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Stamping Out Ugly Stereotypes: How the Postal Service Perpetuates Racism

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Over the past two years, we have studied images of Native Americans as represented in a major form of American public art: stamps issued by the United States Post Office. Though the debate about the name of Washington’s NFL franchise has paid little attention to the logo that accompanies the name, our research has yielded useful insights into such images.

The team’s logo shows a dark-skinned Indian in profile, his braided hair adorned with feathers, set inside a circle that also bears two feathers. The figure is recognizable as a Native American by what he wears and the style of his hair, and by his physical attributes and demeanor. His “Indianness” is, in a word, stereotypical. And such a stereotype has a long history, as our research shows.

In early uses of Native Americans as representatives of the United States, the Post Office figured Indians not as individuals but as types. This practice was unique to images of Native Americans: the founding fathers and military heroes featured on early stamps were known by name to the public. The stamps were issued in sets featuring several persons, further emphasizing the individuality of each: Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, for example, could be seen to be different people.

Contrast those stamp sets, featuring images of founding fathers, to a depiction of a “savage” Native American submitted by an unknown artist in the early 1860s to the Post Office. The “essay”—or stamp mock up—features a fiercely rendered Native American, which is strikingly similar to the Washington logo. His grim expression as well as his hair and earrings suggest that he possesses the attributes supporters of the “Redskins” name say the term implies—courage, pride, and a fighting spirit.

At that time, the Indian was one among many symbols used by white Americans to distinguish the New World, with its natural wonders, from Europe. But Indians were also a threat to westward expansion, and so it is no surprise that this particular image was never used on a stamp.

The tendency to deprive Native Americans of individuality and show them only as stereotypes persisted even when the Post Office placed a prominent Indian on a postage stamp. Hollow Horn Bear was a Brûlé Sioux chief who in 1905 had ridden in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade. In 1922, the Post Office released a series of stamps that included several presidents, with their names beneath their portraits, and Hollow Horn Bear. Despite the fact that the Post Office knew Hollow Horn Bear’s name, his portrait was captioned “American Indian.” Deprived of his name, the chief became a generic stand-in for all indigenous groups, not a person.

Beginning in the 1960s, Indian sovereignty movements challenged this dehumanizing practice. By the 1970s, the Post Office began producing stamps that celebrated indigenous native cultures by featuring not people but crafted objects such as pottery, blankets, and masks. Rather than labeling these items generically, the Post Office always identified them specifically: Hopi pottery, Tlingit mask.

The movement from a “fierce” generic Indian warrior to the dehumanized Hollow Horn Bear to more specific images continued during the 1980s and later. Since then, the Post Office’s “great Americans” series has included such Indians as Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Red Cloud and Sequoyah, all treated as named individual persons equivalent to other notable Americans like Rachel Carson, Thomas Gallaudet, Ralph Bunche and Johns Hopkins.

In 2014, it is inconceivable that the Postal Service would represent our nation to the world with a stamp depicting an “Indian,” let alone a “redskin.” It is no longer acceptable to reduce the identities of the hundreds of Native American groups that inhabit the contemporary United States to one stereotyping term denoting skin color or an outdated depiction of ferocity.

A recent poll showing that a majority of Americans do not see the “Redskins” name as racist does not constitute an argument for keeping it. Throughout the culture wars of the 1970s, many Americans failed to understand why stereotyped images of minority groups were offensive to the people those images caricatured. It was only after such representations were replaced that people who had defended the stereotypes could understand why oppressed groups felt subjugated by them.

For that reason alone the “Redskins” name and image should be discarded. While they continue to circulate, they obfuscate real issues of racism and cultural stereotypes, rather than resolving them. That the team’s logo is a throwback to the 1860s only offers further weight to the argument. Such images and names are part of an outdated mythology about who we are as a country. But clinging to discredited mythologies does not help people who are struggling against racism and discrimination in their fight to overcome them.

Richard Handler is a cultural anthropologist who studies nationalism and the politics of culture in the U.S. and Canada. He is currently Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Program in Global Studies at the University of Virginia. 

Laura Goldblatt is a PhD candidate in the English Department at the University of Virginia who studies 20th-century U.S. literature and nationalism.