While there had always been discussion of the controversy of Jeep naming their SUV line “Cherokee,” Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. of the Cherokee Nation’s formal request for the company to change the name was the first time Jeep had received a direct response to it.
A public debate quickly followed on whether or not the name should be changed.
Emily Magness ’21, a member of the Cherokee Nation and the publicity chair for the Native American Student Association (NASA), cites environmental concerns as a reason in favor.
“I think in this scenario it is harmful to name a car after a tribe, especially when cars are huge emitters, and the automotive industry is such a threat to our planet,” Magness said. “Naming it after a tribe […] committed to protecting our lands in particular, but just kind of land across the world in general, just because of our status as Indigenous people, I think, is a huge problem.”
In addition to these concerns, Magness described how the Jeep Cherokee can impact the perception of Cherokee peoples.
“When your name is placed on an inanimate object, it makes it feel like you don’t exist anymore, when that is not true,” Magness said. “That’s a huge piece of misinformation that I think tribes in general have been fighting.”
Emma Slibeck ’24, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the first-year liaison for NASA, mentioned the way naming places and objects after Indigenous peoples or their words contributes to a loss of meaning and erasure of the tribe.
“Even though I am literally Cherokee, I look at our car and am like, that’s a different thing, it’s not the same, which is kind of weird to think about,” Slibeck said.
Despite the reasons laid out before the company, Jeep decided to “respectfully decline” the formal request, according to Chief Hoskin’s March 1 statement to Automotive News. After public backlash, however, Jeep’s parent company, Stellantis, stated just days later that they were open to the idea of changing the name.
“I think a lot of organizations like this are like, ‘No,’ with a little heart emoji at first, and it’s very frustrating because it’s like, you say you honor us, and yet when we ask you to do something that would actually honor us you’re like, sorry that’s too hard,” Magness said.
While Magness was happy to see Stellantis be more receptive to the idea of changing the SUV line’s name, she had concerns over whether this change in heart was authentic or due to the backlash. Slibeck echoed these concerns.
“[Stellantis] having to step in and be like, actually, never mind, we are open to it, we’ve always been open to it, is just trying to save face, and it frankly carries no actual meaning behind it,” Slibeck said. “It’s just the public response after the private response didn’t go over well.”
Whether or not Stellantis truly wants to change the name, some of Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares’ statements are concerning to Magness and Slibeck. For one, Tavares stated that he did not know if there was “a real problem”, but would solve it if there was one.
“I don’t know how it’s not clear that this is a problem, especially given the very formal complaint and request from the Cherokee Nation,” Slibeck said. “It’s once again people not even listening to Indigenous people until it will come to serve them.”
According to Magness, this statement also added to the feeling of the company failing to do the bare minimum.
“Frankly, they should be lucky that all we’re asking is for them to change the name because we could be lobbying for more stringent environmental measures on car production or banning cars from like, our trust lines in the East,” Magness said. “It’s like, come on, it’s such a little thing that would mean a lot to a lot of people, so yeah, it’s very frustrating but also not surprising.”
This formal request would bring an end to the Jeep Cherokee name, which has existed since 1974. However, while they still make cars by that name, they underwent a hiatus from 2001 to 2013, making Liberty cars instead.
For Magness, the ability to change the name so easily for 12 years raises questions about why the company cannot just repeat the same process.
She stated that the change was “deeply troubling” and viewed it as a way of equating Liberty and the Cherokee people as inherently American.
“We are not [American], we are a sovereign nation,” Magness said. “America was imposed upon us.”
Not only are there concerns over the connotations Jeep may be adding to the Cherokee name, but Slibeck added that the Liberty line indicated a lack of ignorance.
“There’s a very clear, intentional choice to go back to this name that they don’t have permission to use,” Slibeck said. “That’s just a blatant disregard of respect for Indigenous peoples.”
When Jeep decided to change the name of its own volition, there was not much media attention, which Magness believes highlights a larger issue.
“I think it just shows how little people know about Indigenous issues where, if they think that this is a new phenomenon, no, this has been happening far beyond my lifetime,” she said. “I think it also kind of shows how threatening Native sovereignty is to people.”
Magness added that as soon as the chief of her nation made a request, which she referred to as “mild” coming from what is essentially the president of her nation, “everyone freak[ed] out”, reaffirming her belief. While a name change can seem trivial, Slibeck disagrees.
“It’s not just about a name, it’s not just about the car being called a Cherokee or Grand Cherokee or whatever,” she said. “It’s also about the history, it’s also about the erasure, it’s also about the current treatment of native peoples, it’s also about the earth and the planet and the environment.”
Both Magness and Slibeck commented on how finding educational materials to learn about modern Indigenous people can be hard, especially in situations like this where the media focuses on the impact on and the response of the company. However, Magness and Slibeck point to some good sources of education in this and all future matters, such as Indian Country Today and the NASA educational materials document.
“I hope that [people knowing name changes] are harmful and problematic will just kind of help recenter Indigenous voices in these conversations, because for so long and still now, Native people are not included,” Slibeck said. “I want it to be a stepping stone for people and not for them to take this as like, the main change and done, that is not acceptable at all.”