The problem of Native American portrayal in television has been rampant since the early days of the media form. Churchill even writes that nowadays “American children believe feathers grow out of Indian heads!” This shocking statement is painfully understandable when one looks at the body of work that portrays Native Americans as only exotic, feather-dawning “others,” foreign to the understanding of mainstream society. Such a blatant disregard for depicting the true culture and practices of Native Americans has allowed this dramatized portrayal to take the place of reality in many American’s worldviews. Throughout the course of this blog post, I aim to examine and address a number of common Native American television stereotypes below.
TRIGGER WARNING: VIOLENCE
This particular clip is from a 1950’s television show called The Lone Ranger. Here, we get a look two different stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans: the “noble savage” and “brutal savage.” The scene opens with two men on horseback: one a white adolescent and the other a grown “Indian.” We then see that the white male is being held captive by this “brutal savage,” who is portrayed as a strange “other.” The captive white male even pleads the “Indian” to give him a drink of water, saying “c’mon, you can be human, can’t you?” This specific language connotes that the “brutal savage,” or “bad Indian” in question is in fact not human, a sub-human being that shares little of the White criteria of humanness.
As the two begin to fight, Tonto and The Lone Ranger ride into view, watching the fight from above. Tonto’s childish diction already depicts him as a lesser compared to the rugged, well-spoken White male beside him. When he sees another Native American fighting, he rides with the Lone Ranger not to save the Native American, but the small white adolescent. This action is demonstrative of the “noble savage” or “good Indian” stereotype, where a Native American “acts as a friend to the white man,” offers “aid,” and “saves white men from ‘bad’ Indians, and thus becomes a ‘good’ Indian” (Churchill). This scene is a perfect example of how a “noble savage” demonstrates all of these characteristics and comes to the aid of a white man who was assailed by “brutal savage” (or “bad Indian”).
This highlights the fact that Tonto’s “goodness” is purely a function of his proximity and alignment with his white master, who he aids with various crime fighting endeavors against the more vicious, mislead, and “brutal” of his own kind. It is Tonto’s departure from his true culture that allows him to gain the status of the “noble savage.” This premise of whitewashing Native Americans as a means of making them “good” is referred to by Georges and Sanders as “Killing the Indian and Saving the Man” in “Reconstructing Tonto.” Furthermore, the simplistic, dependent portrayal of Tonto is what Homi K. Bhabh calls “a fixed reality which is at once an “other” and yet entirely knowable and visible.” In this way, the audience gets to engage with the unknown while having this “other” simplified enough to remain palatable. This reductionist approach to the foreign stifles true Native American culture and opinion, allowing the audience to stereotype Native Americans as “Tonto like idiots and buffoons” according to Churchill.
The next video is a far different (but nonetheless troubling) depiction of Native Americans in the 1990’s comedy, Seinfeld.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpGfyp6MxkM (0 – 1:30) and (3:00 – end)
In the selected scenes, the White lead, Jerry, embarrasses himself by making a show of a stereotypical Native American statue into his friend’s apartment. Little did he know, Elaine’s friend Winona was of Native American descent. Jerry proceeds to spout off multiple racially charged jokes and turns of phrase to accompany the already abundantly insulting tribal dance he begins when rocking the statue in front of the group of women. After being immensely offended by the display Jerry puts on, Elaine’s exotically “beautiful” friend Winona leaves the apartment, making the mistake obvious.
In this situation, the apology that Jerry strives to make is merely an opportunity for him to exert his White dominance over her and work towards a sexual conquest. Winona, in this case, represents the Native American object of lust and desire, the “other” that bell hooks speaks to in her work, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” It is her exotic nature that enthralls Jerry, and as tradition would have it, he “conquers” the Native American beauty. This trend of White conquest of a native American beauty can be traced back to the early story of Pocahontas, a princess of Native American tradition who goes on to reject her heritage and confirm the supremacy of the White man. As Bird puts it, Native American women are “faceless, rather sexless squaws” or “sexy exotic princesses… who desire White men.” Such a clear explanation of the tragedy that befalls Native American women on screen makes it all the more difficult to bear. They are not only misrepresented as “savages” on screen but also as objectified spoils of conquest who yearn to be dominated by White men and Western Culture.
Noting these televised atrocities is a somber endeavor, yet all the more sobering when one considers that the aforementioned examples are but a fraction of the negative depictions Native Americans have had on screen. These false and inaccurate portrayals are deeply damaging to the subgroup as a whole and will continue to be unless actions are taken moving forward. With that, I leave you with the following questions.
- Why do you think these stereotypes of Native Americans are so prevalent on screen? Is it related to the economic incentives to use said stereotypes, an indication of the state of modern society as it pertains to Native Americans or both?
- While reading through my analysis of the clips above, did you have a different perspective on the matter? In the case of Seinfeld, do you think the producers of the shows are addressing the problematic stereotypes at hand through satire?
- How can we as Americans become more knowledgeable about true Native American culture, and how would this help with the portrayal of Native American stereotypes in the media?
- Are there any other shows you have watched recently that employed stereotypes similar to those portrayed in the clips above?
Ward Churchill, Fantasies of the Master Race (excerpts)
Diana George, with Susan Sanders, “Reconstructing Tonto”
S. Elizabeth Bird, “Gendered Construction of the American Indian in Popular Media”
Thank you all so much for reading this Blog Post! I welcome you to comment on the content and questions above, and I look forward to hearing what you have to say about the topic!