Gimme a break: Mascots dehumanize and ridicule Native Americans

mascotsDATELINE: Sports stadiums across America

His nose must be over a foot wide at its base. True, I did not climb the billboard and measure with a ruler, but I can vouch that the Indian’s nose is broader than each of his arms and legs. This is no 1950s relic staring down at me. The modern billboard towers each day over drivers on Interstate 294 in Alsip, 20 miles outside Chicago: a tri-color image of an Indian aligned to the left of a banner for Arrow Chevrolet.

Get it? Arrow … Indian?

Here’s what drivers see: big nose, little legs, dark skin, headband and single feather. He wears a necklace strung from animal teeth and a loincloth. He displays the same bow-and-arrow combative behavior that Hollywood used to feature.

The same buffoonish character is stenciled on Arrow’s showroom windows in Midlothian, another Chicago suburb, and on Arrow’s Web site, ostensibly to boost recognition of its company name.

What Arrow has done is essentially resurrect the cigar store Indian to shill for Chevrolets. Some Americans may remember the wooden statues of Indians placed in front of drug stores and tobacco emporiums. They were used to advertise cigarettes and cigars, a practice vaguely related to some Indian tribes’ use of pipes and tobacco in sacred ceremonies.

Would objecting to Arrow’s ad campaign be just another hysterical charge of political incorrectness? After all, what’s the harm?

“It’s hurtful, dehumanizing,” says Arieahn Matamonasa, a psychologist and professor of contemporary Native American issues at DePaul University.

Matamonasa made the dealership aware of its display ad’s offensive nature as early as four years ago, when she commissioned her students to write research papers on the dangers of stereotyping. Each year since then, several of her students have tackled the subject of the Chevy Indian and have written to the dealership’s management.

“They’ve ignored all of our letters,” says Matamonasa, who has crow-black hair that hangs well below her shoulders, and the straight-on, relentless gaze that reminds one of Natalie Wood’s character in The Searchers, except that Matamonasa is, indeed, of Lakota and Menominee descent.

She is concerned particularly about the social and potentially violent consequences of stereotyping, recalling the cartoons Julius Streicher published prior to and during WWII that gave public “permission” for dehumanizing and exterminating Jews.

Matamonasa compares the Chevy Indian caricature to Chief Wahoo, the mascot of the Cleveland Indians baseball team, and to the “Frito Bandito,” the cartoon character eventually retired, under pressure, by Frito Lay (click here for a Fritos commercial clip).

“He has a feather tucked in a headband, and he has no shirt. He looks ridiculous,” she told me. “And we are such a small group that people don’t have real life experiences with Indian people. So for them, he represents the whole culture.

“When people see, on the other hand, something like the leprechaun of the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, they know enough of the Irish culture that this mythic figure is not representative.”

As a cartoon image, this is not the characteristically touted noble, sacred or serious Indian stereotype, ala University of Illinois’s Chief Illiniwek, the school’s mascot. Neither is it a frolicsome or supposedly innocent depiction, like Disney’s Pocahontas. The Arrow Chevy Indian is, in fact, more akin to the TV series Pow Wow the Indian Boy meets F-Troop – which may speak to the age as well as to the cynicism of the dealership’s management.

Perhaps because the company would be hard-pressed to claim, as does the U. of I. or the Atlanta Braves, that they are “honoring” Indians with their billboard and Web site art, they have decided not to talk at all: The general manager of Arrow would not return my calls. So I can only speculate about how they would refute Matamoras’s challenge to stop using the cartoon character.

One of the usual arguments, that “no one seems to mind,” is baseless considering Matamonasa’s protests as well as resolutions passed by state governments condemning the use of Indian logos and mascots. A bill was recently proposed by a California state assemblywoman banning the use of Indian logos and mascots in public institutions, though it failed to muster enough support and was defeated in May 2000.

This month, the Michigan board of education agreed to study whether to ban Indian mascots in the state’s schools.

More such legislative crusades are imminent, however, as Indian political and economic influence grows as a result of the proliferation and success of casinos. According to a recent survey by Indian Country Today, the national Indian weekly, “81 percent of respondents indicated use of American Indian names, symbols and mascots are predominantly offensive and deeply disparaging to Native Americans.”

Additionally, the logo defenders’ claim to their right of free speech sounds similarly fallacious in light of the recent recommendation issued by the United States Civil Rights Commission that calls for an end to the use of Native American images and team names by non-Native schools. The recommendation, which was released in April 2001, states: “These references, whether mascots … logos, or names, are disrespectful and offensive to American Indians and others who are offended by such stereotyping.”

The call was accompanied by the more telling warning that the mascots and logos “… may violate anti-discrimination laws.” In legal precedent, the point at which discrimination against others begins is where free speech ends.

Finally, though some continue to maintain that Indian iconography is intended to “honor” Indians, what community has ever felt sincerely “honored” by a nation or group that vanquished them? Would present day Jews feel honored by Germans drawing caricatures of yarmulke-wearing Jews to sell cars or watches? Would African Americans feel “honored” if “Spears Stereo” used native African warriors wielding spears to hawk its CD players?

Professor Matamonasa said that following one of her presentations about Native American culture, a child came up to her and proclaimed with enthusiasm, “I believe in Indians,” evoking the famous chant of faith in fairies from the movie Peter Pan, though Native Americans still make up close to 1 percent of the U.S. population.

“If people knew more about Native Americans, it [the Arrow cartoon character] might not be as damaging,” she says. But our culture does not provide a diversity of representations, nor are students well educated about Native American history and current cultural issues. Images such as the Arrow Chevrolet Indian end up being larger than life – in this sense literally as well as figuratively.

What’s clear is that Native Americans are offended. What’s also clear is that the logos and mascots will continue to appear until a lot more non-Natives take offense.