Media Images of Native Americans

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines Native American as American Indian, Aboriginal American or any member of the aboriginal people of the Western present day Canada and the United States.

Native Americans have been portrayed and stereotyped by the media in both positive and negative ways. They have been represented as fitting the model of the noble savage or barbarian and as being brave fierce warriors. The European view of Native Americans was influenced by cultural attraction to the theory of primitivism. They were portrayed as being a peace-loving, noble, harmonious people who were in love with each other and with nature, as seen in the 1990 movie Dances with Wolves. The Indian chief was the leader who gave the orders and the rest of the tribesman adhered to what he said. They were also seen as spiritual people with their traditional dress, praying, chanting and dancing.

As the early settlers began moving westward and the Native Americans became obstacles, the positive image became more negative. Suddenly, the media of the time began to characterize Native Americans as a primitive, dangerous, wild and uncivilized group of people who at every opportunity attacked the white man and cowboys, all the while holding a hand in front of their mouths and ululating. They did not speak like others, uttering words, but rather made deep voice sounds and used words like "ugh" and "how."

When Native Americans were characterized in film they were referred to as Indians and their color was depicted as dark red with a tinge of yellow. These stereotypical images can be seen in the "westerns" movies and even in some cartoons such as Peter Pan. Other stereotypical images showed them with painted faces smoking peace pipes, dancing around a totem pole (at times with a captive tied to it), sending up smoke signals, wearing feathered head pieces, scalping the heads of their enemies and constantly chanting the word "um."

As the colonization of North America continued, the perception and delineation became more obvious. The depiction and grouping became that of savage and heathen against civilized and Christian. Native Americans were viewed by the white man as not being able to handle responsibility and lacking self control. These stereotypes still are present in the 21st century and are used to legitimize the economic gap between the whites and Native Americans. The media rarely portrays the modern-day way of life of Native Americans.

Since Native American have been described in the media as being fierce and wild, many sports teams have taken on related names for themselves that would characterize the team's forcefulness. Examples of those team names are Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins and the Atlanta Braves. Some teams have even chosen Native American mascots, such as Chief Illiniwek, Chief Wahoo, Chief Osceola and Chief Noc-A-Homa.

The Media Awareness Network of Canada (MNet) has documented a list of stereotypes that are used in the media to describe Native Americans. They are depicted as witch doctors who claim to have a great amount of knowledge about medicines and are able to heal many sicknesses by using items found in nature. American documentaries tend to depict Native-American males as either an aggressive drunk or a wise elder, and females as loyal sidekicks or princesses. They are also shown to be environmentalists and nature lovers and respecters of nature. Westerns depict Native Americans as violent, rapists, criminals, primitive, deceptive and having low intelligence. They are also portrayed as trackers, having the capability to hunt or track any living thing. The MNet report chastises the American television industry for not doing enough to remove such stereotypes from their programming.

The United States Government has decided to make reparations to the Native Americans to correct some of the wrongs that have been perpetrated against them. The government has granted the Native Americans the right to build gambling casinos on their reservations and to allow unmonitored and unaudited receipt of revenue from gambling. To a certain extent that has led to a new stereotype: that every Native American either owns his own casino or is related to somebody who owns one.

Media Images of Native Americans: Selected full-text books and articles

Native Americans on Film: Conversations, Teaching, and Theory By M. Elise Marubbio; Eric L. Buffalohead University Press of Kentucky, 2013
Tribal Television: Viewing Native People in Sitcoms By Dustin Tahmahkera University of North Carolina Press, 2014
Wiping the War Paint off the Lens: Native American Film and Video By Beverly R. Singer University of Minnesota Press, 2001
Native American Documentary: An Emerging Genre? By Leuthold, Steven Film Criticism, Vol. 22, No. 1, Fall 1997
Whose Home on the Range? Finding Room for Native Americans, African Americans, and Latino Americans in the Revisionist Western By Hoffman, Donald MELUS, Vol. 22, No. 2, Summer 1997
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