Cudmore: Mohawk Tommy: good fun or exploitation?

PHOTOGRAPHER:

Categories: News

One hundred years ago two of Amsterdam’s rug-making factories — Shuttleworth Brothers and McCleary, Wallin & Crouse — merged.  Owners named the new firm Mohawk Carpet Company.  A Native American with a full feather headdress was used as a corporate symbol for decades.

The Mohawk name already was used for the valley and the river where Amsterdam is located, the original home of the Mohawk Nation.  Many regional companies and non-profits use the word Mohawk in their name 

Mohawk was a corrupted form of a derogatory word applied to the Mohawk Nation by their adversaries, the Mohicans.

The Mohawks called themselves Kanienkehaka, variously interpreted as “the people of the flint” or the “people of the crystals,” the latter a reference to quartz deposits often called Herkimer diamonds.

“American Indian culture sells sports teams, Jeep Cherokees, Cherokee clothing, Land of Lakes butter and Mohawk carpets,” wrote professor and Ojibway Nation member Selene G. Phillips in a 2012 essay for the book, “American Indians in the Mass Media.”

Native American activist and attorney Marchell J. Wesaw, writing on a website called Cultural Survival, said media portrayal of “the Indian” is “a figment of the White imagination.”

A cartoon character called Mohawk Tommy or Tommy Mohawk was used by Mohawk Carpet in advertising and promotional items starting in the 1950s.

The original drawings were made by company artists, probably including Louis Magila of Amsterdam.  Amsterdam native Ben Kroup said Magila was known “as an affable wit, who loved to kid fellow patrons at the American Lithuanian Club (ALC) on Liberty Street.”  Kroup added that Magila, “Often went beyond mere wordplay, however, and could dash off a caricature of the object of his humor on a napkin.”

In the late 1930s, Magila mimeographed a weekly humor sheet called the ALC Raz-z-z. Each issue featured caricatures, embarrassing “news” about club members, and a page of mock ads for East End Lithuanian businesses.

Kroup said when he was a child in 1951, “Louie Magila showed up one day with a full color poster of Tommy Mohawk, as we called him, as a gift for me to hang up in my bedroom.”

Magila later moved to Doraville, Georgia, near Atlanta when Mohawk Carpets relocated there.  He became a nationally syndicated artist.

In advertisements for the carpet company, Tommy Mohawk was depicted as a youth with a Mohawk haircut and a single feather or pair of feathers in his hair.  In one promotional item owned by many Amsterdam baby boomers, a coin bank, the character has a pot belly, wears a loin cloth and carries a hatchet.

Jerry Snyder, a founder of Historic Amsterdam League, became interested in a possible connection between Walt Disney’s Hollywood studio and the Tommy Mohawk character for a local history project he was working on.  Snyder found several blogs on the subject.

Illustrator Kevin Kidney said that in the early 1950s Walt Disney was “looking for ways to earn extra money to keep his studio afloat and help finance Disneyland.”  Kidney said cartoon characters for Mohawk Carpet television commercials “were drawn in 1952 in the traditional Disney style.”

Wade Sampson, who blogs about Disney issues for MousePlanet, said characters included Tommy Mohawk, Chatter the squirrel and an Indian maiden named Minnehaha. 

The drawings were made by Hurrell Productions, headed by photographer George Hurrell, who was married to Walt Disney’s wife’s niece.  Sampson said the Hurrell studio was on Disney’s lot in California. 

Kidney speculated that Hurrell Studio actually was started by Disney himself, “Producing commercials for TV in the early days was considered way beneath the status of a major Hollywood movie studio.”

Leave a Reply