Review: In Imagining the Indian, Filmmakers Ask Americans to Challenge Tradition, Respect their Native Neighbors

Many times when critics review an issue-oriented documentary, the writer will focus more on the issue and less on the filmmaking, and judge the film on how well the filmmaker presents their case or the fact of a particular subject. With the latest from directors Aviva Kempner (The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg and The Spy Behind Home Plate) and Ben West, Imagining the Indian, the subject is one of the longest-going and most heated movements in American history: the effort to remove words, images and gestures from sporting events that many Native Americans find demeaning and offensive.

As the filmmakers point out, there has been progress in recent years with the Washington football team, formerly the Redskins, changing its name to the Commanders; and the Cleveland baseball team, formerly the Indians, converting its name to the Guardians. The fact that there are organizations who still adamantly refuse to change their team names (hello, Chicago Blackhawks and Kansas City Chiefs), or to stop their fans from doing the “tomahawk chop” at Atlanta Braves (another offensive team name) games is shocking. But the movement at the center of this film goes beyond professional sports teams and a nationwide effort to get about 2,000 high schools and colleges to change their names and mascots as well. And the vocal lengths that fans and these teams’ governing bodies are going to in order to keep their troubling traditions alive is shocking and telling.

But the power of the film comes not from simply having footage of fan reactions and example after example of troubling behavior, but in putting the use of Native American imagery in sports and popular culture in the context of longer-range American history. Before Imagining the Indian even dives into the field of sports, it covers Native representation in movies, television and advertising. Not surprisingly, even the way the history of indigenous people has been written is a gross misrepresentation of facts. The twisted truth is that sports teams entered into the so-called mascoting of Native culture, thinking it was a sign of respect. There’s a chilling moment when Redskins fans are filing past a group of protesters, and one calls out to a protestor while showing the team logo tattooed on his arm, “I put you on my arm. How is that disrespecting you?” But the truth is that most mascots are animals, so how is equating a particular people worthy of mascoting anything but disrespect?

The film is filled with moments like that. “It’s just a sports team” is a common snap back at protestors, and the fact that so many Americans are so invested in a team name or mascot is one of the saddest realizations this movie offers (not that I didn’t know it, but isn’t it the same team with a different name?). America’s petty clinging to tradition is the real focus on this movie, and Imagining the Indian is a powerful piece of essential viewing for both sports fans and allies to this cause. The interviews with activists, historians, Native American sports figures, as well as sports figureheads like Bob Costas, who famously called out the Redskins during a game for stubbornly clinging to their name (perhaps the most racist of any), are poignant, informative, and deeply personal. This movie places its subject in history and gives us an idea of where the movement is looking to the future.

The film is now playing theatrically at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.