Native American Images and Stereotypes
In the end, to understand the White image of the Indian is to understand White societies and intellectual premises over time more than the diversity of Native Americans. ( Berkhofer,1978, p.xvi.)
Current images of Native Americans have historical roots that emanated with Columbus and continue to the present day. Images that we see in film, the mass media, and popular culture are based on stereotypes that were developed by the colonizers. Post-colonial theorists such as Berkhofer postulate that these stereotypes have classified Native Americans as “other” to justify colonization and modern day public and private policies. Persisting themes include the diversity of Native American cultures treated as a single Indian, generalizing from one tribe to all, viewing Indians in terms of white ideals, and using moral evaluations to describe Indians.
Modern examples of stereotypes include Pocahontas, sports team mascots and names, and the aspects of counter culture movements that romanticize and appropriate Native American culture. Cultural appropriation is not always subtle or benign. In Playing Indian, Philip Deloria describes a non-Indian group calling themselves the Smoki who insisted for decades that they were designated to preserve the Hopi Snake Dance in its proper form, against tribal protestations. In his autobiography, Harley “Swiftdeer” Reagan claimed to be a medicine man and invented a “traditional Cherokee ceremony” of sexually initiating little girls. (Garroutte, 2003, p.89-93.)
While the utilization of Indian themes in sports seems harmless to many, Native Americans have been fighting it for 30 years as demeaning. Most states have sports teams with Indian names including Massachusetts. Moline outlines the extensive nature of offensive imagery in “American Indian Mascots in Sports.” “The Chicago Sun-Times reports “51 high schools in Illinois offer war whoops and paint. There are Redskins, Indians, Indianettes, Injuns, Blackhawks, Comanches, Braves, Mohawks….” (1999, p.179). In 2005, after decades of contention, the NCAA banned the use of offensive Indian stereotypes for academic sports teams.
However, there continues to be resistance to comply with the ruling. Some universities have appealed the decision, most notably the University of Illinois over “Chief Illinek”. These stereotypes and the battle to change them extend to the professional sports arena. In 1972 the Cleveland Indian Center filed suit around the mascot of “Chief Wahoo” of the Cleveland Indians. The Atlanta Braves and the Washington Redskins retain their name to this day despite legal action canceling 7 registered Redskins trademarks. (p.181.)
Why is there such resistance to change? Perhaps there are clues in examining the functions that the imagery serves. In Going Native, Hundorf examines how the dynamics of colonization play out on a collective cultural level. As the violent history of the origin of America is denied, the origin story is constantly being replayed in an effort to maintain the cultural hegemony.
In Playing Indian, Philip Deloria examines the ambiguity and malleability of meaning in white images of “Indians” as it relates to American identities throughout history. He describes the colonists utilizing the image of “Indianess” as the basis of American identity in rejection of British rule in the Boston Tea Party, an iconic moment in U.S. history.
||A chorus of Indian war whoops sounded outside the hall, and a party of what looked like Indian men sprinted down the streets to the wharves. Boarding the Dartmouth and two other tea ships, the Eleanor and the Beaver, the Indians “overpowered” the sympathetic guards and dumped tea into Boston Harbor for the next three hours. Noone tried to stop the tea party, least of all the crowd of spectators gathered on the well lit wharf. When they had finished, the raiders cleaned up the ships, apologized to the guards for a broken lock, and went home to wash off their war paint. (1998, p.2)
Deloria posits that Whites created the “Noble Savage” and other “Good Indian” stereotypes to develop a connection to their own vital primitive nature, and the land. Indians represent affinity to the continent which they could impart to whites, yet to control the continent Indians must be destroyed. Thus there is movement back and forth between assimilation and destruction that the imagery reflects. He finds that the fluidity of meanings and contradictions represent conflicts within white cultures and identities.
In the end, white stereotypes of Native Americans have played a variety of functions from enacting colonial relationships, to defining white American identities, and critiquing modern civilization. Native American self-representations offer an authenticity that we are only beginning to see in popular culture.
For more information, see the bibliography for Images/Stereotypes of Native Americans created for this exhibit.