Of Thee I Sing: A Semiotic Review by Scott Andrews
The side of the American psyche that hated Indians wanted to clear them out of the way of westward expansion, even if that meant killing them all. Thus the Indian became, for many decades, the ubiquitous villain of American popular fiction and Hollywood Westerns. In contrast to the bloodthirsty savage, the American hero could look that much more heroic--and could be justified in killing Indians.
The side of the American psyche that loved Indians romanticized and envied them, and yet still imagined the Indians absent from the path of westward expansion. In American literature, sometimes the Indians disappeared voluntarily, because they did not want to live like their new neighbors. Sometimes the Indians disappeared tragically, perhaps from disease or even from hearts broken by the damage done to their communities. This passing was lamented by some Americans, and it was sometimes used to critique the American greed or violence or prejudice that so harassed Indians. But hardly ever in the American imagination did this critique result in the Indian not disappearing.
Sometimes what the American psyche hated about the Indian was also what it loved. The Indian Hater oftentimes justified his hatred by seeing the American as civilized and the Indian as savage. The task of transforming the landscape into European-style agricultural and urban landscapes was seen as a process of conquering nature. Since the original inhabitants of the land needed to be removed before the land could be transformed, the Haters equated Indians with the land or nature. Both needed to be conquered. They were not merely obstacles to expansion, but as “nature” they were the opposite of “civilization.” In his survey of Indians in American literature, Savagism and Civilization, Roy Harvey Pearce says that the Indian became an important symbol “for what he showed civilized men they were not and must not be” (5).
Meantime, the Indian Lover also equated Indians with the land or nature, but this time that was seen as a good thing. Many times the Indian Lover had grown tired of his own society. Like the Hater, the Lover associated “civilization” with European-style society, but unlike the Hater he saw “civilization” as corrupt or decadent. Pearce describes this as a type of “primitivism--the belief that other, simpler societies were somehow happier than one’s own” (136). The Indian Lover saw “nature” as the opposite of “civilization,” as pure and noble. He saw the Indian as the Noble Savage, and in so doing he also equated the Indian with nature.
However, despite his admiration for Indians, the Lover could not bring himself to live with them permanently or imagine a role for them in his society. Apparently, just because you love something doesn’t mean you want to live with it. And so even those writers who loved Indians rarely ever ended a story with the Indian characters still around--they either died or faded into the landscape, headed further West, making room for the tide of Americans.
Among the lovers we could include mascot worshipers, New Age wannabes, and hipsters in headdresses who think they're honoring Indians. The common denominator is that they love a fictional, romanticized version of Indians.
In contrast, they don't know or care about real Indians. They especially don't want to hear about anything negative like poverty, termination, boarding schools, broken treaties, or genocide. As long as they have their fantasies, they're happy to be ignorant.
For more on the subject, see Ups and Downs of Hollywood Indians and The Political Uses of Stereotyping.