The Cherokee Nation, for the first time, has asked Jeep to change the name of its Grand Cherokee vehicle, a move that the carmaker, preparing to release the next generation of the line, has so far resisted.
Chuck Hoskin Jr., principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, said in an interview on Wednesday that the name belonged to the Cherokee people, and that Jeep’s use of it without permission was troubling.
“The use of Cherokee names and imagery for peddling products doesn’t deepen the country’s understanding of what it means to be Cherokee, and I think it diminishes it somewhat,” Chief Hoskin said. His opposition to Jeep’s use of the tribe’s name was reported by Car and Driver magazine last week.
Stellantis, the carmaker that owns Jeep, defended its use of the name. “Our vehicle names have been carefully chosen and nurtured over the years to honor and celebrate Native American people for their nobility, prowess and pride,” the company said in a statement on Wednesday. “We are, more than ever, committed to a respectful and open dialogue with Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.”
Jeep introduced its Cherokee sport utility vehicle in 1974. After the car was retired in the early 2000s, Jeep revived it in 2014. Since that time, the Grand Cherokee has become one of Jeep’s most popular models, with more than 200,000 sold last year. Stellantis formed this year from the merger of Fiat Chrysler and Peugeot, which included Jeep in their portfolio of brands.
Companies have long used Native American names and images as marketing tools, and for many years, the Cherokee Nation did not express an opinion on Jeep’s use of its name. But the tribe’s request comes as U.S. cities, companies and sports teams are — in response to the nationwide protests after the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police last year — removing or reconsidering statues, flags, symbols, names and mascots that depict Confederate leaders or other historical figures, or that use Native American imagery and names.
In one of the most high-profile cases, under pressure from corporate sponsors, the owner of Washington’s N.F.L. team, Daniel Snyder, in July agreed to drop its name and logo after many years of protests by Native American groups and others who called it racist.
Suzan Shown Harjo, a scholar who has been at the center of efforts to persuade teams, schools and colleges to drop Native American names and mascots, said Jeep’s explanation for its use of the Cherokee name — that it was honoring the tribe — was just an excuse.
“Of course it’s not an honor,” said Ms. Harjo, the director of the Morning Star Institute, a group that promotes Native American causes. She said the use of Native American names has been particularly painful when companies and sports teams use them without permission.
“That’s the assumption that was made by so many people about our land, water, gold, silver, copper — name a mineral. Now it’s about our imagery, our names and our cultural icons,” she said. “When does this thievery stop?”
Chief Hoskin said he told Jeep during a Zoom meeting in late January that he did not condone its use of the Cherokee name. He said that the meeting was cordial and that he was encouraged that the company had initiated the conversation.
“A generation ago, I don’t think it would’ve occurred to them,” he said. “We’re living in a time where people are thinking a bit more about the impact of imagery and names.”
The Cherokee Nation, mostly in Oklahoma, has more than 385,000 members, making it the largest federally recognized Native American tribe.
Neeru Paharia, an associate professor of marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, said she understood why Jeep’s leaders were reluctant to drop the name.
“It’s their top-selling car, it has an iconic look and an iconic name,” Dr. Paharia said. “If no one is coming down on them hard, they’re probably thinking this is a huge asset to us, but it’s going to become a liability as soon as this gets some momentum and some traction.”
Last summer, widespread protests against racism led to the toppling of statues of Confederate leaders and prompted brands like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s rice products to phase out racist imagery.
Activists say brands and sports teams have been slower to remove Native American imagery, but there have been some high-profile instances in addition to the Washington team. The dairy co-op Land O’Lakes said last year that it was dropping the image of a Native American woman with a feather headband from its packaging. In August, the head of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows said that, after discussions with Native American groups, the ski resort had decided to drop “squaw” from its name, calling the term “racist and sexist.”
Other examples date to the 1990s, when Miami University in Ohio changed its mascot name to the Redhawks from the Redskins after discussions with the Miami Tribe. In 2005, the Seminole Tribe of Florida gave Florida State University written permission to use its name and images in return for a scholarship program for students from the reservations.
Stacy Leeds, a law professor at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, said the use of Native American imagery tends to relegate Indigenous people to a stereotype that does not represent the reality of a modern-day people.
She questioned carmakers’ use of certain names in their efforts to attract consumers. “What images are they hoping will pop up?” she asked. “Are they trying to project the untamed? Are they trying to project the frontier?”
Ms. Harjo, the scholar, said the movement still had a long way to go, but that activists had made substantial headway in recent years, especially in the past one.
“Every so often, something happens that galvanizes everyone again to say, ‘We’re all in this together to do whatever we can do to support each other,’” Ms. Harjo said. “And that’s where we are now.”