Most American Indian 'chiefs' were never actually chiefs. It was a common
name Whites gave to Indian leaders.
There were no actual Indian Princesses because there is no such thing as Indian royalty.
The Princess stereotype was created to legitimize female Native Americans as
potential mates for Whites.
A primitive man living in harmony with the natural world and unspoiled by
Renegades refuse to live on the reservation and are at war with Whites
Indian braves are the adult males who have proven their courage in hunting
or in battle.
The Indian Squaw is quiet and almost invisible as she serves her husband; scraping and stretching hides, weaving, cooking, and child-rearing.
Before Columbus arrived in the "New World" there were no Indians, and the only reason he called them Indians was because at first he thought he had landed in India. The indigenous peoples of North America certainly didn't call themselves Indians, and they did not even think of themselves as one people. At the beginning of European immigration, there were over 300 distinct Indian languages in North America. But through stereotyping, the White European imposed a collective identity upon the Indians. And it was in the process of being stereotyped by whites, that Indians began to think of themselves as one race. What it meant to be an Indian was defined by Whites and imposed upon Native Americans. Even the common names of Indian tribes -- Navajo, Sioux, Cheyenne, Blackfoot, etc. -- are usually the names whites gave them, and those names were rarely complementary.
Throughout American history the perceptions of Native Americans changed in response to the natives' usefulness to Whites. When the early colonists needed them to stay alive or help fight a war, the Indians were thought of as brave and noble savages. When the Indians got in the way and threatened the White Man's plans, they became animalistic and bloodthirsty savages. The Indian, who had been important when trade and exploration were the keys to overseas involvement, became an inconvenient obstacle to settlement of the lands to the West.
During the course of the seventeenth century many Indians tried to assimilate into white society. Over the years they became dependent upon the modern tools brought by the European -- the knife, gun, kettle, and fish-hook. Gradually those Indians who stayed on the Eastern Seaboard lost their forest skills. Their culture slowly changed under the pressure of contact with a more technologically advanced society that had little use for them except as day laborers. Unlike his brother on the frontier, the dreaded "savage," the domesticated Indian was usually looked upon with contempt.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the West was considered a wilderness ripe for exploration and economic development, and the region's inhabitants were envisioned as part of a natural order to be overcome in the name of progress. To justify their depredations against the Indians, Americans created a self-justifying rationalization; as inferior beings, Indians were destined to vanish off the face of the earth.
The stereotype of the hostile savage helped assuage a sense of guilt which inevitably arose when men whose culture was based on the concept of private property embarked on a program to dispossess another people of their land. Having created the conditions in which the Indian could only respond violently, Americans defined the native as brutal, beastly, savage, and barbarian and then used that as a justification for the genocide that followed.
Indian Myth vs Reality
Close your eyes and note what comes to mind when you hear the words "American Indian." No matter your political leanings and cultural sensitivity, the dominant images most people see are feathers, war paint, bows and arrows, buffalos, horses, teepees, beads, animal skins, and warfare. These images are a manifestation of cultural programming by adventure movies, books, photographs, museum exhibitions, films, television shows and documentaries.
* Chief: the head of a tribe
Western novelist Larry McMurtry described the vast gap between myth and reality in the depiction of the West in popular culture. "Most of the traditions which we associate with the American West," he wrote, "were invented by pulp writers, poster artists, impresarios, and advertising men."
The myth of the American Indian was further refined by frontiersman and master showman William Frederick Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill. In 1883, Cody formed Buffalo Bill's Wild West, a traveling show. The act included a mock battle with Indians, played, for the most part, by members of the Lakota Sioux tribe. Because Buffalo Bill's Wild West was as close as most Americans got to "real" Indians, Sioux traditions became, in the public mind, synonymous with all Indian customs.
Firearms and mock battles were at the heart of the Wild West show Cody invented and first took on the road in 1883. It offered everything Western that wide-eyed Easterners hoped to see except the landscape: horses, elk and buffaloes; roping, riding and sharp shooting; simulated cyclones and prairie fires and gun battles and for a while, even Sitting Bull himself. Buffalo Bill was the Master of Ceremonies. Mounted on a handsome gray horse, he swept his big hat from his head to introduce his "Congress of Rough Riders of the World"; shot glass balls from the air; galloped to the rescue of a stagecoach and a settler's cabin surrounded by whooping Indians; and took center stage for a deeply affecting -- and entirely imaginary -- tableau in which he arrived only moments too late to save Custer and his command from annihilation.
Although the actual words stupid and dumb are seldom seen in
descriptions of Natives - perhaps because fighting a stupid enemy or
having a dumb sidekick is not especially flattering - Native Peoples
have been firmly placed in the lower echelons of intelligence by many
European Americans since first contact was made. Benevolent terms such
as "innocent," "primitive," and "unsaved"
indicate a lesser intelligence, and the more antagonistic descriptors
certainly point to comparative dimness.
By the turn of the 20th Century, the Indian was viewed as a noble, primitive man in touch with nature, a master of self-sufficiency through hunting and fishing and making arrowheads, who knows the myths of his people.
All Indians Look Alike?
By the time "Injuns" made it to the Western movies of the 1950s, directors generalized many Sioux traditions—such as hunting and feather headdresses—to all Indians. "The old movies rely on a homogenized Indian," says Karen Biestman of the University of California. "He is usually male, wears buckskin, beads, feathers, has a pinto pony, and is savage, uncaring, and brutal. But it's a shallow image. We don't see families, caring, a sense of community, spirituality, or day-to-day life."
Indian Stereotypes in Sports
During the 1960s, the National Congress of American Indians began a campaign to eliminate negative stereotyping of American Indians in the media. They focused mainly on cartoons and movies; however their protests of sports organizations garnered the most attention.
The American Indian community has been working to end the appropriation by sports teams of Native American images and names like Cleveland Indians, Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs, and Atlanta Braves. The Cleveland Indians' Chief Wahoo offends Indian people the same way that Little Black Sambo offended African Americans and the Frito Bandito offended the Hispanic community. However American Indian images and nicknames remain common in sports, and may be seen in use by teams at all levels from elementary school to professional.
Redface in Film and TV
In early films, American Indians were almost always depicted as half-clothed savages, screaming war cries as they got shot off their horses by the white heroes. It's almost comical now, but that was the only Hollywood image of American Indians until the mid- to late-1970s; and it was exported to the entire world.
Thomas Ince's Heart of an Indian (1912) showed Indians as sensitive people but DW Griffith's The Battle of Elderbrush Gulch (1914) presented the Indians as absolute savages. The Vanishing American (1925) and Broken Arrow (1950) present a "noble savage" stereotype.
The Indian woman of early films was depicted in only two categories. She was either a princess or a squaw. Either she was a dangerous and seductive threat to the white frontiersman, or she was the faceless, dutiful figure tagging along behind her buck with papoose in tow. Her only utterance was "Ugh." The word "squaw" means wife, but only through a very rough interpretation and in only one of the hundreds of Native American languages. The princesses of celluloid fame generally served the white man, fell in love with him, and died tragically. Early white male stars who played Indian roles in western film pantomimed their Indian-ness in braided wigs and make-up; likewise, established white actresses always played Indian princesses. Some of those seen bathing in the streams and in chic haute couture doeskin dresses were Yvonne de Carlo (The Deerslayer, 1943), Elsa Martinelli (Indian Fighter, 1955), Linda Darnell (Buffalo Bill, 1943), Debra Paget (Broken Arrow, 1950).
In early Hollywood Westerns, most of the background Indians were real Navajo people. There was a colony of Navajo Indians living traditionally in a camp in Malibu who were on studio pay. When Indians of any tribe were needed for a western, a bus would pull up and load up for their background work. That is why in all those films, most of the time the language you hear spoken is "Dine," one of the Athapascan dialects of the Navajo and Apache people. The major speaking roles for American Indians would still go to non-Native actors like Burt Lancaster and Charles Bronson.
Progress has been gradual, but somewhat steady. Jay Silverheels -- a native of the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve near Ontario, Canada -- was perhaps the first legitimate Native American television star. From 1949 to 1957, he entertained TV audiences as Tonto, the Lone Ranger's dependable -- albeit stereotypical -- Indian sidekick. The real Silverheels, though, was not limited by the stereotype. He recognized that fellow Native American actors needed to truly be masters of their craft in order to compete in the unforgiving film industry, so he founded the American Indian Actors Workshop in Echo Park, Calif., as a place where they could do that.
In 1979, Jay Silverheels was the first native American actor to be
awarded a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.
The Navajos in Monument Valley who worked on The Searchers -- as extras, consultants or other staff -- were paid less than their white counterparts. At that time, too, they were not even allowed to leave the reservation without written permission from the government; so the fact that they were happy to have the work must be viewed in that light. But Ford's efforts were progressive for his day and laid the groundwork for some of the more truly balanced movies to come.
It was in the 1970s that Indians began to be portrayed more authentically and more prominently in film story lines.
In Little Big Man with Dustin Hoffman the native Americans are actually shown
laughing and crying, like real human beings rather than the
stereotypical stoic and unemotional Indians normally seen in Hollywood features. The Indians were
depicted just like any other people -- some good, some not so good. Chief Dan George was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, making him the first Native American to receive the honor.
Hollywood also had Iron Eyes Cody. His ancestry became the center of some controversy when it became known that he was actually Italian by birth. But he did not just work as an Indian in Hollywood in the 1950s and '60s; he truly lived his life as an Indian. He can be credited as the most famous Indian in the world during that time. Even though he was not born an Indian, we should not forget that Iron Eyes Cody raised awareness for the American Indian people and also of the importance of environmentalism (Keep America Beautiful Public Service ad campaign) in a way that no one else was able to do at that time.
Whether the noble Indian is shedding a tear for a 1960s' environmental public service commercial or being saved by the great white hope Captain John Smith in the recent Disney movie
Pocahontas, hints of self-pity and romanticism continue to haunt American Indians in film. While Hollywood no longer portrays American Indians as painted and uncivilized savages, waving tomahawks and scalping the innocent European settlers, contemporary movies maintain the stoic `Indian' image smothered with sentimentality.
Russell Means, an American Indian activist who has played high profile parts in several movies including The Last of the Mohicans, Natural Born Killers, and Wagons East!, stated that "...as Americans we have faced up to many social ills. Anti-Semitism, racism against blacks, oppression of women, and now it's time to face up to the Indian issue."
The American Indian Film Institute (AIFI) is a non-profit media arts center founded in 1979 to foster understanding of the culture, traditions and issues of contemporary Native Americans. In 1992 the Native American Producer's Alliance was created.
The Rich Indian Stereotype
Because of the recent proliferation of casinos on Indian lands, Americans are beginning to view Indians as rich, greedy, and corrupt. Like European Jews, Native Americans have developed particular financial industries because they have been denied control over land, and left with few other economic options. And like the myth of the "rich Jew," the myth of the "rich Indian" implies that all tribal members are swimming in money. The truth is that most tribes are heavily in debt, cutting budgets, and still being shaken down by state governments.
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