Indian Motorcycle's 21st Century Racism Problem

Updated: Mar 29

Recent developments in the automotive space relating to a form of racism known as cultural appropriation pose a potential issue for America's oldest motorcycle brand, Indian Motorcycle.

Indian Motorcycle is an iconic brand with a 21st Century problem to address. Photo by Indian Motorcycle

Indian Motorcycle has a long history in the motorcycling world, being founded in 1901 and going through plenty of ups and downs in the decades following, before its rebirth in 2013 under the ownership of Polaris Industries.


While the company is currently owned by Powersports giant Polaris, one of its longest perceived issues is still yet to be resolved by Polaris and Indian and dates back to at least the turn of the century if not longer. The problem? The name and branding of Indian Motorcycle itself.


Now, this is a piece I have been thinking about, reading about and looking into for a long period of time. This is not aimed at being an attack on America's oldest motorcycle brand. Rather, the aim here is to show that while the company is not outwardly racist, there are problems with the brand that have not been addressed in regards to the cultural appropriation that gave Indian its name and its iconic brand image.


I recognise that as a white guy from New Zealand, my thoughts here come from a particular perspective and context and I certainly don’t seek to speak for Indigenous people. I try to use my platform to speak up about issues within the motorcycling industry and I think this is an important conversation to have.


So what got me thinking about this in the first place?


It was recently announced that the Cherokee Nation was asking Jeep (owned by Fiat Chrysler) to stop using the Cherokee nameplate on its products and has brought the issue of cultural appropriation in the automotive sector to the forefront.


“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,” Chuck Hoskin, Jr., principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, said in a written statement to the US magazine Car and Driver.


It's a fair point, even if Jeep has so far refused any request to change the name.


To put a Kiwi perspective on it, it's akin to how the nation gets up in arms over usage and performance of the Haka by companies and individuals outside of New Zealand. We hate it for various reasons, but with the All Blacks performing Haka coming with cultural training and permission from Māori, seeing those with no idea of the history or meaning behind it is not only disrespectful, but it's also potentially harmful to the future that is being appropriated.


So how does this relate to Indian Motorcycle – a completely different company with no ties to either Jeep or the Cherokee Nation? Again, it's a matter of cultural appropriation, but one that Indian Motorcycle has gotten away with for over a century.


The Cambridge English Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as "the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture."


Another way to put it is "If it reinforces stereotypes, erases cultural origins or exploits aspects of another culture for social or financial benefit (and not the benefit of the group it's appropriating from), it's harmful appropriation."


This is a problem for Indian Motorcycle in two ways.


Firstly, the company's name is, well, Indian Motorcycle. The issue here is the company was founded in 1901 by two white guys with no ties to Native Americans by the names of George M. Hendee and Oscar Hedstrom.


The name was a marketing ploy to sell George Hendee's bicycles and stuck around through to the creation of the Indian Motorcycle Company in 1901. Initially Indian was a brand of Hendee Manufacturing Company which later officially changed its name to Indian Motorcycle Company in 1923.


Considering the term “Indian” is itself an accident of history thanks to a confused explorer who thought he had found India...


Secondly, Indian Motorcycle has as one of its widely used logos an image that features a Native American in profile wearing a full war bonnet/headdress. With neither Native American ownership nor input on the brand, it really is a problematic logo in this day and age. Once again, the problem itself is cultural appropriation as the image depicts a stereotype of Native American culture.


To put another (overly simplistic, I might add) Kiwi spin on things, this could be likened to a white celebrity such as Robbie Williams opting for Māori Tā Moko tattoo designs and getting them done by a tattoo parlour in California.


For Indian Motorcycle to continue to utilise a stereotypical image as profit-generating branding, without permission or any active behaviour to undo the harms done to Native American and Indigenous people, is simply wrong. There was a time when ignorance covered such discrepancies but in 2021, we're well past that stage. We know better and we should do better.


So just what is Indian Motorcycle doing about it?


While the company shows no signs of rebranding away from its historical name it does appear to be slowly getting with the times. It makes sense, Polaris not only paid a lot of money for, they even killed off their own original Victory Motorcycle brand in order to focus on Indian Motorcycle and they want the brand to live on and succeed. With that in mind, the company does appear to be making moves to move away from appropriating Native American culture where it can.


One way the company is doing this is by stepping away from the tribal theme when it comes to naming their latest products which indicates that the issue is something that Indian Motorcycle is aware of. The FTR1200 and Challenger bagger appear to be the latest examples of this and Indian should be applauded for not doubling down on the tribal naming convention.


But the core issue still remains the use of the imagery and the name of Indian Motorcycle itself which is an incredibly complex issue for anyone to navigate let alone a company as prominent as Indian and its publically traded owner Polaris Industries.


If it were as simple as a stroke of a pen and everything goes away it would’ve been done already, but the real world doesn’t work like that and there will be a myriad of hoops to jump through for Indian to appropriately address this.


I imagine following the announcement that the Cherokee Nation were officially asking Jeep to stop using the Cherokee name on their cars and the resulting own goals by Jeep in their handling of the matter, Indian Motorcycle will be looking hard at themselves on how they can prevent any further harm (be it real or imagined) falling at the feet of Native Americans.


I've reached out to Indian Motorcycle for comment, but have yet to hear back from the company on the subject. This story will be updated with Indian Motorcycle’s response should they choose to do so. Additionally, I would also welcome comment and perspective from Indigenous and Native American people who would like to share their thoughts.


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