"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

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

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