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Jeep’s cultural appropriation dilemma puts other carmakers on notice

Cherokee Nation says it objects to Jeep using its name for cars

Since 1997, Jeep has sold more than two million Cherokee-badged cars in the US market, and so will be doubtless reluctant to change one of its most recognisable nameplates. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Jeep has found itself in hot water over its use of the Cherokee name for two of its big-selling models. While Jeep is only a niche player in Ireland, in the US market it’s huge, and the brand which grew out of wartime necessity now sells more than two million cars worldwide every year.

Jeep has used the Cherokee name for two of its most important models since 1974 (when the original Cherokee was launched) and 1993 (when the first Grand Cherokee came out). Now, the leader of the Cherokee Nation, the indigenous North American tribe from which Jeep took the name, has said that he objects to the use of the name.

In a written statement to US magazine Car & Driver, Chuck Hoskin jnr, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, said: “I think we’re in a day and age in this country where it’s time for both corporations and team sports to retire the use of Native American names, images and mascots from their products, team jerseys and sports in general. I’m sure this comes from a place that is well-intended, but it does not honour us by having our name plastered on the side of a car. The best way to honour us is to learn about our sovereign government, our role in this country, our history, culture and language and have meaningful dialogue with federally recognised tribes on cultural appropriateness.”

‘Honour and celebrate’

Jeep has been criticised already for its response to Hoskin’s statement. In an official statement, Jeep said: “Our vehicle names have been carefully chosen and nurtured over the years to honour and celebrate Native American people for their nobility, prowess and pride. We are, more than ever, committed to a respectful and open dialogue with Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.” It has been suggested that Jeep’s claim to ‘nurture’ the Cherokee name is more than a little patronising.

“I think it goes back to the 1950s, and that culture of playing cowboys and Indians, and that is simply not what the Cherokee culture is about,” Julius Geis told The Irish Times. Geis is a German expert in branding, and is currently based in Hawaii. “In Jeep’s statement, in my opinion, there was nothing. It was corporate bulls**t. The company says that it’s more than happy to reach out, but they didn’t do anything more than that.”

Jeep and the Cherokee Nation have committed to dialogue, and so far discussions between the two have been characterised as “cordial” by Hoskins. The problem, according to Geis, is that Jeep should have leapt upon the opportunity to be proactive.

“I would say to Jeep that the first thing to do is to reach out to the Cherokee Nation and honour and recognise their claim. Because they’re right,” Geis told The Irish Times. “Then be honest and say, ‘Yes, we are using someone else’s identity and that’s wrong.’ You know, some people have compared this to people calling some types of sausage Vienna sausage, but that’s ridiculous. That’s a completely different idea of identity to that which the Cherokee Nation is referring. And then Jeep has to be willing to change, because there’s no point in reaching out for conversation or compromise if internally you’re not willing to change.”

There have been suggestions in some quarters that the Cherokee Nation is inventing a problem, in order to garner publicity for its other causes. “I think it’s a little bit of both,” said author and ethics professor Dr Steven Mintz, speaking to The Irish Times. “I think that the Cherokee Nation has a genuine belief in this case, but there may well be some other ulterior motives. They may want some sort of financial compensation, or maybe they’d like Jeep to provide scholarships or cultural awareness programmes.

“I think it’s an opportunity for Jeep to do the right thing and come up with another name. College sports teams have done this, in recent cases where they have been used names and symbols that relate to Native American culture. This is also creates the problem of the ethical slippery slope. How far do you go to be, let’s just call it for lack of a better term, politically correct?”

Geis says that this isn’t about being PC though. “I don’t think this is about donations. I don’t think that is what the Cherokee Nation wants,” Geis said. “They want recognition. They want a seat at the table. I’m very close here with the movements of some of the Hawaiian native cultures, and for them it’s about being recognised as a nation, as a society that has its own language, its own laws, its own history. And a history that in many cases goes back so much further than European history, for example.”

Name recognition

Jeep did previously change the name of the Cherokee model, back in 2002, to the Jeep Liberty. That model continued to be called Cherokee in Europe, though, and the Grand Cherokee name stayed in use on both sides of the Atlantic. Since 1997 alone, Jeep has sold more than two million Cherokee-badged cars in the US market, and so will be doubtless reluctant to change one of its most recognisable nameplates.

The situation is further complicated, from a Jeep point of view, because it has just launched a new version of the Grand Cherokee, and might see all of its launch publicity and marketing wasted if it were to switch names now. The company is also still reeling from the PR disaster of its Superbowl advert, which featured Bruce Springsteen just days before the singer was charged with drink-driving, charges which were subsequently dropped.

Other carmakers could shortly find themselves on the horns of this particular dilemma. Volkswagen’s Touareg, for example, is named after a nomadic tribe of northwest Africa. Nissan’s huge-selling Qashqai is also named for a nomadic tribe, one that comes from what is now Iran.

How can carmakers avoid such issues? The answer is to embrace the culture that you’re drawing on, said Geis. “Look at Adidas and Nike. Those two brands use cultural references, but they work closely with the people from those cultures – whether they be sports stars or music stars – and so the culture gets a seat at the table. With car manufacturers, and with some other companies too, they don’t do that. They just take it, name it, claim it and they’re done. So it’s not that you should avoid cultural references, but it’s all about your relationship with that culture.

“Let’s say that the design leader of the Jeep Cherokee was a member of the Cherokee Nation, I think that would give a different light on the topic, because that person has a story that they want to tell. For a white person, who’s got nothing to do with that culture, and isn’t looking at the concerns, and isn’t looking at the history, I don’t think they should get to use any of that equity for their marketing.”