Stripmining history and culture for dollars

  • Parody ad of Crazy Horse Malt Liquor by Thom Little Moon, Rapid City, S.D.


Who owns Crazy Horse? Were the great Oglala warrior still alive, there would be no question: Crazy Horse, who helped Sitting Bull orchestrate Custer's last stand, was not the owning kind. But 120 years after his death, the Minnesota Court of Appeals has affirmed a New York brewery's right to market "Original Crazy Horse Malt Liquor," despite widespread objection by Indians, non-Indians and the historic leader's heirs.

The court upheld the beer maker's claim to commercial free speech and declared a state law banning the name "impermissibly content-based." The court's ruling leaves Crazy Horse - who opposed the use of alcohol by his people - on the label of a beer bottle.

If this is legal, something is wrong with legal. Heroes are not mascots. No commercial enterprise, however free its speech, should have the right to exploit someone else's culture for profit - not without permission, and certainly not when representatives of the culture itself object. But our laws are designed to protect profits, not prophets. If you want respect, don't become a legend; just register your trademark.

If I make a snack food I can't name it Doritos. If I make a shoe I can't name it Nike, and if I start a grocery store I can't call it Safeway. I can't even, to cite a recent case, start a little saloon in the forsaken Yaak Valley of western Montana and call it the Golden Nugget - not if I don't want to be sued 38 years later by a Las Vegas casino.

But like Hornell Brewery I can make a malt liquor, call it after someone's great-grandfather, and not give a narrow dime for the privilege. I can sell a substance that has ravaged the red community (not to mention the white) for well over a century and label it unapologetically with the name of one who sought to save his people from that very fate.

With a little twist on this logic, we could have the O.J. Simpson Battered Women's Shelter, the Jeffrey Dahmer Home for Runaway Boys, or the Joe Camel Cancer Ward.

The ironies keep coming. Even as Hornell Brewery continues to make a buck off Crazy Horse, the federal government has announced cuts in anti-alcoholism programs for American Indian and Alaska Native communities. To fill the void, the National Association for Native American Children of Alcoholics has appealed for support from other agencies, private foundations and from individual donors. Perhaps Hornell will be eager to contribute.

The ultimate irony is in the clash of values embodied by this case. Crazy Horse fought for freedom, for a way of life grounded in certain social, spiritual and environmental values. He and his way of life were summarily extinguished, deemed commercially nonviable by the very culture which today - ironically - suffers from an excess of commercial value and a lack of social, spiritual and environmental values.

It is little comfort to remember that those who live by the sword die by the sword, and that we who live by commercialism will likely die by it as well. Our towering garbage dumps, our neglected families faze us no more than the morning headache fazes the alcoholic. Like the boozer, we can't imagine how good it would feel to stop.

Where is our Crazy Horse? Where are the leaders to warn us against temptation, to show us the better path? Crazy Horse died 120 years ago on the point of a soldier's bayonet and though his name may belong on the back of a dollar, you'll find it on the front of a beer bottle.

Here's to Crazy Horse, who never really surrendered.

'Asta Bowen is a high school teacher and writer in Somers, Montana.

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