By Linda Martin (Navajo)
In films such as War Arrow (1953), wild “Kioways” on the warpath madly circle wagon trains of doomed pioneers. In Kit Carson (1940), other pioneers in peril are saved from Shoshone attacks as they ramble through Monument Valley, Utah. In the end, the hero—a frontier scout, cavalryman, or cowboy—gets the girl, and the Indian meets a grisly death. These death scenes, humorous and horrendous, involved dramatic feats of demoralizing comeuppance: an Indian grave shot from his war pony, somersaulting into the sagebrush, or shot and dragged behind his porn, arms flailing pitifully. Unfortunately, many other children my age drew the same conclusion about Indians as I did: we were dirty savages and merciless killers of women and children. Being the only Native American in my grade school, I became the target of hollering, war whoops, and hand-to-mouth “Indian” chanting.
Through illustration, portraiture, photography, journalism, and film, generations of Native people have been haunted by the cultural stereotypes of the past five centuries. Seventeenth-century European illustrations of Iroquois scalpers, battle reenactments in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows, dime novels, and souvenir postcards, for instance, have shaped the public’s erroneous sentiments about Native Americans. Depending on the political agenda of the time—whether in Europe or North America—the evolution of Native identity in the popular press has been dominated by two extreme stereotypes: savage marauder or docile member of a conquered race.
In the United States, portraying Native Americans in a hostile light justified extreme measures in Indian policy, such as the use of brutal military force, land theft, and treaty violations. The idea of Indians as uncivilized and un-Christian also legitimized forced conversions, mandatory attendance at boarding schools, and other religious abuses.
Martin also links Native stereotyping to broad policy decisions: brutal military subjugation, forced religious conversions, abused children in boarding schools, etc. The media portrayed Indians as savages and that's all people knew about them. No doubt many Americans made the link explicit: "If they're going to act like savages, we'll treat them like savages."
And it's still happening today. Whenever a court decision or Congressional bill goes against Native interests, you can detect a whiff of stereotypical thinking. It goes something like this:
"These people live out in the desert somewhere, worshiping rocks and trees, and living off welfare checks. We don't have to treat them like full-fledged Americans because they aren't full-fledged Americans, really. They're more like the slaves in the Old South were--i.e., three-fifths of a person. So we'll give them three-fifths of the services we give to real Americans. They're so primitive and out-of-touch they probably won't even notice."
A good example is the $3.4 billion Cobell settlement. Most claimants thought they were entitled to tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars--a century-plus of royalties and interest. Instead they're getting tens or hundreds of dollars. It's because politicians are thinking they didn't really need or earn the money. "They're only savages scrabbling in the dirt somewhere, not real Americans with jobs and families. We took care of them as wards of the state and that's payment enough for them."
Why do we develop their sacred sites? Because their religions aren't "real" religions. Why do we use them as stereotypical logos and mascots? Because their feelings aren't "real" feelings. Savages aren't real people like you and me.
For more on the subject, see Conservatives Use "Language of Savagery" and Grinding Indians into the Ground.
Below: "Early 20th-century postcard of Cree man in traditional dress on horseback."