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“Cherokee Guns,” a gun store in Murphy, North Carolina, recently erected a billboard that displayed pictures of U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) with the caption “The Four Horsewomen Are Idiots.” This billboard came just a couple of weeks after a crowd in Greenville, North Carolina, erupted into “Send Her Back” chants (see related column).
Given the owner’s background and lack of ties to the local area (Murphy is just an hour southwest of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee), he appears to be stoking the embers of racial bias to sell guns. (We see the fruits of such hatred in events like the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.) In the process however, he is showing little regard for the irony of using the “Cherokee” name or the impact that his rhetoric is having on his adopted home community. In this case, race is a mere marketing tool.
The use of the congresswomen in a political advertisement for guns is troubling on its own, but it becomes even more troubling when you consider his justification for the billboard. In a comment to the Asheville Citizen-Times, the store’s owner, Doc Wacholz, insinuated that Representatives Omar and Tlaib were tied to Islamic terrorism because of their faith. Earlier billboards were more pointed in their attacks on Muslims with one even saying, “give me your tired, your poor … Keep your Syrian refugees” and another that advertised the store as an “Infidel Armament.” There are some interesting threads to unpack here. First of all, Wacholz is a non-Native person living near the Eastern Band of Cherokee community who has opted to use their tribal name for his business, while using racist rhetoric to sell his products. Secondly, it may be easy for the media to say this kind of hate is endemic to rural areas. However, according to various sources, Wacholz is a former musician with roots in Westchester County, New York, and Tampa, Florida. By exploiting the Cherokee name and pre-existing racial divides in his adopted home, Wacholz is attempting to use race politics to sell his product without any regard for the community that he serves.
The usage of Native imagery by non-Native people is historically common and deeply problematic. It is so common, in fact, that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian has an entire exhibit on it. Wacholz simply represents another in a long line of people who have attempted to cash in on Native imagery. Whether it’s the Pontiac car company, the Washington football team, Crazy Horse Malt Liquor, Land O’Lakes butter, or countless of other brands, Native people have long been dehumanized and used as props. In this case, Wacholz has stamped the “Cherokee” name on a business that has repeatedly used racism and bigotry as a selling point. This is wholly inappropriate. The Eastern Band of Cherokee are descendants of people who resisted President Andrew Jackson’s Removal Act and remained in their homelands, of which they were only able to retain a small sliver. To use victims of racism to sell racism is a height of lunacy and irony. I call on the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to repudiate this business and distance themselves from him and his usage of their name. Issuing such a statement would not be unprecedented. In the late 2000s, my own Lumbee Tribe issued a statement distancing itself from a tobacco company that was using our tribe’s name for their cigarette brand. Wacholz’s shameless exploitation of the Cherokee name should not be allowed to go unchallenged.
It also appears that Wacholz is an outsider who is attempting to use the racial politics of his adopted region as a means of pushing his product. It is no secret that rural North Carolina has a sordid racial history. However, Wacholz is not a product of that environment. In fact, by all indications, he is the product of an entirely suburban upbringing. His style has also not been universally welcomed in his home community. Local media coverage of his recent billboard even noted that many local residents feel that his billboards have sought to polarize and divide the community, an assessment that I cannot disagree with. He is importing hate into the region and using it to rile up people that he may agree with, something that is not healthy for a community. For an extreme example of what can happen when this is done, we need to only look at the 2017 event in Charlottesville, Virginia, which was organized by urbanite Richard Spencer. The murder of Heather Heyer was even carried out by someone who grew up in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio. The killer in the Wal-Mart shooting in El Paso, Texas, is from the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs. The Dayton killer was from one of the city’s suburban counties. There is also the racially charged rhetoric of President Donald Trump, a native of New York City. The rural South is increasingly being exploited by racist elements from non-rural communities, who see opportunities to seize upon pre-existing racial tensions in order to advance their agenda. This is a dangerous road and other media outlets would be wise to draw this distinction.
Christopher Chavis is a native of Robeson County, North Carolina, and a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. His article, “The Past, Present, and Future of Rural Northern New England: A Study of the Demographics and How It Affects the Rural Lawyer Shortage,” was recently published in the University of Maine Law Review. Read more of his on his website.