They Are Not Your Mascots

‘Imagining The Indian’ is a primer on sports teams and Native American cultural appropriation

It’s been months since the wokest Super Bowl of our lives, thanks to pregnant Rihanna center stage and halftime and both quarterbacks being African-American for the first time ever. But as is usually the case with major woke events, significant change to the most racist thing directly affiliated to the Super Bowl, the iconography of this year’s winner, the Kansas City Chiefs, has not been forthcoming. This probably shouldn’t surprise anyone. While the Chiefs did eventually ban headdresses and war paint after their 2020 Super Bowl win, this was more a side effect of a more well-publicized campaign against the Washington Redskins over the summer than anyone feeling shame because the Kansas City Chiefs were the nation’s highest profile football team. Yet the tomahawk chop and war drums persist- as do the calls for the Chiefs to knock this stuff off, with the current landscape not looking so great for change actually happening.

A new documentary, Imagining the Indian, explores these issues–albeit on a far wider spectrum than just the Kansas City Chiefs. The first 20 minutes are an extended primer on the cultural appropriation of native American imagery in general. While the term cultural appropriation is often, with good reason, derided for being comically broad, Imagining the Indian correctly spells out a situation where it’s actually entirely appropriate. Sports teams, and their mascots, were predominantly created a century ago in a time of highly charged racism. When most teams just have animal mascots, it’s hard not to read a casual insult into teams with a predominantly white, or more relevantly, non-indigenous fanbase using imagery they would never use in their daily life.

OK, but what about the Fighting Irish? Or the Steelers? Or the Packers? Those names all refer to people too. And Imagining the Indian…doesn’t really address that argument actually. It briefly, and confusingly, mentions the Packers as an example of how no one honors cheese packers by putting cheese hats on their head. But they kind of do though? No one aside from a Green Bay Packers fan would ever want to wear a cheese hat. That’s kind of the whole point. Wearing a headdress is bad not because headdresses are always terrible. Rather, it’s because they derive from a fundamentally racist tradition that was always about mocking native Americans, not honoring the original context where they wore headdresses.

Imagining the Indian mostly gets the facts right. The main issue with the documentary is that it’s surprisingly bad at anticipating reasonable counter-arguments. A lot of this has to do with the fact that if you ask the typical idiot sports fan about these issues, they’ll give fairly stupid arguments. Imagining the Indian has lots of great moments that reenact the classic Lalo Alcaraz cartoon on the topic. That comic is twenty years old by the way. This has been going on for a really long time.

Lalo Alcaraz was on top of this issue 20 years ago (cartoon courtesy of Lalo Alcaraz).

All the same, crass sports fans are a really easy target. Imagining the Indian briefly mentions a very different kind of argument, asking whether the racist mascot issue really deserves precedence over all the other issues facing native people today, nearly all of which have a far more direct impact on their generally terrible standard of living. Yet this argument is only acknowledged, not seriously addressed. Indeed, Imagining the Indian inadvertently seems to back the complaint up by featuring a clip of Sacheen Littlefeather accepting Marlon Brando’s Academy Award for him in 1973.

While this event is most commonly characterized as a protest on Brando’s part for the derogatory treatment of native Americans on film, Sacheen Littlefeather explicitly cites the then-recent Wounded Knee Occupation as an example of ongoing oppression. By cutting Littlefeather off right before she can explain what she’s talking about, and not bothering to explain the Wounded Knee Occupation directly, Imagining the Indian inadvertently validates right-wing sentiments that the whole issue of mascot appropriation is just about hurt feelings.

This is frustrating, although it’s about what can be expected from a liberal documentary that includes an admittedly funny Seth Meyers clip in the middle of the credits. Imagining the Indian does improve on that formula by providing a lot of historical perspective and reminding the viewer that a whole lot of these teams exist, and that high school Redskins teams continued to exist even after the Washington Redskins changed their name.

For awhile anyway. That’s another boon to the documentary’s liberal sensitivities–unlike most political issues, society is making slow, steady progress on mascots. Of course, the fact that the Kansas City Chiefs made some reforms a few years ago, and have successfully avoided making any further ones suggests progress might be stalled. The relative invisibility of the issue in the lead-up to the most woke Super Bowl ever also suggests more cannibalization of social justice energy than anyone seems willing to admit. Imagining the Indian goes into a fair amount of detail about how Black Lives Matter has supported the cause. Yet it rather understates how Washington D.C. is a predominantly African-American city, and while the stereotype of a racist cultural appropriator is a white person, black people do it too. The one African-American guy near the end who simply refuses to acknowledge the parallels is the most memorable and messed up racist sports fan for this exact reason.

Is it too much to ask Imagining the Indian to get into the divide-and-conquer aspects of white supremacy? Well, honestly, I’m not sure. So much of the film reads more like a primer on the issues, or maybe a companion to a class on the subject where a good teacher can fill in the holes and answer questions. For that purpose Imagining the Indian reads decently enough. All the primary information and especially the footage is great. Nevertheless, the lack of a clear thesis is still troubling. At one point Imagining the Indian implies that the Florida State Seminoles are cultural appropriation, but not the University of Utah Utes…because of something to do with the technical details of the contracts those tribes have with the schools? The movie mentions the Supreme Court case involving the band The Slants, but avoids clearly explaining who the Slants were and why they wanted to trademark a racial slur. Cherry-picking facts to make an argument seem stronger is never a good look, especially when you can make an even better argument with better context.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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