There’s an estimated 18,000 acres of wine grapes under cultivation in the Yakima Valley, nearly all within a few miles — or, in rare cases, within the boundaries — of the 1,573-square-mile Yakama Nation reservation.
As they say, good fences make good neighbors. In this case, a recent lawsuit serves as a metaphor for those good fences.
The Yakama Nation General Council filed the suit recently in U.S. District Court, seeking to bar several local businesses associated with the wine trade from using tribal names and likenesses to help sell their products. The Yakamas argue that the use of tribal names constitutes cultural appropriation and gives false impressions of tribal endorsement.
Of particular concern was the use of the name and image of Kamiakin, one of the great leaders in Yakama history — one of the 14 tribal leaders to sign the Treaty of 1855 and a man whose opposition to alcohol on the reservation was well known.
“Plaintiffs have suffered shock and embarrassment and emotional distress at the use of this name on a wine bottle in that it is contrary to what Kamiakin believed in, plays into the stereotype of approval of use of alcohol by Native people, and is contrary to the teachings plaintiffs try to convey to their future generations,” the lawsuit says.
The Yakamas are not alone in challenging the improper use of Native American caricatures and names by non-Indian entities. But like most things entrenched in dominant culture, change takes time. Note the years of effort it took for the NFL team based in Washington, D.C., to abandon its name.
Given the amount of ridicule endured by Native American individuals and tribes for generations, it was wise for the Yakamas to take up the challenge and defend their culture.
And it was equally wise for three of the four parties named in the suit to quickly acknowledge the tribe’s concerns. Sheridan Vineyard and Dineen Vineyard, both from the Zillah area, noted that they had already stopped using their Kamiakin labels and have assured the tribe that they would no longer do so. Subsequently, the tribe filed to dismiss Sheridan and Dineen as defendant.
A third defendant, St. Hilaire Cellars, which made the offending labels, has since told the tribe that it is no longer making the labels and has purchased existing inventory.
“That’s a bigger step than I expected them to take,” attorney Jack Fiander told the Herald-Republic. Fiander is a former tribal council member who has been outspoken in his opposition to alcohol abuse on the reservation for decades.
There is no update available on whether St. Hilaire will be dismissed as a defendant and no word at all on the fourth defendant, Xpress Liquor and Wine of Yakima, which is accused of selling wine with offending labels. But showing respect for the Yakamas’ concerns is clearly the right thing to do, as is the tribe’s aggressive efforts to protect its culture and language.