“Playing Indian,” the performance of American Indian identities by non-Indians, has likely been going on since the first contact between people of European descent and indigenous people of North America. It encompasses a wide variety of practices and behaviors, including Halloween costumes, elementary school Thanksgiving pageants, athletic team mascots, the Boston Tea Party, ethnography, and New Age spiritualism. When people play Indian, they put into motion their assumptions about what constitutes “Indianness.” They enact racial tropes or stereotypes of Indianness. Although the most common usage of the term “playing Indian” is in reference to white performance of Indianness, even indigenous Americans can be said to play Indian by acting out non-Indian assumptions, stereotypes, and fantasies of Indianness.
Playing Indian reduces Indianness to a set of racial stereotypes at the expense of a dynamic political and cultural identity derived from the unique powers of tribal sovereignty. Despite this objectionable promotion of racial caricatures and stereotypes, playing Indian is arguably the most widespread form of racial mimicry in the world. People the world over immediately recognize a small set of powerful images—feathered headdresses, breach cloth, beaded moccasins, or bows and arrows— as standing for Indianness. Decontextualized from their origins in the Native communities of the North American plains, these symbols metonymically stand in for American Indians as a whole. These are also the key components of the most familiar form of playing Indian: dressing up. School and professional sports team mascots and all the “team spirit” rituals that accompany them— cheers, music, and live action performers—mobilize notions of Indianness to evoke strength and courage, qualities associated with the noble savage, or ruthlessness, a quality associated with the barbaric savage. In so doing, they reinforce the common racial stereotypes of Native savagery and continually reenact essentialized assumptions about Indians.
Playing Indian has been used as a strategy to gain and maintain Euro-American social and political power. Two of the most significant scholarly works on playing Indian—Philip J. Deloria’s Playing Indian (1998) and Shari M. Huhndorf’s Going Native (2001)— have found that playing Indian revolves around two sociopolitical tensions in American life: the need to prove the legitimacy of American nationhood and recurring anxieties over the meaning of modernity and its impact on American culture. Perhaps one of the most famous American historic examples of playing Indian is the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Protesting British colonial trade and taxation policies, American patriots dressed as Mohawk Indians stormed a ship in Boston Harbor and threw its cargo of tea overboard. In other instances, Revolutionary-era Americans protested British rule by taking on Indian personas through their own fabricated versions of Indian clothing, chants, and even names. Doing so dramatized white American colonists’ claims that they—not the British—were the rightful governors of the land. During the early national era agrarian protesters played staking claims to rural land against landlords and state governments. For example, in the Whiskey Rebellion of the early 1790s rural farmers called on the same traditions of playing Indian used against the British to rally against the incipient federal government’s newly exerted taxation, rent, and land distribution policies.
Decades later white fraternal organizations based around the performance of Indianness, such as Tammany Societies, flourished across New England. Members took “Indian” names, wore face paint and Indian clothes, performed rituals and held public parades and ceremonies to honor a purported Delaware Indian leader (named Tamenend) as a patron saint of America. After the War of 1812, Tammany Societies began to be replaced by organizations like the Improved Order of Red Men that sprouted up throughout the Eastern seaboard. These Indian-themed versions of Masonic organizations allowed the growing middle class to act out elaborate rituals of playing Indian. Red Men organizations claimed to harbor secret knowledge of supposed Native rituals and were structured around hierarchies of Indian-titled leadership. The influence of these Indian-themed fraternal organizations continued late into the antebellum years. The historian and proto-ethnographer Lewis Henry Morgan and the poet Henry Rowe Schoolcraft researched Native American customs and lore in an attempt to recreate and reenact this knowledge for each other in full “traditional” regalia at monthly campfire meetings in New York forests. Morgan’s New Confederacy of the Iroquois allowed ante-bellum American cultural arbiters such as historians, writers, poets, and artists to play Indian as a way of forging a national-cultural identity. All of these forms of playing Indian provided white American men with esoteric connections to Native culture and the concept of aboriginality on which they could stake political claims to super-patriotism and position themselves as the legitimate and natural inheritors of Native American customs, traditions, and, most importantly, land.
Playing Indian resurfaced at the end of the nineteenth century and persisted into the twentieth. Americans were growing anxious about sociocultural changes brought about by modernity, including social alienation, urbanization, and the putative “closing” of the Western frontier. Thus “getting back to nature” by playing Indian functioned as a kind of remedy for the social decay of the urban center and the loss of clear notions of masculinity. Boy Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, and a host of Indian-themed summer camps provided opportunities for upper- and middle-class youth to purify themselves and build their moral character through enacting supposed Indianness. These years also saw significant growth in the field of American anthropology as ethnographers “went Native” through living in Native communities as participant-observers. This ethno-graphic form of playing Indian was popularized through ethnographic texts, exhibits, photography, and cinema seen in museums and at World’s Fairs and through the works of Frank Hamilton Cushing, Edward Curtis, and Robert Flaherty. These recreational and ethnographic enactments of Indianness coincided with and were connected to the rise of the popular notion of Indians as a “vanishing race” doomed to extinction by modernity.
After World War II playing Indian became less about reenacting a disappearing racial identity and more about individual efforts to recover a sense of authenticity. This kind of playing Indian is exemplified by hobbyists, white Americans who participate alongside Native performers in powwows and who are highly devoted to detail-oriented performances of Indianness. Hobbyists spend a great deal of time and energy on creating their dance regalia to produce an authentic performance that aims to be indistinguishable from Native powwow dancers. This quest for personal distinction can be interpreted as a response to the conformist, consumer culture of postwar America. Indianness provided an authenticity and individuality lacking in the sameness of postwar, mass-culture America.
Adherents of the counterculture and New Age spiritualism movements of the 1960s through the present have followed in the footsteps of hobbyists and antimodernists of the early twentieth century. Although perhaps not with as much attention to detail, they have appropriated Native culture and tradition to critique the purported greed, pollution, and spiritual vapidity of modern America. Though often involving dress and paraphernalia, this kind of playing Indian has been more concerned with channeling a supposed Native ethos that was proverbially at one with nature and that placed communal welfare over individual wealth. Many indigenous communities do hold such values, but counterculturalists and New Agers disregard specific tribal histories and traditions and instead combine a hodge-podge of tribal customs. New Agers often make vague claims to Indian ancestry or suggest that all cultures ought to be open to anyone desiring to learn about and practice them. Many American Indians have strenuously rejected New Agers’ Indian play as a form of cultural appropriation or ethnic fraud. For them, non-Indians’ financial profiteering from playing Indian through spiritual and self-help literature and seminars is especially objectionable.
Playing Indian inflicts damage on Native peoples because it reduces Indianness to a set of racialized tropes and stereotypes. This affects the way Native people, especially children, see themselves. This act of racial formation also overrides the self-determining cultural and political identities of tribal communities, the foundations of tribal sovereignty. The strongest argument for and substantiation of American Indian self-determination and land rights is not based on a collective racial identity, fabricated by phenomena such as playing Indian, but the historical fact of inherent sovereignty and self-governance that Indian communities possessed long before colonization of the Americas.
Berkhofer, Robert F., Jr. 1978. The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present. New York: Knopf.
Dilworth, Leah. 1996. Imagining Indians in the Southwest:Persistent Visions of a Primitive Past. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Huhndorf, Shari M. 2001. Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
King, Thomas. 2004. “Let Me Entertain You.” In The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, 61–90. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Mechling, Jay. 1980. “‘Playing Indian’ and the Search for Authenticity in Modern White America.” In Prospects, Vol. 5, edited by Jack Salzman, 17–34. New York: Burt Franklin.
Powers, William K. 1988. “The Indian Hobbyist Movement in North America.” In Handbook on North American Indians, Vol. 4: History of Indian-White Relations, edited by Wilcomb Washburn, 557–561. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Taylor, Alan. 1990. Liberty, Men, and Great Proprietors: The Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier, 1760–1820. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture.