Humorous Souvenirs to Some, Offensive Stereotypes to Others

Carol Berry

DENVER – Summer ends and sunburned tourists return home with souvenirs, among them T-shirts depicting scenic Colorado.

Or they return home from Colorado with “souvenir” T-shirts portraying Native culture as laughable and Native people as drunks.

“My Indian name is Runs with Beer,” one T-shirt proclaims from its display shelf in a store on Denver’s main downtown mall. “My Indian name is Crawls While Drunk,” announces another.

Both are of the kind of stereotype-reinforcing products also seen in nearby Boulder, Estes Park, and likely other Colorado communities, whether as part of the tourism trade or as everyday merchandise.

Far from being concerned about offending anyone, some store employees seem perplexed that there is an “issue.”

“We’ve had some complaints, but only from Native Americans,” said an assistant store manager in Denver, who added that people “don’t even notice it unless they’re Native American.”

Casey Asimus, 22, stressed that she was not speaking for her employer, Where the Buffalo Roam, a store on the city’s 16th Street Mall that sells a variety of T-shirts and city and state souvenirs.

“I don’t think it perpetuates stereotypes,” she said, but appeared shocked at the hypothetical notion of selling a T-shirt depicting another, larger minority group in an unflattering light. “We wouldn’t do that. I don’t think it’s along the same vein – we don’t think this goes back on them (Native Americans).”

Asimus feels she is knowledgeable about the Native point of view because she has studied American history. She said she has Navajo, Sioux and Cherokee ancestry, although she is not enrolled.

Three Navajo students – Marty Notah, Bryan Bradley and Ryan Nez – find the T-shirts “offensive.” So did an unidentified white customer.

Asimus said the store’s corporate office had been having discussions about the T-shirts after the store was contacted by people she thought were from the University of Colorado-Denver or maybe from an Indian affairs commission.

“But I don’t think it’s going anywhere,” she said. “I don’t think it will make any difference – after all, it’s a national chain.”

In fact, the T-shirts were taken from the shelves the next day, according to the store’s manager who said, “We’ve had so many people complain, it just wasn’t worth it.” But she, too, said the complaints were “only from Native Americans.”

The store said the T-shirts began in Haiti, were imported into Mexico, and then were sold by T-Line Design, based “near the end of the Oregon Trail,” according to the company’s Web site.

A T-Line Design manager confirmed that the company used to carry a shirt with the same messages, but does not know if those are the ones currently being sold.

Copyright enforcement is kind of blurry in the T-shirt business, he said.

“We’ve never had a negative reaction from a store or a customer,” he said, adding that the “drunken Indian” design motif has been around for “more than a decade” in various forms.

In fact, although he didn’t recall details, he said an unspecified Indian casino requested the shirt, but the company didn’t supply it because it was not in stock.

Rick, the manager, did not want his full name used and did not want to come across “like some kind of racist.”

The Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs is monitoring the issue and coordinating with members of the Indian community, Denver American Indian Commission and others with an eye to possible future measures concerning the T-shirt, other displays, and issues behind them, Ernest House Jr., CCIA executive secretary, said Aug. 24.

Donna Johnson, DAIC chair, said the agency’s Web site may be used to display links, pictures, educational tools and suggestions about the issues, calling for a “proactive” approach and a strong voice “saying we will not tolerate materials like this.

“This is an excellent example of individuals being ignorant and numb to materials that are offensive, defamatory, and downright racist to other minority groups.”

Reactions to the issue were requested online. The responses included a comment from Daniel N. Paul, a Mi’kmaq author, who points out the heritage of the demonizing of Natives by European invaders.

“The T-shirts that state, ‘My Indian name is Runs with Beer’ and ‘My Indian name is Crawling Drunk’ are only the latest indicators that these systemic racist beliefs, which fanned hatred and contempt for our peoples, are still alive and well.”

Evidence of systemic racism “is strongly supported by the fact that there is never outrage among caucasians when such racist garbage as the T-shirts, which degrade the indigenous peoples of the Americas, are offered for sale. If such garbage were offered for sale about other races of people, it would be widely publicized and widely condemned.”