AMERICAN INDIANS: Trading Old Stereotypes for New

Article excerpt

"Native cultures have changed--sometimes by necessity and other times by conscious choice--but they have survived."

THE PUBLIC'S PERCEPTION of Native Americans has undergone a dramatic shift in recent years. Indians, for so long vilified, are now more likely to be idealized. In the past, both detractors and defenders of Indians presumed that this population was vanishing, but, presently, they have an unusually high profile as an admirable people.

In 1992, 500 years after Columbus stumbled upon the Western Hemisphere, something approaching a social movement eagerly sought to educate modern Americans about the true nature of those who were living here in 1492. Revisionist historians and Indian leaders were given a welcome opportunity to correct old misconceptions, claiming that Columbus and the European values he represented were morally bankrupt and the native peoples whom the Europeans exploited were noble and undeserving victims. In addition to all the magazine and newspaper articles devoted to this message, numerous Hollywood films and television dramas continue to bombard audiences with their portrayals of amoral whites in conflict with virtuous Indians.

What has resulted from this media blitz is a dramatically altered image of past and present Indians, implying that Hollywood stars Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda were telling it like it is when, in past decades, they protested the sad plight of Indians. A word of caution, though. Lest Americans conclude that this current image of victimized Indians represents a higher level of integrity, it should be pointed out that they have a long history of misunderstanding Native Americans. The current sympathetic image of Indians is, perhaps, no more accurate than outmoded and now embarrassing stereotypes.

Among the earliest misconceptions was the assumption that they were willing to sell land to whites. Americans have been aware for some time that they merely accepted what they considered to be gifts in exchange for sharing the land, but this initial error caused a great deal of subsequent misunderstanding when, for example, they seem to sell the same land several times (thus the expression "Indian giver").

A more persistent early misconception was the "bloodthirsty savage." Indian neighbors of the early colonists believed in collective responsibility, and one expression of this gave rise to feuding between clans. From the Indian perspective, it was appropriate for me to kill anyone in your clan if you had killed someone in my clan. By logical extension, if a white man killed a member of my tribe, I would be justified in killing the next white I ran into.

Although the feuding of the Hatfield and McCoy clans in Appalachia had deep roots in Western culture, whites erroneously concluded that Indians were merely hell-bent on killing, especially "innocent" people. The Pequot Indians, for example, although they previously had been generally peaceful, were judged by whites to be sadistic killers. With this image in mind, the early colonists set out to exterminate the Pequot, and nearly succeeded. Pres. George Washington felt fully justified in sending troops to western New York to destroy Iroquois communities, even those who had not sided with the British during the Revolutionary War, so they would all be forced to abandon their lands or starve to death.

How differently Americans are now inclined to interpret these actions of their national ancestors. In today's terms, the colonists were bigots, and Washington, and later

Andrew Jackson, who exiled the Cherokee to Oklahoma, were advocates of ethnic cleansing.

The usual colonial view of Indians portrayed them as godless heathens, neither civilized nor prepared for salvation. Today, however, we are told that they were and still are deeply into an admirable spirituality. New Age religion types "discovered" this some time ago, but now even conventional Christians have concluded that Indian religious beliefs could well serve as models for the rest of the nation. …

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