A very difficult yet poignant history to tell particularly during these times of high level discrimination in our government and society. How does a Nation of people remain calm under the humiliation of the white man I just do not know. Peace and humility has got to be the only answer! God Bless the American Indian! -Ed Estes
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.
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.
“You brand yourself to add value to the product,” says Paul Chaat Smith, the exhibition’s curator. “What is the value that it adds? It’s integrity, authenticity, and a certain kind of Americanness. It’s what’s special about the U.S.”