Asking tough questions

SunWatch Native American exhibit goes beyond the mascot

By Emma Jarman

Photo: Wright State University public history graduate students Mitchell Dorsten and Fayelee Conley prepare a component of the More Than a Mascot exhibit at SunWatch Indian Village

SunWatch Indian Village—a reconstructed Fort Ancient Native American village and museum next to the Great Miami River—presents More Than a Mascot: Native Americans in Popular Culture through Sept. 13. The exhibit juxtaposes Native American images and artifacts alongside their oft-stereotypical representations in movies, sports, advertisements, logos, fashion, film and media.

War clubs, toys, purses, moccasins, jewelry, a large headdress and roaches (large, mohawk-like ornaments worn on the head—think Rufio from Robin Williams’ “Hook”) are some of the artifacts visitors will see during their trip to SunWatch. These items are strategically placed adjacent to cans of Red Man tobacco and images of Johnny Depp as Tonto in “The Lone Ranger.” The artifacts were collected by the Wright State student team from the Collections Department at the Dayton Society of Natural History, as well as through meetings and conversations with Native Americans from and around the Dayton area.

“We tried to put things in the exhibit that would attract everyone,” explains Project Manager Fayelee Conley, one of a team of nine Wright State public history graduate students tasked with curating More Than a Mascot. 

In a time where our state and our country weigh the names and representations of characters like baseball’s Cleveland Indians Chief Wahoo and football’s Washington Redskins, it’s important to understand the history behind these depictions of Natives and why they may or may not be appropriate.

Of further importance is the fact that racially insensitive images of Native Americans are not specific to the sports world, but are found in all aspects of consumerism. Many of the organizations and corporations that use these images in their logos, advertisements or films claim to be honoring the rich heritage of an historic culture—rather than bastardizing it for a profit. More Than a Mascot presents an evenly represented opportunity for the individual to decide how they feel about these issues.

“For the most part, [I don’t believe images of Natives in pop culture are accurate],” Conley says. “Especially now that I’ve seen a lot of the background and have seen a lot of actual American artifacts and images […] I am way more aware now of portrayals and people making a profit in false or inaccurate portrayals [of Native Americans].”

A grocery shopper is likely to see a smiling Pocahontas-esque woman cradling a shining box of butter on the front of a package of Land O’Lakes butter. Innumerable basement bars and man caves across the nation are home to the iconic large wooden statues of a Native man in a headdress touting a box of cigars. (Those fellas can be purchased anywhere from mom-and-pop antique stores to Amazon.com anywhere between $80 and $1,000.)

Is it fair that major corporations are adopting images of Native Americans—a historically disenfranchised group of people—to turn a profit? More Than a Mascot leaves that up to you, the viewer, to decide, with significant emphasis placed on fair and accurate representations of both past and present-day Native American people and culture.

“I think it’s important for both the Natives and non-Natives,” Conley says. “A lot of Natives are disappointed with how their culture is portrayed. We’re trying to help them out and give them a voice and show that we do care and we put a lot of work in this. And for non-Natives, to show the importance of not portraying them falsely and making sure we do give them a voice and give them the truth.”

More Than a Mascot is a coffee table book. It’s a conversation starter. It’s a beautiful collection of thought-provoking, sometimes difficult issues. The exhibit forces viewers to be a little more introspective than they are perhaps accustomed to, and to form opinions and experience realizations they may not have been able to before.

“Some people might think that the Chief Wahoo thing is absolutely OK, but then they might think that in another area, like the Land O’Lakes example, is awful because someone somewhere is making a profit from that,” Conley says. “So, since there is a diversity of examples, I think this exhibit really gets people to think.”

At the conclusion of the exhibit is a guest book to sign and leave comments, and many have left their answers to the open-ended questions posed by More Than a Mascot. Some are positive; some are negative. But all are thoughtful and share an eye-opening experience, which is the goal of the exhibit.

“More Than a Mascot’s purpose is to pull people’s opinions about Native Americans in popular culture,” Conley concludes. “It’s to get them thinking about Natives and how they are portrayed and if that portrayal is accurate and fair.”

More Than a Mascot:
Native Americans in Popular Culture will run until Sept. 13 at SunWatch Indian Village/Archaeological Park, 2301 W. River Rd. in Dayton. Hours are 9 a.m.- 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and admission is included in the $6 general admission cost of visiting the museum. For more information, please visit sunwatch.org or call 937.268.8199.

 

Reach DCP freelance writer Emma Jarman at EmmaJarman@DaytonCityPaper.com

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