Stereotypes

For centuries, Americans have regarded Native Americans as the “Other,” that is, fundamentally different from themselves. Majority Americans have viewed the Other (“Indians”) as lacking something, either in a good way or a bad way. Such a characterization of Indians is a stereotype. It does not represent the reality of Native American cultures and histories. It lumps together and defines Indians as somehow deficient. Stereotypes about Indians are represented in the imagery Americans have used to portray them and, in this imagery, there are two contradictory conceptions of Indians—favorable and unfavorable—that reflect the use to which the image is put.

Negative Portrayals

The most prevalent negative images of Midwest Indians in the 18th and 19th centuries showed them killing and/or capturing White people, especially women. Captivity images (often accompanying novels or “captivity narratives”) showed brutish Indian males overpowering terrified White women who, it was implied, would experience unspeakable horrors. This message was a one-sided one, that is, the brutality of war was ascribed to Indians alone. In reality, non-Indians killed many defenseless Indian women and children, took captives (whom they often killed), and tortured Indians; however, these scenes were not popular subjects for artists.

WHAT MESSAGES DO CAPTIVITY IMAGES CONVEY?

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Native people were fighting for their homelands, farms, and rights to territory they needed in order to make a living for their families. Usually, these regions had been guaranteed them by the federal government in treaties, but many Americans violated the law and trespassed, often attacking Indians in the process, as happened in the Ohio Valley. When Indians tried to defend themselves, they were attacked by troops. According to United States policy, land cessions had to be agreed to by Indians. In 1812 Tecumseh’s resistance movement was about the refusal of a component of the Indian groups in the region to be coerced into leaving their homes, fields, and hunting territories. This also was the case with Black Hawk, whose followers fought to remain in their villages, which they had not agreed to leave. The Sioux Conflict was a rebellion against fraud committed by Americans who seized Dakota land and assets without regard for the promises made during treaty negotiations. The Indian point of view on these matters largely escaped serious consideration by the general public.

By the late 19th century, Indians had been largely removed from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and southern Michigan. Some were on reservations in northern Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, where they were entitled by treaty to economic assistance. Reservation Indians were portrayed in popular art as depraved—lazy, incompetent, and immoral. In reality, Native people worked for American businesses and settlers in various capacities for very low wages—which enabled Americans to settle the region. Indians worked hard to supplement low wages by hunting, fishing, and gardening at the same time that the states tried to restrict these pursuits. In Michigan, Indian farmers (who generally had lost the land guaranteed them by the United States) bought land and paid taxes on it. Many Indian communities formed around and supported schools and Christian churches. Indian poverty was fueled by the failure of the United States to fulfill treaty agreements and prevent the exploitation of Native communities. Federal investigations eventually documented theft of land, property, and resources such as timber. Indian leaders worked to prevent or get compensation for these abuses. Much Indian imagery ignored the realities of economic and political adjustment and portrayed Indians negatively.

Since the 1970s, Congress and the Supreme Court have supported tribal sovereignty, that is, the recognition of the tribes’ right to self-government and economic self-support through management of their own resources. In media representations, we see Indians portrayed as lazy, greedy, and “fake” (not “really” Indian) as they pursued these rights.  Americans did not feel less American after they abandoned 19th century hair styles, horse and buggy transport, and gas lights. Yet, they viewed “real” Indians only as people from the past, who were not interested in making money and not capable of managing their own affairs. Indian communities’ efforts, for example to open casinos, or attain federal recognition or treaty rights to fish in certain places, have often been met with ridicule or hostility.

Romantic Portrayals

There also is a long history of Indian imagery that portrays Indians favorably. Portrayals of Noble Savages in the 18th and 19th centuries showed them as guileless or simple, strong, and helpful to Americans. Indians who signed cession and removal treaties appeared to be willing participants, in awe of White Americans. In fact, treaties often were signed under duress, only after Indians had argued futilely that they could stay on their land and still be useful participants in American society. Indians were farming successfully (even commercially) in many parts of the Midwest at the same time they were characterized by Americans as “hunters,” unable to make good use of the land they were asked to cede.

By the late 19th century, Indian portrayals stressed the inevitable extinction of “doomed” Indians. These images evoked pity for a vanishing people. But in the Midwest there were Indian communities that refused to leave their homeland. By the late 20th century, they had managed to retain or attain title to land and political recognition as tribes.

Most of the representations of Indian people in the Midwest showed Indians in long-ago settings, living simple, close-to-nature lives and, in their association with a past “Golden Age,” posing no threat to Americans in the early 20th century or beyond. In fact, this romantic image of Indians of yore was used to sell products and develop a regional economy in the Great Lakes region.

LOOK AT A BROCHURE FROM A HIAWATHA PAGEANT PERFORMED FOR TOURISTS IN MICHIGAN IN 1914.

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WHAT DID INDIAN IMAGERY FROM POSTCARDS AND ROAD MAPS CONVEY ABOUT NATIVE PEOPLE IN THE GREAT LAKES REGION, 1923-77

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Americans also used long-ago Indian imagery to bolster national identity. Local pageants celebrated U.S. and state histories, incorporating Indian themes. Indian imagery was popular with groups trying to identify themselves with heroic past traditions—for example, Boy Scout organizations, hobbyists, and athletic teams. In reality, Indian Americans were participating fully in 19th and 20th century life, as consumers, employees, and as viable communities with their own cultural traditions, political operatives, religious leaders, and veterans of the armed services. They had revitalized their communities and cultural traditions. The Indian population in the region had increased dramatically. Non-Indian organizations that “honored” Indians by appropriating and revamping Indian symbols (headdresses, woodcraft, dancing, and so on) created “Indianness” that, in reality, did not represent Indian life, past or present.

WHAT DOES A TOUR OF INDIAN MONUMENTS IN CHICAGO (1884-1978) REVEAL ABOUT NATIONAL IDENTITY FORMATION?

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Why did these stereotypical images that contrasted so sharply with the reality of Indian life persist for centuries, and why do they exist today? Go to “How We Know” to learn how scholars situate imagery in concrete historical contexts to answer these questions. Go to How We Know

TAKE A QUIZ? WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?

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