Opinion

What’s in a Name?

Would a motorcycle by any other name rumble so sweet?

I’m not sure how I missed this news but way back in February, American dairy products company Land O Lakes began quickly phasing out a Native American mascot it had used since 1921.

Land O Lakes didn’t exactly say why it had made such a decision, but the general consensus is that it chose to do so in preparation for celebrations of the company’s 100th anniversary next year. Big occasions are often a good time for reassessment. With the benefit of hindsight it was a clever move – one that countless companies would find themselves scrambling to mimic just a few months later, when the killing of George Floyd forced a worldwide reckoning on how we treat each other and how we reflect that treatment in our daily lives.

The erstwhile Land O Lakes mascot

Land O Lakes, you may know, is based in Minnesota – a state whose name* comes from the Dakota language of the Sioux nation. As someone who spent quite a bit of his life living in Minnesota, I had always assumed that the Land O Lakes mascot was a reference to this fact and the state’s deep Native American traditions. I’ll admit that I had always seen the mascot – a cherubic and rather light-skinned woman in stereotypical Native American garb – as pretty innocuous. The mascot was just a thing, as far as I was concerned, and not a thing I ever really thought about.

But I’m a white male protestant. In addition to being innocuous, the Land O Lakes Native American mascot was also largely irrelevant to me. Now that it’s gone, if I were still living in Minnesota, it would not affect my purchasing decisions in any way. Meanwhile, although I am a white male protestant I’m enough of a big boy to accept that mine is not the only way of thinking; just because something doesn’t upset me, I understand that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not upsetting. In other words, the Land O Lakes mascot is gone and although I don’t personally care, I think the company probably made the right decision.

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So, you see where I’m going with this, right? There’s another large brand in Minnesota that also uses a Native American as its mascot, and next year it will be celebrating its 120th anniversary: Indian Motorcycle. Amid the current climate I find myself… well, just sort of wondering.

One challenge for Indian, of course, is that it’s not simply a matter of a logo. The iconic headdress logo is still to be seen on a handful of the company’s models and some of its apparel, but you’ll notice that the majority of products simply feature the brand name. If Indian were to choose to follow Land O Lakes’ lead, it could do so relatively easily – probably without anyone really noticing. It’s simply a matter of switching to all-script. Meanwhile, the brand could offer a “fresh new restyling” of its big twins that conveniently drops the war bonnet fender ornament. But there’s still the issue of the brand’s actual name.

Is this appropriate anymore?

A quick side note on the headdress logo: nothing will get an Indian company man or woman to tense up and change the subject more quickly than to ask about the appropriateness of said logo in modern times. They hate it when you broach the subject. It is my understanding, however, that Indian has worked with local Native American tribes to try to ensure that what it does is respectful. It’s worth noting, also, that outside of particularly iconic models, Indian has chosen to avoid Native American allusions in the naming of its bikes: eg, Springfield, Roadmaster, FTR 1200 and Challenger.

But, yeah. There’s still the issue of the name. Indian’s corporate parent, Polaris, has solid empirical evidence to argue against changing the brand’s name. For a number of years, financial reports proved to the company that a well-made motorcycle called Victory will lose money, while a well-made motorcycle called Indian will grow in sales each quarter. So, probably don’t expect a name change without there first being a huge uproar.

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For what it’s worth, I’ve spent a little time searching the website of the National Congress of American Indians – the “oldest, largest, and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization” – and haven’t found any conclusive opinions about using the word “Indian” in relation to a business. The NCAI definitely did not like the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo mascot, but ever since that mascot was retired six years ago it doesn’t seem to have taken issue with the actual name of the team.

However, as I was in the process of writing this article, a number of organizations in Cleveland issued a call for the city’s baseball team to scrap its name. And apparently the team’s owners are open to the possibility. So, the issue remains hot-button. And if Cleveland drops its name that makes it very difficult for Indian Motorcycle to argue that everything’s fine.

Dealerships in the past haven’t done the best job of promoting the Indian brand…

For my own part, I’ve not got too much of a problem with the Indian name and I personally like the headdress logo – I think it looks cool. But, again: white male protestant. These aren’t issues that affect my sense of who I am and how I feel people see me. But for some people that is very much the case.

Also, there is the problem of all the ways in which Indian cannot control the message. Its marketing and PR teams can do and say all the right things, but they can’t command how riders and commentators will choose to behave. Do some searches for articles about Indian Motorcycle and you’ll find some headlines and articles that are absolutely cringeworthy in their phrasing and concept. And these are educated journalists. Scratch the surface of some internet forums and things get very awful very quick.

I don’t have any real answers in all this. It’s just something I think about. As the world evolves and spins, it occasionally becomes apparent that doing the “right” thing is quite tricky because many people will feel there was nothing “wrong” with their behavior in the first place. Indeed, the history of the United States’ dealings with Native Americans that has quite often been the case.

* There is some debate about exactly what the word Minnesota means. It either means “sky-blue water” or “cloudy water;” no one’s able to agree for certain.