The Indian Recreated
Let us explore how Indigenous people have been exploited by western culture for entertainment purposes. I will do this by examining how Indigenous people have been portrayed in stereotypical roles in Hollywood movies. As well, I will deconstruct how media shapes Indigenous self-perception and creates non-indigenous prejudice. Moreover, how media perpetuates the three most predominant stereotypes about Indigenous people: the warrior, the drunken Indian, and the dumb Indian. By deconstructing the three predominant stereotypes of Indigenous people I will expose the lies perpetuated by film and how it affects real Indigenous people.
Indigenous people and their culture have fascinated western society since Columbus discovered the Americas. Dominant society has exploited Indigenous people since first contact and continues to exploit Indigenous traditions. For example, early explorers would take home Indigenous people as a souvenir, which ultimately would lead to their demise. As well, anthropologists such as Franz Boas, Diamond Jenness, Farley Mowat, and Vilhjalmur Stefansson wrote detailed ethnography’s about Indigenous people; many of which were published and made headlines across the country (Steckley 35). In addition, Indigenous people were among the first subjects in film and have been portrayed in over 4000 Hollywood movies (Diamond). As a result, Indigenous culture was sensationalized by western society.
Popular culture glorifies the savage warrior through movies, media, and mascots that mis-represent Indigenous peoples. As well, film has glamorized killing of Indigenous people and movies were perpetuating the notion that “the only good Indian was a dead Indian”. Western movies such as Stagecoach portrayed the all American white family trying to cross the planes when all of a sudden they were surrounded by savage Indians trying to kill them so the star heroically killed the Indians and saved the white family (Diamond). These images perpetuated the conquest of Indigenous peoples, which in fact mirrored dominant societies intensions. Consequently, society believed that the images on the big screen portrayed how Indigenous peoples behaved. Moreover, Indigenous people believed the stereotypes western society had given them leaving them to question their self worth as well as negatively impacting how all people perceive and interact with each other (Senate). Judy Iseke-Barnes describes this paradigm as, “Surface understandings of Indigenous art and culture revisit ongoing discrimination and racist myths that have been institutionalized within dominant society” (Iseke 1). The savage warrior stereotype was created to ease the conscience of colonial settlers while they disposed Indigenous peoples from their land and stripped them of their culture.
“Can we talk of integration till theres integration of our hearts and minds? Unless you have this, you only have a physical presence and the walls between us are as high as the mountain range.” ~Chief Dan George
Another common stereotype is the “drunken Indian” which is perpetuated throughout mainstream media and film. For example, in Flags of Our Fathers Adam Beach plays a soldier that had returned home from war and struggles with alcohol dependency (Diamond). The drunken Indian stereotype is so widespread it is almost impossible to be Indigenous and not be affected by it. As a result, Indigenous people who do not have alcohol dependency are left to feel judged whenever consuming alcohol in public. As well, the over representation of alcoholism amongst Indigenous communities creates acceptance of negative behavior such as domestic abuse, sexual abuse, and psychological abuse within the community. Moreover, by emulating the drunken Indian stereotype it reinforces non-indigenous prejudice. The drunken Indian stereotype is a social construct created by dominant society to further the oppression Indigenous peoples. In reality more First nations adults abstain from alcohol consumption (34.4% verses 20.7%); even among youth, non-Indigenous alcohol consumption is higher than Indigenous consumption (61% versus 54%). But statistics show that the proportion of Indigenous peoples with alcohol dependencies is higher than the general Canadian population (16% versus 6.2%) (O'Neill 76-81). Therefore Indigenous people are more likely to abstain from alcohol consumption but those that do indulge drink much more excessively than their non-Indigenous counterpart.
Furthermore, “the dumb Indian” stereotype is the most devastating one of all because it manipulates Indigenous people into believing their intelligence is inferior to the rest of society. Western settlers described Indigenous people with stigmatizing terms such as "savage" "primitive," and "unsaved" which indicate inferior intelligence. Consequently, western society uses this as one of many tools in shaping societies perception of Indigenous people to aid in the colonization of all Indigenous people and embed white hegemony into North American culture. Furthermore, to justify the immoral treatment of Indigenous people’s colonial settlers rationalized their behavior by reinforcing the stigma that Indigenous people are inferior beings.
The perceptions that western society had of Indigenous peoples “were both emotional and contradictory”; for instance, “[e]ither an enemy or a friend, he [Indigenous peoples] was never an ordinary human being accepted on his own terms” (Rollins 27). This paradox can best be described as self-contradictory or absurd but in reality it expresses a possible truth. Western society was not prepared to except the notion that Indigenous people could exist parallel to dominant society rather we must be friends or foes.
Directors such as John Ford constructed an image of the “Hollywood Indian” which shaped dominant societies perception of real Indigenous people (Rollins 73). Indigenous culture was seen as a whole not for the many diverse bands that account for North Americas Indigenous population. Therefore, a generic Indian model was constructed which emulated the planes Indian with headdresses and a bow and arrow. The generic Indian was perpetuated throughout film for over a century and continues to mis-represent Indigenous peoples (Diamond).
Little Big Man was one of the first films that depicted Indigenous peoples more authentically and more predominantly in the films story line. The film starred Dustin Hoffman and Chief Dan George in which Indigenous people were depicted as real human beings that were shown laughing and crying. . Chief Dan George was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, making him the first Native American to receive the prestigious honor (Diamond).
Senator Daniel K. Akaka who is the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs stated that:
"Our hearing is about the real harm that is done to all people, Native and non-Native alike, when mascots, movies and images reinforce the stereotypes and the lines that divide rather than unite us". (Senate 1)
Meaning that negative stereotypes about Indigenous people only promote Eurocentric ideologies that non-Indigenous society is superior to Indigenous society.
Media shapes societies view of Indigenous people and by perpetuating negative stereotypes it only reinforces non-Indigenous prejudice. The images captured through film and media are a manifestation of cultural programming. Furthermore, it negatively impacts Indigenous self-perception and self-worth. These damaging stereotypes have been forever etched into the minds of non-Indigenous people. Unfortunately, western society’s mis-representation of Indigenous culture has turned traditional knowledge into a meaningless novelty. Western society imposed a collective identity upon Indigenous peoples and the Indian was recreated.