term "race-based mascot" because that really is the crux of this issue- the wholesale appropriation of the name, images, and symbols of a distinct group of people (whether Native or not).

The law also seems to provide an exception for districts using specific Indian mascots named after and approved by federally recognized American Indian tribes.  I have mixed feelings about this but I suspect it might have been written into the law as part of some political deal-making.

I'm curious to see where this leads but as I always argue in this issue... mascots change, people move on, and the kids will have just as much fun in school!


Here's another news story about the community reaction:


This pretty much sums it up:

"We've always been a close community and it's starting to separate. But, we'll get back to it. If (the Chieftains) stay, that's good, if they don’t, we'll be OK," says Brenda Hulett, a Chieftain alum.

and here is the offending mascot, the Osseo-Fairchild Chieftain:

For more on my personal thoughts and feelings regarding Indian mascots, check out these previous posts:

Clinton Redskins Demonstration- a narrative

April 29 Clinton School Board Meeting

Mascot Indians

An example of an offensive stereotypical Indian mascot still in use:


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Selling Blue Jeans with Indians

Check out this re-post from the blog: Sociological Images

Vintage Levi’s Brochure Provides a “Round-Up of Western Indian Lore”
By Gwen

(click on any image to make it big!)

Rob Walker (author of the fascinating book Buying In: What We Buy and Who We Are) sent me a link to a post at Drinkin’ and Dronin’ of a 1954 Levi Strauss brochure about “western Indian lore.” It’s a nice round-up of stereotypes and appropriations of Native Americans. We start off with an angry, bare-chested (and Levis-clad) man with a tomahawk, shield, moccasins, and headdress; I’d guess he’s supposed to be a warrior doing a war dance:

Then some descriptions of items associated with different tribes and the obligatory broken English (“just want ‘um”) familiar to anyone who watched The Lone Ranger and paid attention to Tonto:

I have no idea how accurate their descriptions of “unusual Indian weapons” are, but the overall tone of the brochure doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.

And we have a lesson on “the Indian sign language,” the origins of which are “lost in the mists of time”:


Well, at least they made an effort to identify individual groups- Arapahoe, Chippewa, Sioux, and Ojibway- rather than the standard "Indian."  I'll give 'em points for that.

Otherwise, this is a classic example of appropriating Native imagery and culture to sell a product.  What jeans have to do with Native Americans I have no idea.  My guess is that the marketers at Levi's simply wanted to ride the high tide of interest in "Cowboys and Indians" in the 1950s.

One thing in this brochure that still continues today is the use of the past tense:

"The Indian pictograph was used by the Sioux and Ojibway Indians"

"The war bonnet was the badge of the most skillful, most daring warriors"

"Although the origin of the Indian sign language is lost to the mists of time, most authorities agree it was the common language used among tribes of many different tongues, long before the white man came."

All of these examples place Indians and their culture in some far off mystical past- the type you can only read about in books or see at the movie theater.  The reality of course is that Indian languages (written and spoken) and war bonnets are still used today and cherished in their respective cultures but you'd never know that reading this brochure...

For more on Indians in advertising, check out these earlier posts:

A Tale of Pemmican, an Indian, and the World Cup

Electronic Handheld Island Indians

Monday, July 26, 2010

“Stephen's really into Indians” (Oh, mom...)

So there I was at a big family dinner with all my relatives. My mother is seated at the opposite side of the table talking with family when somehow I become part of the conversation. Someone happens to make a reference to Native Americans when my mother decides to impart:

“Oh, you know who's really into Indians? Stephen's really into Indians.”

I squirm as the spotlight is suddenly thrust upon me from the opposite end of the table.

Only in retrospect do I realize how insightful is this seemingly innocuous phrase, “Stephen's really into Indians” and it's not because I'm the first word. This phrase once again reveals how in our popular American mindset, Native people are often placed into their own special category, separate from any other racial, ethnic, political, or cultural group.

Nothing makes the point better than substituting in any other group. What if the phrase had been, “Stephen's really into Russians” or “Stephen's really into black people” or “Stephen's really into Lutherans.” All of these make me sound like I have some kind of weird cultural or sexual fetish because those are people!

This brings me back to the phrase itself: “Stephen's really into Indians.” It's not the word Indian itself that is problematic as my point can be made with the phrases “Stephen's really into Native Americans” or “Stephen's really into American Indians” as well.

This phrase demonstrates how in the popular American discourse, “Indians” are held to be an abstract idea, an academic subject worthy of study, a cultural trend even, anything but real modern people. It fails to recognize the humanity behind the word, the people behind the history pages, the culture behind the movie screen.

I'm reminded of the Indian dioramas in Natural History museums throughout the country- miniature nameless figures stuck in a static historical past- reinforcing the Indian as an exotic other.  Like the dinosaurs, mammoths, and stuffed birds around them, they are objects of research and amusement.

This phrase is simply testament to the disparity between Indians the idea and Native people the reality. The disparity that allows non-Native people to sport Indian headdresses, place Indian logos on their products, and use Indian sweat lodges in their New Age ceremonies without giving it even a moments pause.

This phrase fails what I call the “appropriate appropriation” test which states the appropriate level of cultural borrowing is that which you can display in front of that cultural group without offending them.

I can only imagine the looks I'd get if someone used the phrase in front of any Native people.  Now that would make me squirm!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Iroquois Nationals in Sports Illustrated

With over 3 million subscribers and a readership estimated at almost 23 million adults each week, Sports Illustrated has a profound reach into the national conscience of America.  While known mostly for its large glossy images and yearly swimsuit edition, the magazine does produce some very reputable hard-hitting journalism.  Such was the case this week with the article "Pride of a Nation."

July 19, 2010 edition

The plight of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team has been hard to miss this past week.  As the only group of American Indians who compete internationally as a sovereign nation, they have successfully traveled abroad for decades using their own tribally issued Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) passports.

Security concerns between the United States and world championship host country United Kingdom prevented them from flying overseas.  Despite an offer of expediated United States passports, the Nationals players refused to travel on anything but their own tribal passports, resulting in the forfeit of two games and eventual withdrawal from the tournament.

Iroquois passport

The article "Pride of a Nation"  by S.L. Price appears in the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated magazine (Sports Illustrated. July 19, 2010. pp. 60-71).  It relates the history and significance of Lacrosse for the Haudenosaunee or 'People of the Long House' as the Iroquois call themselves in their own language.  It makes for a very compelling read and provides a fascinating insight into one nation's relationship with the sport that "honors the Creator."

Top reasons why this is a good article:

--It's a compelling human interest story with several uplifting personal tales (whether funny, sad, or just plain odd, this article has it all).

--It doesn't shy away from Native spirituality, instead embracing that aspect of the culture (but also allows them to be wholly modern too).

--It paints a realistic picture of modern Native life, blemishes and all (particularly the hardships of poverty, drugs, and alcohol which have plagued many players).

--It emphasizes the Iroquois as a unique and distinct cultural and sovereign entity (especially in their fight against obscurity in the minds of many outsiders).

--It deftly demonstrates the connections along 900 years of Iroquois history (but also shows the current struggle to balance tradition and modernity).

And the best part:

--It was in Sports Illustrated!

The most striking moments in the article are when the Nationals talk about their encounters with non-Native people during their American and world adventures:

There's no team like it, they say.  When the Iroquois Nationals travel, overseas especially, they carry a mystique born of Hollywood imagery and pure novelty.  So English schoolkids ask Nationals coaches, "How does the smoke get out of your house? Do you still hurt people?" and Japanese opponents treat the players like rock stars, and reporters flock to see the exotics in action.  Thus is delivered the only message that matters.  "We're still here," Smith says.

"The Nationals are showing the world that we are on the map," Jacques says, his voice rising.  "When you say Indians, Native Americans, what pops into mind?  Out west, in a tepee, on a reservation, alcohol, drug abuse, drain on society, poverty, uneducated-- beaten down.  How many negatives can they put on this group of people?  So to have a positive there on the world stage is such a big thing for us." (p. 68)

I couldn't say it any better myself.  Right from Native voices, we get the real scoop on how many outsiders still view Native Americans.  While I hope these are all isolated incidents, they still demonstrate the constant struggle against Indian stereotypes that perpetuate from the wider (and usually whiter) world.

"Pride of a Nation" is simply one article in one magazine but with the capacity to reach over 23 million readers, it could make a small but still significant contribution in educating the world that indeed:

"We're still here."

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Tale of Pemmican, an Indian, and the World Cup

This tale begins as I was innocently watching a 2010 World Cup soccer match a few weeks back.  Just as teams and players from across the globe come together to play in this truly international event, so do the corporate sponsors represent our diverse global economy.

There are the U.S. stalwarts Coca-Cola, Visa, and McDonalds alongside Emirates, Adidas, Sony, Castrol, Kia Motors,  Mahindra Satyam, Yingli Solar, and lastly Seara.  This final company caught my eye during the game because of a unique advertisement.

During a match, the electronic billboards that surround the playing field flash through advertisements of the official sponsors.  The Seara ad consisted of the Seara corporate logo (above), the word Pemmican in big bold letters, and a stereotypical Indian replete with warbonnet.

During the most-watched sporting event in all of television, I find myself staring at a giant Indian head.  Why on earth is there a giant cartoon Plains Indian with full headdress on the sidelines of the World Cup in South Africa???

Well, I did a little investigating and the answer is an interesting lesson in the power of marketing and 21st century global business.

You see, Seara is actually a subsidiary of the Brazilian Marfrig Group- one of the official corporate sponsors of the 2010 and 2014 World Cups.  Here's a corporate profile:


"Marfrig is one of the largest food companies in the world. With 72,000 employees and 92 plants and commercial offices located in 13 countries, the Marfrig Group’s products are present in more than 100 countries worldwide. The company is known as one of the most diversified food companies in the global market due to its wide product portfolio. Marfrig is also renowned for its responsible, proactive and innovative initiatives on social and environmental fronts."

This still doesn't explain why I am seeing a clearly North American Indian face at the World Cup.

I then stumbled upon this article which finally shed some light on the subject:


Apparently, the Marfrig Group bought the Pemmican Brand for $25 million from one of North America's largest packaged foods companies ConAgra.  Under the deal, Marfrig would produce the beef jerky in Brazil to be sold in North America under the Marfood USA label but internationally under the Seara label.

Ladies and Gentlemen, here is your product:

Finally, I had found the face that had been staring at me through all those World Cup matches.  But the fun does not stop here.

At the Marfood USA website you get this (emphasis added):

"Some may believe a Private Label program is at odds with National Brands. At Marfood USA, nothing could be further from the truth. Our recent purchase of Pemmican Brand is what we are talking about. For our Private Label customers, Pemmican will continue the journey started by Native Americans, and the very reason they created Pemmican. Once again, Pemmican will lead the way. This time, to explore the Meat Snacks category and its consumers to identify trends and opportunities with the greatest potential for the category."

The company even set up a product website:


The marketers behind Pemmican Brand beef jerky clearly have a target demographic in mind- the outdoor enthusiast.  The website features hunting and fishing imagery with the slogan "Pemmican Tradition."  There is even "The Outfit Your Escape" instant win and sweepstakes promotion where you can win camping gear!

While it is true that Pemmican is a real Native food (being made with dried meat, fat, and berries), this mass-produced beef jerky is far from the real thing.  How could a giant multi-national corporation ever claim to be "continuing the journey started by Native Americans?"  Their product is not only nothing like real Pemmican but they are a Brazilian company that only bought the product two years ago!

It's all hype and marketing!  Marfood USA is simply cashing in on one of the classic images of Native America.

As the marketers see it, an Indian makes the perfect mascot for their dried meat product.  Besides the obvious attempt to give an air of authenticity to their jerky by tying it to real Native food, they are moreover trying to tie their product to America's broader love and admiration for the "traditional" Indian.  The outdoor nature imagery of the website and the camping gear prize in "The Outfit Your Escape" sweepstakes fall into this trap of associating the Indian with the Natural and the primitive.  It's almost as if they're still out there riding around on horseback hunting buffalo, ready to create that real Pemmican just for you.  (and if you eat the authentic stuff, you're one step closer to living that idealized primitive life, close to the land!)

If you really want to "continue the journey started by Native Americans" go for the REAL thing and buy a Tanka Bar!

These are produced by Native American Natural Foods LLC, a Native-owned company based on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.  This is probably the closest you can get to buying "real" pemmican.

But wait, remember this all started because of an advertisement at a World Cup match.  This means that the marketers at the Marfrig Group and its subsidiary Seara decided to keep the Indian mascot for the international marketing of Pemmican Brand beef jerky.  If we in the United States already have a hard enough time separating real Native people from what we see in the media and on our products, how will the rest of the world cope?

Is the classic image of the Plains Indian with warbonnet so ingrained in world culture that Seara chose to keep the image to effectively advertise their product worldwide?  Does the Indian image really resonate that much with a world audience?

This is particularly interesting considering the cosmopolitan Marfrig Group is a company supposedly "renowned for its responsible, proactive and innovative initiatives on social and environmental fronts."  Just goes to show that even foreign corporations are not immune to drawing on Indians.

(Note: If anyone finds a photo containing the Seara Pemmican World Cup billboard, please let me know.  I scoured the internet and could not find one anywhere!)

Apparently, this isn't the only "Indian" appearance at the World Cup:
Indian Headdresses at the World Cup

And for more on Indians in advertising check out my previous post:
Electronic Handheld Island Indians

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Glastonbury "Indians"

The Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts (link) is the largest music festival in the world.  In 2010, over 130,000 people attended the yearly event to watch such varied acts as Radiohead, Gorillaz, Muse, and Stevie Wonder.

Such festivals always attract the weird and wacky and Glastonbury 2010 was no exception.  The Boston Globe's website Boston.com has a very popular section known as The Big Picture which features recent news events as seen through the work of photojournalists.  It was on this site that I stumbled upon the following entry on the 2010 Glastonbury Festival:


and saw these two pictures with accompanying captions:

"The sun rises over tents at the 2010 40th Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 26, 2010 in Glastonbury, England. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)"

"Festival attendees wear Native American head-dresses as the temperatures remain high at the Glastonbury Festival on June 26, 2010. (LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)"

My thoughts:

The hipster headdress has officially made the leap across the pond.  This is no surprise considering how connected and global the hipster subculture has become.  Then again, those could be honest to goodness Yankees sporting the latest fashion trend on their weekend trip to the British Isles.  I wonder if they brought the headdresses with them or worse yet bought them at the Festival from a vendor?

The tepees are another thing altogether.  The fascination with the tepee goes way back to the Summer camps of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Affluent white American children were sent away to Summer camp to get back in touch with the Natural world including a healthy dose of appropriated Native culture.  They played Indian games, made Indian crafts, and slept in Indian tepees.  This trend then exploded in the 1960s with the hippie and New Age fascination with everything Native including once again the tepee.

Are we in for a third wave of tepee appropriation among America's and Britain's affluent white young populace?

In my earlier blog post about survival training schools titled Cody Lundin and Surviving like an Indian, I introduced you to two British survival schools- Woodsmoke: Bushcraft and Wilderness Survival and Bearclaw Bushcraft which make heavy use of Native imagery and symbolism including the tepee.

I imagine the case at Glastonbury is similar.  Essentially, you have a bunch of young, white British folk who look to Native Americans as the ultimate symbol of the Natural, harmonious, simple lives they want to live.  They put up a tepee not for the practicality of it but because it screams Indian!  It says, "I'm hip!"  "I'm cool!"  "I'm down with Mother Earth! (just like the Indians were)"

It also says, "I didn't spend even one second thinking about the real culture and people behind this beautiful, unique, and culturally significant architectural wonder!  Hey look at me, I gotta tepee!!!"

(But then again maybe I'm wrong and an entire community of Lakota simply uprooted and moved to a random farm in western England for a weekend.  You never know... )

For more on the hipster headdress, check out these entries at the Native Appropriations blog:

But Why Can't I Wear a Hipster Headdress?:

Headdresses and Music Festivals go together like PB and...Racism?: