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Native American Stereotypes: Both Positive and Negative
Historical Accuracy or Political Correctness?
Ever since the (not-so-good) old days when I was a junior high school teacher, I have been giving my students a very simple assignment at the beginning of my Early American History courses. I simply ask students to draw what comes to mind when they hear the term “Native American.” Or, in not so politically correct terms, I ask them to draw an Indian, along with anything associated with them. And since I cannot draw worth a crap, I make it very clear that stick figures are acceptable, including stick horses and buffalo.
It’s been fascinating to see the continuity over the years when students are given this assignment: feathers in the hair, tomahawks, tepees, bows and arrows, peace pipes, totem poles, etc. I have noticed, however, a subtle change as time has passed. Back in the early 1990’s, I tended to see more of the “wild Indian” stereotype associated with old western movies, with scantily clad figures, adorned in face paint and beads, waving tomahawks or dancing around fires. But today, I see more of the “peaceful environmentalist” Indian, often depicted as a Pocahontas type of character with pigtails, a smile on her face, and nature scenes in the background.
This should not be surprising. Twenty years ago, the golden age of western movies was a more recent memory, and children were more influenced by the violent, savage Indian stereotype that appeared so often in countless Hollywood movies and television shows. Many of these kids may have also grown up watching old Bugs Bunny or Disney cartoons in which these same images were portrayed. But even by the early 1990’s when I first started teaching, this old Native American stereotype had been, for some time, out of fashion in Hollywood. In movies of the era, Native Americans were far more often depicted as victims of American conquest and settlement than as people constantly attacking white pioneers and soldiers. Even Disney had changed its tune, with Pocahontas portrayed as a noble character teaching lessons about nature to a white guy. This was a very different character than the savages running amok in Disney’s 1950’s version of Peter Pan.
This shift in the portrayal of Native Americans can actually be traced back to the social movements of the 1960’s. Native Americans, along with other ethnic minorities, women, gay people, and members of the counterculture, called into question virtually everything about the prevailing American culture. This included fighting back in various ways against various forms of discrimination. But it also involved a reinterpretation of our past, various retellings of American History from multiple points of view. Negative stereotypes of different ethnic minorities that could be traced back for decades or even centuries were called into question, and the concept of political correctness was born. So beginning in the 1970’s, any authors or moviemakers who wrote or filmed a “classic western” complete with violent, savage Indians would likely be mocked or faced with sharp criticism or even protests.
As a whole, this is a positive shift. And given the long history of negative stereotyping of Native Americans, I can understand why so many people have spent the last forty or so years fighting for more positive depictions. But there is a problem. A historians’ priority, after all, is to be historically accurate, not necessarily to be politically correct. So if there is evidence at times of certain Native Americans doing horrible things, this needs to be part of the historical record. And a simplistic positive stereotype can be just as useless historically as a negative one.
After briefly discussing their drawings and describing both the positive and negative stereotypes of Native Americans, I ask students a simple question: which stereotype, the “wild savage” or the “noble environmentalist,” is the most accurate? Some raise their hands and say that the noble environmentalist image is more accurate, indicating how effectively the older stereotype has been torn down over the past few decades. Others give a more sophisticated answer, saying that Native Americans, like all people, had a mixture of positive and negative qualities. Even better, some point out that it depends on which Native American society you are talking about and the circumstances that it faced. Some societies were more violent than others, particularly if they felt compelled to defend themselves or resort to drastic measures in order to survive.
This brings me to the best answer to my question regarding what Native Americans were really like: "Professor Swendson, that is a stupid question." Asking what Native Americans were like is similar to asking what Europeans, Africans, or Asians were like. Just as people from Spain, France, England, and Germany do not see themselves as one people, Native Americans identified themselves as members of a particular cultural group, tribe, and/or civilization. So classifying people on the basis of an arbitrarily defined land mass does not make any sense. Essentially, the term Native American is meaningless. It lumps together hundreds of distinct societies ranging from hunting and gathering bands to large, advanced civilizations (and everything in between) into a single category.
So whatever image pops into one's head when he or she hears the term Native American, whether positive or negative, it is best to try to get it out of there. Historically speaking, any general classification of the people who inhabited the Americas before the arrival of Europeans is meaningless. The Americas was not a place in which everyone lived in a state of barbarism, and it was not generally a place filled with peaceful, noble souls living in perfect harmony with the environment (and one another). Hopefully, as time passes, Americans of all backgrounds will come to appreciate this amazing diversity and the creative adaptations that these first Americans were compelled to make to the enormous variety of environments found in the western hemisphere. And hopefully, as the simplistic images promoted by old western movies fade into the past, along with the racial discrimination that accompanied them, people will no longer see the need to use history books to fight political battles. History books, after all, are supposed to present the truth as we currently understand it, not to promote the current standard of political correctness.
Check out the second edition of my book:
A revised version of this essay is included in the recently published, second edition of my (Freeway Flyer/Paul Swendson) American history book.