The word stereotype is defined as an oversimplified idea of an image or thing. A stereotype is simple and usually does not require facts, but is mainly something people believe in. When people think of a Native American, they imagine an Indian on horseback wearing a feather headdress or attacking white people and trying to scalp them. The many misconceptions that people may have of Native Americans has a lot to do with how the media has portrayed them in movies, books, and television shows. In order to understand how this has happened, we must learn about the Native American history, the media effect on who they are, and how they have evolved and how people have changed their thinking.
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Native Americans were first called “Indians” by the Europeans who first came in contact with them. Prior to that, the Native American people were not Indians, but members of their own socio-political and cultural groups. After the Europeans arrived, they were lumped together into a group under one single defining word. Many federal laws and regulations define “Indian” as an individual who is a member of an Indian tribe, band, or community that is “recognized by the federal government as one who lives on or near a reservation. Another thing to remember that not all Native Americans are Indians. Per Jack Utter, the term “Native American” is widely recognized as meaning a person who is of a tribe or people indigenous to the United States (14). Alaskan Eskimos and Aleuts and even Native Hawaiians are also known as Native Americans.
There are many misconceptions about Native Americans. One of the first misconceptions is that all Native Americans live on reservations. As of the census of 2010, there are 324 federally recognized Indian reservations and 567 federally recognized Indian tribes and Alaskan natives (History.com). Only about 20% of Native Americans actually live on the reservations. American Indians receive special education benefits from the government. Yes, Native Americans receive educational benefits like reduced tuition and Pell Grants, but do other disadvantaged people such as disabled and veterans. Another misconception is that they do not have to pay taxes. In some states, if they are living and working on the reservation, then they are exempt from paying taxes. However, tribal government employees and members all must pay federal income and state taxes as long as they are citizens of the U.S. The Indians medicine was considered primitive. This is not necessarily true. Native Americans chose to use herbal remedies to cure small health issues which was actually effective and pray to their Mother Earth. Many drugs were discovered only after scientists decided to take the plants used in the herbal remedies and test them. Even nowadays, with so many chemicals used in current drugs, many people are going back to the old ways of using herbal remedies to take care of themselves instead of paying many to the big drug corporations.
Native Americans were hostile to the Europeans in pre-colonial times and even worse after the government decided to take their land and move them to reservations. Native Americans were first seen in the media on January 16, 1869 in a cartoon in Harper’s Weekly. The cartoon’s title was called, “A School for Savages; or Teaching the Young Idea not to Shoot”. Big Injun says, “White man hold on; we want to Big Talkee.” General Sheridan (holding on to Indian’s collar while prepared to hit him) says, “No, no. I’ll Whip you first, then you can Big Talkee afterward.” (Bellow). Artist Frank Bellow drew this cartoon to criticize the harsh treatment of Native Americans by General Sheridan, who was in charge of gathering Cheyenne Indians and move them to reservations. The hostility of their treatment became a platform for moviemakers not only during that time, but present time as well. The film industry played an important role in using the Europeans perception toward the Indians. Since the beginning of the film industry in 1894, it has been shown that the reaction toward the Native Americans has been negative and damaging throughout history. This stereotyping was not only in films, but by other types of media, such as books and art. Many considered that stereotyping of the Native Americans was a type of entertainment that people enjoyed. By showing the images and films of the Indians, they were certain it would create and intended image for the audience and the impact remained strong in the audience’s minds. They did not consider the consequences in how the Native Americans felt about it. The films represented the Indians as savages and primitive beings. They are shown raping women, robbing and killing people. The cowboys were portrayed as the good people who rescue the victims from these savages. These films ended up alienating the Native Americans.
As the years went on, it became important to improve the image of the Native Americans and break the bad stereotype cycle. Filmmakers decided to change the theme of their films and make the audience more sympathetic to the Native Americans. One of those movies was called, “Broken Arrow,” released in 1950. The movie is about a former soldier who saves an Apache teen and learns the Apache way of life. It is the first movie to be favorable and portray the Indians sympathetically. One of my favorite Indian movies is “Dances with Wolves,” released in 1900. It is about a Union Army Lieutenant staying at a secluded military post alone and his dealings with the Lakota Sioux Indians. In 2007, Dances with Wolves was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” (Aleiss). Even in children’s movies, did Native Americans have an impact. In the movie classic, Pocahontas, the major conflict of the movie happens when the English and the Powhatan Indians prepare to fight each other. Pocahontas comes to the rescue when she intervenes between the two groups and requests her people to being food to the English people to make sure they can survive, and the two groups end up having good relations with each other. Another stereotype to be shown by Hollywood films, is that Native Americans are found living “off the land” in the wilderness close to nature and on the reservations. In reality, more non-Indians are the ones who live “close to nature” than do most Indians. Considerable numbers of Native Americans live off the reservation and in many major U.S. Approximately 60% of the Native American population lives in cities (Nittle). In 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation protesting against the Dakota Access Pipeline was in the spotlight. A member of the Kiowa tribe decided to take this chance to change the media’s handling of how the Native Americans were portrayed. This was the first major protest since the 1973 Wounded Knee incident in South Dakota. During that incident, the Native American protestors were stereotyped as warriors, victims, or magical creatures. It was actually recommended that people be identified by their specific tribes, nations, or communities instead of being called “Native American group” or “Native American tribe.” There is no such thing as a typical Native American just as there is no such thing as a typical American. Many do not grow up on reservations. About 80% of those Native Americans live outside the reservations in mostly urban areas and in the cities. It was also noted that mainstream media should be accountable for the lack of interest in covering Native American issues on a regular basis. Most of this is because they do not hire reporters or editors who are Native American and have the interest in them. “If you want to embrace technology, you can also embrace diversity,” Ahtone said. “I’d like to see a newsroom that is representative of the United States, and I’d like to see media organizations committed to cover indigenous people’s struggles and contributions” (Mineo).
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Stereotypes of Native Americans in movies by American filmmakers was the worst portrayal that anyone has ever seen. They portrayed Native Americans as hostile savages with no remorse for the people they killed or women they raped. These movies had the greatest audience, but in the end became the worst for stereotyping. When the first movie that filmmakers created portraying the Native American in a good sense won the Association of the American Indian Affairs Award, it was then they decided to improve the image of the Native American by producing more movies with Native Americans being brave, friendly to the white people, and close to nature. The best way to represent the Native American culture or any culture is to respect them and not make a mockery them. Learn their history and traditions so when they are portrayed in movies, or on television, or in a book, it is more accurate than made up.
- Aleiss, Angela. “Brief Descriptions and Expanded Essays of National Film Registry Titles: Dances With Wolves (1990).” The Library of Congress, 2016, www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/descriptions-and-essays/.
- Bellow, Frank. “Cartoon of the Day.” HarpWeek, Harper's Weekly, 16 Jan. 1869, www.harpweek.com/09Cartoon/BrowseByDateCartoon.asp?Month=January&Date=16.
- History.com Editors. “Indian Reservations.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 8 Dec. 2017, www.history.com/topics/native-american-history/indian-reservations.
- Mineo, Liz. “Nieman Fellow Battles Media Stereotypes of Native Americans.” Harvard Gazette, The Harvard Gazette, 20 Mar. 2019, news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/03/nieman-fellow-battles-media-stereotypes-of-native-americans/.
- Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "5 Common Native American Stereotypes in Film and Television." ThoughtCo, Jan. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/native-american-stereotypes-in-film-television-2834655.
- Utter, Jack. American Indians: Answers to Today's Questions. First ed., National Woodlands Publishing Company, 1993.
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