DETROIT — Fiat Chrysler Automobiles contacted the Cherokee Nation last summer about setting up an educational program for its employees.
It was supposed to be a cultural enrichment endeavor to shine a light on the people whose name has been attached to one of Jeep’s most popular vehicles for nearly 50 years.
The event didn’t pan out, but the dialogue wasn’t over.
Months later, after FCA merged into Stellantis, the automaker approached the nation again. The Cherokee were the ones making a request this time: Stop using our name.
The meeting occurred after Car and Driver learned of the Cherokee’s stance on the use of the name and raised it with Jeep. The Cherokee Nation didn’t go out of its way to make it a public issue, said Chuck Hoskin Jr., its principal chief.
Hoskin just answered a question honestly.
“We don’t go out across America’s cultural landscape [looking] for things that offend us and speak out on it,” Hoskin told Automotive News. “What happened in this case is Car and Driver reached out for comment.”
The nation’s position adds to the larger conversation around corporate sensitivity to issues of diversity and equality, which sprouted during the social justice movement that erupted last year after the death of George Floyd in police custody. The resulting discussions have put pressure on companies to reevaluate some business practices, and discontinuing the use of Native American names — a controversial topic for years — has been among the more visible measures organizations have taken.
The former Washington Redskins of the NFL played this past season known only as the Washington Football Team. The MLB’s Cleveland Indians announced in December that they would change their name.
Jeep is now in the hot seat, with the names of two of its three top sellers at stake. This is a high-profile year for the Grand Cherokee, with a redesign on the way along with a three-row version called the Grand Cherokee L.
Hoskin said Stellantis approached the Cherokee Nation in late January to get a better understanding of its position. Hoskin credits the automaker for engaging proactively, though he made clear that he wasn’t giving his blessing for Jeep to keep using the name.
“I thought it was the right move to drop it,” Hoskin said. “And I think they respectfully declined to take that action. But they also left the door open, I think, for further discussions, and so did we. So I think it was a good discussion in that respect.”
Jeep, in a statement, said its 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 brand said it was committed, more than ever, “to a respectful and open dialogue.”
For Hoskin and the people he represents, the issue goes well beyond Jeep. He believes it’s time for corporations and sports franchises to do away with the use of Native American names and imagery in their entirety.
“In 2021, the country is in a better position than they’ve been, say a generation ago, to think about what it means to use the names of Native peoples,” Hoskin said. “Beyond just the Jeep issue, to depict our culture in the form of mascots or chants at football stadiums, I think the country’s in a better place to have a discussion about those and hopefully move away from those depictions and those name usages.”