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Not Your Pocahontas: How Stereotypes Affect Native American Women

Bethany is a freelance writer with an interest in health and cultural issues. She is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

Like women of many minority groups, media representations of Native women often fit into a few stereotypes.

Like women of many minority groups, media representations of Native women often fit into a few stereotypes.

Pocahontas, Tiger Lily, the Washington Redskins, Tonto, the Chicago Blackhawks: What do all of these have in common? They are all mainstream, highly visible representations of Native Americans. Not only that, but they are also inaccurate, stereotypical, and offensive to many. The tribal nations in the United States are currently experiencing massive population growth, meaning that thousands of young natives are preparing to step into leadership both in their tribes and in society at large. The identities of these young Native people continue to be affected by mainstream depictions of Native Americans. In this article, I want to discuss the specific case of Native women and how they are affected by the biggest Native archetype in Hollywood: the Indian Princess.

Pocahontas is an example of the Indian Princess trope.

Pocahontas is an example of the Indian Princess trope.

The Mythical "Indian Princess"

The Indian Princess is a young, beautiful, native woman who is noble, aloof, and ultimately sacrifices herself to save a white man. Sound familiar? It should. Take Pocahontas, the chieftain's daughter who, in the Disney movie, runs around the forest with her animal friends until she falls in love with a white man and offers to lay down her life to save his. She fits perfectly into the Indian Princess stereotype. Another example is Tiger Lily, from Peter Pan, who offers to sacrifice herself to save Peter. These are only two popular examples. Indian Princesses can be found in most Hollywood films featuring native characters–as well as in the aisles of most costume stores.

So are all native women in the media Indian Princesses? No, some are labelled as “squaws.” The exact origins of the term “squaw” are unknown, but it is today considered a racial slur directed at native women. However, it is also the term assigned to the other predominating stereotype of Native American women. Squaws are the opposite of Indian Princess. They are fat, ugly, dark-skinned, loud-mouthed, and bossy. In Peter Pan, there’s even a character named Squaw who typifies this stereotype. These are the women who won’t cooperate, who don’t offer to save white men. They often end up displaced or defeated, perhaps illustrating a painful historical reality.

Tiger Lily is another example of an Indian Princess.

Tiger Lily is another example of an Indian Princess.

So What?

This is all well and good, but what is the point of talking about it? Native women are affected by these stereotypes. Speaking as a Native woman myself, we are told that we must be beautiful and self-sacrificing or we can suffer the consequences. That hasn’t been good for us as a group. I think that we all need to talk about the representation of women of color in the media. I’ve been talking about Native American women, but similar problems affect black women and Asian women. Ultimately, we are in the driver’s seat on this issue. We can demand more nuanced roles for women. The lack of research and discussion on this topic is telling, but we can turn the tide by starting a conversation.

For further reading on this subject, I recommend Leigh Edwards' "The United Colors of Pocahontas" and Mary Couzelis' “Generic Pocahontas: Reinforcing and Subverting the Whiteness of Mythohistory.”

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.


Ronnie wrenchBiscuit on June 29, 2017:

Stereotypes abound. But what we are witnessing are the results of 500 years of genocidal policies by the Colonialist European Invaders. The goal was either to slaughter us or to colonize our minds and assimilate us into European culture. The ignorance of the average American coupled with a low IQ has created barriers to positive change, not only in the white community, but also among the Indigenous as well.

To illustrate how ignorant these people are, I recently engaged in a debate with a white American on Hubpages about the death of Otto Warmbier. My assessment of that tragic story is not unusual. Otto was as much a victim of white privilege as he was of the North Korean government. I would bet that he never studied the history of the Korean War, and that he was not aware that nearly 2 million innocent North Korean civilians were murdered by U.S. forces during the war. Had he been fully aware, the chances are he would have never went to North Korea. But like many white Americans he was blinded by white privilege. Now he is dead because of it. However, as to be expected, the original author accused me of hating all white people simply for expressing my opinion. And this is what invariably happens in such discussions. And when I inform them that I am biracial it still doesn't break their stride. In their little Archie Bunker world they can't seem to grasp the notion that there are many mixed race people, and whites, who don't subscribe to Manifest Destiny. And so, they prefer to make it an issue of "Us and Them", when in truth it has always been a matter of wrong and right.

White privilege also leads many Americans to embrace stereotypical native mascots for sports teams. In their limited perception they see nothing wrong with it whatsoever. But their ignorance is legendary. They are unaware of the high percentage of Indigenous women who are raped and sexually abused by whites each year. And they are also unaware that disproportionately, miscreant cops kill more Indigenous than they do either blacks or whites. But these facts are not front page news.

There is little discussion on the topic because the average American simply does not care. And these are the progeny of generations who haven't cared for over 500 years! But there is a good reason for this. These issues cannot be discussed in depth without exposing the seedy underbelly of America. The ugly truth of Manifest Destiny simply doesn't fit with the American Dream of Pollyanna, nor the grotesque myth of the Powhatan woman many refer to as Pocahontas.

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