I was corresponding with a friend over text recently about his next motorcycle purchase. He’s been picking my brains about which bike to buy and was requesting some insight on a couple different models he’s been looking at. The Indian Chief Dark Horse has been striking his fancy as of late, but he doesn’t have a dealer in close proximity and others seem to be slapping an extra $1000 on the top of the purchase price due to low inventory and high demand. Next came a discussion that wouldn’t have happened even two years ago – how comfortable he’d be riding a motorcycle called an Indian with a caricature of the brand’s namesake on the tank. It wouldn’t have been part of the purchase consideration in the past for most, but it is now. And that’s a good thing.
We’ve all been reading and hearing a lot about white privilege these days. Some dismiss it as merely politically correct BS, while some of us take it to heart by considering how small actions and simple modifications to everyday language can make the lives of others significantly better. While I do agree that this newfound era of cancel culture can be hazardous as everyone seems to be competing over who can be the most “woke,” it is also high time we rid ourselves of some highly offensive traditions that don’t serve any purpose or provide any benefit.
Monetizing products based on the names and imagery of indigenous people is rampant if you take a moment to think about it. The names and mascots of many North American sports teams have come under fire over recent years, which is long overdue. The Cleveland Indians have replaced Chief Wahoo with a C and the Washington Redskins retired their logo at the start of the 2020 season, referring to themselves as the Washington Football Team. Edmonton’s CFL team has backed away from using the name Eskimos after consulting Inuit communities and receiving a backlash from sponsors. Chuck Hoskin Jr., the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, has requested that Jeep stop using the name to sell their SUVs, to no avail thus far.
Would Caucasians be upset if a visible minority group marketed a product or sports team as “The Honkeys” or “The Crackers”? Maybe. Maybe not. However, we also haven’t been segregated or assimilated, victimized, brutalized and repressed for centuries, so it isn’t an even playing field.
The company now known as Indian Motorcycle has been around (inconsistently) since 1901 but didn’t adopt the Indian name until 1923 – years before Cleveland named their team the Indians or Jeep launched the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee. Just because we’ve been doing something for over a century, is that sufficient justification to keep doing it?
Making things even more questionable is the fact that Christopher Columbus named First Nations people Indians back in 1492 because he was lost and thought he was in India. Here we are in 2021, and somehow, we’re still calling them Indians.
My best friend Grant is a fellow Triumph owner who discovered through research of his ancestry as an adult that he is in fact Métis, which has led him to explore the heritage and experience of his people in particular, and Natives in general. Spoiler alert: it’s not a pretty picture. Reservations and residential schools are just the tip of the iceberg. I asked him about his thought on the matter.
“Obviously I can’t speak on behalf of all First Nations about caricature portrayals of indigenous peoples in popular culture and brands, but it’s highly problematic,” he explains. “Pro sports teams have started making reparations by changing names and logos which is long overdue. One could argue that these portrayals help bring awareness of the First Nations people to a larger audience, but unfortunately the legacy is typically intended to stereotype and dehumanize the groups portrayed. I see the Indian motorcycle brand as a caricature and objectification of a race of people as “noble savages” for marketing purposes. I’m sure the intent of the brand wasn’t to oppress an entire people. It was simply intended to sell motorcycles. However, things change and it’s time that brands caught up to modern societal values.”
If someone was using your likeness or family name for financial gain, you’d likely have little issue gaining support in the arena of trademark law, however, First Nations people seem to be the exception to this rule. If Indian used its position as an enterprise to fund initiatives that support the Native population, that would go a long way to help their cause.
This of course has nothing to do with the quality of the motorcycles themselves, and sales don’t seem to have been impacted by this newfound sense of cultural sensitivity. In fact, even during the most strange and tumultuous year in recent memory, sales were up in 2020. While there was a moderate dip in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Russia all helped boost numbers close to record levels seen in 2017.
My question is how much value and cache the name really brings. Would riders be more or less inclined to buy the same motorcycle if it was called a Victory, for example? After all, Polaris Industries owns the rights to both entities. I’d be curious to know the reasons why they chose to invest in Indian and scrap Victory.
As the world becomes more PC-friendly, I do think that the name and branding will do more harm than good, ultimately having a negative impact on sales in the future. I certainly don’t want to see the company fail, nor do I wish anything but the best for those who make their living and support their families working for the company. I merely think that supporting and perpetuating a certain pattern of cultural appropriation is best left in the past.
I wouldn’t look down on anyone for purchasing an Indian. I certainly don’t think it makes them evil, racist, or ignorant. It does however make them complicit. And as they say, “Money talks.” Things are unlikely to change until the bottom line is threatened, so that may be the best way to get results.