BLOG POST (MODULE 8): AARON CHELLIAH, A Savage Misrepresentation of a Noble Minority: The Challenge of Native Americans on the Silver Screen

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9F1SUkymcw&t=6s (0 – 1:20)

 

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.

 

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. Are there any other shows you have watched recently that employed stereotypes similar to those portrayed in the clips above?

Related Readings:
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!

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10 thoughts on “BLOG POST (MODULE 8): AARON CHELLIAH, A Savage Misrepresentation of a Noble Minority: The Challenge of Native Americans on the Silver Screen”

  1. Hi, Aaron!
    Thank you for sharing with us. The question you asked really made me have some deep thoughts regarding why we are constantly seeing these prevalent stereotypes of Native Americans on screen. In my opinion, the issue with Native Americans on screen is different from what we are dealing with the other ethnic group. The idea that popped up into my mind was the common saying that winners write the history. I think this is the case with Native Americans. Unless we purposefully study about the Native American history and cultures, we can see how little information and knowledge that we have about Native Americans. Almost all of our conceptions of Native Americans come from the depictions on television. As Churchill has mentioned in his essay, “good” Indians “accept their individual fate and the ultimate demise of their people” (180). This stereotype is aimed to cover up the brutal history of what white Americans did to the Native Americans. It makes audiences believe that Native Americans are our friends, and we are doing things for their own goods because their culture is not worth having in this society. If they do not accept our “help,” they are then categorized as the “bad” Indians, who is savage and who do not think about the “greater good.” This thought ultimately covers up the guilt and distracts people away from the serious problems and histories that white Americans have with Native Americans and make people believe that it is the Native Americans’ problem not to follow the “correct” way of living. I categorize the stereotypes of Native Americans on TV as a way of brainwashing, which is very pathetic.

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  2. Hi Aaron! Great post! Personally, I haven’t really seen much American Indian shows, or really any depiction of the ethnic group in the media, so thank you for providing your examples in your post! I think Native American stereotypes of them as stoic, exotic and wild (Bird), or a noble savage, primitive, simple, and warlike (Bataille), inferior to the white man and submissive, are so commonly shown on the screen because as Bataille puts it best, “All of the shows had the same theme: the victory of the European — now American — over the Native Americans,” and this is something so seasoned into the media that screenwriters and producers find it hard to deviate away from it. This is something mentioned in one of the readings from the other modules that executives and people behind the scenes of TV shows are “conservative” and don’t like to really exhibit people or customs that deviate from the “norm”. Because Native American headdresses and other traditional aspects have become trends and fads, perhaps this is why the stereotypes are still so prevalent on the screen — it makes money and reinforces the idea that aside from what society sees as “good things”, everything else in the American Indian culture is nonexistent or overlooked.

    In regards to your clips, I think that by showing the stereotypes in their shows, screen writers are pointing out that these stereotypes are problems and are inaccurate depictions of the culture of American Indians, but find difficulty straying away from what is “known” by the audiences to present the culture in a different light. To prevent and move away from labels and stereotypes of the Native American culture, I would say we just need to find more ways to be better educated about this topic. We don’t really talk about Native Americans in classes and they aren’t really mentioned in school curriculums aside from the Mayflower, pilgrims, and Christopher Columbus. Maybe if more about their culture (rather than just conquests of their people) are mentioned in schools thus affecting society’s understanding of the people, Native American stereotypes in the media will be more accurate rather than a blanketing mask of colorful headdresses, stoicism, wild and exotic sex gods, and savages.

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  3. Hey there! Thanks so much for your insight and analysis into stereotypes surrounding Native American characters on popular media. I believe these stereotypes are so prevalent on screen because they are directed towards an audience that already understand these pre existing stereotypes. Therefore, in an attempt to engage their viewers, these series successfully utilize these stereotypes to work alongside their understanding and expectations. I do not believe that the producers of the show were addressing problematic stereotypes through satire. I believe the offensive and blatant disregard for Native American culture in this scene was specifically utilized for the purpose of being appealing and comedic to a white audience. If it were meant to address problematic stereotypes, there should have been a more poignant and conclusive ending directing viewers to a lesson learned. We, as Americans, can become more knowledgeable about true Native American culture through engaging with individuals with first-hand knowledge and experience of this culture. This would greatly aid with the portrayal of Native Americans in popular media if the viewers have an understanding of what Native American culture truly represents and can repudiate the negative depictions with their newfound knowledge. Thanks again for sharing your analysis into these two series and their vastly different portrayals in both Seinfeld and The Lone Ranger.

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  4. Hey Aaron, great analysis of both Seinfield and The Lone Ranger. I feel that the reason why stereotypes around Native Americans are so prevalent are because of the lack of education on indigenous people.Churcill says that “only the narrowest and most negative range of graphic/ thematic possibilities are presented to public about indigenous peoples”. Writers can only write about what they know or what they want the viewers to know. Economic incentives could also be a reason, because the media is a multi-million industry. But at the same time, as media is advancing, so should the content advance as well. I didn’t have a different perspective on the matter. In the case of the Seinfield episode, I feel that by using humor to address a problematic stereotype is not productive. It leaves the viewers mindsets at a stand still; people laughed at it before and they will laugh at it again. The best way to become more knowledgeable is to ignore the stereotypes, regardless of if they are positive or negative. Also, a good way to help the portrayal is to base characters on real people. That way, representation in media is more accurate.

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  5. Hi Aaron!

    Great article. I think I really learned a lot more about the Native American depictions in modern entertainment and media publishing from your analysis. To answer your first question, I think there must be reasons to have Native American stereotypes become prevalent on screen. I believe it has a lot to do with what the audience think and what the audience like. At the end, the ultimate goal of making films and television products is to gain profit from impressing and entertaining the audience. An image that is created very different from what people subconsciously believe in will make the audience think the film has problem with looking for the right actor to fully act the character out. However, sometimes audience themselves do not even know what kind of person they’re subconsciously expecting, and that can always be the result of having stereotypical impression of certain minority groups. With that being said, it should be related to the economic incentives when using stereotypes.

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  6. Hi Aaron, great post!

    I think that the majority of Native American representation being stereotyped is due to the history between natives and the United States. We have committed many crimes against the native people (and are continuing to do so), yet the government justifies our exploitation of native people as bettering our country. Native American problems are then swept under the rug, and American media as tried to depict this minority group as either savage or magical, to make different audiences feel either frightened or content with Native Americans. This is similar to one of our older readings about the “model minority” for Asian Americans. If they are romanticized, problems that many natives may face today will be overlooked, and the American people will be content due to the fact that it will seem as if natives do not currently face any problems. So I think Native American stereotypes are continuing to be perpetuated in order to alleviate the guilt of our country’s relationship with Native Americans.

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  7. Thank you Aaron!
    This was an amazing analysis of the “noble savage” and “brute savage.” I really enjoyed reading this blog post and your analysis. I believe Americans, as a whole, need to accept change in the stereotypes that were enforced. Unless, change is not in place to write over those stereotypes, then the Native American portrayal in the media will stay the same. Accepting change in how the stereotypes are not actually true and realizing that there is more behind the Native American culture, then these stereotypes will break. I also believe, that starting off on the silver screen, or something small and building up from that in breaking the stereotypes will make a big difference. Because whatever audience that will watch such things, will see the accurate and proper representation of the Native American cultures. This will also break stereotypes and Americans will become more knowledgable.

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  8. Hi Aaron! Fantastic post!

    Personally, it’s been extremely difficult to find shows that portrayed Native Americans at all. Which I think is the first problem!

    You asked “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?’

    Well… I think knowledge may start from the media!
    First, it would be important to see more realistic modern day Native Americans.
    Next, it would be nice to see them in something other than a western.
    That is their stereotypical time and place, an idea put forth by Churchill.

    I think once we start seeing them represented, not only more often but in an accurate way, we can really use that to learn, question and grow.

    I think it’s hard for some people to become knowledgeable about a culture that they don’t think actually even exists anymore. So, as soon as the media portrays it as a current, living and breathing community, then can we learn more.

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  9. This was an interesting analysis. I must, however, disagree with your interpretation of the Seinfeld scene. As you alluded to in your questions, I think that that scene was an attempt at addressing these stereotypes through satire more than it was a display of them. The reason I can say this is that the primary reason that scene is funny is because the audience and the characters (apart from Jerry who provides the satirical tension) are on the same page, in finding those stereotypes outrageous. Were these stereotypes not being satirized, the scene would not actually be funny and hence not have a role in the episode.

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  10. I think that these stereotypes of Native Americans persist because the US is still trying to process the guilt from the violent history with indigenous people in its early days. Having this noble savage with the white protagonist allows the story to progress such that victims are the white folks and the victimizer are the Native American Indians. I also think that the stereotypes persist because it is just generally difficult to represent such a diverse group of people. The media has a tendency to reduce the diverse culture of different groups into a few characterizations. It also serves as a convenient signal for the viewers that the character is indian and allows the viewer to know what to expect. As Hertha mentioned in the interview, I think a general interest to know the whole truth and the recognition that these portrayals are not the whole truth. We can’t force people to think a certain way but by telling them to think critically of a show in the way that we are doing in this class then it could possibly help with the issue.

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