The portrayal of American Indian stereotypes: When is it all going to stop? I begin my rant on what “we as Native people” face in terms of stereotypes in media, films and even little plastic toys found in the bargain bins at thrift stores.
I have enjoyed for many years working with Indian Country Today Media Network and have written a number of arts and entertainment pieces about the history and portrayal of American Indians in film.
I have watched with bitter frustration as John Wayne kicked his Indian guides and shot them in the eyes, Indian corpses laid to rest. I have watched countless cartoons where Indians howl like banshees and attack the forts of soldiers, and Bugs Bunny himself called one perpetrator he shot, a half-breed.
I have to give early filmmakers credit – as they truly did try to capitalize on the idea of a romantic Indian, but these films flopped financially. It wasn’t until the Indians whipped the soldiers and pioneers with tree branches and spit on them before lighting them on fire that the audiences turned out in droves.
The westerns were murder to watch for most Native people, within a few years we were reduced to nothing more than bloodthirsty, stupid, ugg-ing arrow shooters or comic reliefs. Take a look at some of the movies showing now on channels like American Movie Classics which recently played Son of Paleface starring Bob Hope and Iron Eyes Cody. Cody by the way, although he truly did seem to cherish the Native way, was of Italian descent.
When Kevin Costner came out with Dances with Wolves, the attempt at political correctness with the portrayal of Indians was at least regarded and refreshing. But we are in 2012 now, and I don’t feel like we have much progressed. Unless you consider Indians are now at least as cool as the werewolves portrayed in the Twilight movies.
So over the course of one week – I decide to pay very close attention to the stimulus that entered my brain regarding the definition of an American Indian person. I don’t know if it was coincidence – much like if you have ever ridden in a VW bug and you suddenly notice all of the other VW Bugs on the freeway – but I was absolutely amazed at what I experienced from all visceral fronts.
It started with television, of course. I was watching an episode of Storage Wars, when the auctioneer is talking with the other guy that has purchased a unit of Native American artifacts. I was frustrated that ancestral property was being sold for a few hundred bucks but then fuel was added to the fire; unsurprisingly within 30 seconds the comments about scalping started. And so began a telling week.
In my car driving all over Hampton Roads in Virginia, the NFL team adopted by the region is the Washington Redskins. Bumper stickers, T-shirts, jackets, sweatpants, window decals all made their way into my brain for what seemed a hundred times a day. I have been tempted many times to hire a graphic artist to create a giant decal of other “skin-color”-Skins characters alongside the Redskins logo – but then I fear coming across as racist. Truth be told I don’t want to offend another ethnicity – but why is it okay that we are still portrayed this way?
The week continued, I went to a local thrift store – admittedly a guilty pleasure of my wife Delores and myself – and once again I was surprised at the amount of American Indian “education.” In the first glass case sat a large plastic Indian chief next to Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus and a few aisles over was a cheap dream catcher in a plastic bag with a 99 cent tag. I also saw a lunch bag with Indian markings and found in a stack of comic books daffy duck with an Indian headdress standing next to a tipi on the front cover.
We seek answers to this. And it is in our Youth.
We need you. We need more filmmakers like Chris Eyre, Georgina Lightning and Neil Diamond. We need more native actors like Eric Schweig, Gary Farmer, Tantoo Cardinal and others. We need you to launch your social media campaigns against content that you feel does not represent the way you are actually.
Native people have been portrayed as savages and evil doers since contact. But, it’s a new era. We’re entering an age where people are beginning to listen in wonderful ways – just look at the growth of Indian Country Today Media Network. We need you kids; we need your energies, your ideas and your passion.
We are making it happen. And although I had a week full of loud stereotypical voices yelling at my face the incorrect definition of what an Indian is – these days I can sleep at night – because I feel assured that in time, they will continue to dim into non-existence.
Vincent Schilling is a correspondent for ICTMN and the Executive Vice-President of Schilling Media, Inc. He is also an award-winning author of the Native Trailblazer series of books (NativeVoicesBooks.com) and the host of the APCMA nominated BlogTalkRadio program.