Tag Archives: Boycott

Iroquois Beer

In early February, the web publication New York Upstate announced that Community Beer Works in Buffalo is resurrecting Iroquois Beer.  “If you grew up in a beer-drinking family in western New York,” Dan Cazentre’s story reads, “chances are good that your grand-parents, your parents and maybe even you yourself once drank Iroquois Beer.”  Iroquois Beer souvenirs can still be found in Buffalo-area curio shops, and the original Iroquois Brewery was the city’s largest when it closed its doors in 1971.  As such, Cazentre noted, there is considerable excitement about the return of Iroquois Beer.  Hipsters rejoice!

But there is concern as well.  There is, of course, a long history of non-native business people using Native American motifs, images, and iconography in their marketing plans and product design.  In my classes, I used to assign Michael Brown’s book, Who Owns Native Culture, which explored the subject with grace and style.  What happens, for instance, when multinational pharmaceutical enterprise attempt to bring to market new drugs based on remedies that are part of a native people’s traditional knowledge?  What happens when corporations derive profits from imagery they have appropriated from native cultures? Brown examined these issues in all their complexity.

Though I no longer use Brown’s book–in some ways, it has fallen a bit out of date, and there are so many things I want my students to read–I do still discuss issues of appropriation and exploitation in my classes.  Iroquois Beer, because it is so current and so close to home for many of my students, will work nicely this semester to serve as the basis for our discussions.

If you oppose the resurrection of Iroquois Beer, you can sign a petition right here.  460 people thus far have signed.  The petition’s sponsors have argued that the revival of the Iroquois Beer brand, by “referencing a living people,” is “harmful to Native nations and Native peoples.” Furthermore,

“In an era where sports teams across the nation are retiring Native themed mascots, such as the Cleveland Indians decision to remove Chief Wahoo as their mascot, Community Beer Works is moving Buffalo a step backwards by reintroducing a product that appropriates and profits off of the name of a vital, living group of Native people, people who are neighbors to Buffalo, to Buffolonians [sic.], and to Community Beer Works. People who are the original inhabitants of the land where your offices and brewery are located. Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) peoples and nations contribute to the vitality of the region and serve as some of largest economic contributors and employers in the region. To reduce Haudenosaunee nations and peoples to a brand, a stereotype, ignores the positive impacts they have on the Buffalo community and the larger Western New York region.”

No member of any Haudenosaunee nation was consulted about the decision to bring back Iroquois Beer, and so it is disrespectful towards native nations.  Furthermore, the petition’s sponsors argue, the practice of using native images and native peoples in marketing is harmful, especially for Native American children.

“The negative effects of dehumanizing, disrespectful, and disparaging imagery and branding, such as the Iroquois beer brand, are well proven in numerous studies. . . Children suffer psychological effects that follow them through adult life at seeing dehumanizing representations and their proud nation names stolen and used for the profit of companies with no benefit to those same nations and communities. Community Beer Works is located merely two blocks from Buffalo’s Native American Magnet School, on ancestral Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) lands. The fact that Community Beer Works finds it appropriate to market and produce beer that dehumanizes students’ ancestors and living relatives, while ignoring the devastating impacts of alcohol on Native communities, is a reprehensible oversight and an embarrassing affront to the Western New York community as a whole.”

You all are invited to join in the boycott of Community Beer Works’ products, and I intend to show the document to my students, and discuss it in class.

But we will discuss the issue critically.  As Brown suggested in his wonderful book, some of this rhetoric might be a bit overblown.  Resurrecting the Iroquois brand might be harmful to children, and it might be completely “reprehensible,” but so was the recent verdict in the trial of Colten Boushie’s killer, and the recent acquittal of Raymond Cormier, accused of killing fifteen-year old Tina Fontaine.  Let’s deploy our outrage in appropriate measure. Boring a pipeline under a Native People’s principal water supply, and the growing numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, and New York State’s endless campaign to skim the cream off of any prosperity that comes to native communities, might be more reprehensible than the restoration of a nostalgia beer brand. It might be a stretch to suggest that native peoples who have survived and endured after military invasions, consecutive epidemics, coercive dispossession, forced relocation, and systematic efforts to forcibly eradicate their culture, would be seriously damaged by a new craft beer.

There are,  I tell my students, twenty-four hours in a day.  My job takes up a lot of my time, and I have a large family.  I have to choose my battles.  They will have to choose theirs as well.  The Mascot Issue, cultural appropriation–they are emotionally painful issues, but they can be remedied.  But there are other problems out there, more dangerous, more damaging, for which solutions are more elusive, and progress much more slow.  I am looking forward to this meeting in a couple of weeks.


Why I Should Probably Boycott the NFL this Season

It’s not because the Buffalo Bills will be terrible.  As a long-suffering fan, I am used to all that the Bills give their supporters–strange draft choices, poor coaching, fluky management, and a game-day environment that all-too-often can resemble an afternoon on the Ice Planet Hoth but with way more shitty, over-priced beer.

In part, it is because of the increasing evidence of the danger of the sport.  Years ago, both of my sons played football in high school.  Today, I would try to persuade them to do something else.  There is something truly disturbing about supporting a “game,” or business, that produces thrills and excitement to be sure, but also broken bodies and damaged brains. The NFL has made some token gestures to try to make the sport more safe, but it does not seem like they have done enough. Maybe they can’t do much.  Maybe it is only a matter of time, as Arizona Cardinals Quarterback Carson Palmer once said, before a hard hit kills a player on the field.  Wonder what the League’s contingency plan for that event is.  Would you be surprised if the game went on? Cart him off, stick him on ice, and snap the ball.

Partially it is the treatment of former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has been blackballed by NFL owners and management for first deciding to take a knee during the National Anthem in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.  His protest was respectful and never “disruptive.” His teammates said he never was a “distraction.” Kaepernick is not a bad guy, and he has put his money behind his actions, supporting parolees, for instance, by giving them new suits.  His treatment by the NFL is appalling. I have never played football, but I refuse to believe he is a worse player than some of the 70 some quarterbacks who will be on NFL rosters when the season begins in a couple of weeks.  I mean, have you watched the Jets? Jeez.  And I know the Bills could use him.  He is like Tyrod Taylor, only tall enough to see over the defensive line.  The political conservatism of the NFL is notorious, and its persecution and punishment of Kaepernick absolutely infuriates me.

And, in part, it is the NFL’s unwillingness to do anything at all about the Washington football team’s use of a racial slur as its team name.  Several years ago, I wrote an editorial which appeared in an Albany newspaper about the R-skins logo.  At the time, I honestly believed some progress was being made, that market forces and adverse decisions in the federal court system would increase pressure on or eliminate trademark protection for the team.  I wrote that “the Redskins name should go and likely will as pressure mounts on Redskins owner Dan Snyder and the NFL from prominent athletes, U.S. senators, native peoples, the general public, and most recently [Hilary} Clinton. The team will continue to protest. Its lawyers, predictably, will continue to fight. But it is only a matter of time. The mascot issue is a problem where the solutions can come easy, and it is an issue that growing numbers of non-Indians support.”

But I also felt in 2014 that it was an issue of less consequence than many of the others facing native peoples.

Forcing Daniel Snyder to change his team’s name likely will do little to help solve the significant problems facing native nations. While a growing number of non-Indian Americans have joined in efforts to counter offensive Native American mascots, they pay too little attention to more difficult issues that affect the lives of millions of Native American people.

Too many Indian communities, for instance, continue to struggle to enjoy the measured sovereignty permitted them by the most anti-Indian Supreme Court in American history. State and local governments mount aggressive campaigns designed to skim the cream off of the fragile prosperity that has emerged in some native communities, looking to tax gaming and retail businesses located on Indian land in opposition to a constitutional logic that has stood for almost 190 years. They challenge American Indian tribal sovereignty, and the pressure at times is relentless

Meanwhile, Native Americans have lower life expectancy, higher rates of death from cancer, injury and suicide, and are more likely to be poor, unemployed, and the victims of violent crime than their non-Indian neighbors.

These other problems facing Indian country are more vexing, the solutions more elusive, than abandoning a team nickname. What is to be done about poverty and unemployment and a lack of opportunity in Indian communities, all the bitter fruits of colonization and subjugation? What can be done to restore lands taken illegally, or for a fraction of their real value, from native peoples? What to do when federal courts have limited the religious rights of native peoples to worship as they so choose, and curtailed other freedoms as well?

I still feel that way, but the stubborn protection of the team’s name by the league and owner Daniel Snyder is deeply troubling.  The R-skins helmet insignia draws upon images from the Native American past.  Ask any non-native person to recite to you the images that come to mind when you say “Native American” or “American Indian.”  What images will come to their minds?  They will speak of images from the past, of leather, feathers, and beads. Snyder and many of the team’s fans assert that the name honors native peoples. Please. His is a patently stupid argument. By casting native peoples as part of the past, even if doing so was not meant to offend, it becomes easier to deny the just grievances of native peoples today.  No group of people in North America spends more time justifying and explaining their existence to white people as do Native Americans.  In the NFL, players can be fined for twerking.  They can be fined for pretending to slice the throat of an opponent, or for pretending to fire an arrow. But the NFL does nothing about a team nickname that depicts native peoples as savage and warlike, and feeds upon long enduring racist stereotypes.

I am surrounded by delusional Bills fans, those who despite all evidence expect the team to somehow end a playoff drought that is older than three of my children.  Like a burning car on the side of the road, it is sometimes difficult not to watch the Bills.  Despite my best intentions, I may find myself watching a portion of a game. But I will no longer be able to do that with a clear conscience.