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Reviewed by:
  • More Than a Word dir. by John Little and Kenn Little
  • Martha L. Viehmann (bio)
John Little and Kenn Little, dirs. More Than a Word. 2017. Dist. by Media Education Foundation. 70 mins.

More Than a Word, a documentary by brothers John and Kenn Little (Standing Rock Sioux), focuses on Native American–themed sports mascots and fan antics, especially those of the Washington, DC, football team. The film presents the history of the team and the controversy over its name within a broad context of pop culture, US history, and when and how Native American imagery and perspectives gain attention. Featuring interviews with activists Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee), Amanda Blackhorse (Diné), and Tara Houska (Couchiching), with scholars Philip Deloria (Dakota), Jared Ball, and Joe Horse Capture (A'anin), and with diverse fans, the documentary affirms the importance of the mascot issue. More Than a Word claims that dehumanizing images on the playing field impact Indigenous people everywhere else and limit the ability of non-Natives to understand and value diverse Native perspectives.

With short chapters, thought-provoking juxtapositions, and imagery ripe for analysis, More Than a Word lends itself to use in the classroom. The topic remains relevant because nearly a thousand professional teams and K–12 schools still use Native-themed mascots, according to the National Congress of American Indians. Communities across the nation are reconsidering their school brands, and recent name changes in Ohio, Utah, and Maine keep the topic in the news and make it likely that campus or community-based screenings will attract viewers from beyond the university.

The structure of the film conveys the way media and sports stereotypes impact Native American visibility even as the Littles center Native American voices. The opening sequence features non-Native perspectives, signaling the challenge for Indigenous people to break into conversations about issues central to them. Soon after introducing the [End Page 223] activists and scholars in interviews, the film cuts to stills and clips of costumed fans, half-time show "Indian" clowns, and other images that illustrate why sports mascots are a central topic even though, as Deloria puts it, "We'd rather talk about treaty rights than the rituals of Washington football fans." More Than a Word shows that the history of playing Indian and white supremacy shape how Native people are seen and heard, and it uses the arguments of Native people to try to change the dominant site of stereotyping.

The documentary also shows the fierce resistance to change. In one sequence, Amanda Blackhorse describes the vicious attacks lobbed at her as the named plaintiff in a lawsuit against Pro-Football Inc. As she speaks, messages sent to her appear in white boxes on black screens. The stark design highlights the hateful words. We hear the emotion in Blackhorse's voice as we read words like "Consider suicide?" The film is persuasive to those who are not already firmly entrenched because it both informs and moves viewers; it does so through a recursive structure that contrasts stubborn efforts to cling to white supremacist "traditions" with uplifting moments when Indigenous people gain control of the narrative, such as scenes from the inaugural Indigenous Comic Con.

The skillful use of structure is also evident in the carefully crafted conclusion. In the summer of 2017 the Littles were finalizing the film when the Supreme Court released its decision in the Slants case. This decision overturned the Lanham Act, meaning copyright protection can now be extended to offensive material. Thus, the latest appeal in Blackhorse v. ProFootball, Inc. was dropped. The film pushes back against despair with a change in the background music and the declaration that "the fight against the Washington team name and other Native American mascots will continue." Final appearances from Houska, Horse Capture, and Blackhorse affirm their confidence. Blackhorse says, "The more they've tried to silence … [us], the stronger we've become. I know we're going to win."

The scholars and activists in More Than a Word declare that education about Native American nations—their diversity, their history, and their modern presence—is key to convincing the public that sports team mascots must go. Continuing evidence of...


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pp. 223-225
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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