Native American Symbols in Branding and Marketing

Native American Symbols in Branding and Marketing

The life of the Wild West is romanticized by books and movies. One can find different images of the Indians, but in most cases, they are shown as wise people, close to the land. They honored spirits and nature. Thanks to researchers-anthropologists we have reached the meaning of many symbols. It became fashionable to decorate the house and clothes and put them on the body. And many brands have begun to use Native American symbols not only for their products but also in their visual identity, which in recent years has caused a lot of controversy. In today’s article, we will detail the main symbols of Native Americans, look at the case of their use in branding and marketing, as well as dwell on the moments of cultural appropriation and ethical moments in the use of these elements.

Native American Symbols: Meaning and History

The indigenous people of North America not only sought to represent in symbols their life in harmony with nature but also had the appropriate symbolism for this purpose, arising from ancient traditions. The Native American tribes of North America had a unique system of communication that differed greatly from the written traditions adopted by other cultures. Instead of developing writing, they used pictographs and other forms of visual art to express their thoughts and ideas.

These designs and symbols could be depicted on a variety of surfaces, including sand, and served as an important means of communication. Native Americans often preferred to convey information through visual images rather than oral storytelling.

Native American Symbols

Their philosophy of life is connected with the feeling of being a part of nature, to which man does not oppose, does not try to change, but sensitively listens and adjusts. Parts of living nature were endowed with a soul and respected. Disturbing the balance of life, destruction could lead to the destruction of the individual as well. Therefore, the main Native American symbols are depictions of animals and natural phenomena. The main are:

  • Thunderbird – a supreme being, one of the most powerful deities in the beliefs of the Indians of North America. Symbolizes absolute power and indicates the authority of the one who uses this symbol.
  • Bison – the primary animal. The meat was used for food, and the hide for making clothes and other items. Everyone wished the bison to be his totem animal. It was considered a symbol of food and shelter. In some clans, bison is the most powerful patron spirit.
  • Bear – in addition to strength and power, its ability to heal itself was revered. If there was any life left in a bear, it survived. Invulnerability was attributed to it. Some clans had a custom of eating a piece of the raw heart of a slain bear. It gave stamina and equanimity.

In addition to animal imagery, the following symbols form a huge part of Native American culture:

  • Eagle Feather. Native Americans believed that feathers represented the power of thunder, wind, and air. Signifies truth to rise; lightness, height, speed, spaciousness, flight to other areas of the world, the soul, the element of wind and air. Every warrior of the tribe adorned himself with eagle paraphernalia so that all the power and strength of this bird would be transferred to the man.
  • Dreamcatcher. Used for protection from evil spirits. Good dreams pass through the web and bad dreams become entangled in it. Originally made of willow twigs, fastened with the tendon of a deer, braided with threads, decorated with feathers. A hole is left in the center.
  • Totem. In Native American culture, totems played an important role in their religious and cultural traditions. They were regarded as embodiments of ancestral spirits and were used as symbols to identify various tribes and clans. Totems were also associated with the forces of nature and were used to predict weather and other natural phenomena.

Native American Symbols: Branding and Marketing

The further it goes, the more the interpenetration of cultures of two peoples living side by side for a long time – descendants of the indigenous inhabitants of the continent and heirs of colonizers – increases. American helicopters traditionally bear the names of Indian tribes: Sioux, Lakota, and Apache. The tactics of helicopter combat – a sudden attack of the enemy from the flank and quick disappearance – are similar to that used by warriors of Indian tribes. However, this is only a small part. A huge number of brands from various spheres use Native American identity for their projects.

Native American Symbols: Branding and Marketing

Among the most famous companies, for example, is the Italian fashion brand Diesel, whose logo is a drawing of an Indian head with a Mohawk hairstyle. The image emphasizes the Diesel team’s belief that their clothes are worn by people who are not afraid to look independent and can openly express their opinions.

The automobile manufacturer Skoda also paid tribute to the culture of Native Americans. The logo with the famous winged arrow was first used in 1926 after one of the representatives of the company’s management traveled around the United States. The logo features a stylized image of an Indian head wearing a traditional headdress with five feathers and an arrow piercing it.

A huge number of American sports teams contain Native American adetnika either in their names or logos. These include the Chicago Blackhawks, a professional American hockey club, the Washington Redskins Football Club, and the Cleveland Indians Baseball Club.

Cultural Appropriation: Examples and Cases

However, borrowing Native American symbols is not always viewed in a positive light. In recent decades, we have heard of many discontents, scandals, and even lawsuits for these reasons. And here we come to such a term as Cultural Appropriation. Cultural appropriation is a sociological concept according to which the borrowing or use of elements of one culture by members of another is seen as a largely negative phenomenon.

Cultural Appropriation

Let’s note just a few of the loud cases.

In 2012, the fashion brand of youth clothing Urban Outfitters released a collection with the symbols of the Navajo Indian tribe. Native Americans have been angered by the illegal use of their sacred symbol and have even filed a lawsuit against Urban Outfitters. The Navajo have been particularly hurt by the depiction of their symbol on an alcoholic beverage flask: drinking alcohol is strictly forbidden in the tribe.

The Washington Redskins were among the first to be on the verge of breaking agreements with key partners. Such stores as Amazon, Nike, Walmart, and Target even managed to remove from their sites goods with the symbols of the “redskins”. In addition, investors have asked Nike, FedEx, and PepsiCo to terminate business agreements with the club if it does not change its name.

Here we will allow ourselves a small digression. The term “redskin” appeared among British colonists who settled in New England. They were neighbors of the Beaufax tribe (now defunct), whose warriors painted their bodies with ochre. Subsequently, the word “redskin” acquired a racial connotation, separating Indians from Europeans, Africans and Asians. In 1992, a group of American Indians appealed to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, demanding to prohibit the use of the word “redskin” in the names of companies, sports teams, trademarks, etc., because the exclusive right to use the term should have the redskin Indians. The appeal was rejected because the term “redskin” cannot be legally formulated.

The Cleveland Indians club also has a long history of relations with offended minorities. In particular, since 2018, he stopped using it as a symbol of Chief Wahoo, a stylized image of an Indian used since 1948.

And in 2021, the Chief of the Cherokee American Indians called on the Jeep brand to stop using his people’s name in the names of Jeep Cherokee and Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles. Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said on CNN that the company is profiting from Indian culture. He said it was time for US corporations and sports teams to stop using Native American “names, images and mascots”, particularly when making products.

Ethical Side

The attitude to the Native Americans and their culture changes with the growth of the U.S. state, with the development of productive forces, and with the development of American capitalism. At the beginning of colonization, the settlers from Europe did not differ so sharply from the native population of America in their ability to master the natural riches of the continent; in any case, at first, they simply adopted many cultural achievements of the Indians in a ready-made form. Later, as American capitalism developed, the achievements of Indian culture were lost among the new forms of material life, undoubtedly more highly developed, and the Indian origins of many of these new forms were forgotten.

Ethical Side of American Symbols

And although very little of the traditional culture of the Indian population of the United States remains today, we must not forget how much of what they created before the Europeans came to America was later adopted by the colonists and firmly incorporated into the culture and life of the peoples not only of America but also of other parts of the world.

The interest in Native American culture in the United States is directed primarily at the past, at the vestiges that have survived or have been preserved due to the uneven development of certain parts of the country. There is invariably an element of attraction in the display and popularization of Indian culture. The commercial interest lies in many endeavors related to the “revival” of Indian traditions in art and crafts.

For many Indians today, not only the tribal organization but also most customs are about as alien to them as they are to “white” Americans. For financial reasons, these Indians are forced to reproduce what they have no organic connection with. The reproduction of festivals and rituals for the amusement of a bored public hurts the sense of pride and belittles their human dignity.


The history of the North American continent does not begin with the discovery of America by Columbus. An integral and important part of this history is the tribes and peoples who lived here before the arrival of Europeans and long before the emergence of the United States. The relationship between the indigenous people and the representatives of European civilization who settled on the continent was complex and often dramatic, but it was humanized over time.

Today, about five million Indians live in the United States (a little more than one and a half percent of the population) and 565 Indian tribes are officially registered, i.e. recognized by the federal authorities. The largest of them are the Cherokee, Navajo, Sioux, and Chippewa. Each tribe has its history and language. However, sociologists note that fewer and fewer Indians speak their native language: according to statistics, four-fifths of them even in the family circle speak mostly English. Two-thirds of Native Americans have assimilated and are living the same lifestyle as the rest of their countrymen. This process began long ago, evidenced by the term “five civilized tribes”, which appeared in the early XIX century – the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creeks, and Seminoles had already adopted many customs and achievements of their white neighbors.

Despite active assimilation, Native American tribes cherish their traditions and cultural heritage, so the question of the ethics of using such important symbols and images remains open. And few people consciously consider that even the mere use of the Dreamcatcher is a cultural appropriation.

This is where it’s important to realize that there is cultural borrowing going on and that some of the Native American things have not only cultural but also spiritual significance in Native American communities.

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