Numerous tribes of Indian people populated the Americas for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. As Jack Weatherford writes in his book, Indian Givers, these peoples created great architectural monuments, made intelligent use of natural resources, created new plant species through selective breeding, made great discoveries in mathematical and astronomical knowledge, and reshaped the physical landscape. But as impressive as the achievements of Indian peoples have been, the image of "the Indian"—in literature, in the visual arts, in advertising, in entertainment, and elsewhere—has cast a far longer shadow upon the consciousness of the Euro-American society than the living individuals themselves. This has been true since the earliest days of European contact.
One of the earliest outlets for disseminating the image of "the Indian" was the outpouring of "Indian captivity narratives," which began in the early eighteenth century. These popular writings recorded hair-raising tales—both true and fictional—of settlers captured by Indians. Bearing titles such as The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion (1707) by Massachusetts minister John Williams, they followed a rather predictable formula. In it, a white hero or heroine was abducted, underwent sufferings and even torture, was initiated into Indian society, but was finally and miraculously delivered once again to his or her own people, through the grace of God. The Indian which emerged out of these narratives was typically a savage beast : primitive, sadistic, cunning, filthy, villainous, and altogether terrifying. Especially in the Puritan era, he was often shown as a direct tool of Satan, and he shrank not even from such vile acts as human mutilation, dismemberment, and cannibalism.
The captivity narratives were more than just a well-loved form of American entertainment, although they were certainly that: virtually no first edition copies of captivity narratives exist today because people actually read them until the pages disintegrated. But besides diverting their audience, the captivity narratives also instructed. Their wide circulation made them a very influential source of information about Indians in both America and Europe, and one which allowed the Puritans to think through their place and mission in the "New World." In them, America became the new, biblical "Promised Land" to be given over to them, the children of God, after the occupying hordes of pagans, the children of Satan, had been driven out.
It is hardly the case, however, that all the images of the Indian in America have been negative. To stand alongside the "bad Indian" of the captivity narratives, Americans also invented a "good Indian" or "noble savage." The good Indian was handsome, strong, gentle, kind, brave, intelligent, and unfettered by the artificiality and various corruptions of "civilized" life. One powerful version of the "good Indian" appeared in the early nineteenth century. This was the image of the Indian as wise healer. By this time, Euro-Americans had discovered that American Indians had a sophisticated knowledge of a great many medical procedures and preparations (including bone setting, febrifuges, and painkillers). Whereas the "bad Indian" had been ideologically useful to the dominant society, the Indian healer turned out to be commercially useful. White purveyors of patent medicine began capitalizing on widespread respect for Indian medical knowledge by associating their products with Indians, and traveling medicine shows such as the Kiowa Indian Medicine and Vaudeville Company often featured Indian performers. Unfortunately, however, the main ingredients in patent medicines commonly consisted of alcohol, cocaine, or opium, rather than any of the more useful therapeutic substances known to Indian physicians. The increasing sensationalization of medicine shows, along with the professionalization and increasing social power of white physicians, eventually caused "Indian medicine" to fall into disrepute.
Nevertheless, "the Indian" did not disappear from public consciousness with the eclipse of the "healer" image. In 1883, William F. ("Buffalo Bill") Cody introduced a new kind of traveling entertainment, the wild West show, which also featured Indian performers. Here, however, these performers appeared as ferocious warriors. In staged battles, they assaulted wagon trains, fired off volleys of arrows, and displayed impressive equestrian skills. Many Indian people—including even the great Sioux chief Sitting Bull—acted in these shows. The same warrior image had been featured in the cheap paperbacks of the mid-nineteenth century known as "dime novels," and it was eventually transferred with little alteration into Western movies, the first and most famous of which was The Great Train Robbery. Like the captivity narratives which were their literary forebears, the Western movies frequently thematized the savage horrors which awaited whites who fell into Indian hands. "Save the last bullet for yourself" was Hollywood's oft-repeated advice to anyone fending off an Indian attack.
The Western shows, books, and movies defined the war-bonneted Plains tribesman as the prototypical or "real" Indian. This image has remained the standard against which Indian-ness was commonly measured even into the closing years of the twentieth century. Yet those years have also introduced some new roles for this standardized Indian to play. One of the more important is the role of the gentle ecologist. American boys' and girls' clubs such as the Scouts, Woodcraft Indians, and Campfire Girls played a significant role in the dissemination of this, another "good Indian" image, ever since the early years of the twentieth century. The clubs packed young people off to summer camps with Indian-sounding names where they were to enjoy outdoor sports and natural living after the supposed fashion of native peoples, who were imagined as innocent children of nature with a deep knowledge of its secrets. American youths progressed within the hierarchy of the clubs by acquiring knowledge of such things as woodsmanship, nature lore, and the production of rustically imagined Indian crafts such as "buckskin" clothing and birchbark models.
Commercial advertising has also made free use of the ecologist image, and its best-known representative was the late Iron Eyes Cody, an actor who starred in an educational campaign for the nonprofit organization, Keep America Beautiful, in the 1970s. The television advertisement in which Cody rode a horse down a beach polluted with garbage, silently surveyed the desecration of the land, and finally allowed a single tear to slip down his weathered cheek, burned itself into the minds of an entire generation of Americans. The advertisement is interesting for at least two reasons. For one thing, it reveals a great deal about how Americans conceptualize "the Indian." Its remarkable symbolic efficacy both depends upon and illustrates some of the most powerful modern racial stereotypes: that Indians are typically stoic and unemotional (what depth of suffering can move an Indian to tears!) and that they are bound to the natural world in a romanticized and inexpressible union. For another thing, although Iron Eyes Cody is still one of the most recognized "Indian" figures in America, he was not of Indian ancestry. Rather, he was the son of two Italian immigrants. In this, Cody is a typical Hollywood figure. Whereas many of the performers in the early wild West shows were, in fact, Indians, many of the best known actors who later played them in films and on television have not been.
If Americans in the 1970s used the imagery of the Indian to address developing ecological values and concerns, they had other uses for it as well. This was a period in which the hopefulness with which the post-World War II generation had once viewed science and technology had begun to fade, and in which Americans had become increasingly discontented with the visions for human fulfillment which these held out. People expressed a renewed interest in spirituality, but many of them found the faiths of their parents unsatisfying. They turned, accordingly, to non-Western traditions, including those of American Indians. Out of this burgeoning spiritual discontent was born the image of the mystical ceremonialist. Americans were widely introduced to this impressive personage by anthropologist Carlos Castaneda. In his long series of fictionalized books, starting with Journey to Ixtlan (once considered to be accurate ethnography), Castaneda relates the story of his supposed tutelage by "Don Juan," a Yaqui brujo, or possessor of traditional Indian sacred knowledge. The articulation of Castaneda's immensely popular works with the counterculture's interest in the use of mind-altering drugs to expand ordinary consciousness is evident; he describes in detail the many revelatory experiences that he had while under the influence of peyote (a substance officially classified in the United States as a hallucinogenic drug, but which some tribal peoples use, under carefully controlled ceremonial conditions, as a sacrament).
The mystical ceremonialist did not disappear when other preoccupations of the counterculture fell by the wayside. Instead, he was reinvented in the 1980s and 1990s by adherents of that loose association of movements collected together under the rubric of "New Age" spirituality. The "New Age" includes religious believers who may call themselves Wiccans, goddess worshippers, Druids, eco-feminists, and many other names. Its followers have replaced their predecessors' preoccupation with drugs with an equally intense interest in a variety of esoteric subjects such as reincarnation, crystals, alternative healing, astral projection, extra-sensory perception, and the like. Accompanying all these various fascinations is a frequent attraction to (more or less accurately reproduced) versions of traditional, American Indian ceremonial practices. The New Age faithful ravenously consume "how-to" manuals penned by Indian "shamans" (often self-proclaimed and fraudulent), who purport to reveal everything from the sacred beliefs and rituals of Indian medicine people to their secret sexual practices. Inquirers also crowd seminars, workshops, and "spiritual retreats" claiming to offer the experience of Indian rituals and they flock to reservations and sacred sites to participate in Indian ceremonies. Some non-Indians have associated themselves so closely with this recent image of the mystical Indian as to assert that they were "Indian in a past life," even though they currently exist in a non-Indian body.
The upsurge of interest in Indian sacred rituals created by the image of the mystical Indian has created a great deal of tension in Indian communities. As Cherokee scholar Andy Smith writes in her ironic essay, "For All Those Who Were Indian in a Former Life," "nowadays anyone can be Indian if he or she wants to. All that is required is that one be Indian in a former life, or take part in a sweat lodge, or be mentored by a 'medicine woman,' or read a how-to book…. This furthers the goals of white supremacists to abrogate treaty rights and take away what little we [Indians] have left. When everyone becomes an 'Indian,' then it is easy to lose sight of the specificity of oppression faced by those who are Indian in this life."
Of all the many images of Indians which have remained with Americans into the last years of the twentieth century, perhaps the most vulgarly stereotyped appears in the sports mascot. Professional and college teams include the Kansas City Chiefs, the Atlanta Braves, and the Florida State Seminoles. Innumerable high schools similarly name themselves the "Indians," "Injuns," and "Savages." Indian mascots range from the Cleveland Indians' clownishly grinning "Chief Wahoo" to the Washington Redskins' dignified silhouette of a warrior. Fans for all these teams frequently sport feathers and "war paint" at games, give "war whoops," beat "tom-toms" and perform the "tomahawk chop," a slicing gesture intended to encourage the players to "scalp" the other team.
Non-Indian (and some Indian) commentators contend that sports mascots are intended to honor American Indians and their historic record of bravery in battle. However, many others, including representatives of the American Indian Movement and the American Indian Education Commission, have protested. They complain that the use of Indian names and imagery suggests a blind spot where this specific racial group is concerned. Brian Barnard, in "Would You Cheer for the Denver Darkies?," wonders if anyone would fail to see the offensive implications of a team which "honored" African Americans by christening itself as the title of his piece suggests. And what if the same team sponsored half-time shows featuring mascots in blackface and Afro wigs, who danced around grunting their own version of supposed African chants?
Some Indian leaders have brought lawsuits against particular sports teams, alleging racial discrimination or human rights violations. So far, these suits have not succeeded, but protests against mascots have made some headway. For instance, in 1994, the University of Iowa announced that it would no longer play non-conference athletic events against teams which employed Indian names or symbols. Several universities have banned from their campuses the buffoonish Chief Illiniwek, a white University of Illinois student dressed as an Indian, who performs at half-time. And some newspapers (including the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Portland Oregonian) have decided not to print the names of specific teams with Indian names or mascots. Instead, they simply refer to "the Washington team," "the Atlanta team," and so on. Teams themselves have sometimes opened discussions on the question of whether they should change their names or their mascots, but the suggestions are frequently met with angry resistance from fans. Avis Little Eagle reports in a 1994 Indian Country Today article, that students at the University of Illinois recently responded to such a proposal with the slogan, "save the chief, kill the Indian people."
American popular culture has played host to a diversity of images of "the Indian" over a period of several hundred years. Through all the changes, however, certain things have remained fairly constant. One is the tendency of the Indian to function as a magnifying mirror of Euro-American values and concerns. Non-Indians have persistently made and remade their ideas about Indians to serve the social goals of every historic period. Indians have functioned sometimes as a vehicle for social criticism, as in the ecology movement's exploitation of associations between Indians and nature which reproved American irresponsibility toward the land. They have served, at other times, as a foil against which non-Indians have displayed all that is right with America and the European settlement thereof. This is nowhere more evident than in the wild west shows which boldly dramatized the juggernaut of conquest: the inevitable and laudable progress of "civilization" over all that was savage, primitive, untamed.
A second constant in popular imagery of Indians is the assumption that their cultures and peoples are "vanishing"—that they have died out, or will soon do so. James Fenimore Cooper's much-loved, nineteenth-century novel, The Last of the Mohicans, and a great many romanticized, popular artworks of a related theme, depend for their poignant appeal upon this motif. See, for instance, Frederick Remington's easily recognized bronze, "The End of the Trail," which Remington described as depicting the hapless, homeless, and helpless Indian, discovering himself driven to the final, Western rim of the American continent by European expansion. A corollary of the vanishing Indian theme is the belief that there are no more "real" Indians: that those who may claim an Indian identity today have lost the culture which once distinguished them from other Americans, and their racial "authenticity" along with it.
Finally, throughout American popular culture runs a constant and pronounced fascination with the idea that non-Indians can "become" Indians. The fantasy is tirelessly replayed all the way from the earliest captivity narratives through modern movies (including such blockbusters as Little Big Man and the more recent Dances with Wolves), which frequently feature protagonists who somehow traverse the great racial divide between red and white. The New Age sensibility, which allows the overburdened, modern executive briefly to exchange his or her Fortune 500 responsibilities for a weekend spent "crying for a vision" (with the able assistance of a shaman-for-hire), is a final (and often extremely capital-intensive) culmination of this journey of the non-Indian imagination.
Clearly, the use of "the Indian" in popular culture betrays complex psychological dynamics which have manifested themselves on a national scale. No doubt the ability of "the Indian" to serve as a projection screen against which the dominant society has played out both its greatest aspirations and anxieties—whatever those implied at the moment—derives in large part from the essential emptiness of the image. As Robert Berkhofer suggested in his book, The White Man's Indian, at no time has the Indian in popular culture ever been developed into an actual person. Instead, he is invariably bereft of complexity, motive, personality, or other individualizing features. The result is an infinite possibility, a metaphor which can be employed to give substance to the most starkly diverse ideas. Because "the Indian" is simply a container to be filled with the purposes of the speaker, he can be used interchangeably as, for instance, the symbol of savagery and as the symbol of primal innocence.
The persistent themes of the vanishing Indian and of the non-Indian who becomes an Indian are a bit harder to explain than America's ability to use "the Indian" as a vehicle for exploring and communicating an enormous range of its own concerns and interests. Jack Forbes addresses this problem in his essay, "The Manipulation of Race, Caste, and Identity: Classifying AfroAmericans, Native Americans and Red-Black People." He suggests that the aforementioned themes originate in Americans' persisting knowledge of themselves as aliens in a "New World" wrested from its first inhabitants only through unspeakable violence. From the beginning of the European occupation of America, he writes, Indians "had to vanish because they were a threat or an impediment to the colonial settlers. That is, the colonial settlers could not truly become 'native' until the real natives were gone…. " Moreover, Forbes continues, "[t]his is the most compelling reason why 'Indians' must still vanish. Their continued existence as a separate population is a constant reminder of the foreignness" of American immigrants. This theory addresses not only the enduring American fascination with the vanishing Indian, but also with the idea of "becoming" Indian. Changing one's racial identification is a way to complete the symbolic journey from conqueror to conquered and to achieve vindication for the national sins of the past.
Nevertheless, with Indian people as with humorist Mark Twain, "reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated." The last decades of the twentieth century have seen many important contributions to popular culture which speak in the voice of individuals who have most certainly not "vanished." These works honestly express and address the concerns and values common to Indian people themselves, rather than those of the larger society, and they have no need to explore the notion of "becoming Indian" because their authors have been Indian all along. Into this category, one might place, for instance, novels such as M. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn, a familial and tribal recollection of Kiowa migration, Louise Erdrich's Tracks, the story of an Ojibwe family struggling to retain its tribal allotment, and Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, a poetic and profound excursion into the tormented world of a Vietnam veteran who returns to his childhood home in Laguna Pueblo. That these sophisticated works, with their carefully-elaborated themes and characters, have proven popular with audiences of both Indians and non-Indians suggests that America at the dawn of the twenty-first century may be ready to encounter Indian people in their individual and tribal particularity and real-life complexity. It has taken 500 years, but perhaps America is finally becoming willing to think about Indian people as more than a series of interchangeable representatives of the generic category of "the Indian."
—Eva Marie Garroutte
Barnard, Brian. "Would You Cheer for the Denver Darkies?" Indian Country Today. August 17, 1994, A5.
Berkhofer, Robert, Jr. The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present. New York, Vintage, 1979.
Castaneda, Carlos. Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan. Simon and Schuster, 1972.
Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998.
Derounian-Stodola, Kathryn. The Indian Captivity Narrative, 1550-1900. New York, Twayne, 1993.
Forbes, Jack D. "The Manipulation of Race, Caste, and Identity: Classifying AfroAmericans, Native Americans and Red-Black People." Journal of Ethnic Studies. Vol. 17, No. 4, 1990, 1-51.
Little Eagle, Avis. "University of Illinois Staff, Students Say Chief Illiniwek Violates Civil Rights." Indian Country Today. April 13, 1994, A1.
Smith, Andy. "For All Those Who Were Indian in a Former Life." Ms. November/December 1991, 44-45.
Van Der Beets, Richard. "The Indian Captivity Narrative as Ritual." American Literature. Vol. 43, 1972, 548-62.
Weatherford, Jack. Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World. New York, Ballantine, 1988.