The End of "The Indian Threat": 1881-1913
The signal that a new day had come in the history of the West elicited two public responses. There was a new wave of reform, most evident in the creation of Indian boarding schools designed to civilize the Native through forced assimilation. And there was an acceleration of efforts to re-characterize this "battle of civilization" in the public imagination; to cast the Indian as an "other," distinct from Euro-American civilization and deserving of displacement to make the wilderness safe for the civilized farmer. Ever since 1881, when Sitting Bull surrendered at Fort Buford, every generation has recreated this historic conflict with the Plains Indians dramatically; in photographs, Wild West Shows, Victorian advertising, dime novels, paintings, early cinema, pulps, literature, comic books, movies, radio, and on television. That the Western genre of entertainment still thrives reflects the dominant culture's need to dramatize its history and to believe in the righteousness of that history's outcome. This section emphasizes the critical time period from 1881-1913, when the mythic American West became firmly entrenched in the popular imagination.
In fact, Euro-Americans have mythologized Indians ever since their first encounter. The Victorian Age may have been when this process culminated, but it began in the Age of Exploration. Every colonizer following Columbus had to deal with the "Indian problem." Namely, how to justify removing the human obstacles that were inconveniently in the way.
Remember the Boston Tea Party? The romantic odes to Pocahontas and Hiawatha? The paintings, statues, and coins with Indians representing "Liberty"? These were all part of the myth-making process.
I tried to explain how this happened in A Brief History of Native Stereotyping and why it happened in The Political Uses of Stereotyping. For more on the subject, check these postings out.