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Savage and Sexualized: Popular Stereotypes of American Indians

Stereotypes of American Indians appeared with the first European explorers and settlers to the New World.  Stories and films, from “The Last of the Mohicans” to “Peter Pan” and “Pochahontas”, portray many of these stereotypes which distort mainstream society’s views of American Indians both past and present.  Furthermore, at times these stereotypes have led to changes in indigenous culture and self-perception by limiting American Indians to fit the molds set upon them by popular media.  For example, Plains garb appears to dominate not only on the screen but at Powwows all across the nation.  And the squaw figure so popular in media depictions of Native women may have contributed in some way to the excessive amount of violence enacted upon them today.  The three major stereotypes are summarized below along with a brief look at how the growing indigenously-run media scene is working to break down these myths.

The most popular of the roles American Indians play in larger society’s literature and film is the Noble/Ignoble Savage.  Native American men are far more often depicted than women, and were simultaneously viewed as examples of the best and worst in human nature.  These figures symbolized both the return to the natural state of man before the exodus from Eden, the power and grace of a simplistic existence; along with representing savage violence and an obstacle to the colonists’ goal of partaking in the beauty and prosperity of the new world.  The Noble Savage is often more progressive than his fellow tribal members and serves as a symbol for the extinction of his people.  The Ignoble Savage is a violent figure that must be exterminated for the protection and furthering of civilization.  Such characters (along with their female counterparts the Indian Princess-Squaw) are also hyper-sexualized representations, often clad in very little no matter the culture of their people.

Another common role is that of the “Wise Elder” who might be depicted more specifically as a medicine man or shaman.  Clothed a bit more conservatively than the Noble Savage, the Wise Elder is generally mid-aged and depicted with a buffalo robe or wearing feathers in his hair.  Unlike the Warrior figure that fights against the destruction of his way of life, the Wise Elder accepts the domination by European settlers and early Americans.  He passes his knowledge along to someone from the conquering culture instead of his own people, symbolizing that a mingling of culture or lack of total destruction of American Indian culture is possible.  This figure has been largely thought of as appealing to the spiritual needs of the settlers who created these stories while also assuaging their guilt over the decimation of Native societies.

Finally, Native American women are placed in the Indian Princess-Squaw duality.  The Indian Princess is seen to be a pure and virginal figure that represents the land which settlers would come to possess.  This explains why the princess becomes attached to a non-Native man and must choose between her people or the prosperity and future of the conquering society.  She either becomes a demure and doting wife to her love interest, legitimizing his descendants place in the New World or falls from her pedestal into the role of a squaw.  Squaws are always nameless in stories and movies.  They are depicted as drudges and breeding machines who are available to any man.  This is in complete contrast to reality where traditionally, many tribes highly respected their women and gave them more authority and power than European cultures allowed.  While all of these roles limit and degrade the ethnic group they represent, the squaw is perhaps the most blatantly offensive.

A transnational indigenous movement has occurred in the last two decades and continues to grow.  The Maori of New Zealand and First Nations in Canada have made great strides in utilizing media technology to represent themselves and break the stereotypes placed upon them by others.   The Native peoples of the United States are gaining ground as well, though more slowly.  Films such as Smoke Signals reflect realistic views of contemporary American Indians.  From discussion of reservation life to the health issues and sovereignty battles occurring in response to colonialism, indigenous filmmakers, writers, and musicians are working to make larger society see the Native population as a group of people and not a part of American mythology from centuries past.

Further Reading:

Bird, S. Elizabeth. “Gendered Construction of the American Indian in Popular Media.”Journal of Communication 49.3 (1999): 61-83.

Edgerton, Gary. “‘A Breed Apart’: Hollywood, Racial Stereotyping, and the Promise of Revisionism in the Last of the Mohicans.”Journal of American Culture 17.2 (1994): 1-11.

Hoffman, Donald. “Whose Home on the Range? Finding Room for Native Americans, African Americans, and Latino Americans in the Revisionist Western.” MELUS 22.2 (1997): 45-59.

Huhndorf, Shari M. “Picture Revolution: Transnationalism, American Studies, and the Politics of Contemporary Native Culture.” American Quarterly 61.2 (2009): 359-381.

Ladino, Jennifer K. “A Limited Range of Motion?”: Multiculturalism, “Human Questions,” and Urban Indian Identity in Sherman Alexie’s Ten Little Indians.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 21.3 (2009): 36-57,110.

Mihelich, John. “Smoke or Signals? American Popular Culture and the Challenge to Hegemonic Images of American Indians in Native American Film.” Wicazo Sa Review 16.2 (2001): 129-137.

Mitchell, David T., and Melissa Hearn. “Colonial Savages and Heroic Tricksters: Native Americans in the American Tradition.”Journal of Popular Culture 32.4 (1999): 101-117.

Shanley, Kathryn W. “The Indians America Loves to Love and Read: American Indian Identity and Cultural Appropriation.”American Indian Quarterly 21.4 (1997): 675-702.


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