How We Know

Why do non-Indian Americans think about Indians the way they do, and what are the consequences? Scholars have explored these questions by analyzing the images of “Indianness” used by Americans. From colonial times forward, “Indian” figures or characters appeared in visual form–paintings, photographs, cartoons, home furniture and accessories, pageants and public shows, advertisements, film, and logos. Portrayals of “Indians” also occurred in songs, jokes, and games. Indian imagery has two themes: ignoble and noble qualities. Scholars argue that such imagery served and serves a purpose—to reconcile the contradiction between the ideals of national honor and the actual treatment of Indians in America. As this viewpoint gained wide acceptance in the 1970s, anthropologists, historians, and other scholars worked to expunge biases and incorporate Native perspectives into their work.

Americans’ ideas about Indians were shaped by their colonial history. Beginning with Columbus, Indians were represented as either “noble” (healthy, free, guileless, in harmony with nature, exotic, cooperative, and uncorrupted by “civilized” institutions such as government or religion) or “ignoble” (ferocious, warlike, wild, degraded). Europeans sent missionaries to convert and officials to negotiate for land purchase or trade with the “willing” noble savage. Any resistance to European terms by ignoble savages became “just cause” for military subjugation.

During the Revolutionary War and for generations after, Americans relied on Noble Savage imagery to help establish a national identity and to justify making treaties with Indians. Ignoble Savage imagery rationalized war and dispossession through violence.

Americans who protested against British rule commonly dressed as Noble “Indians,” who represented freedom and an ancient association with North America, rather than with Europe. Men’s organizations took on this Indian theme in subsequent years as an expression of American patriotism.

Treaties (from 1785 to the 1820s in the Midwest) were represented as “expansion with honor” because Indians ostensibly gave their consent to land cessions in return for assistance to survive as communities. Imagery of treaty councils portrayed Indians as willing subordinates.

On the other hand, frontiersmen opposed the treaty policy and trespassed and committed hostile acts in Indian country. Indians retaliated as they tried to defend their homeland, which led to war against Indians in the Midwest in 1790-95. Imagery of Indians as violent and bestial both reflected and reinforced frontier sentiments.

By the 1820s, the federal government began to promote a new solution to the problem of how to transfer Indian land to U. S. citizens, the “Removal Policy.” Officials vigorously pursued this effort to move Indians west of the Mississippi River during the 1830s and 1840s, effectively disregarding the treaties that had guaranteed land to Indians in their homeland. The “republicanism” of the Constitution (which gave control of the government to men who owned property) gave way to the new ideal of “democracy,” ostensibly based on majority rule, free enterprise, minimal government that benefited all alike, and individual opportunity. Without land ownership, social mobility was unlikely, so the proponents of democracy were settlers in the frontier region and other landless Americans, who supported Indian removal.

The national narrative was that Indians, regarded as inferior to White people, were doomed to extinction. Removal treaties, that provided land and assistance to help Native people survive elsewhere, would be their only salvation. The federal government would offer Indians (declared “wards” of the government by the Supreme Court) protection and assistance. Indian imagery both reflected these views and promoted them. “Noble” Indians were portrayed as doomed or pitiful, not capable of being part of American society. Indians who resisted removal were portrayed as obstacles to progress in the ignoble savage tradition, which rationalized war against them.

After the removal of most of the Native peoples in the Midwest area (and the military defeat of tribes west of the Mississippi River), the federal government devoted more resources to the “civilization” program and ended treaty-making with tribes. Those tribes on reservations saw their land divided into individually-owned plots and the remainder sold. Federal agents on the reservations had the power to deny their wards freedom of religion, parental rights, and self-government, and they controlled tribal and individuals’ property. Non-Indians were able to obtain Indian land and resources (such as timber) very cheaply, because the prevailing policy was that non-Indians would make better use of them. The rationale for this kind of treatment was that Indians would benefit from civilization. When, instead, poverty and graft resulted from reservation life, Indians were blamed as deficient.

The Noble Indian imagery, in which Indians were associated with a past Golden Age, remained popular in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Americans were nostalgic about Indians in the past. They could draw on this imagery to sell products and develop tourism. Indian imagery also was used to create personal or group identities (for example, as Boy Scouts, countercultural activists, or sports fans). By their preoccupation with Indians of the past, Americans could ignore the circumstances of contemporary Indian life.

HOW DID AMERICANS REPRESENT “NOBLE” INDIANS IN THE GREAT LAKES REGION AND WHY WAS THIS IMAGERY POPULAR?

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The image of the ignoble Indian survived into the 20th century, as well. In contrast to Indians in the past, Indian contemporaries were no longer “noble” but, rather, degraded (lazy, corrupted, even “fake”), particularly when they challenged the status quo.

What scholars argue is that Indians have been and are treated as alien to American society, on the one hand, and a necessary part of national identity, on the other. Indian imagery, as used by Americans works to reconcile the tension between American ideals and the harsh reality of Indians’ treatment.

LISTEN TO HISTORIAN DAVE EDMUNDS EXPLAIN HOW IMAGERY ASSOCIATED WITH TECUMSEH CHANGED OVER TIME TO ACCOMMODATE AMERICAN INTERESTS. Help

11:32 mi.

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Academic publications, as well as textbooks and films, have promoted this Noble/Ignoble Indian imagery. In recent years, scholars have recognized the distortions inherent in this kind of Indian imagery and committed to acknowledging or incorporating Native interpretations, viewpoints, and explanations into their work. In this spirit, Native American studies programs have been established at major universities in the Midwest region.

LISTEN TO ETHNOHISTORIAN RAY DEMALLIE EXPLAIN HOW THE WRITINGS OF CHARLES EASTMAN HELPED HIM GAIN A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF DAKOTA CULTURE AND HISTORY. Help

8:19 mi.

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Museum professionals also have committed to acknowledging the importance of Native participation.

LISTEN TO ANTHROPOLOGIST NANCY LURIE EXPLAIN HOW THE MILWAUKEE INDIAN COMMUNITY TOOK A MAJOR ROLE IN PLANNING A NEW EXHIBIT AREA AT THE MILWAUKEE PUBLIC MUSEUM. Help

9:49 mi.

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The powwow exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum not only was planned by local Indian people, but they also posed for the facial casts of the dancers and made the dance outfits.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO HEAR MORE ABOUT THE POWWOW EXHIBIT? Help

5:58 mi.

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Do you want to do your own research on Indian Imagery?

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