Skip to content Skip to main navigation Skip to footer

On the air: Anthropologist on Indian imagery


Professor Gregory Reinhardt, chair of UIndy’s Department of Anthropology, was featured on Wisconsin Public Radio last week discussing the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s decision to rescind federal trademark protection for the Washington Redskins.

Dr. Reinhardt has a particular interest in the depictions of Native Americans found throughout our culture, and he maintains a large collection of examples. He is currently writing a book, Arresting Indian Imagery: Property, Magic, and Proxy in Visual Fantasies of Indianness.

As he explained in his 20-minute interview with WPR’s Central Time public affairs show, he opposes the careless use of Indian references in pop culture and the term “redskin” in particular. Listen to the interview here.

Reinhardt detailed his stance on the issue in this opinion column below:

Trademark Office vs. Washington Redskins

Anthropologist: Offensive term should be banned for good

Wednesday’s decision about the Washington Redskins by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (an arm of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office) again spotlights this worst-case example of verbally and visually abusing Native Americans in general. Make no mistake: “Redskin” is racist, and it’s a national embarrassment that so many people still see the term as no big deal.

This word relates most commonly to sports these days, and not just at the professional level. In 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights took the topic seriously enough to recommend that all non-Native schools (K-12 as well as post-secondary) should drop their Native American mascots. In 2005, the NCAA forbade such mascots in post-season tournaments. Virtually all colleges and universities have chosen to find alternatives to their “Indians.”

To many people, Native American mascots are mere pets, called “Injuns,” “Braves,” “Warriors,” “Chiefs,” “Redskins,” “Squaws,” “Princesses,” “Scouts,” or “Papooses,” toward whom Euro-Americans bear neither outright ill purpose nor concrete responsibility. These hackneyed images and 19th-century-rooted concepts nevertheless do tangible harm, perpetuating stereotypes that wouldn’t possibly be allowed today for other sociocultural minorities in America.  They harm the public by avoiding knowledge about real Native peoples and instead substituting simplistic misinformation. They also harm Native people, first by making fun of them and then, ironically, by calling them bad sports and thin-skinned. Such major organizations as the American Psychological Association and American Sociological Association have concluded the stereotypes damage Native peoples.

Native American racism, from my academic perspective, boils down to three erroneous concepts.  One, as national icons, they’re public property accessible to anyone’s use in any fashion imaginable.  Two, they are “magical,” allowing others to achieve Native-ness by owning Native (or even “Native-style”) as well as dressing up like them. Three, they’re proxies or psychological projections of non-Natives who wish to be somehow Native themselves. All three concepts, however, are self-serving delusions.

The problem with the Redskins trademark is that too many people still see no harm.  They call such cries for fairness toward Native Americans a witch hunt based on silly, overbearing political correctness. These are ruses, avoidances based on Euro-American power over Native peoples, whose numbers and influence are so small that few others ever listen to them.

Unfortunately, these brands of racism won’t stop.  Even if the Redskins trademark gets cancelled, Native stereotypes will persist. Others will take advantage by mass-producing that logo, just as people have been reproducing images of the University of Illinois’ Chief Illiniwek since his official demise in 2007. University of North Dakota’s “Fighting Sioux” logo reached a new low: earlier this month, a group of students there designed and wore t-shirts depicting the school’s former “Indian”-head, his mouth attached to a beer bong, above which they wrote “SIOUXPER DRUNK.”

In all good conscience, it’s time to end the racism — always harmful, never inconsequential.  To take the low road, be indifferent, say nothing, and prolong the banal image-making just turns blind silence into psychic cruelty against Native Americans. It’s up to the rest of us to speak out on their behalf, to insist that Native American mascots be thrown away, once and for all.