‘Imagining The Indian’ Film Premieres
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‘Imagining The Indian’ Film Premieres

Aviva Kempner’s recent documentary about team nicknames like the Atlanta Braves is aimed at revealing the racial stereotyping that has endured.

Native Americans have stepped up the pressure to change the names of professional sports teams and their mascots.
Native Americans have stepped up the pressure to change the names of professional sports teams and their mascots.

Aviva Kempner, the Washington-based documentary filmmaker who has specialized in biographies of contemporary Jewish heroes, has stepped out of that role to take on a new one. In her latest documentary, “Imagining the Indian,” she takes up the fight against native American mascotting.

The film had its Atlanta premiere on April 13-14 at the Martin Luther King Center for Social Change and the Landmark’s Midtown Art Cinema. It details the long battle by native American Indians to change what they see as the demeaning images inherent in what have been the cherished mascots of professional sports.

It’s a quest that has enlisted not just tribal leaders and prominent Indians but a cadre of Jewish lawyers, sports commentators, and philanthropists, like Jessica and Steve Sarowitz, who joined Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation and San Manuel Band of Mission Indians as executive producers of this ambitious film. Kempner sees the civil rights alliance of Indians and Jews as a common heritage.

“We know what it means to have genocide in our history as the Indians have had an intergenerational-generational trauma that has resulted from the Holocaust. These are issues that some of the mascots of professional sports really hit on. We know about antisemitism, which I think is a form of racism just as mascotting has been a way of creating negative images of Indians.”

“Imagining The Indian” producer, Aviva Kempner, right, explores the stereotypes of American Indians with tribal leaders like Marshall McKay.

Kempner’s past films have played to critical and popular acclaim in several editions of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. She has profiled baseball Jewish pioneer, Hank Greenberg, Sears Roebucks philanthropic mogul, Jules Rosenwald, baseball player and World War II American spy, Moe Berg, and early TV star, Gertrude Berg.

Now, she has made contemporary Indian activists, who have long labored to change racial stereotypes, as the focus of her latest production. The documentary makes the point of reminding its audience that the Indians of America’s past have suffered their own Holocaust. Indians once numbered an estimated 40 million when European settlers first arrived here, but by the mid-19th century, that number had been decimated by 90 percent due to wars, disease, and the westward movement.

As one Indian leader points out in the commentary, the destruction of the Indians was premised on the notion that native people are simply “the other.”

“And what did they mean by ‘the other’?” he asks. “You mean that they are uncivilized, they are unsophisticated, they are savage,” he answers, “somebody else. And the somebody else they are is not to be respected or valued.”

As a reminder of the powerful influences of Hollywood in forming our attitudes about the past, Kempner and her co-producers have opened their film with a half-hour montage of iconic Western films, from the silent “Last of the Mohicans” in 1920 to “Stagecoach” and “Union Pacific” in the late 1930s to television’s “Lone Ranger” in the 1950s, and the professional team mascots of today.

As Shawn Harjo, a leading Indian activist who was presented a Medal of Freedom in 2016, put it: it’s all part of the way Indians have been portrayed.

“Imagining Indians from the very beginning of the American Revolution up to the present day are white fantasies, and they bear almost no resemblance to the real lives of Native people, either historically or in the present.”

But recently, after years of legal battles in the courts and demonstrations on the streets and around professional stadiums, change has begun to occur. In 2020, baseball’s Cleveland Indians agreed to drop their Native American mascot, Chief Wahoo, and become the Cleveland Guardians. The Washington Redskins have become the Washington Commanders and, in recent weeks, has changed team ownership.

But the Kansas City Chiefs remain, although with less emphasis on its Indian mascot, and the Atlanta Braves still cling to its Tomahawk Chop, which was a marketing innovation by former team owner Ted Turner decades ago.

Kempner’s documentary is meant to keep up the pressure and, after its debut at an indigenous peoples’ film festival last year, it has had high profile screening in a number of major cities.

“I think owners traditionally, team owners, don’t like to change things. Usually, it’s people that push them to do it, like in Cleveland. People oftentimes, though, identify with the history of the team and the name is part of that, like in Atlanta. And it just takes people to realize what was happening here, because of our history with Native Americans. But unless you learn that, you don’t feel it. People come out of the screenings of this documentary and say, ‘oh my gosh, we just had no idea.’”

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