The thematic climax of the documentary “Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting” comes with the reluctant and long-delayed 2020 decision by Washington’s NFL team to retire its former name, a slur against Indigenous people. But that breakthrough is not the only thing that marks this lively if somewhat lumpy documentary as a D.C. movie.
The film co-directors and co-producers, Aviva Kempner and Ben West, are both Washingtonians. Kempner is known for documentaries about Jewish life and history, including “Rosenwald” and “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.” West, a D.C. native and a veteran filmmaker, is Cheyenne.
The directors fill the movie with local figures, both conspicuously and subtly. Among them are such talking heads as Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Black poet E. Ethelbert Miller, former National Museum of the American Indian director Kevin Gover (a citizen of the Pawnee tribe of Oklahoma) and former United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo (a member of the Muscogee Creek nation). Also heard, if not seen, is Link Wray, the innovative Shawnee rock guitarist who was living in D.C. when he recorded “Rumble,” the instrumental whose epochal riff is interwoven here with hundreds of other audio and video snippets.
The Western was once Hollywood’s signature genre, and “Imagining the Indian” revisits cowboys and Indians movies, television shows and cartoons in a rapid-fire introductory montage. Included are moments from “Stagecoach,” “The Searchers” and many lesser efforts, as well as a shockingly callous remark whose racism is all the more disturbing because the comment is uttered by the beloved Bugs Bunny.
The film’s highly condensed history notes that the native population plummeted from 40 million to just a few million under European colonialism, and it contrasts this somber statistic with a notorious clip in which former Republican senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania claims “there was nothing here” before Whites arrived.
Attitudes like that resurface when the documentary toggles from its hectic, overstuffed prologue to its main subject: high school, college and professional sports teams called the Indians, Redskins, Braves, Chiefs and the like. The offensiveness of these names is detailed by such commentators as pioneering activist Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee) and sports journalists including Bob Costas and Christine Brennan.
Equally contentious are such pseudo-Indian traditions as face painting, wearing ceremonial headdresses and the “tomahawk chop,” seen here being happily indulged in by everyone from Donald Trump to Jane Fonda. The power of a sports ritual bridges right and left.
The country’s current breach between zealous reformers and vehement defenders of “how it used to be” is illustrated by numerous clips of sports fans, both White and Black, who reject any change to their treasured teams and their customs. This is one area where “Imagining the Indian” might have gone deeper, but the movie is more concerned with the broad picture than with revealing details. All it gets from the defenders of Indian mascots is their sputtering rage.
That is typical of “Imagining the Indian,” which is dense with data and images yet mostly lacking in unexpected insights. The movie should fascinate viewers interested in Native American history and culture, and infuriate fans who still cherish their Washington football or Cleveland baseball team paraphernalia. The documentary could have been shapelier and better focused, but it packs lots of information and even more emotion.