Not Your Pocahontas: How Stereotypes Affect Native American Women
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.
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.
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 Edward's "The United Colors of Pocahontas" and Mary Couzelis' “Generic Pocahontas: Reinforcing and Subverting the Whiteness of Mythohistory.”