Construction of the Mythic Indian in Mainstream Media and the Demystification of the Stereotype by American Indian Artists

By Buken, Gulriz | American Studies International, October 2002 | Go to article overview

Construction of the Mythic Indian in Mainstream Media and the Demystification of the Stereotype by American Indian Artists


Buken, Gulriz, American Studies International


The representations of American Indians from the perspective of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) and within the context of historical discourse, convey native peoples as mythical/legendary beings rather than flesh and blood ordinary humans with vices and virtues, sufferings and joys, failures and accomplishments. American natives have been branded as the "Bad Injun" or its counterpart the "Good Indian," or identified with the "Ignoble Savage," "the marauding, hellish savage," or its alter ego, the romantic stereotype of the "Noble Savage," "the peaceful, mystical, spiritual guardian of the land," in vogue again in 1990s. They are labeled as nomadic, monolithic, undifferentiated, idealized communities rather than being acknowledged as individuals whose actual existence deserves to be defined not only by their ethnic but also by their cultural identity. Whether they were perceived as "traditionals," frozen in the past, or as "celluloid Indians" who should be metamorphosed into "imitation Whites," they have always been conceived as the "other" and categorized by the color of their skin. All these mythic fabrications "perpetuate outmoded stereotypes rather than the purported `positive and heroic' stature of American Indians." (1)

Since the days of the first contact, but especially since 1840 when popular culture became "the defining medium for the image of the Indian," (2) the fabrication of biased images, both the positive and negative, of the American Indian have been detrimental to the cultural heritage, cultural pride, cultural identity, and self-esteem of the native peoples. Popular culture, which "reflects the concerns of the White people but marginalizes and trivializes those of the Indians," is instrumental in the fabrication of stereotypes that fit the needs of the mainstream society and its public memory. The "stereotypes of the Indian" that are disseminated through popular culture, as James Nottage notes, help on the one hand "to erase the individual and cultural identities of the Indian ... to assure everyone that all Indians are the same," and on the other to "condition the behavior of the broader culture, even subconsciously" (3) shaping people's perceptions of "the other." Finally "the depiction of the Indian became a sustaining industry in popular culture." (4) Joanna Bedard asks, "What then happens to a culture whose symbols are chosen by outsiders, by those who do not understand its deepest beliefs, structures and ways of life? What kind of interpretation of a society can come from symbols designed not to elevate conscious understanding to the highest of that society's ideas but to reduce that understanding to categories which debase or ridicule?" She contends, "the opposite of empowering occurs. Feelings of rage, impotence and powerlessness are evoked" (5) when symbols are reduced to "caricatures" rather than representing the dominant cultural values cherished by the stereotyped society. Cultural symbols and icons are the mainstay of cultural survival and serve a vital function in representing cultural heritage and defining and asserting cultural identity. Unfortunately, in the case of American Indians the symbols and icons that typify them, were chosen by the mainstream culture, imposed on them inadvertently and fully exploited in the colonization process as well as in post-colonial contemporary world.

What do the war bonnets, eagle feathers, tomahawks, teepees, totem poles, fringed buckskins, moccasins stand for in terms of authentic Native American cultural heritage? What do they reveal about Indianness? To what extent does one become an Indian by playing Indian? Are the roles reversed in the contemporary world? Is it American Indians' turn to play the Indian to counter these deeply-rooted, adverse, offensive, made-to-order images using the same techniques and methods to turn them against the mainstream misconceptions and misjudgments? …

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