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Indian Myths vs Reality

Close your eyes and note what comes to mind when you hear the words "American Indian." No matter your political leanings and cultural sensitivity, the dominant images most people see are feathers, war paint, bows and arrows, buffalos, horses, teepees, beads, animal skins, and warfare. These images are a manifestation of cultural programming by adventure movies, books, photographs, museum exhibitions, films, television shows and documentaries.

Common Stereotypes:

* Chief: the head of a tribe
* Brave or Buck: an Indian man
* Princess: the daughter of a chief
* Squaw: all other Indian women 
* Papoose: an Indian baby
* Savage: all Indians
* Renegade: Indians who refuse to be confined on a reservation and are at war with whites
* The Noble Savage: Indians who are close to Nature

Western novelist Larry McMurtry described the vast gap between myth and reality in the depiction of the West in popular culture. "Most of the traditions which we associate with the American West," he wrote, "were invented by pulp writers, poster artists, impresarios, and advertising men."


The myth of the American Indian was further refined by frontiersman and master showman William Frederick Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill. In 1883, Cody formed Buffalo Bill's Wild West, a traveling show. The act included a mock battle with Indians, played, for the most part, by members of the Lakota Sioux tribe. Because Buffalo Bill's Wild West was as close as most Americans got to "real" Indians, Sioux traditions became, in the public mind, synonymous with all Indian customs.

Firearms and mock battles were at the heart of the Wild West show Cody invented and first took on the road in 1883. It offered everything Western that wide-eyed Easterners hoped to see except the landscape: horses, elk and buffaloes; roping, riding and sharp shooting; simulated cyclones and prairie fires and gun battles and for a while, even Sitting Bull himself. Buffalo Bill was the Master of Ceremonies. Mounted on a handsome gray horse, he swept his big hat from his head to introduce his "Congress of Rough Riders of the World"; shot glass balls from the air; galloped to the rescue of a stagecoach and a settler's cabin surrounded by whooping Indians; and took center stage for a deeply affecting -- and entirely imaginary -- tableau in which he arrived only moments too late to save Custer and his command from annihilation.

Although the actual words stupid and dumb are seldom seen in descriptions of Natives - perhaps because fighting a stupid enemy or having a dumb sidekick is not especially flattering - Native Peoples have been firmly placed in the lower echelons of intelligence by many European Americans since first contact was made. Benevolent terms such as "innocent," "primitive," and "unsaved" indicate a lesser intelligence, and the more antagonistic descriptors certainly point to comparative dimness. 

The presumed lack of mental prowess may have something to do with the image of the Native American as intensely sexual - more creature than human, more bestial than celestial. Sexuality has historically constituted an important dimension of Hollywood Indians, both male and female, producing a very scary character. We repeatedly see the lustful savage attacking the white woman, requiring that he be killed immediately. And we have the lovely "Indian Princess" who is enormously attractive but must die before any damage is done to the purity of the gene pool.

By the turn of the 20th Century, the Indian was viewed as a noble, primitive man in touch with nature, a master of self-sufficiency through hunting and fishing and making arrowheads, who knows the myths of his people.  


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Redface! -- Contents

Racist Indian Stereotypes

History of Indian Stereotypes

Redface in Film and TV

Indian Myths vs Reality

Indian Stereotypes in Sports

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Black Stereotypes

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Asian Stereotypes

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Hispanic Stereotypes

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Indian Stereotypes

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Arab Stereotypes

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Jewish Stereotypes


Racial and Racist Stereotypes in Media


Ken Padgett