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date: 25 September 2017

Representations of Native Americans in the Mass Media

Summary and Keywords

The historical construction of Indian in American popular culture poses serious challenges for conducting research about representations of indigenous culture, identity, and politics. Mass-mediated representation deserves specific attention, as popular entertainment has been one of the most significant historic battlegrounds over the status of indigenous identity in American culture. Representations of American Indians have been reworked and negotiated as they have circulated through a variety of mediums, including theatrical performances, silent films, Westerns, prime time television, independent films, advertising, sports culture, and so on.

Beginning with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope, introduced the at the 1893 Chicago Columbian World’s Exposition, American mass entertainment has been preoccupied with the drama of westward expansion and the noble savage of the American frontier. Later, the films of John Ford developed the Hollywood image of the screen savage. Film continued to address the topic of American Indians through the lens of the 1960’s and 1970’s counterculture, 1980’s imperial nostalgia, 1990s sympathy and revisionism, and, in the 21st century, through native filmmaker’s reclamation of indigenous visual sovereignty. Not all media are uniform in their portrayals. The televisual Indian evolved quite differently than her/his counterpart in film. At some points, television has been even more progressive in its portrayals of American Indian characters, more willing to feature native actors and storylines than mainstream Hollywood film. Besides film and television, sports and advertising have had the most influence on popular conceptions of American Indians. While commodified images of American Indians are ubiquitous in popular culture, sport culture (mascots) has become the most popular site where Indian imagery is used to generate a profit. Struggles over everything from the moving image to sports mascots demonstrate the importance of studying the power of the image, particularly in the context of American settler colonialism.

Keywords: Native Americans, visual sovereignty, white man’s Indian, representations, mascots, colonialism, cultural commodification


Before a capacity crowd of over 80,000 screaming Florida State University (FSU) football fans, a man dressed as Chief Osceola rides his horse Renegade to midfield, where he plants a burning spear to mark the beginning of the game. Since 1978, this caricature of the 19th century Seminole resistance fighter performs this ritual for the excitement of tens of thousands of Euro-American college sports enthusiasts. While most fans only know him as the symbol of a university and its multimillion-dollar collegiate sports empire, for many members of the Seminole Nation, Chief Osceola remains the flesh-and-blood hero of the Second Seminole War (1835–1842), a leader known for his fierce opposition to Western expansion and American slavery. The generic Plains Indian aesthetic and equine skills, greeted by tomahawk chops and war drums, seems oddly out of place for someone who spent a vast majority of his life in the Florida Everglades. With the license of the Florida-based Seminole Tribal Council, FSU proudly claims that the mascot embodies the positive values and attributes of great Seminole warriors. Nonetheless, this caricature reflects little, if any, of the historic Chief Osceola and the principles for which he stood. The so-called approval by the Seminole Tribal Council masks overwhelming opposition of a vast majority of Seminoles, most of whom live in Oklahoma and do not benefit financially from the lucrative Seminole brand (Zirin, 2014). As it stands, FSU’s Chief Osceola is what Berkhofer (1979) calls the “White Man’s Indian,” a constructed notion of what it means to be Indian “created in its own image as a result of the power of the Whites and the response of Native Americans” (p. 3).

The “mascotting” of Chief Osceola is a localized example of Euro-American appropriation, commodification, and assimilation of Native American images that continues to unfold, with significant resistance, alongside the Western colonization of North America. Similar to the theft of indigenous lands, American Indians have been dispossessed of their likeness, their images appropriated by Euro-Americans, to “advance a contemporary manifest destiny by marketing Native culture as Euramerican identity” (Black, 2002, p. 606). Stuckey and Murphy (2001) note that the physical colonization of North America was enabled by the symbolic or rhetorical colonization of indigenous peoples. In other words, the ability of Euro-Americans to craft images of indigenous Americans as savage, bellicose, unintelligent, subhuman, lazy, without property, and welcoming of colonization legitimized the violent dispossession and subjugation of native land, culture, and people. Thus, representations of American Indians in popular culture cannot be understood outside the historical context of Euro-American colonialism and indigenous resistance. Buescher and Ono (1996) observe that colonialism never formally ended in the United States, therefore, “the ideology of colonialism was rewoven into the social fabric through popular culture products such as movies, television, novels, radio, and consumer goods” (p. 130). Therefore, to study images of American Indians in popular culture is to observe a history of both profound injustice and survivance; to intervene into the dynamics of hegemonic struggle over law, politics, economics, and culture.

Doing Indigenous Research

To begin, this chapter provides communication scholars with the foundational tools and historical background to conduct research on representations of American Indians in popular culture. Regardless of whether scholars choose to adopt the dispassionate stance of post-positivist objectivity or the interventionist ethic that guides anti-colonial critical theory, analysis of native images is always already politicized by the ongoing presence of settler colonialism in the United States. As Smith (1999) explains “it is surely difficult to discuss research methodology and indigenous peoples together, in the same breath, without having an analysis of imperialism, without understanding the complex ways in which the pursuit of knowledge is deeply embedded in the multiple layers of imperial and colonial practices” (p. 2). By simply privileging native perspectives in the formulation of theory, history, and criticism, indigenous scholar challenges Euro-American colonial ideologies (Champagne, 2007; Chilisa, 2012; Wilson & Yellow Bird, 2005).

The best scholarship on American Indian representations is guided by three foundational assumptions. First, because the concept of the “Indian” is a Euro-American invention, representations of native people make American popular culture both an extension of Western colonial ideology and a site of ongoing hegemonic struggle. Second, while popular representations might suggest otherwise, flesh and blood American Indians exist in the present and, despite a legacy of genocidal violence, are extraordinarily dynamic and diverse. Therefore, it is important that researchers not confine indigenous people to the past and, consequently, acknowledge that representations affect the day-to-day lives of millions of individuals. Third, while American Indians have a corporeal presence in contemporary America, the goal of research need not be to discover a “real,” “authentic,” or “pure” image of indigenous peoples that somehow escapes the politics of representation (Deloria, 1998; Vickers, 1998). Instead, taking a cue from Bhabha (1994), the best scholarship accounts for the political investments and implications of particular representations, or explains the kind of cultural work that is done by diverse kinds of images and media—film, television, literature, sports, advertising, social media, video games, and so. Though it is vital that we unmask distortions of indigenous life and culture, the search for “real Indians” beneath the image can collapse into romanticism for pristine indigenous cultures untouched by Western culture (Smith, 2009). With these assumptions set forth, we can begin to explore the invention of the “Indian” without pretense that representations and interpretation are value-neutral.

The White Man’s Indian

Popular culture has been one of the most important sites for the creation and reproduction of the “Indian” image (Hoffman, 2012). While popular culture also includes literature, art, and popular music, this examination is limited to mass-mediated representations. Literature alone deserves its own examination, particularly in light of how the novel has been an important space for historical counter-narratives and resistance to Euro-American stereotypes (Tueton, 2008). In addition to countless others, novels such as N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (New York: Harper & Row, 1969) and Leslie Silko’s Ceremony (New York: Penguin Books, 1977) alone have done so much significant work to re-present American Indian culture and identity within the popular imaginary that it could not be adequately accounted for in the space provided. Moreover, before the development of contemporary mass media, early representations of “Indians” were captured in journals, books, paintings, and lithographs for the fascination of Europeans and the study of early modern philosophers and political theorists. The 19th-century landscape paintings of George Catlin helped support a broader cultural eulogy of the “vanishing Indian” in the face of resistance and survivance. Acknowledging this short-coming, the mass-mediated representation deserves specific attention, as popular entertainment has been one of the most significant historic battlegrounds over the status of indigenous identity in American culture. Differentiated from print culture, mass media representations have a distinct impact on native voice and voicelessness in contemporary society.

To begin, the term Indian itself derives from Christopher Columbus’ geographically misguided categorization of the Arawak as los Indios, an act of naming premised on the erroneous assumption that he had landed somewhere in Asia. When Columbus first encountered Arawak society, North America was inhabited by thousands of distinct societies with their own distinct languages, cultures, economies, customs, laws, and systems of government (Deloria, 2004). Nonetheless, the Arawak and all indigenous Americans thereafter were distilled from their incredible heterogeneity to a singular one-dimensional image (Berkhofer, 1979, p. 3) The Indian quickly evolved into a savage archetype of the Natural Man, an image of humankind at its primal beginnings, prior to the development of modern civilization. Bordewich (1996) explains that, as thinkers like Michel de Montaigne, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau were themselves wrestling with the meaning of civilization and European identity, the invention of the Indian “flattened out the multitudinous realities of actual Indian communities, blurring their individuality and trapping them permanently in European fantasy” (p. 34). Descriptions of Indians from colonial journals through Euro-American philosophy were not of human beings, “but of a creature of the forest, a stag or a bear, a quarry” (p. 35). Whether it is the gentle Natives or “noble savages” described by Rousseau or the demonic hordes invented by Puritan leader Cotton Mather, such dehumanizing portrayals of indigenous peoples prepared the lands and people of North America for colonization. For instance, the notion that indigenous peoples neither held a concept of property nor cultivated their “empty” lands suggested to European colonists that Indians were not entitled to ownership (Hall, 2003; Marks, 1998; Smith, 2007). Moreover, the more dangerous “demonic” archetype legitimized preemptive violence to clear a safe path for European settlement (Drinnon, 1997; Slotkin, 2000). The counterfeit Indian of pre and early America was a protean amalgam of positive and negative traits, all of which were the foil to the Euro-American civilized man.

Yet, representations of Indians have long been used by Euro-Americans to embody American identity. Deloria (1998) coined the term playing Indian to describe the Euro-American tradition of ritually enacting American identity through stylized performances of Indianness—from the use of Mohawk disguises at the Boston Tea Party to the Indian aesthetics and spiritualism adopted by the 1960s counterculture (see also Grinde & Johansen, 1991). For Deloria, “playing Indian” began as a performative enactment of American frontier identity in contradistinction to Europe. Today, fans of collegiate and professional sports franchises with Native mascots still disguise themselves in war paint and feather headdresses. Every year, children still wear Indian Halloween costumes and adopt Indian spirit names at wilderness camps and Boy Scout retreats across America (Huhndorf, 2015; Moore, 1998). The ongoing tradition of playing Indian illustrates the malleability of the Indian image and its assimilation into the Euro-American imagination.

It should therefore come as no surprise, particularly for fans of the American Western film, that the Indian image evolved into a staple of the American entertainment industry. But as much as Euro-Americans enjoy playing Indian, there is no more powerful archetype to signify American identity than the cowboy. Nineteenth century authors such as James Fenimore Cooper gave birth to the cowboy and the architecture of the American Western in The Leatherstocking Tales, a series of five novels about the captivating travails of a frontiersman hero. As Allen (1998) describes it, Cooper’s “civilizers waste no time in getting themselves in terrible predicaments at the hands of the forces of the frontier” and aid civilized folks in “subduing the forces of the wilderness” (p. 37). Cooper also presented his proto-cowboy alongside the mythological “vanishing Indian,” an updated noble savage who had been removed from the arc of history, fated to either assimilation or extermination by the inevitable onslaught of manifest destiny (Berry, 1960; Bird, 1996; Dippie, 1982). In tales of this genre, the cowboy reclaimed territory from both nature and hostile Indians, making the frontier safe for settlement. Of course, such romantic portraits of cowboy mythology belie a violent century of westward expansion, including the U.S. Cavalry’s violent incursions into Indian Country, bloody massacres from Sand Creek to Wounded Knee, the persistent federal violation of indigenous treaty rights, and assaults on American Indian culture through Christian boarding schools (Deloria, 1969). The cowboy image reframed the violent process of colonization as a heroic tale of adventure, a test of fortitude that illustrated the courage and rugged individualism of American national character.

The Proto-Western

Two forms of popular entertainment are most responsible for imprinting the cowboys vs. Indians motif into the American psyche: the Wild West show and the Hollywood western (Blackstone, 1986). The latter will be discussed in detail below. The proto-western, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (1883–1906) translated popular dime novel heroes into a traveling theatrical variety show performed for a national and international audience (Reddin, 1999). Buffalo Bill Cody (William Frederick Cody) was a theatrical performer who claimed to have hunted buffalo, worked for the Pony Express, and served as an army scout for General George Custer (Warren, 2007). A blend of “circus and melodrama,” Cody’s traveling performance included steer riding, rodeos, firearms showcases, and a dramatized Indian attack on the Pony Express (Kilpatrick, 1999, p. 13; see also Sagala, 2007). For authenticity, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West employed many iconic American Indians as actors, including Black Elk, Chief Joseph, Crazy Horse, Geronimo, and Sitting Bull. The Wild West show crudely depicted American Indians as violent and exotic, repetitively enacted a Manichean drama in which dangerous Indians faced defeat at the hands of heroic white gunslingers.

While Cody’s performances infused American culture with the cowboy mythology, American Indian participation did not necessarily signify acquiescence to westward expansion. McNenly (2015) argues that Chief Joseph and Geronimo used the show as an opportunity to promote their nations, earn money, and travel internationally (see also Nye, 1970). They used commodification to subvert the image of the White Man’s Indian from within mainstream popular culture. The history of native representation is characterized by this complicated interplay between the Indian of the Euro-American imagination and the creative struggles of indigenous communities to decolonize popular representations. This episode is instructive for those who study images of American Indians to attend to not only the hegemonic power of the image but also how indigenous communities respond to and appropriate images for their strategic ends (Sanchez & Stuckey, 2000). The complicated dynamic of Wild West show later unfolds, not always successfully, in Hollywood cinema, prime time television, consumer culture, popular sports, and social media.

Moving Images: The Celluloid Indian

Since Thomas Edison introduced the kinetoscope at the 1893 Chicago Columbian World’s Exposition, American cinema has been preoccupied with the drama of westward expansion and the noble savage of the American frontier. In the documentary Reel Injun, indigenous film historian Andre Dudemaine comments in jest, “I think that the cinema was created to film first nation people” (quoted in Diamond, Bainbridge, & Hayes, 2009). On this first prototype of the early motion picture, Edison displayed his first penny arcade hits Hopi Snake Dance (1894) and Sioux Ghost Dance (1894). While there is no evidence the dances were genuine, entertainment promoters could foresee the marketability of Indian imagery. During this period, federal Indian policy aggressively promoted assimilation, detribalization, and individual allotment of reservation lands. Kilpatrick (1999) explains, “Indians were no long perceived as an overt threat, and a nostalgic image of the historical noble savage, the vanishing ‘first’ Americans, became increasingly popular” (p. 17). Thus, the first pre-cinematic peep shows exhibited for public consumption included popular titles such as Parade of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (1898), Procession of Mounted Indians and Cowboys (1898), Buck Dance (1898), and Serving Rations to the Indians (1898). Some film scholars suggest that these early depictions of indigenous life were generally positive (Aleiss, 2005, 1995; Hearne, 2012a; Simmon, 2003). Yet, most contend that the Indian of early cinema established the template for the stereotypes that pervade contemporary American popular culture (Buscombe, 2006; French, 1980; German, 2012; Hilger, 1995; Smith, 2004). This section outlines the historical development Indian representations in American popular culture through Hollywood cinema, beginning with the silent film era (1895–1929), followed by the golden age of the American Western (1939–1964), the new age Indian of countercultural cinema (1964–1992), concluding with a discussion of modern indigenous counter-cinema and what indigenous scholars call “visual sovereignty.”

Silent Films (1895–1929)

Bowser (1990) notes that before the invention of the western, many early silent films adopted the perspective of American Indians. Between 1902 and 1908, hundreds of Indian pictures featured multidimensional Indian protagonists. A large proportion of screen time was devoted to everyday portrayals of families and children instead of warriors, chiefs, and Indian villains. Directors cast American Indian actors in significant cinematic roles, and some even got behind the camera and directed. For instance, James Young Deer (Nanticoke) directed White Fawn’s Devotion in 1910, a film featuring Winnebago actress Princess Redwing (Lillian St. Cyr). The silent Indian pictures of this period provided a powerful counterpoint to the developing proto-western. Hearne (2012a) explains that such films “represent a criticism of the genre from within the genre that is far sharper in its advocacy for Indigenous rights then the ‘pro-Indian’ and ‘revisionist’ Westerns of the second half of the 20th century” (p. 94).

Though the later period of silent films (1912–1925) foregrounded white protagonists and Indian villains, the 2012 discovery and restoration of The Daughter of Dawn (1919) illustrates how directors and producers continued to use cinema to display positive and empowering images of American Indians. Recently exhibited in Oklahoma City, The Daughters of Dawn is perhaps the only all-Native cast silent film ever made (Write, 2012). Director Norbert A. Myles cast only local Kiowa and Comanche living near Lawton, Oklahoma and shot the film on location without the use of lighting, costumes, or props. The film created such an electric atmosphere in Southwest Oklahoma that it raised concerns with a local Bureau of Indian Affairs agent, who demanded that the camp be broken up and the dances stopped. The Oklahoma Historical Society’s (n.d.) description of the film illustrates the positive character of such Indian pictures: “The story, played by an all-Indian cast of 300 Kiowas and Comanches, includes a four-way love story, two buffalo hunt scenes, a battle scene, village scenes, dances, deceit, courage, hand to hand combat, love scenes, and a happy ending” (n.p). These dynamic portrayals contrast with other films produced during this period about white heroes fighting hostile Indians.

Perhaps more than any other, the Indian pictures of D. W. Griffith elucidate the tensions in early cinema between the positive, quasi-ethnographic chronicles of American Indian life and the mythological depictions of screen savages. Griffith’s positive images of white-Indian camaraderie in The Redman and the Child (1908) gave way to more popular movies featuring savage warriors (The Battle of Elderbrush Gulch, 1914), mystical pre-encounter primitives (A Pueblo Legend, 1912), and heroic reenactments of General George Armstrong Custer’s last stand (Massacre, 1912). Griffith was not alone in his stereotypical, revisionist histories of white-Indian relations. Theodore Wharton’s The Indian Wars (1914), starring none other than Bill Cody, revised the violent history of the U.S. Cavalry in Indian Country to produce a triumphant and jingoistic narrative of American heroism at war. With funding from the War Department, The Indian Wars recast the U.S. military as heroic and benevolent toward American Indians in an effort to recruit soldiers to enlist and fight in World War I. Other, more reverent films, eulogized American Indians as if they had already or were soon to vanish. Zane Grey’s The Vanishing American (1925) took a different approach than Indian Wars by criticizing the betrayal of American Indians by Christian missionaries and the federal government. Adapted from Grey’s series in Ladies Home Journal (1922–1923), the film exchanged a triumphant narrative of westward expansion for the tragic fatalism of the vanishing Indian myth. The film is even introduced with an epigraph from American eugenicist Herbert Spencer that reads “we have unmistakable proof that throughout all past time there has been a ceaseless devouring of the weak by the strong … a survival of the fittest” (quoted in Welsch & Adams, 2005, p. 144). The film’s prologue then depicts humanity at its infancy as primitive cave dwellers who appear to share much more in common with American Indians than Euro-Americans. Establishing separate evolutionary lineages, the film attributes Euro-American conquest of American Indians to the brutal yet unstoppable processes of natural selection. At best, the film is ambivalent about the eradication of the indigenous residents or Monument Valley and, at worst, the film is a Social Darwinist fantasy that excuses American Indian genocide as a step in human evolution.

Other early filmmakers saw the development of cinema as an opportunity to visually document primitive cultures before they vanished. For instance, critics, filmmakers, and academics praised Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) as a groundbreaking documentary use of cinema for ethnographic research. Flaherty filmed everyday life in a community of Quebec Inuit, following the trials of Nanook, his wife Nyla, and their family as they traveled and searched for food in the harsh conditions of the Canadian arctic. For all Flaherty’s claims of authenticity, Rony (1996) calls Nanook a work of cinematic taxidermy, a practice characterized by the use of film to preserve, encase, and curate a preferred image of racial Others. Flaherty staged and reconstructed events to capture a superlatively primitive image of Inuit life, including hunting scenes in which Nanook (whose real name was Allakariallak) would normally have used a gun instead of a spear (Nichols, 1991). The film’s exoticized gaze conveyed an image of indigenous life lacking in technology, intelligence, and culture (Knopf, 2008). Nanook is emblematic of several representational challenges that emerged in early cinema. First, the impulse to document the primitive condition was premised on a troubling misapplication of natural selection theory, or that indigenous life was necessarily doomed and must therefore be chronicled for posterity. Second, the film’s vision of indigenous life was based on a notion of pre-contact innocence and purity. In other words, “authentic” native life belonged to humanity’s past. The dynamic protagonist of the Indian picture evolved into the white man’s Indian, a primitive subspecies of humanity dreadfully fated to assimilation or extermination. Silent cinema established the tropes and imagery that later became the America western (Friar & Friar, 1972).

The Western, or John Ford’s Indian (1939–1964)

In Chris Eyre’s adaptation of Sherman Alexie’s novel Smoke Signals (1998), Thomas tells his reluctant travel companion Victor “the cowboys always win … what about John Wayne, he’s about the toughest cowboy of them all in it.” In this scene, the two young Coeur D’Alene men have their bus seats stolen by two belligerent white cowboys who insultingly refer to them as “Injuns.” With a cynical laugh, Victor responds to Thomas “you know, in all those movies you never saw John Wayne’s teeth. Not once. I think there’s something wrong when you don’t see a guy’s teeth.” Here, Victor is referring to Wayne’s legendary tough-guy stoicism throughout his on-screen portrayals of rugged Indian fighters on the American frontier. Indeed, throughout the golden age of the American western (Stagecoach, 1939; Drums Along the Mohawk, 1939; Fort Apache, 1948; She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1949; Wagon Master, 1950; Rio Grande, 1950; The Searchers, 1956; Sergeant Rutledge, 1960; Two Rode Together, 1962; and Cheyenne Autumn, 1964), white cowboys, frequently portrayed by “The Duke,” heroically defeated hoards of faceless and menacing Indians to prepare the frontier for settlement. The genre’s influence is difficult to overestimate. Smith (2009) explains, “westerns set up a language that extends the metaphor of the frontier into paired opposites of, for example the wilderness versus civilization, the individual versus community, savagery versus humanity” (p. 49). Thomas and Victor’s conversation is a satirical commentary on the how the mythology of the Western in American popular culture continues to shape the context of Euro-American and American Indian relations in the present.

While there are thousands of American westerns, not including the rapidly reproduced Italio-American “spaghetti westerns” of Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone, the films of John Ford are the most responsible for the Hollywood image of the screen savage (Nolley, 1998). John Ford’s films are the most instructive because of their influence in defining the modern character of the white man’s Indians in popular culture. The larger genre is beyond the scope of this chapter. Of all westerns, Ford’s in particular reconstructed Euro-Americans life on the frontier in the later half of the 19th century, featuring significant American Indian plots and characters. Ford frequently conflated myth and history, referencing real historical figures and events (the so-called Indian Wars of the late 19th century), but without demonstrating fidelity to the historical record. For instance, The Searchers (1956) includes an event similar to Custer’s massacre of Black Kettle’s band of Cheyenne; yet, Ford conveniently replaces Cheyenne with Comanche in a definitive military defeat at the hands of the U.S. Cavalry. Nolley argues that this conflation was not a problem for Euro-Americans because their history was well documented. American Indian history, being less known to cinematic audiences, was at greater risk of being fictionalized. Many scholars of the American western argue that Ford’s films eradicated distinctions between diverse nations, collapsing them into one generic and simplistic image (Coleman, 2005; Darby, 1996; Maltby, 1996; Redding, 2007; Schwartzman, 2012; Slotkin, 1992).

Ford’s Indians were extraordinarily violent and cruel, frequently the initiators of bloody confrontation. For instance, Stagecoach (1939) reduced Geronimo (referred to as “the butcher”) and the Apache to generic bloodthirsty monsters who menaced peaceful settlers (mostly women and children) (Sickels, 2007). The Searchers sexualized the Indian menace and evoked fears of miscegenation, tapping into mythological conceptions of racialized Others as incapable of controlling their animalistic desires (Eckstein & Lehman, 2004; Projansky, 2000, p. 40–42). The sexually craven Chief Scar and his band of Comanche abduct two young white women, prompting Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) to engage in a violent campaign to find and avenge his niece’s honor. Similarly, in Two Rode Together (1961), the efforts of Marshall Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart) and Lieutenant Jim Gary (Richard Widmark) to rescue white captives is complicated by their observation that the abductees have “turned savage,” adopting not only their grunting language but the Comanche proclivity for sexual violence (Aleiss, 2005, pp. 109–110). Without the same sexual overtones, other films such as Wagon Master (1950) contrast pious (Mormon) settlers against the threat of white outlaws and hostile Indians to convey that primitive living on the frontier turns whites into savages (Indick, 2008; Tate, 2014). The film makes the case for conquest over peaceful coexistence to ensure that frontier settlement does not taint the virtues of civilization.

Although some of Ford’s westerns attempted to tell the story from an American Indian perspective, Nolley observes that most ultimately distorted the dress, customs, and language of the nations they purported to represent. For instance, in Fort Apache (1940), Cochise speaks in Pidgin English and is demonstratively less capable than his male counterparts (Kilpatrick, 2003). In the putatively pro-Indian Cheyenne Autumn, non-Indian actors such as San Mineo, Richard Montalban, and Gilbert Roland played the Indian leads as shallow caricatures of generic Plains Indians. Of course, white actors have appeared in red face in dozens of other films throughout this period, films such as Winchester ’73 (1950), Apache (1954), Chief Crazy Horse (1955), The Unforgiven (1960), Navajo Joe (1966), The Hallelujah Trail (1965), and White Comanche (1968). Jojola (1998) observes that in many of these, pro-Indian white actors played their Indian avatars as hyper-spiritual and animalistic, often expressing themselves in unintelligent grunts. Whether savage or noble, the Indian of Ford’s westerns, and the genre in general, stood in the way of modern civilization. Thus, the western has come to define the American Indian in popular culture as Euro-American’s inferior and often dangerous racial Other.

The New Age Indian and the Counterculture (1964–1996)

The American Indian protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s helped reformulate the cinematic invention of the white man’s Indian. During the previous decade, Congress mounted a sustained political effort to assimilate American Indians into mainstream culture and to open tribal lands to economic development. Under the policy of termination, the federal government extinguished legal recognition of 109 sovereign Indian nations and established urban relocation programs to encourage assimilation (Fixico, 1986). Though the program dispossessed Indian nations of millions of acres of land, it succeeded in galvanizing widespread political resistance throughout Indian country and in the newly formed pan-tribal urban enclaves of cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis (Nagel, 1996; Johnson, Nagel, & Champagne, 1997). Organizations such as the National Indian Youth Council (1964) and the American Indian Movement (AIM) (1968) adopted the phrase “red power” as a part of a radical discourse of empowerment, resistance, and self-determination. As a form of protest, American Indians staged events such as the Puyallup fish-ins for treaty rights (1964) and dramatic occupations of important sites such as Cornwall Bridge (1968), Alcatraz Island (1969), Mount Rushmore (1970), Fort Lawton (1970), The BIA (1972), and Wounded Knee (1973). Some protests met violent resistance from law enforcement. Most notably, two AIM members were killed by police during the 71-day standoff at Wounded Knee (Johnson, 1996). As with the Black Panther Party and Students for a Democratic Society, the Federal Bureau of Investigation also engaged in a campaign to prosecute, disrupt, and infiltrate AIM and other radical Indian organizations.

Despite achieving limited success in reforming national policy, the Indian activism of this period increased the visibility of indigenous people and dramatized their political struggles for the American public (Smith & Warrior, 1996). Sympathetic Hollywood celebrities such as Marlon Brando, Jonathan Winters, and Dick Gregory expressed their support by attending protest events and publicizing Indian political demands. Brando famously refused his 1973 academy award for The Godfather by sending Apache actress Sacheen Littlefeather to read a statement in protest of the film industry’s treatment of American Indians. Influenced by the social transformations of the 1960s and 1970s, Hollywood produced more sympathetic but nonetheless problematic images of American Indians. While the western largely demonized American Indians, the countercultural Indian feature romanticized the anti-establishment and pro-environmental values that sympathetic Euro-Americans grafted onto American Indian culture.

Abraham Polonsky’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969) is a case-in-point. The film is based on a 1909 incident in Banning, California, in which a drunken Paiute named Willie Boy shot the sleeping father of a young white woman, whom he abducted and raped. Willie Boy absconded with the young woman and was pursued through the desert by two armed posses. With no way out, Willie Boy committed suicide (Lawton, 1960). Polansky’s adaptation, however, transforms Willie Boy (Robert Blake) from a drunken savage to a legendary outlaw whose tragic death symbolized the anti-war, anti-government values of the period (Sandos & Burgess, 1994). The Vietnam War provided an occasion for filmmakers to connect American violence abroad with a history of violence against American Indians. For instance, Soldier Blue’s (1970) graphic depiction of the Sand Creek massacre matched the atrocities committed by American soldiers at My Lai, in Vietnam. Similarly, Sandos and Burgess (1998) explain, “Willie Boy mirrors the discontent and angst many Americans, especially the young, felt about the country and its mission at the depths of disillusionment over the Vietnam conflict” (p. 112).

Similar to other films released that year, including The Wild Bunch (1969) and Easy Rider (1969), Willie Boy embodied the virtues of youthful rebellion and blamed “the system” for lawless, anti-social behavior. Sheriff Cooper (Robert Redford), Willie Boy’s law enforcement counterpart, was similarly out of place in his world and compelled by forces beyond his control to fight a war not of his own making. While the film is sympathetic toward American Indians, at points even critical of violent frontier mythology, Willie Boy ultimately appropriates Native imagery to dramatize the angst and alienation of white anti-war movements. As Kilpatrick (1999) concludes, “the film misses the mark by making the Indians, en masse and in particular, stand-ins for other people and other ideas, as did many other films of the era” (p. 76).

Other films sought to cultivate compassion toward American Indians by seeking out authentic portrayals of indigenous life and history. In A Man Called Horse (1970), Euro-American interest in native spiritualism became an opportunity for self-discovery when English aristocrat John Morgan (Richard Harris) is captured and eventually accepted by a Sioux band. Despite being lauded as an authentic portrayal of Lakota life, American Indians criticized the film for its vagueness and gross misrepresentation of traditional rituals such as the Sundance. Deloria (1998) remarked “as we learned from movies like A Man Called Horse, the more ‘accurate’ and ‘authentic’ a film is said to be, the more extravagant it is likely to be in at least some aspects of its misrepresentation of Indians” (quoted in Churchill, 1996, p. 423).

Perhaps the only few anti-establishment films to humanize American Indians are Little Big Man (1970) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Though not without its flaws, Little Big Man satirized pioneer society throughout the lifetime of a white boy adopted by the Cheyenne nation. The film portrayed Indians as multidimensional characters, neither wholly bad nor good, who exhibited complex emotion and intellect. To a lesser extent, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s Chief Bromden (Will Sampson) defiantly mocked stereotypes by playing the part of a mute stoic Indian. When Mac (Jack Nicholson) discovers the ruse, he laughs, “you fooled them, Chief … you fool them all.” Throughout the 1970s, American Indians also rebelled on screen throughout so-called “Redsploitation” features such as Flap (1970), Journey Through Rosebud (1972), Billy Jack (1971), The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), Ransom (1970), and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977). But, Jojola (1998) notes that the anti-American attitude of these rebellious and avenging native protagonists is often portrayed as a detriment to their common sense.

The following decades (1980s and 1990s) can be characterized as period of imperial nostalgia, where Hollywood expressed the longing reverence of the dominant cultures for the people and lands it destroyed (Rosaldo, 1989). Hollywood features expressed sympathy by constructing Indians in positive but nonetheless stereotypical ways. The paltry remake of Stagecoach (1986) turned Ford’s original into a dull and unconvincing lecture on the plight of Indians. Meanwhile, films such as The Emerald Forest (1985) and Clearcut (1993) revived the image of the ecological savage to inspire Caucasians to care about the Earth. Yet, the image of Indians as proto-environmentalists with deep, spiritual connections to nature draws much less from indigenous ecological philosophy than it does from the racist imagery of Indians as animalistic, mystical, and primitive. Other films such as Black Robe (1992) implicitly evoked the “white man’s burden,” depicting the travails of a 17th century priest who is compelled, yet fundamentally unable to help the poor and innocent Indians he encounters. Most sympathetic films missed the mark simply because they either narrated indigenous history from the perspective of Euro-Americans or defined American Indian life exclusively in terms of the past. Such films include 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), Geronimo (1993), Cheyenne Warrior (1994), and Last of the Dogmen (1995). The blockbuster Indian features of the 1990s were particularly pained by the tragic myth of the vanishing Indian. Dances With Wolves (1990), Thunderheart (1992), and The Last of the Mohicans (1993) are the three most prominent films of this period that attempted to alleviate imperialist (white) guilt (Baird, 1993; Edgerton, 1994; Keller, 2003; Lake, 1997; Prats, 1998). Dances with Wolves was criticized by reviewers as a story of a white male whose alienation from his own culture drove a project of self-discovery and guilt purification. While films such as The Powwow Highway (1989), Dead Man (1995), and The Sunchaser (1996) made some progress in humanizing American Indians, featuring Indian perspectives and actors, Hollywood’s Indian films were by-and-large committed to assuaging collective remorse for colonization instead of deconstructing the harmful images of the previous decades.

But, interpretations of these films are not uniform, particularly within the voices of Indian Country. Debates around a film such as Dances With Wolves are particularly illustrative of how contemporary films that feature native history and culture are often the subjects of hegemonic negotiation. In other words, such cinematic texts work within existing frameworks to transform stereotypes with greater or lesser degrees of success. While some critics argued that the film used Lakota culture and identity to privilege the identity questions of Euro-American men, others believed that Dances was a reinterpretation of frontier mythology that reflexively portrayed native history and culture, attempting to challenge stereotypes and right historical inaccuracies. Lake provides a detailed analysis of the film as well as both professional reviews and critical responses. He observes:

True, Dances' central character is a white male, but this need not mean that either the character or the film oppresses. Rather, the character enacts and the film celebrates one emancipatory model of intercultural negotiation in which a dialectical self lives an argument between its “essential” and “conjunctural” tendencies. The “going native” interpretation misreads this self, belittles and distorts the model, and wrongly concludes that the search for an “authentic” identity (or pure tradition) must be a quixotic quest covering a hegemonic need to subjugate the Other. Dunbar's journey of self-discovery is neither conversion nor conquest; instead, it is “an irreducible otherness facing itself unmasked,” a “process of contamination.”

(Jousse, 56, p. 86)

Critical responses to the film, particularly from individuals from native communities, illuminated how the film humanized native history and culture, portraying indigenous characters with depth, intelligence, and humor. Of course, the negative reviews of the film vastly outweighed the positive; the latter were more reflective of native voices, while the former were largely Euro-American. Lake found that Euro-American critics were too concerned with a facile notion of “authenticity” to the determinant of what many native critics found to be a humanizing portrayal of Indian identity. The responses to Dances illustrated that while Hollywood has generally portrayed indigenous characters as violent and unintelligent, even blockbuster films can deconstruct decades of poor representations and generate humanizing portrayals within the framework of the Western.

Indian Princesses

In 1995, Disney reintroduced American screen audiences to the legend of Powhatan Pamunkey “princess” Pocahontas and the colonial settlement of Jamestown, Virginia. Pocahontas is an animated feature that narrates the romantic relationship between Pocahontas and English settler John Smith. With promises of land, gold, and glory, accomplished colonizer Smith arrives in the new world with Governor Ratcliffe and the Virginia Company. Despite rising tensions between the English settlers and Virginia Indians, Smith and Pocahontas develop a mutual interest in one another. Pocahontas defies her father (Chief Powhatan), who wishes her to marry Kocoum and is hostile toward the English settlers. Kocoum’s death precipitates war between the two factions, only diffused by Pocahontas rescuing Smith from her father’s blade. Realizing the futility of mutual violence, the two groups suddenly lay down their arms and the colonists return to England with the villainous Ratcliffe in chains.

The gross historical inaccuracies of the film are too many to identify here, but of greater importance is how Disney has romanticized and softened the brutal realities of Euro-American colonialism. The same can also be said of Ridley Scott’s retelling of their relationship in The New World (2005). Indeed, it is hard to imagine the alleged sexual relationship between pre-adolescent Pocahontas and the middle-aged John Smith as anything other than rape. As Buescher and Ono (1996) contend, “Pocahantas rewrites the quincentennial story of Columbus and other colonizers’ conquering of the Americas, and in its place tells the tale of a relatively peaceful, romantic encounter between colonizers and Native Americans” (p. 28). Pocahontas is a fitting example of how Hollywood has portrayed American Indian women (Ono & Buescher, 2001). The predominant image, the Indian Princess is first and foremost exotic, wild, and sexually available to Euro-American men. For instance, Disney’s version of Pocahontas is highly sexualized, drawn by animators as scantily clad and voluptuous. Despite the film’s billing as a children’s feature, Pocahontas is made to embody the physical traits that meet the highly unattainable conceptions of Western beauty, including an extraordinarily small waste, large breasts, flowing hair, and long legs. She also embodies patriarchal attributes of traditional Western femininity, including naiveté, compliancy, passivity, and sexual availability. Above all, she is more attracted to white heroism than to the cruel and stoic masculinity of her tribe.

Second, the Indian Princess must save, give aid to, or collaborate with white men to bring civilization to her tribe (Marubbio, 2009; Lajimodiere, 2013). This inherent desire for colonization is premised on the vague promise of greater respect for women’s rights and dignity under the control and influence of Western values. Thus, the Princess appropriates and distorts Western feminism and human rights discourse as a rationale for colonization in the name of protecting women. Her tribe’s disrespect toward women’s agency taps into the imperial desire to, in Spivak’s (1988) words, “save brown women from brown men” (p. 282). Nonetheless, the Princess appears to be a positive image because it is often contrasted against the image of the “Squaw” or the “Drudge.” Found throughout the American Western, these “bad” Indian women are defiant, lack any sense of sexual morality, and constantly emasculate their male counterparts (Merskin, 2010). Though mostly the Princess, Pocahontas is also defiant of male authority and initially resistant to domesticity. Smith, however, introduces her to the benefits of Western values and saves her from the corrosive effects of adhering to tribal gender roles. Indeed, the Squaw/Princess dichotomy also accounts for the contradiction in portrayals of Indian masculinity as hegemonic yet effeminate, threatening yet inferior. Moreover, both portraits of Indian women create a rationale for Western colonization, to save the Princess and conquer the Squaw.

Prime Time Indians

The televisual Indian evolved quite differently than her/his counterpart in film. At some points, television has been more progressive in its portrayals of American Indian characters, more willing to feature native actors and storylines than mainstream Hollywood film. In part, television moved away from periodizing American Indians in the western, opting instead to integrate them into more contemporary plotlines. The series Brave Eagle (1955) was groundbreaking for, at the very least, featuring an American Indian protagonist’s perspective on the settlement of the western United States. One drawback, however, was that frontier dramas often relegated American Indians to the role of helpful sidekick. The Lone Ranger’s (1949–1957) Tonto, Broken Arrow’s (1956–1958) Chief Cochise, and Daniel Boone’s (1964–1970) various Indian assistants were presented as acceptable models of supportive Indians who aided intrepid white heroes in civilizing the West. Like in most westerns, these characters were also portrayed as inarticulate and less capable than the white frontiersmen they assist (Fitzgerald, 2011). Although The Rifleman (1959–1963) and it’s spin-off The Law of the Plainsman (1959–1960) followed a similar formula, the series protagonist, Deputy Marshal Sam Buckhart, was an extraordinarily capable Harvard-educated Apache. To gain acceptance, Buckhart—who was deft with a gun and versed in Shakespeare—had to far surpass the low expectations of the program’s white characters. This image is perhaps preferable to hackneyed stereotypes or invisibility. For instance, other television western’s such as Gunsmoke (1955–1975), Rawhide (1959–1965), Have Gun Will Travel (1957–1963), and Bonanza (1959–1973) largely “de-Indianized” the frontier (FitzGerald, 2013, p. 15). In contrast to The Rifleman and The Law of the Plainsman, if native characters appeared, they were by-and-large minor and unremarkable.

To the credit of television producers, a number of dramatic series took Indians out of the Plains and into contemporary urban settings. The greater visibility of American Indians following the protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s was reflected in these short-lived but groundbreaking series that feature Native protagonists in modern times. In the series Hawk (1966), John Hawk was an American Indian working as a New York City police detective. While the setting for Nakia (1974) was rural New Mexico, the ABC series featured an American Indian sheriff deputy (Nakia Parker) who looked and acted like many other contemporary Native people. Of course, these television series were not without their drawbacks. FitzGerald observes that American Indian TV characters of the 1960s had merely evolved from the “apprentice white man” of the small screen western to the fully assimilated American envisioned by termination-era policymakers (p. 111).

Since then, television has experimented with Native protagonists and major supporting characters to varying degrees of success. For instance, in CBS’s Northern Exposures (1990–1995), the presence of central Alaska Native characters reflected the degree to which indigenous life is part of contemporary American society. Although more could have been done to explain their background, quirky but humane characters such as Marilyn Whirlwind and Ed Chigliak play pivotal roles in the community life of Cicely, Alaska. And whereas Walker, Texas Ranger (1993–2001) gave Chuck Norris’ lawman a dubious and stereotypical Indian ancestry to account for his extraordinary tracking skills, A&E’s (now Netflix) Longmire (2012–) offers complex portraits of life on a Northern Cheyenne reservation and casts Native actors such as Lou Diamond Phillips (Cherokee) in humanizing roles. In 2015, Zahn McClarnon portrayed Hanzee on FX’s Fargo, a Native American Vietnam veteran who works as an enforcer for an Irish mafia organization. Hanzee is a remarkable complex character who, adopting a western gunslinger persona, exacts revenge against white racists and refuses a compliant secondary role in the all-white organization. Adam Beach (Saulteaux First Nations), in his role as Mohawk detective Chester Lake in Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit, is another example of how Indian characters have been integrated into contemporary TV dramas without resorting to timeworn stereotypes. But, for every groundbreaking character, there are dozens of American Indian characters and actors relegated to secondary roles and boutique plotlines. One-dimensional indigenous characters have surfaced and then disappear in network programs including, My Favorite Martian, Star Trek, The Adventures of Superman, Star Trek Voyager, and Quantum Leap (Adare, 2009).

Television’s search for modern Indian plotlines has engaged an emerging stereotypical image: “the rich Indian” (Lacroix, 2011). The counterpoint to the noble eco-savage and the drunken reservation Indian, the rich or casino Indian cynically profits from a unique tribal status. Originating from skeptical press coverage of Indian gaming operations and related tribal industries, the rich Indian is portrayed as greedy, resentful, and exploitive of both Euro-Americans and members of their own nation for profit (Boxberger, 2013; Corntassel & Witmer, 2008; Harmon, 2010; Leavitt, Covarrubias, Perez, & Fryberg, 2015; Splide, 2004). The rich Indian is also considered inauthentic because she or he embraces the ethics of Western capitalism and lifestyles of conspicuous consumption. The stereotype suggests that “real Indians” are premodern, ignorant to the benefits of modernity, and without a concept of private property. Rich Indians are mocked for selling out their culture in episodes of Drawn Together, Family Guy, Saturday Night Live, South Park, and The Chappelle Show. In dramatic series, such as The Killing and The Sopranos, rich Indians are an economic threat to Euro-Americans, sometimes characterized as mobsters and racketeers willing to engage in criminal activity to make a profit. Cramer (2008) argues that one consequence of the rich Indian stereotype is that tribes litigating for federal recognition are sometimes denied legal standing because they do not appear sufficiently impoverished or premodern. And for those indigenous communities living in extreme poverty in places like Pine Ridge, South Dakota, the rich Indian stereotype provides a rationale for lawmakers to reduce funding for vital services such as health care and unemployment. Finally, the rich Indian stereotype shifts the blame for reservation poverty from the Federal Government to a small group of greedy Indian sell-outs. Although new influxes of wealth from gaming operations sometimes introduce government corruption and worsen economic disparities, the rich Indian stereotype poses a significant challenge to both tribal recognition and sustainable economic development throughout Indian Country.

Visual Sovereignty

In 2015, a group of Native actors walked off the set of Adam Sandler’s movie The Ridiculous Six in protest of the director’s glib use of offensive and timeworn stereotypes. Despite the efforts of a new generation of American Indian directors and actors, as well as progress in mainstream Hollywood, the Screen Actor’s Guild reports that Native actors only account for 0.3% of all on-screen parts (Buckley, 2015). American Indians are still portrayed, by and large, as one-dimensional characters, and Indian actors are relegated to secondary or boutique screen roles. Adam Beach explains that he still receives scripts with insulting roles for Native actors. He notes, “I think there will always be attempts to draw on the weakness of native people’s struggles. The savage Indian will always be the savage Indian. The white man will always be smarter and more cunning. The cavalry will always win” (quoted in Buckley, 2015, n. p.). In light of this challenge, American Indian directors and screenwriters have begun crafting a counter-cinema that challenges many of Hollywood’s conventions for portraying indigenous people. The recent renaissance in native filmmaking has opened new opportunities to reframe how American Indian culture can and should be represented in the 21st century.

The Euro-American gaze of Hollywood has generated a counterhegemonic movement for what some scholars are calling “visual sovereignty,” a mode of representation that laughs at the camera and confronts spectators’ stereotypical assumptions about indigenous life (Howe & Markowitz, 2013; Raheja, 2013). Schwartz (2013) argues that Native Americans are “currently earmarking images … and using them for their own ends” (p. 3). Early examples of this mode of cinema include Randy Redroad’s Haircut Hurts (1992) and High Horse (1994), two satirical films about Indians who do not innately understand or identify with what it traditionally means to be Indian in film (Hearne, 2012b; Marubbio, 2013; Schweninger, 2013; Singer, 2001). Following this unconventional style, Chris Eyre’s films Smoke Signals (1998), Skins (2002), The Business of Fancydancing (2002), and A Thief of Time (2004) place Indian characters in unexpected, sometimes humorous, but always humanizing roles. Together with Coeur D’Alene novelist Sherman Alexie, Eyre’s Indians are not sidekicks or savages but students, nerds, disc jockeys, athletes, combat veterans, police officers, urban gay men, poets, musicians, and so-forth. Eyre’s films challenge Hollywood convention by telling Native stories in everyday American contexts (Mihelich, 2001). These films address the most common stereotypes: the stoic warrior, the vanishing American, the Plains Indians, and the wise elder. Feier (2011) explains that these protagonists who “live in contemporary America symbolize the Native peoples’ spiritual strength and individuality, qualities which have been ignored by popular culture. The … films do not adhere to Hollywood’s notion of America’s indigenous population, but represent American Indian existences that reflect the diversity of the Native experience … American Indian films undermine the image of the Hollywood Indian by featuring multifaceted Native characters” (p. 60). Eyre and other filmmakers enact visual sovereignty by reclaiming Indian imagery and showing spectators the absurdity of their condition expectations.

Native counter-cinema explores what can be seen as generalizable human travails refracted through an indigenous lens. Many recent Native films address the intimate dynamics of family and community life. For example, Shouting Secrets (2011) offers a portrait of an Apache family forced to confront years of strain and distance after a family tragedy. Wesley, a successful novelist, returns home to address the strain produced by his absence. Similarly, Empire of Dirt (2013) addresses intergeneration conflict between women in a First Nation family. Lena is forced to return to her rural home after her 13-year-old daughter overdoses, bringing to the surface long-standing conflicts between friends and family members. Both films advance the trope of returning home to provide an introspective exploration of native family and community life. Meanwhile, more explicitly political films address the challenges of building community in the context of historic divisions and inequality. For example, The Cherokee Word for Water (2013) retells the true story of activist Wilma Mankiller’s work on the Bell Waterline Project throughout the 1980s. The film chronicles Mankiller’s efforts to organize clean water and sustainable housing projects in a rural Cherokee community found to be systematically disempowered and divided. Though highly sentimentalized, the film provides a positive example of indigenous communities working together to solve collective problems. Other films address more painful and traumatic histories. The Activist (2014) remediates the history of the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation as a political thriller that highlights law enforcement’s persecution of the American Indian Movement.

Other new Native cinema reflects more broadly on the nature of peace, justice, and reconciliation. The Road to Paloma (2014) follows Wolf as he evades the pursuit of the law after he avenges his mother’s death. The film explores competing cultural conceptions of retributive and restorative justice, highlighting the distinctiveness of indigenous perspectives. Similarly, The Lesser Blessed (2012) and On the Ice (2011) address issues of violence, truth, and reconciliation from within the common ground of youth coming-of-age narratives. Native counter-cinema also works from within the documentary genre to foreground native perspectives on history and identity. This May Be the Last Time (2014) traces the history of American music back to the Muskogee and Seminole appropriation of early Scottish Christian hymnals. Following the model of political documentaries such as Incident at Oglala (1992), A Good Day to Die (2010) chronicles the life of AIM activist Dennis Banks and the rise of the Red Power movement throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Both films are examples of how a documentary can highlight the consequence of strategic omissions of indigenous activism and survivance from dominant history.

One challenge for American Indian counter-cinema is how filmmakers can successfully address Euro-American and American Indian audiences at the same time. Eyre’s films, in particular, engage both audiences by constructing characters with traits and experiences identifiable to nearly any individual. Though the characters and plotlines are unmistakably Indian, the films resonate with the diverse experiences of everyday life in America. Thus, his films achieve the effect of being both vernacular and mainstream. Other filmmakers laugh at the camera by making films that challenge and disrupt the viewing experience itself. This more avant-garde approach to filmmaking encounters the Euro-American gaze of cinema that traces its roots to Flaherty’s Nanook of the North. The Fast Runner (2000) is an example of filmmaking that adopts an indigenous centered viewpoint (Evans, 2010). Eyre even calls The Fast Runner the “most Indian” film he has ever seen (quoted in Diamond, Bainbridge, & Hayes, 2009). Shot like an ethnographic film documenting indigenous life in the Arctic, the movie reframes the primitive cultural stereotypes established in Nanook by introducing complex and community-oriented depictions of Inuit life. Raheja (2007) argues that the film affirms indigenous community identity while also indicting the anthropological gaze of Euro-American cinemagoers. Visual sovereignty takes a variety of forms, but the ultimate goal is for filmmakers to take ownership of indigenous images, deconstruct long-standing cinematic stereotypes, and challenge the assumed category of “Indian” in contemporary society.

Culture Appropriations: The Case of Native Mascots

When George Preston Marshall moved the Boston Braves professional football franchise to Washington DC in 1937, he renamed the team “the Redskins” in honor of coach William Dietz. Passing himself off as Sioux, William “Lone Star,” Dietz counted himself among the small number of professional Indian athletes and was known for proudly dressing in war paint before games (Smith, 2011). Present-day owner Dan Snyder often defends the franchise name as a memorial to the Hall of Fame coach and other historic Native athletes. Yet, Waggoner’s (2004) five-part series on Dietz for Indian Country Today revealed that his claim to Sioux identity was entirely fraudulent; yet another case of a Caucasian playing Indian.

Regardless of Dietz ancestry, the mascot does not withstand critical scrutiny. Despite Snyder’s insistence that the franchise mascot honors American Indian history, the term “Redskin” is hardly a respectful form of address. The term is a racial slur, originally used to refer to the severed scalps of American Indians. In 1863, a Minnesota newspaper published an advertisement for bounties on renegade Indians that read, “the state reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every redskin sent to purgatory… This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth” (quoted in Welding, 2015). News and sports commentator Keith Olbermann called “Redskin” … “the last racist word you can say at the office and not get fired” (quoted in Zirin, 2013a). The term’s Indian-hating roots, along with the visual icon’s exaggerated skin color and Native phenotypes, illustrate how mascots negatively portray American Indian communities. At the center of the mascot controversy is who has the right to control the production of a group’s image, especially when such imagery has the power to convey racist ideas about that group.

Besides film and television, sports and advertising have had the most influence on popular conceptions of American Indians. Advertisers have a long history of using Native images to sell products. Anheuser-Busch even used a “Custer’s Last Fight” image to promote its beer in saloons as early as 1876 (Ganje, 2011). In 19th century advertising, images of spiritual “eco-savages” were also commonly used to promote medicines and other health-related products (Marcellus, 2008). Corporations have used American Indian images to promote everything from the Jeep Cherokee, Red Man Chewing Tobacco, Calumet Baking Powder, Sue Bee Honey, Land O’Lakes Butter, Crazy Horse Malt Liquor, and dozens of other products (Merskin, 2001). In the 1970s, Keep America Beautiful even used the crying image of Iron Eyes Cody (a man with questionable Cherokee heritage) as a part of their anti-littering campaign (Smith, 2009).

While commodified images of American Indians are ubiquitous in popular culture, this section focuses on sport culture because it is the most popular site where Indian imagery is used to generate a profit. Moreover, American Indian organizations have spent significant time and effort to end the use of sports mascots. Since 1968, the National Congress of American Indians has actively campaigned against stereotypes in sports and entertainment. AIM and the Conference on the Elimination of Racist Mascots have protested and lobbied university and professional sports to abandon their Native mascots. In 1991, Bill Means organized a protest of the World Series, featuring the Atlanta Braves and their fan’s infamous tomahawk chop cheer. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (2001) contends that the use of Native mascots “encourages biases and prejudices that have a negative effect on contemporary Indian people … (and) blocks genuine understanding of contemporary Native people as fellow Americans” (p. n.p.). Despite profound opposition from American Indian advocates, mascots continue to be used and defended by predominantly Euro-American organizations.

A vast amount of scholarship of sports mascots suggests that the commodification of Native images extends the physical practice of colonialism into the realm of the visual (King & Springwood, 2001a, 2001b, 2000; Miller, 1999). Taylor (2013) writes, “mascots have an investment in them of control through possession or ownership. Mascots can be created and constructed to fit tropes of colonialism, history, and myth-making in order to control the physical body of the Indian. This then gives the creators of mascots the ability to profit from the idea of the Indian to produce a cultural and commercial context to the conquering of the West and its people by ‘owning’ the lands and the peoples living upon said lands” (p. 13). To elaborate further, scholars such as Jason Edward Black, C. Richard King, and Charles Fruehling Springwood identify three ways in which mascots colonize Native images. First, mascots construct a generic stereotype that replaces diverse Indian cultures with nonspecific images. For instance, the Cleveland Indian’s grinning and cartoonish Chief Wahoo lacks any cultural distinctness. The caricature incorporates dissimilar people into the homogenous, feathered image of the Plains Indian. Not unlike the perspective of early European colonists, Wahoo is neither Navajo, Mohawk, Oneida, Illini, nor Cherokee, simply “Indian.” The same can be said for team names such as the Braves, the Warriors, the Indians, and the Chiefs.

Some professional and college sports teams try to avoid the problems with generic nicknames by using tribal-specific mascots, including the Chicago Blackhawks, University of Illinois “Fighting Illini,” University of Utah “Utes,” and the Florida State “Seminoles” (Endres, 2015). These institutions argue that using tribal-specific names and symbols honors those nations by encouraging athletes and/or students to emulate their identity and tradition. The trouble, however, is that while the names are tribal specific, the attributes these institutions hope to cultivate lack tribal specificity and draw from the symbolic repertoire of the white man’s Indian, qualities such as “fierce,” “proud,” and “stoic.” At Florida State University (FSU), Chief Osceola shares much more in common with the Plains Indian than he does with the Everglades-dwelling Seminoles of the 19th century. But FSU argues that Seminoles approve of the university’s use of their likeness as a brand, citing their long-standing consultative relationship with the Florida Seminole Tribal Council. But, as explained in the introduction, the university conflates the support of the tribal council with that of all Seminoles, a vast majority of whom do not see any of the profits garnered by this institutional cross-promotion. Soliciting the support of a small fraction of tribal members, particularly those with a financial stake in the mascot, is a strategy to diffuse legitimate criticism. Zirin (2014) goes so far as to call this strategy a “racism amnesty card,” a disingenuous ploy to manufacture the appearance of support, or at the very least debate, within Indian country to legitimize the continued use of a demeaning image.

Mascots take proprietary ownership over indigenous images. Spindel (2002) argues that mascots transform American Indians into “symbolic servants” whose visual labor generates profit for largely white institutions. Mirroring the physical dispossession of indigenous lands, mascotting makes images of American Indians the property of the franchise. A significant amount of money is a stake. Recently, the U.S. Patent Office withdrew trademark protection for the Washington NFL franchise because they considered the nickname insulting (Gershman, Jones, & Clark, 2014). Claims of reverence aside, Snyder and the organization continue to fight for control of the mascot, primarily because of the potential loss of millions of dollars in branding and merchandising revenue. In short, mascots reduce American Indians to appropriated commodities to be assimilated into capitalism.

Finally, scholars argue that mascots assimilate American Indian identity into Euro-American national identity. At a typical Atlanta Braves or Florida Seminoles game, it is not uncommon to see fans with red-painting painted faces simulating war chants and performing tomahawk chops in unison. Here, the Native mascot transforms American Indian identity into a conduit for Euro-Americans to temporarily express their inner “savage” self. Native identity is disarticulated from Native bodies, homogenizing distinct cultures into an implicitly Euro-American national identity (Taylor, 2015). As Black (2002) contends, this version of playing Indian “is a signifying practice that bolsters white power and weakens Indigenous power” (p. 608). In short, mascots are an assimilationist practice that render flesh-and-blood American Indians invisible and subservient to the needs of white national identity.

Despite the seeming permanence of the mascots, American Indian groups have made progress. The St. Johns “Redman” became the Red Storm in 1994 and Miami (Ohio) University dropped “the Redskins” in 1997. Activists such as Susan Harjo and Vernon Bellecourt worked for decades to raise national awareness and mobilize public opposition to mascots, the Washington franchise in particular (Zirin, 2013b). In 2002, a group of students at the University of North Colorado organized an intramural basketball team called the “Fightin’ Whities” as a satirical protest to the university’s use of Native mascots (Johansen, 2010; King, 2015; Klyde-Silverstein, 2012). The recent court ruling against the Washington Redskin’s copyright also provides hope for continued progress against the use of mascots. Moreover, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has taken action against the use of offensive racial caricatures in collegiate sports. In 2005, the NCAA banned mascots from post-season tournament play, stopping short of a total for lack of legal authority. After an NCAA-initiated self-evaluation, all teams cited for hostile and abusive imagery, and without waivers from specific nations, were cited and changed their imagery. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and the campaign “Change the Mascot” have also coordinated a national campaign to provide resources and information for resisting the Native mascotting in sports (NCAI, 2014).


This exploration of mass-media representations has mapped the historical contours of Indian visibility and invisibility in the terrain of the popular. American popular culture remains a site of hegemonic struggle over the status American Indians in U.S. public culture. Indeed, mystical eco-savages, violent renegade Indians, and red-faced white actors still circulate throughout Hollywood blockbusters such as the Twilight saga (2008–2012), James Cameron’s Avatar (2010), and the cinematic reboot of The Lone Ranger (2013). As Emma LaRocque (2010) puts it, the “Indian” in all its popular mediated forms “continues as currency for the colonizer’s archives, art, and entertainment” (p. 5). But the history, concepts, and stereotypes explored in this article demonstrate that, though popular culture has largely perpetuated U.S. colonialism, it has the potential for re-imagination. Struggles over everything from the movie images to sports mascots demonstrate the importance of studying the power of the image, particularly in the context of American settler colonialism. It is important that scholars of popular culture observe the connection between the indigenous image, ideology, and the politics of everyday life. Changing images alone will not advance the goal of American Indian self-determination; however, challenging the assumptions behind the image can produce the imaginative grounds for rethinking the American Indian’s political and cultural position in the 21st century.

Further Reading

Aleiss, A. (2005). Making the white man’s Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood movies. Westport, CT: Praeger.Find this resource:

Berkhofer, R. K. (1979). The white man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the present. New York: Vintage.Find this resource:

Bird, E. S. (1996). Dressing in feathers: The construction of the Indian in American popular culture. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.Find this resource:

Deloria, P. (1998). Playing Indian. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Find this resource:

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