Struggling, Resilient: The National Congress of the American Indians Gives Washington Some Alternatives

The National Football League’s 2014 Super Bowl broadcast included many controversy-sparking commercials. The one commercial it didn’t . . .

 

. . . also ended with such a pregnant pause. Late last year, Rhetorically Speaking ran a two-part post on the recent developments in the on-going controversy over the the NFL’s Washington franchise, its outspoken owner, and its heavily scrutinized team name. In 2013, ChangeTheMascot.org and its allies mounted a renewed campaign against the term “Redskins” by appealing to Congress, to the NFL, to team sponsors, and, via web links and airwaves, to public opinion.

On Super Bowl weekend, the National Congress of the American Indians contributed to the public debate by releasing “Proud To Be,” a two-minute viral video circulated online as “the #BigGame commercial the NFL would never air.” Shot and edited in a style reminiscent of advertising powerhouse Wieden+Kennedy—the firm behind Nike and such politically-charged and unabashedly nationalist Super Bowl spots as Chrysler’s “Halftime in America” and this year’s Coca Cola spot, “It’s Beautiful”—the video presented an artful, emotional, at times blunt and blistering critique of the Redskins name and mascot.

We might debate the truth behind particular claims forwarding the video, implying the NFL or Fox had rejected the commercial—after all, even 30-second Big Game spots run for several million dollars and it is unlikely that the NCAI could have funded such a statement or even intended the spot to air—but its online presence was massive, with over 1.5 million YouTube views in its first week online and an accompanying Super Bowl weekend Twitter campaign aimed at capitalizing on the nation’s attention to keep the ChangeTheMascot movement growing.

The “Proud to Be” spot adopts a simple yet affective premise and structure. A montage of images of Native individuals, past and present, plays against a simple list of tribal titles, names, social roles, and adjectives that might describe Native Americans, and a swelling musical soundtrack. “Proud,” the narrator begins, “Forgotten,” he counters, “Indian.” These are descriptors of a people, both as individuals and as communities. The words are mentioned in brief stanzas, grouped in reference to  specific tribes, then individual qualities, then historical figures, then family roles. “Sitting Bull, Hiawatha, and Jim Thorpe” are followed by “Mother, Father, Son, Daughter.” The list follows an almost cyclical structure, beginning against the image of a rising sun and working towards a sunset near the video’s end. The mid-way point, at one minute in, includes adjectives like “Underserved” and “Struggling,” with images of weather-beaten reservation lands, a child rummaging through rubbish, and an overweight, slumped figure against a military mural. The list suggests honesty and admission of blemishes. Not all words for the Indian are glowing, but they are included all the same, suggesting candor and truth. Then the list begins to cycle back on themes, listing even more tribal distinctions, more social roles, more famous figures. We see powwows and regalia over and over again, each distinguished with a different name. It is a strategy of copia, going on and on and cycling back on themes to stress the vast diversity of Native American peoples before climbing to an assertive final note: “Unyielding, Strong, Indomitable. Native Americans call themselves many things. The one thing they don’t . . .” and the increasingly rapid music and image montage cut to black. The pregnant pause gives way to a slow fade on the Redskins helmet logo and a football that stay on the screen in silence. The argument here is simple: despite all of the terms that the commercial has shared, it will not stoop to saying the derogatory word. The NFL and viewers nationwide should do the same.

There are many things we might deconstruct about the video. The inclusion of American flags, Native American soldiers and veterans, and blatant references to athleticism and football echo the shameless nationalism we’ve come to expect from Super Bowl ads over the past decade. The images of precocious children might strike some as pandering for sympathy. The pause at the end of the list functions enthymematically, inviting—or even subtly coercing—the viewer to fill in the blanks of the argument and thus take part in its construction.

For the ongoing discussion of the Redskins name controversy, however, we might consider how the “Proud to Be” spot echoes the strategy used by sportscaster Bob Costas in his October 13 comments. In my earlier post, I argued that Costas had introduced a new tactic in the debate by suggesting that neither those supporting nor those opposing Native American mascots at large were incorrect and rather bracketing the term “Redskins” in a tier of its own, separate from all other potentially offensive or controversial mascot names. Costas presented a list of other Indian mascot names to demonstrate how “Redskins,” as a term, differed—how it was particularly egregious and worthy of concerted reflection. “Proud to Be” utilizes the same strategy. It presents a copious list of other, acceptable alternatives, to demonstrate that just this one term is problematic.

It is unclear if this new strategy will change minds or mascots, but it has certainly spread and helped reinvigorate the anti-Redskins debate.

Of course, while Costas spoke to a broad television audience, the NCAI may be “preaching to the choir.” Their description of the video as “the #BigGame commercial the NFL would never air” suggests awareness that regardless of the video’s editing and music and art, the people in charge of the final decision have made up their minds and are unwilling to hear further arguments. And so the campaign, like so many these days, has moved to Twitter and Facebook and hyperlinks. Perhaps the NCAI is simply rallying a base. Perhaps they are following the maxim, attributed to Gandhi, that in fighting any status quo, “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” By suggesting that the NFL is shutting them out, the NCAI seems to realize they are, at the least, no longer being ignored. They are, in their own words, then, both “struggling” and “resilient.”

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