Like most owners of racial brands, Mr. Snyder has continued to insist that the name is not intended to offend and that it actually “honors” Native people. But this assertion cannot be disentangled from the larger history of Native American land dispossession, in which European newcomers idealized a myth of a fearless, primitive warrior, using it to justify war, removal and even genocide. With Natives pushed out of the way, non-Indians were free not only to take Indian lands but also to appropriate Native culture and identity. In “Playing Indian,” the historian Phil Deloria of Harvard traces the way in which settlers appropriated Native culture and identity for centuries as part of their own identity formation. Generations of Americans have grown up playing “cowboys and Indians,” usurping Native culture as their own, through sports mascots and countless other romantic narratives of Manifest Destiny.
But while Black Lives Matter has had success in retiring African-American stereotypes and brands, Native American brands face an uncertain outcome. Appropriations of racialized stereotypes of Native people are still big business, inextricably linked to the cultural and territorial history of dispossession. Last year, Dior introduced an ad campaign featuring its new Sauvage perfume, which it described as “an authentic journey deep into the Native American soul in a sacred, founding and secular territory.” (The company pulled the ad in response to outrage.) Other brands have gone even further into this fraught racial terrain, such as, for example, Urban Outfitters in the early 2010s with its “Navajo” products including panties and flasks. (In another case, a company produced “Crazy Horse Malt Liquor,” even though the revered leader denounced alcohol consumption; the company eventually settled a lawsuit filed by his descendants.) All too familiar commercial products produced by non-Native companies — such as the Apache Helicopter, Jeep Cherokee and Yakima Bike Racks — abound in the commercial marketplace.