U.S. teams still marketing the Native American image

U.S. teams still marketing the Native American image

When the Cleveland Indians made the World Series this year, millions of Americans noticed the red-skinned and smiling caricature on their uniforms that their fans sentimentally call “Chief Wahoo.”

The use of a logo representing a Native American harks back to a time in American history when stereotyping Native Americans and other marginalized groups was commonplace. Sports teams going by the names of Redskins and Braves were normal, and advertisements of products from Land O’Lakes butter and Crazy Horse malt liquor accepted.

In many ways America is more sensitive to branding of Native American names and images. Many companies have dropped the use of stereotyped and mythicized Native Americans, but others continue to do so. Companies still make profits from their ads, and fans still show up at the games. As of 2014, there were 600 active trademarks that use Native American images from 450 different companies, according to a TIME study of U.S. Patent and Trademark Office records.

“This type of stereotyping, and branding, and taking something and mystifying it so it’s more palpable to the audience is nothing new — that’s what we do in advertising,” said Sydney Dillard, a professor of public relations and advertising at DePaul. “People gravitate towards it because it’s easier to package a stereotype.”

Official logo of the Cleveland Indians. (Courtesy of Tribune News Service)
Official logo of the Cleveland Indians. (Courtesy of Tribune News Service)

“It doesn’t go away as long as people are subscribing to that brand’s message, or not realizing it’s offensive to the group it’s representing,” she said.

The issue is particularly delicate considering the relations between Euro-Americans and Native Americans.

By the end of the 19th century, the U.S. created a series of regulations to assimilate Native Americans to become “Americans.” Native Americans were forced to speak English, to practice Christianity, to give up long-practiced ceremonies like the Sundance and to stay on the reservations they were assigned to live on.

The aim of assimilation, said Richard Pratt, the director a boarding school for Native Americans, was “to kill the Indian, and save the Man.”

By the early 20th century, ads featuring Native Americans became commonplace, but they did not necessarily make sense to those they depicted who identified by group and tribe, according to USAToday. But because of assimilation and the boarding schools, Native Americans began to form a “pan-Indian” identity. It increasingly seemed like those ads were talking about them.

By the 1930s regulations forcing assimilation had ended as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms. Yet the culture of the mythicized Native American had already been established in America.

Companies started to widely depict Native American names and images in their products and advertisements, tapping into the attractive Western myth of ‘cowboys and Indians” to sell their brand.

In 1928, an ornament of a Native American in a headdress called the “Chief of the Sixes” was installed on all Pontiac cars. Hornell Brewing soon after began their line of Crazy Horse malt liquor, even though the war leader often expressed his views against drinking alcohol. Land O’Lakes butter advertised with their Indian maiden, holding a stick of butter in a field surrounded by cows. Even the U.S. military adopted names like the Apache and the Tomahawk for some of its most deadly weapons. 

Sports teams also hopped on board. The Cleveland baseball team adopted the Indians name in 1915, and by 1947 — the year before they won the World Series — they created the “Chief Wahoo” caricature as their mascot. The Atlanta Braves changed their name in 1914, and by the 1950s had embraced Chief Noc-A-Homa, a Native American who would plant himself on the sand mound at the start of games and sit in a teepee in the bleachers during them. Hundreds of other professional, as well as high school and college, sports teams used similar representations of Native Americans.

The brands companies and teams used were, and still are, associated with certain characteristics: strength, humor, understanding, the spiritual world and the environment. They are often based on early settlers’ interactions with tribes during westward expansion, and have largely become myths.

“Even if those concepts might be considered positive, it’s still useless if you’re not talking about historical events,” Dillard said. “It’s all based on what happened in the past, but it’s mostly because of a lack of accuracy of those events.”

“What makes that attractive for advertisers is that mystery,” she said. 

In an age of internet and computers, Americans are increasingly becoming more aware, and sensitive, to these depictions that are now often deemed offensive. Native Americans too now have an outlet to express what they think on the matter. Protests have been organized at many sports events that call for teams to let go of offensive team names like “Redskins” and logos like “Chief Wahoo.”

Other Native Americans, though, seem to have no problem with the brands. According to a poll by the Washington Post, 90 percent of the Native Americans they interviewed were not bothered by the Washinton Redskins’ name and logo.

Broadly, while Americans 50 years ago might have been fine with these brands, now “we’re aghast. I think we’re really aware of it,” said Ken Krimstein, professor of public relations and advertising at DePaul and a former copywriter.

Negative stereotyping can now create a negative story for a product, which would in turn not be bought by consumers.

“A name of a brand is a part of its marketing,” Krimstein said. “If a name is demeaning, (advertisers) need to think about that. They have a responsibility to present a socially aware image.”

Under pressure, some companies have stepped back their branding of Native Americans. The Cleveland Indians have made some attempts, by making “Chief Wahoo” a logo instead of a mascot, and using a “C” on their uniforms. The Atlanta Braves no longer set up the chief’s teepee in the bleachers. The NCAA has banned the use of logos, mascots and nicknames in professional basketball teams. Many other sports teams have dropped references to Native Americans.

Advertisements, tapping into the Western myth and Native Americans, are few and far between these days compared to the mid-20th century.

But other sports teams and companies have resisted to fold. Executives of the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians say that their logos and names praise American culture. During the controversy over the Redskins name and logo in 2014, owner Dan Snyder traveled to 26 tribal reservations across 20 states. He said he found that the people he talked to there did not have issues with the Redskins brand.

And products like American Spirit tobacco, Land O’Lakes butter and Sue Bee Honey continue to feature depictions of Native Americans, portraying them doing things they wouldn’t necessarily do.

“On one side you could say ‘they should be altruistic by presenting more responsible images,’ Krimstein said of advertisers and brand-makers. “On the other side, it just makes for really good business.”

“I just wish there were more ways to sensitively celebrate it rather than appropriate it in some negative way,” he said.

Donovan Sohr, a freshman majoring in business management, said he usually doesn’t find logos and names depicting Native Americans offensive.

“If you’re representing the Native American people with pride and respect, I don’t see any reason for it to be offensive, he said.

Jessica Watkins, a sophomore and biology major, said that such logos and names are always offensive.

“I think it needs to be changed,” she said. “I know I would be disrespected if someone did that to my culture.”

More to Discover