When Cars Assume Ethnic Identities

Glenn Collins, New York Times, June 23, 2013

Coming to a showroom near you for 2014: the first sport utility vehicle in its class equipped with a 9-speed automatic transmission. It’s also the first to offer a parallel-parking feature. {snip}

Oh, yes: its name is the Jeep Cherokee.

Hold on—wasn’t that model name retired more than a decade ago? Wasn’t it replaced by the Jeep Liberty for 2002?

Yet now, in a time of heightened sensitivity over stereotypes, years after ethnic, racial and gender labeling has been largely erased from sports teams, products and services, Jeep is reviving an American Indian model name. Why?


Jeep, a division of the Chrysler Group, explained that its market research revealed a marked fondness for the name. The 2014 version, said Jim Morrison, director of Jeep marketing, “is a new, very capable vehicle that has the Cherokee name and Cherokee heritage. Our challenge was, as a brand, to link the past image to the present.”

The company says it respects changed attitudes toward stereotyping. “We want to be politically correct, and we don’t want to offend anybody,” Mr. Morrison said. Regarding the Cherokee name, he added: “We just haven’t gotten any feedback that was disparaging.”

Well, here’s some: “We are really opposed to stereotypes,” said Amanda Clinton, a spokeswoman for the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. “It would have been nice for them to have consulted us in the very least.”

But, she added, the Cherokee name is not copyrighted, and the tribe has been offered no royalties for the use of the name. “We have encouraged and applauded schools and universities for dropping offensive mascots,” she said, but stopped short of condemning the revived Jeep Cherokee because, “institutionally, the tribe does not have a stance on this.”

So far, marketing materials for the 2014 Cherokee model have eschewed references to, or portrayals of, American Indians and their symbols. {snip}

For decades, American Indian tribal names have helped to propel automobiles out of showrooms. Return with us now to the era when Pontiac’s sales brochures carried illustrations comparing its 6-cylinder engines to six red-painted, feathered cartoon Indian braves rowing a canoe.

Or review Pontiac’s marketing copy, which proclaimed that “among the names of able Indian warriors known to the white race in America, that of Pontiac, chief of the Ottawas and accepted leader of the Algonquin family of tribes, stands pre-eminent.” Of course, the visage of the chief was appropriated as a hood ornament.

Many other tribes were adopted as marketing tools. Long gone is the Jeep Comanche pickup truck, sold in the late 1980s, along with the Jeep Comanche Eliminator.

{snip} And Chrysler’s full-sized S.U.V., the Grand Cherokee, introduced in 1992 as a larger version of the Cherokee and still a market leader. In fact, its success was a reason for the revival of the Cherokee name for a midsize S.U.V.

American Indians have hardly been alone in the cavalcade of automobile cultural stereotyping. In the 1950s, advertising for the Studebaker Scotsman didn’t actually use the word cheapskate, but prospective buyers were informed that “when you and your family sit in your thrifty Scotsman…this great Studebaker body cradles you, your family and friends in safety.” It should be noted, though, that the Scotsman featured cardboard door panels and its hubcaps and trim weren’t chrome-plated: they were painted silver.

While there is no indication that the General Motors Viking was discontinued in the early 1930s because of protests by outraged Scandinavians, it’s a certainty that no automaker’s copy writers would dare write today that “the development of the Viking car closely parallels the development of the Viking youth in attaining manhood,” where “only those best fitted for leadership survived to contribute to the strength and superiorities of the race.”


Also hard to fathom today is the Studebaker Dictator, “Champion of its Class,” discontinued after 1937, when the rise of Hitler and Mussolini gave the model name an unpleasant odor.


American Indians have long opposed derogatory sports-team labels and likened fans’ use of war paint to the derogation of African-Americans with blackface. The N.C.A.A. has forbidden the use of nicknames, as well as mascots, logos, signs and band uniforms that are “deemed hostile or abusive in terms of race, ethnicity or national origin.”


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