Native Americans: Images in Popular Culture

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Starting with the earliest contact between Europeans and American Indians, Europeans viewed native people through cultural blinders that often confused them about the realities of Native American life. Images of other peoples and places can play a dominant role in affecting how two (or more) societies interact, and decisions made on the basis of ethnocentric imagery usually lead to confusion, misunderstanding, and war between peoples. European views of Indians in early America rarely reflected the nuanced reality of life for native populations. Indigenous peoples came to symbolize many things for Europeans, depending on the background and motivations of the person discussing them, although popular conceptions of Indians followed a particular historical progression as Euro-American people experienced more contact with Indians. Indians were often portrayed in a negative light, although by the time of the American Revolution, if not before, some Europeans living in North America also began borrowing elements of what they considered Indian culture. For many Euro-Americans, Indians also came to symbolize America as a land different from Europe and the Euro-American populace sometimes portrayed themselves with Indian symbols to distinguish themselves from Europeans.

initial conceptions

The English adopted the term Indian from the Spanish to generically describe the native inhabitants of North America, even though Indian people almost never used such a collective term, instead preferring the actual tribal or community designation of an individual. The manner in which Indians identified other Indians emphasized their uniqueness, whereas Europeans tended to lump all Indians together when portraying their cultural values. Thus, from the beginning of contact, Euro-Americans in positions of cultural influence as writers, publishers, military officials, or politicians relied on generalizations about how Indians lived, why they acted the way they did, and what concerned them. Europeans usually described Indians in ways that differentiated Indians as the Other—as something not European, not "civilized."


General English conceptions of Indians in early America fell into two categories: ignoble savages and noble savages. Both notions portrayed Indians as primitive in comparison to Europeans, but the ignoble savage view focused on perceived negative characteristics of Indian culture and the noble savage perspective saw much to admire, if not necessarily to emulate, in Indian cultures. Whether ignoble or noble, Indians in European eyes remained primitive and exotic, worthy of either scorn or pity but not equality. The ignoble Indian was always lacking something that European civilization took for granted, such as permanent housing, proper clothing, political institutions, religion (meaning Christianity), a written language (or indeed any language at all worthy of the name), correct morals, agriculture, livestock, and appropriate gender roles. The character of such Indians was described as warlike, lewd, barbarous, cannibalistic, filthy, lazy, and so on. Descriptions of Indians as ignoble beastlike devils can be found among the earliest reports emanating from the colonies and from Europe, but they reached their most influential distribution in captivity narratives.

captivity narratives

No literary genre in early America did more to shape the average Euro-American's perceptions of Indians than the captivity narratives. Particularly popular among the literate population of Puritan New England, captivity narratives first appeared in the late seventeenth century as a result of numerous actual captive-taking episodes arising from the wars between France and England, such as King William's War (1689–1697) and Queen Anne's War (1702–1713). The narratives told of devilish Indians preying like packs of wolves on innocent English families who lived on the edges of Euro-American settlement in western and northern New England. God and Satan, Puritan and Indian, battled for lives and souls as Indians allied with the Catholic French in Canada killed Puritan men and seized Puritan women and children. Puritan ministers used the narratives to preach about God's wrath on sinful people (in the form of Indian attacks) and to point out the power of redemption when some captives returned to English territory after months or years of captivity, usually after being ransomed.

Women captives who returned remained suspect if they did not wholeheartedly renounce their experience and their captors as heathenish. Witness the long title of one of the most famous and earliest captivity narratives: The Soveraignty and Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed: Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson; Commended by Her, to All that Desire to Know the Lord's Doing to, and Dealings with Her (1682). Indian warriors, so the narratives said, wanted nothing more than to rape chaste English women, and only the most devout Puritan woman could resist their charms and coercion. In reality, warriors never engaged in sex on a war party because of the ritualized strictures associated with war and because they wanted to avoid the possibility of incest since their captives might be adopted into their own family. Indians did seek to convert their captives to their way of life, and hundreds of English children and young women remained the rest of their lives among their new Indian families.

In the eighteenth century, the captivity narratives abandoned all pretense of impartiality and became the gothic novels of their day, with a hint of forbidden love thrown in for good measure. This genre of literature, and its negative stereotyping of Indians, especially of Indian men, continued in the nineteenth-century dime novel and the twentieth-century Hollywood Westerns.

the "noble" indian

Some Europeans found much to admire in the perceived primitiveness of Indians and thought of them as noble savages. This characterization emphasized their assumed honesty, hospitality, generosity, handsome physical stature, stamina, dignity, pride, simplicity, and innocence; in short, it portrayed them as children of nature, much like Adam and Eve of the Old Testament. Frequently coupled with this view was a belief that Indians were a vanishing race. The ultimate example of these portrayals is James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans (1826), but the notion was already popular by the mid-eighteenth century. Here Indian resistance and tenacity—their ability to hold onto a traditional lifestyle until death—was honored despite its inherent naiveté. It was this conception of Indians that motivated the Bostonians who threw British tea into the harbor during the Boston Tea Party (1773) to dress as Indians. Disguise mattered little—everyone knew who they were. Distinguishing themselves as something quintessentially American, in opposition to the European British, meant everything.

impacts of images on indian-white relations

The impact of these images can be hard to assess in specific actions by European or American governments and citizens, but their overall impacts are clear. As a tool of imperial expansion, these images justified the takeover of Indian lands, with force if necessary. Since Indians supposedly did not farm and did not live in permanent homes, they did not make proper use of the land and therefore forfeited their right to continue to possess it. Euro-Americans promoting this image focused on Indian men who hunted to contribute to their family's subsistence and ignored Indian women who raised crops among most groups east of the Mississippi River, although agriculture (corn, squash, beans, sunflowers, and

so on) supplied a major portion of Indian diets. Women's efforts mattered little to the Euro-American male image-makers, so if Indian men did not farm, then Indians did not farm. If Indian men hunted and roamed about the countryside, then Indians were nomadic, and nomadic people could not rightly claim particular patches of land. Warlike, bloodthirsty Indians could not change their ways or live in peace near Europeans, so the imagery said, and therefore they needed to be removed or exterminated. As non-Christians (although significant numbers of Indians became at least nominally Christian by the eighteenth century), Indians could not expect to enjoy the same rights as Europeans. As a vanishing race, Indians stood in the way of progress if they resisted white expansion. They might need special attention and care from their white "fathers," but only under Euro-American laws and according to Euro-American priorities. Such images played on Euro-Americans' fears and distorted reality while simultaneously justifying ill treatment of Indians.

The pervasiveness of this imagery did not allow for the possibility of Euro-Americans accepting Indians according to Indian values or from Indian perspectives. Comparison was always made to an idealized notion of Euro-American life, and Indians always came up lacking. Intolerance of difference has characterized all periods of American history in one manner or another, Indians bore an inordinately large share of the consequences of those beliefs. American society and culture have been shaped by these images of Indians, resulting in wars of removal and extermination, well-meaning paternalism to "civilize" Native Americans, and the perpetuation of stereotypes.


Berkhofer, Robert F., Jr. The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present. New York: Random House, 1979.

Calloway, Colin G. New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Deloria, Philip J. Playing Indian. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.

Drinnon, Richard. Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building. New York: Schocken, 1980.

Green, Rayna. "The Pocahontas Perplex: The Image of Indian Women in American Culture." In Native American Voices: A Reader, edited by Steve Talbot. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.

Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Lepore, Jill. The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity. New York: Knopf, 1998.

Scheckel, Susan. The Insistence of the Indian: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century American Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Greg O'Brien

See also:Cooper, James Fenimore; Indian Removal and Response.

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Native Americans: Images in Popular Culture

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Native Americans: Images in Popular Culture