Santa Fe International Film Festival: ‘Imagining the Indian’ Review

Documentary uses scholar and activists to narrate the fight against stereotypical sports mascots

A plethora of articulate Native scholars and activists deliver powerful narratives in Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting—their diversity of tribal affiliation and backgrounds as strong as their more homogeneous message about the damage of stereotypical images.

Co-directed by Aviva Kempner and Ben West, the documentary focuses on the story of the Washington Commanders, a historical NFL franchise that bitterly fought in the courts and the culture to keep its racial euphemism of a team name until an about-face in July 2020.

That victory for advocates, and the one that resulted in the Cleveland Guardians replacing that city’s baseball team’s name the next summer, however, doesn’t sweep away the rest of corporate and college sports teams that still poorly defend their use of Native images. We’re looking at you Chicago Blackhawks, Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Braves—plus a staggering more than 1,800 public school teams across the country.

We love this film’s who’s-who on the subject matter, including psychologists, professors and government leaders, plus Ho-Chunk NBA player Bronson Koenig and gold medal winner Billy Mills (Oglala Lakota) and others. And we can’t get enough of Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee), a lifelong activist who in some ways is the real star of this production. She appears in clips from ‘60s radio journalism to ‘80s TV talk shows and recent interviews from a wheelchair with the US Capitol in the background. New Mexico’s Deb Haaland (Laguna) also makes the cut, along with footage of Sasheen Littlefeather, the actress and activist who famously declined Marlon Brandon’s 1973 Oscar—now more poignant in the face of her death on Oct. 2.

The storytelling effectively works in the usual collection of cringey Western cinema footage and Bugs Bunny horrors as well as European painters, advertisements and news reels that should elicit their own facepalms.

What’s it going to take to correct the record and direct the future? To see the real Native America? A whole team.


+Moving, succinct and powerful narrative

-Should be mandatory viewing for every American

Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting

Directed by Aviva Kempner and Ben West

Center for Contemporary Arts, NR, 95 min.

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