August 16, 2006

Americans don't know Indians

Poll:  Americans not so brightThree-quarters of Americans can correctly identify two of Snow White's seven dwarfs while only a quarter can name two Supreme Court Justices, according to a poll on pop culture released yesterday.

According to the poll by Zogby International, commissioned by the makers of a new online game on pop culture called “Gold Rush,” 57 percent of Americans could identify J.K. Rowling's fictional boy wizard as Harry Potter, while only 50 percent could name the British prime minister, Tony Blair. The pollsters spoke to 1,213 people across the United States. The results had a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.

Just over 60 percent of respondents were able to name Bart as Homer's son on the television show “The Simpsons,” while only 20.5 percent were able to name one of the ancient Greek poet Homer's epic poems, “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” Asked what planet Superman was from, 60 percent named the fictional planet Krypton, while only 37 percent knew that Mercury is the planet closest to the sun. Respondents were far more familiar with the Three Stooges--Larry, Curly and Moe--than the three branches of the U.S. government--judicial, executive and legislative. Seventy-four percent identified the Stooges, 42 percent the branches.
Comment:  This poll doesn't address America's knowledge of Indians, but one can just imagine how the questions and answers might have gone:

  • What was Pocahontas famous for? Starring in a Disney movie.
  • What happened at Wounded Knee? A football injury.
  • What did Geronimo do? Jumped out of a plane.

  • As the poll demonstrates, people remember only what they see in the media. They know popular fiction much better than they do US history. And what they "know" about Indians is that they were savages who lived in teepees and attacked wagon trains before vanishing into the sunset.

    Hence the need to remind people, over and over, that Indians still exist and the stereotypes about them are wrong. Hence the need for popular fiction featuring Indians. The poll proves that the way to reach people is through movies, TV shows, books, comics, and video games. People will remember a Dances With Wolves, Tony Hillerman mystery, or PEACE PARTY comic a lot longer than they'll remember a history lesson.


    Anonymous said...

    "People will remember a Dances With Wolves, Tony Hillerman mystery, or PEACE PARTY comic a lot longer than they'll remember a history lesson."

    Unfortunately, they'll also remember the bad stuff too. Or maybe only remember the bad stuff.

    Rob said...

    True. That's why it's not enough to produce Native-themed works. They have to be good too--full of story and free of stereotypes.

    This is why I don't give a pass to people, even Natives, for trying. If the results aren't good enough, I critique them to coax them to do better. There's not much excuse for mediocre work when people are willing and able to help.

    For instance, Disney's Pocahontas was decent, but viewers didn't glean much history from it. They may have learned that Indians were more than savages and Europeans were less than civilized. But they also learned that Pocahontas was a teenage babe who was involved in a storybook romance with John Smith. If the creators had listened to the Indians who criticized the production, the movie might have been truly exceptional.

    Anonymous said...

    "Pocahontas" was just one of a run of Disney cartoon movies that were all ill-conceived, and were often fraught with inaccuracies as not to defend sensibilities of anyone. The worst I saw was "Hunchback" which featured an evil priest named Frolo.... only he wasn't actually a priest as not to offend the Catholic Church. He was just some generic robey-guy. I never saw "Pocahontas" or "Hercules". I think Disney's efforts in this vein peaked with "The Lion King" (no history to ruin, no one to worry about offending) and fell off rapidly afterwards.

    Rob said...

    Hey, I liked Hunchback. It's hard to beat the stretch of Disney films that includes Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

    I think Frolo was supposed to be a lord and judge, not a priest. He didn't need to be a priest for the movie to work, so I doubt Disney changed him to avoid offending anyone.

    One could criticize Lion King for turning Africa into a paradise that's (not coincidentally) free of black people. Disney is on a multicultural streak but, amazingly, it's never done an animated flick starring blacks.

    Almost every Disney movie is worth seeing if you're a fan of animation, as I am. Check out Pocahontas and Hercules as well as Mulan and Brother Bear.

    Anonymous said...

    I thought "Mulan" was good, but not in the league of the run they did leading up to (and including) Lion King. I'm sorry I forgot about "Brother Bear" (quite relevant in this forum). There is also "Lilo and Stitch", which I found to be surprisingly inventive in concept and well-done in execution. If you count native Hawaiians as "Native Americans", this film is certainly quit relevant at Newsrock.

    One flaw I see with many of these movies is the need to toss in two or three comic sidekick characters, and many of these seem forced. This sort of thing dates back at least to the singing mice in "Cinderella". I thought the gargoyles in "Hunchback" were the worst of the lot, and that Timon and Pumbaa were the best of the lot: not only were they funny, but their strength as characters and contributions to the story were so strong that you forgot that they were included as the necessary comic sidekick characters.

    Yes, Lion King did not include depictions of blacks (nor did it include depictions of the nominal Caucasians who inhabit much of the northern tier of the continent). The exclusion of humans from the story is not surprising, as it is lion-centered.

    I recall some criticism "Lion King" received from someone because one of the sniveling Hyena villains was played by a black person, but this critic also overlooked the very positive roles of Mufasa and Rafiki, also played by black actors.

    As for them not showing humans (which would have been blacks in East Africa), consider also that "Lion King" is considered to be somewhat ripped off from an old Japanese cartoon called "Kimba the White Lion". While there were a few humans in its long roster of characters, this show was strongly centered on the animals.