"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, December 15, 2010

"My Indian name is..." T-shirt Holiday Shopping Reminder

T-shirts with supposedly funny or witty tag lines that are in fact utterly demeaning are nothing new.  Take the following examples:

What is new is seeing a prominent government body call these things out for what they are...

The Michigan Department of Civil Rights released the following holiday shopping reminder on December 15:

The Michigan Department of Civil Rights reminds both retailers and shoppers that what may be funny to one person, can be offensive to another. We ask that companies refrain from selling, and that shoppers refrain from buying such items. Of particular concern are items of clothing emblazoned with messages intended to be fun, that are in fact no more than bad jokes told at the expense of others.

We ask that anyone who has already bought such an item for themselves, or who receives one as a gift, consider the effect it will have on others before wearing it in public.

One particular line of products being promoted this season is the “My Indian name is...” t-shirts and related items. While such a shirt could be worn with pride by an American Indian who has been given such a name, this clearly is not the intent of those marketing these items. Companies are suggesting such “Indian” names as “runs with beer,” “drinks like fish,” “chief of remote,” and “bets on horse.” At best, this trivializes a proud tradition of America’s Native peoples. In many instances it also promotes inaccurate and unacceptable stereotypes.

And, of course, this is by no means a uniquely American Indian issue. Too often, individuals wear something on a shirt that they would never say out loud in public. Ethnic jokes are no more appropriate when worn in public than they would be if piped in on a public address system. “Humor” that denigrates or maligns people has no place in society.

Whatever one thinks of this sort of humor, there is one inescapable fact. Many people, particularly those targeted by the message, find it to be offensive. No considerate person would promote or purchase such items for wear in public.

The Michigan Department of Civil Rights simply asks that, in this season of peace, joy, and goodwill, everyone take care to ensure that their holiday cheer is not achieved at the expense of others. After all, the spirit of the season demands no less.

Thank you Michigan Department of Civil Rights for having the political guts to put out this statement and tell it like it is.

I do have one question though: Why do they keep insisting you have to be the target of the message to be offended?  I'm offended and I'm not Native.

It's also strange that they went with a "psuedo non-apology apology" reasoning for why these t-shirts are wrong.  I don't really "find it offensive" but rather think the t-shirt is itself offensive.  They seem to think it's the act of being offended that makes it wrong and not the inherent message of the t-shirt.

So does that mean if I wear it in private and not out in the public it is no longer offensive?  I suppose the Department doesn't want to get too involved in dictating personal behavior.

Then again, the problem with such a t-shirt is that it does have an impact on the non-Indian wearer.  It reinforces common stereotypes about Indian people.  It also trivializes a very serious and often misunderstood custom.  Yes, it is just a t-shirt, but all these subtle negative messages over time build up and have very real consequences.

Image: Bob King / Duluth News

Here's the contact info if you want to fire off an angry e-mail:

For more on Indians and clothing check out:

For another perspective check out this Newspaper Rock post:



  1. Wow. What a horrible product line. I especially love that the email for the customer concerns is "wecare"...because a caring company is one that you know, carries/creates racist products.