Zinzin believes that language is alive and on the move. It’s like a living, breathing organism – always changing, morphing, evolving. Cultures change too, and names come and go over time. But some don’t. Why has one naming practice, in particular — brands named after different Indigenous cultures — lasted so long in America? And how is it changing? Let’s take a look at some American brand names derived from Indigenous peoples and cultures.
First, a good naming reminder
According to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian:
American Indian or Native American?
American Indian, Indian, Native American, or Native are acceptable and often used interchangeably in the United States; however, Native Peoples often have individual preferences on how they would like to be addressed. To find out which term is best, ask the person or group which term they prefer…
Tribe or Nation? And Why So Many Names?
American Indian people describe their own cultures and the places they come from in many ways. The word tribe and nation are used interchangeably but hold very different meanings for many Native people. Tribes often have more than one name because when Europeans arrived in the Americas, they used inaccurate pronunciations of the tribal names or renamed the tribes with European names. Many tribal groups are known officially by names that include nation. Every community has a distinct perspective on how they describe themselves. Not all individuals from one community many agree on terminology. There is no single American Indian culture or language.
There is no single American Indian culture or language. Yet, historically, advertising and branding practices, including naming, paint a different picture. Different Indigenous peoples, cultures and traditions have largely been distilled down to stereotypical images and names on products, places and organizations.
“The Fraught History of America’s Most Pervasive Brand”
Author and deputy editor of Fast Company’s tech section, Katherine Schwab, does a great job of exploring this topic in her 2018 article, The Fraught History of America’s Most Pervasive Brand. Schwab writes:
They’re on baking powder boxes, break fluid containers, and cigar boxes. They’re featured in logos for companies that sell refrigerator compressors and canned peas. They adorn bubble gum boxes and Kanye West T-shirts. There are classy motorcycles and deadly missiles named for them. They’ve become mascots for sports teams both large and small.
Images of American Indians are everywhere in modern American life. That ubiquity is the subject of a new exhibition called Americans at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and an online version of the show. With almost 350 artifacts that stretch across three centuries of history, the show has a poignant message: Though imagery featuring Indians is deeply embedded in American life, many of us scarcely notice it’s there. The exhibition is designed to help you look, but it also reveals how images of Indians, as conceived by white Americans, have become a branding tool in a culture that has systematically oppressed those same Indians…
The show shines a light on these images, which have wormed their way into our living rooms and refrigerators; perhaps it may also help people recognize how central this marginalized group is to what it means to be an American.
Reminder: there’s an online version of the Americas exhibit. And here’s a quick look at 20 (of nearly 350) artifacts and consumer brands it features:
The Game of Ten Little Indians box, ca. 1900
Mohican Coffee can, ca. 1920s
Calumet Baking Powder can, ca. 1945
Leinenkugel’s Chippewa Pride Beer label, ca. 1945
Indian Chief motorcycle, 1948
Chief Brand Sorghums sack, 1950s
Savage Arms catalog, 1979
Indian Head, Maryland, town seal, ca. 1985
Big Chief writing tablet, ca. 1995
Kanye West T-shirt, 2013
Land O’Lakes Butter, 2016
Current brand name appropriation
Not only are brand names derived from Indigenous cultures in America’s past, but they’re also in its present. They can be seen, perhaps even overlooked, among many well known, modern brands across industries, from consumer products to military aircraft and sports.
Each of these industries is included below. The lists highlight that the practice of using Indigenous names appears to be alive and well, with noted exceptions in sports. (Source: Wikipedia)
- Chevrolet Apache
- Chevrolet Cheyenne
- Dodge Dakota
- Ford Thunderbird
- Jeep Cherokee
- Jeep Comanche
- Mazda Navajo
- Pontiac (brand)
- Pontiac Aztek
- Pontiac Chieftain
- Toyota Tacoma
About these and many other brands featured in the Americans exhibit, Schwab notes:
American culture has used imagery of American Indians to symbolize authenticity in branding, or combativeness in sports and the military, even as it has subjugated real-life Indians throughout history. At its core, the artifacts in the exhibition reveal how Indians have become an integral part of the American brand itself–something that companies have been capitalizing on for decades.
- Tomahawk flight-test missile
- AH-56 Cheyenne
- AH-64 Apache
- Boeing-Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche
- C-12 Huron
- CH-21 Shawnee
- CH-47 Chinook
- Douglas C-47 Skytrain, called Dakota by the British and Commonwealth air forces
- H-13 Sioux
- H-34 Choctaw
- OH-58 Kiowa
- OV-1 Mohawk
- TH-67 Creek
- U-8 Seminole
- UH-1 Iroquois
- UH-72 Lakota
Professional (and college) sports
Let’s look at a some examples of Indigenous-appropriated names in the world of sports making headlines in recent years. Due to pressure and protest, some teams have changed their names, traditions (e.g. the tomahawk chop) and mascots. And others, such as Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves and Kansas City Chiefs, are still thinking about it.
National Football League (NFL): Kansas City Chiefs
This city’s beloved football team has left an unmistakable imprint on the local culture, whether it be the tradition of wearing red on the Fridays before games or the custom of modifying the national anthem’s final line to “and the home of the Chiefs” before kickoff at Arrowhead Stadium…
But perhaps the most indelible symbol of Chiefs fandom is one that unifies believers and divides others: the tomahawk chop.
Now that the Chiefs are on one of the biggest stages in sports, contending in the Super Bowl for the first time in 50 years, there is new scrutiny on the tradition.
Source: Celebrating the Kansas City Chiefs, the Chop Divides, The New York Times, updated July 27, 2021
National Football League (NFL): Washington Commanders (formerly Redskins)
After 18 months of speculation (and internet sleuthing), the Washington Football Team officially revealed its new name on Wednesday — the Commanders…
The team scrapped its previous name — the Washington Redskins — in July 2020 after years of pressure to do away with it because of its racist connotations against Native Americans, a name it had for 87 years.
Last August, the team banned fans from wearing “Native American-inspired” dresses inside its home stadium, such as headdresses and face paint. The new guideline was announced in a stadium policy and protocol update ahead of the 2021 NFL season.
Source: The Washington Football Team’s new name is the Washington Commanders, NPR, February 2, 2022
Major League Baseball (MLB): Cleveland Guardians (formerly Indians)
This year, the Guardians became the fourth M.L.B. team in the last 90 years to change names without moving cities, and only the second to adopt a completely different name. In 2008, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays became the Rays. The Houston Colt 45s changed their name to the Astros in 1965, and the Cincinnati Reds were called the Redlegs from 1954 to 1958. The Brooklyn Dodgers, who had many nicknames in their early years, were known as the Superbas for 12 years before they became the Dodgers in 1932.
But for Cleveland, the name change comes amid a volatile global struggle over labels and terminology that occasionally plays out in the world of sports. And it took place at a time where teams from Washington’s N.F.L. franchise to dozens of colleges and high schools have moved to drop nicknames that were criticized as insensitive, or racist.
Source: In Cleveland, Some Fans Are Guardians Only of the Past, The New York Times, April 16, 2022
Public University: Florida State Seminoles
In Tallahassee, Florida, one institution, aided by a regional tribe, has worked hard to show that not all representation of Native imagery and symbols are created equal and at least one tribe is being given the opportunity to decide exactly what works for it.
“For almost 70 years, Florida State has worked closely, side by side, with the Seminole Tribe of Florida in a relationship that is mutually supportive and built on respect,” says Browning Brooks, the assistant vice president for university communications at Florida State University.
The university, whose athletic teams are known as the Seminoles, embraces its relationship with the Seminole Tribe of Florida and considers members of the tribe community partners. The tribe’s involvement is critical to the success of the university, say officials, not just a group of people whose name might conjure up inspiring imagery for student athletes on a war path.
Source: The Future of Native American Imagery in Sports: Colleges are partnering with tribal groups to figure out how symbols should be used, The Atlantic, November 21, 2015
Ski resort (and 1960 Olympic site): Palisades Tahoe (formerly Squaw Valley)
The historic Squaw Valley ski resort in Lake Tahoe has been renamed Palisades Tahoe because “squaw” is a “racist and sexist slur” whose use is “contrary to our company’s values,” resort officials announced…
In announcing the name change, the resort said that “times change, societal norms evolve and we learn things we didn’t previously know.”
The term “has been the subject of extensive research and discussion,” the company’s statement added. “There is now insurmountable evidence, dating back to the early 1800s, that the word ‘squaw’ has long been used as a derogatory and dehumanizing reference to a Native American woman.”
Source: Squaw Valley Resort, Acknowledging ‘Racist and Sexist’ Name, Changes It, The New York Times, September 14, 2021
How names based on Native stereotypes affect American youth
This is another big topic, because of the complexities of Native American identities and social attitudes. However, research shows that names and images based on Native stereotypes negatively affect the health and well-being of Native youth. In a 2020 article, POLITICO sat down with Stephanie Fryberg to discuss all of this. Here’s a salient snippet:
The problem, says Stephanie Fryberg, isn’t that the conversation is about symbols. It’s the assumption that the symbols don’t have real-world consequences for living people.
A professor at the University of Michigan and member of the Tulalip Tribe, Fryberg has spent years studying the psychological effects of Native stereotypes and logos on both Native Americans and non-Natives. She’s seen precisely who gets hurt.
In her studies, she found that exposing Native American teenagers to Native sports mascots decreased their self-esteem, lowered the achievement-related goals they set for themselves, and diminished both their sense of community worth and belief that their community can improve itself. Other studies have shown that the use of Native mascots increases suicidal ideation and depression among Native Americans. “Being shown the mascot actually lowered Native high schoolers’ self-esteem more than giving them negative statistics about [Native American communities], like high suicide rates, depression, dropout rates,” Fryberg told POLITICO in an interview on Wednesday. “That really gives you a sense of how powerful the imagery is.”
The importance of changing the narrative
This Zinzin namer believes that changing the narrative is key, especially for current and future generations of Native and non-Native youth. I think the article, Rez Life, by David Treuer sums this up perfectly. It features commentary and an interview with Sterlin Harjo, co-creator and executive producer (along with Taika Waititi) of the FX Series Reservation Dogs — the “genre-mixing, cliché-exploding series [that] captures coming of age as a Native kid like no TV show before it.” Treuer says:
This is finally changing, thanks in part to a broader cultural reckoning about the importance of diversity and representation in art. The world seems to have woken up to the fact that there is more than one Native story to be told. We now have multiple series by and about Natives: Rutherford Falls gives us a toothless, feel-good sitcom. Letterkenny offers something close to Parks and Recreation. We even have, or will have, a Marvel superhero show with Echo.
But in this time of relative plenty, Reservation Dogs still stands out. The drama and humor of Indian life unfold through the relationships among the kids and, later, between the kids and adults, like the “grandmother” Cheese adopts at a health clinic or the “uncle” the kids claim (and who eventually claims them back). The show is more interested in the daily reality of Native experience than in signposting big themes about what it means to be Indian. “We’re not always referencing who we are as Native people,” Harjo told me. “We’re just being Native.” He was determined to have Reservation Dogs reflect that. “I didn’t want to explain shit.”
Exactly, Sterlin Harjo! We at Zinzin don’t like to explain either — we’d rather demonstrate. More specifically, Zinzin believes that great names demonstrate a company or product’s brand positioning. And great brand positioning comes from the epic ideas behind a brand. They will lead to a unique and authentic story that connects to the world through tone, personality, and emotion.
Embrace language that changes and evolves
Indigenous peoples have living cultures that change over time. Let’s hope language and naming catches up. How does that happen? Well, here’s a place to start: in branding and naming, a constant in every industry should be sound practices that don’t disparage cultures, social, and ethnic groups.
The best names uplift and inspire
Looking back at brand names derived from different Indigenous cultures provides an opportunity to gain a new perspective and understanding. In looking forward, we embrace evolving language and cultures. And we know the best names always uplift and inspire all peoples.
In related news: Moccasin maker Minnetonka has apologized for appropriating Native American culture, NPR reports.