More dignified than laxative ads? Photographer: John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images
More dignified than laxative ads? Photographer: John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

This week, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the trademark of the Washington Redskins on the grounds that the name was “disparaging” to Native Americans. The football team’s owner, Daniel Synder, has vowed to appeal the decision. No doubt he will continue to maintain that the name is a “badge of honor” for native peoples.

Snyder may genuinely believe that making millions from the sale of cheap merchandise adorned with pictures of Indians is a celebration of Native American pride. History suggests otherwise, however.

Americans (the non-native kind) haven’t always tried to profit from images of Native Americans. In fact, it was only after they had been almost exterminated by military force and disease, had their lands confiscated, and their tribes dispersed that Indians found themselves resurrected in commercial hell, as adornments for the packaging of a host of products in 19th-century America.

Patent medicine was the first business to seize on this branding. Bogus remedies that promised to cure everything from hemorrhoids to baldness to impotence (often all at once) were marketed with the image of a “noble savage” who allegedly had access to arcane medical lore desperately needed by city dwellers eager for a cure.

In the 1870s and 1880s, the brazen appropriation of Indians in advertising hit new highs. The Kickapoo Medicine Co., for example, built a national brand on the backs of the Kickapoo people of the Midwest. Concocting tinctures and potions -- Kickapoo Indian Oil, Kickapoo Indian Worm Killer, and Kickapoo Indian Sagwa, a “blood, liver, and stomach renovator” -- two fast-talking white entrepreneurs traded off the tribe’s name to hawk bogus cures.

The company’s proprietors marketed their wares during elaborate “medicine shows” featuring performers, some drawn from nearby reservations, who would give “authentic” portrayals of native life (one of the more popular consisted of dramatic scenes of Indians slaughtering white settlers.) According to historian Kevin Armitage, almost 80 of these sales troupes would tour the U.S. at any given time, extolling the restorative powers of Kickapoo Sagwa, which was nothing more than a powerful laxative.

Other patent medicine makers deployed similar techniques. There was “Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills,” bursting with special plants that the good doctor had acquired from the wise “Red Men of the forest.” (Dr. Morse was a fiction, as was the curative powers of the pills). Then there was Seminole Cough Balsam; Nez Perce Catarrh Snuff; Pocahantas Bitters; Comanche Blood Syrup; and many others.

The timing of this mania for aboriginal cures was perverse.

“By the grimmest of ironies,” medical historian Barbara Griggs says, “this commercial boom in ‘Indian’ medicine coincided with the deliberate destruction of that Indian culture and civilization from which it borrowed its trade-names.”

But the borrowing was far from over. Indians had been the first peoples to smoke tobacco -- for ceremonial purposes initially. Perhaps for this reason they ended up adorning the advertising and packaging of countless tobacco companies in late-19th-century America, including Black Hawk Cigars, Red Indian Cut Plug Tobacco, Indian Girl Chewing Tobacco and Injun Cigars. Most of these disappeared long ago, though a few -- Red Man Tobacco, for example -- remain. (Not to mention more recent products such as Natural American Spirit cigarettes, which promise "100% Additive-Free Tobacco.")

Indians also were ubiquitous in the product names and packaging of anything connected to the land (the same land, it should be noted, that had been taken from native peoples). As a consequence, the image of the stern Indian (or scantily-clad Indian princess) became a totem of late 19th-century advertising, testifying to the virtues of corn starch, farming implements and popcorn.

It was only a matter of time before Indians -- or caricatures thereof -- ended up appropriated as mascots for the increasingly profitable business of professional sports. Here the appeal lay in native people’s alleged ferocity and martial spirit, which could be repurposed on the athletic field, complete with tomahawk chops, war dances, teepees and other paraphernalia. The Boston Braves baseball team, born in 1912, was one of the first, followed by the Cleveland Indians in 1915. Dozens of professional and collegiate teams soon followed suit.

As Snyder has found out, the pretense that these mascots are harmless homages to native peoples has become increasingly harder to sell.

To contact the writer of this article: Stephen Mihm at mihmstep@yahoo.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.