The Vanishing Indian

How ethnic stereotypes were dealt with in the past.

Post-1971 helmet of the now Washington Football Team. Photo by Erik Trost, Pro Football Hall of Fame.

I’ve always been interested in what I can best call “counterstories.”

Counterstories are those stories that everyone is looking at, but where one or two writers look at things from a different angle than the rest of the news media. The recent decision by the owners of the Cleveland Indians to retire the name and the logo, reminded me of two counterstories that took place earlier in the year.

In April, Land O Lakes removed the sitting native woman that graced their products for decades. The reason is what you would expect, that the image was considered demeaning to Native Americans. An indigenous lawmaker from North Dakota went as far as saying the young maiden was responsible for Native women being sex trafficked.

What most people didn’t know is that the current version of this young woman was designed by an Ojibwe man from Minnesota. His son, Robert DesJarlait, explains in an opinion piece written for the Washington Post:

After I was born in 1946, my family moved from Red Lake, Minn., to Minneapolis, where my father broke racial barriers by establishing himself as an American Indian commercial artist in an art world dominated by white executives and artists. In addition to the Mia redesign, his many projects included creating the Hamm’s Beer bear. By often working with Native American imagery, he maintained a connection to his identity.

I was 8 years old when I met Mia. My father often brought his work home, and Mia was one of many commercial-art images I saw him work on in his studio.

With the redesign, my father made Mia’s Native American connections more specific. He changed the beadwork designs on her dress by adding floral motifs that are common in Ojibwe art. He added two points of wooded shoreline to the lake that had often been depicted in the image’s background. It was a place any Red Lake tribal citizen would recognize as the Narrows, where Lower Red Lake and Upper Red Lake meet.

While some believe Mia the maiden was offensive, to others it was a way to make Native Americans visible in a culture that tended to ignore them. “I know from my mother’s generation especially, it represented basically the only representation that she had. It was the one thing that smiled back at them to say, hey, other people exist like you and they are out there,” said Govinda Budrow, a teacher at a tribal community college in Cloquet, Minnesota.

The other example comes from the world of sports. This story deals with Washington’s Football Team when it had its old name. A recent article talks about the changing nature of the word “redskin,” but I want to focus on the logo. Before 1971, the logo was the letter “R” set in front of a white circle. That changed at the urging of Walter “Blackie” Wetzel, a former Blackfeet tribal chairman. The logo is a rendition of a Blackfoot chief, John “Two Guns” White Calf. Wetzel thought it was important to have something that not only showed Native Americans in a positive light but showed them at all.

I share these stories not to make an argument to keep the logos, but as a lesson on how persons of color have worked for representation over the years. We might think these logos are shameful now, but they were created decades ago in order to give a sense of control over how, in this case, Native Americans were portrayed. That was also the case in a story by former NPR host Michelle Norris as she recounted her grandmother playing the party of Aunt Jemima at county fairs. Instead of playing the “mammy” she reinvented Aunt Jemima into someone that less of a stereotype. The viewpoint of removal has not always been the way to deal with representation. In another time when persons of color didn’t have as much freedom to demand change, they made change incrementally through the system.

As we retire names and logos that we deemed offensive, we should remember those people that worked to make sure their people were fairly portrayed in a white man’s world.

Written by

A middle-aged pastor living in Minneapolis. I write about politics, religion, sexuality, and autism.

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