Stereotypes about indigenous peoples of North America
Stereotypes about Indigenous peoples of North America are a particular kind of ethnic stereotypes found both in North America, as well as elsewhere. Indigenous people of the Americas are commonly called Native Americans, Alaska Natives or First Nations (in Canada). The indigenous peoples of the Arctic, known as Eskimo peoples (which include but are not limited to the Inuit) and Aleuts, are included; only the terms "Native Americans" and "American Indians" traditionally exclude them. This article primarily discusses stereotypes present in Canadian and American culture. There are more numerous and varied stereotypes about Indigenous peoples than about any other ethnic group in the Americas. It is believed that some portrayals of natives such as bloodthirsty savages have disappeared. However, most portrayals are oversimplified and inaccurate; these stereotypes are found particularly in popular media which is the main source of mainstream images of Indigenous peoples world-wide.
The stereotyping of Native Americans must be understood in the context of history which includes conquest, forced relocation, and organized efforts to eradicate native cultures, such as the boarding schools of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which separated young Native Americans from their families in order educate and to assimilate them as Euro-Americans. "Since the first Europeans made landfall in North America, native peoples have suffered under a weltering array of stereotypes, misconceptions and caricatures. Whether portrayed as noble savages, ignoble savages, teary-eyed environmentalists, drunken, living off the Government, Indian princess/Squaw or most recently, simply as casino-rich, native peoples find their efforts to be treated with a measure of respect and integrity undermined by images that flatten complex tribal, historical and personal experience into one-dimensional representations that tells us more about the depicters than about the depicted." - Carter Meland (Anishinaabe heritage) and David E. Wilkins (Lumbee), professors of Native American Studies at the University of Minnesota.
- 1 Indigenous terminology
- 2 American Indians / Native Americans
- 3 Inuit stereotypes
- 4 Effect of stereotyping
- 5 Film
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
The first difficulty in addressing stereotypes is the terminology to use when referring to Indigenous peoples, which is an ongoing controversy. The truly stereotype-free names would be those of individual nations. A practical reference to Indigenous peoples in general is "Native American" in the United States and "First Nations" or "Aboriginal" in Canada. The peoples collectively referred to as Inuit have their own unique stereotypes. The communities to which Indigenous peoples belong also have various names, typically "nation" or "tribe" in the United States, but "comunidad" (Spanish for "community") in South America.
All global terminology must be used with an awareness of the stereotype that "Indians" are a single people, when in fact there are hundreds of individual ethnic groups native to the Americas. This type of awareness is obvious when Euro-Americans refer to Europeans with an understanding that there are some similarities, but many differences between the peoples of an entire continent.
American Indians / Native Americans
Stereotypes may be grouped with regard to different characteristics: physical, cultural, and historical.
Cultural and ethnic misconceptions
The Media Awareness Network of Canada (MNet) has prepared a number of statements about the portrayals of American Indians, First Nations of Canada and Alaskan Natives in the media. Westerns and documentaries have tended to portray Natives in stereotypical terms: the wise elder, the aggressive drunk, the Indian princess, the loyal sidekick, obese and impoverished. These images have become known across North America. Stereotyped issues include simplistic characterizations, romanticizing of Native culture and stereotyping by omission—showing American Indians in a historical rather than modern context.
Native Americans were also portrayed as fierce warriors and braves, often appearing in school sports teams' names until such team names fell into disfavor in the later 20th century. Many school team names have been revised to reflect current sensibilities, though professional teams such as American football's Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins, baseball's Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians, and ice hockey's Chicago Blackhawks continue. Some controversial upper-level Native American team mascots such as Chief Noc-A-Homa and Chief Illiniwek have been discontinued; others like Chief Wahoo and Chief Osceola and Renegade remain. A controversy over the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo was resolved in 2012.
Native American women are frequently sexually objectified and are often stereotyped as being promiscuous. Such misconceptions lead to murder, rape and violence of Native American women and girls by non-Native men.
There is the outdated stereotype that American Indians and Alaskan Natives live on reservations when in fact only about 25% do, and a slight majority now live in urban areas.
There is an assumption that Indians somehow have an intuitive knowledge of their culture and history, when the degree of such knowledge varies greatly depending upon the family and community connections of each individual.
Indian princess and the squaw are binaries of indigenous women's physical appearance. The Indian princess is often compared to Disney's Pocahontas, appears to look more American, with lighter skin, she has a small waist, small feet, long hair and big almond shaped eyes. She is youthful, energetic, innocent and usually a martyr willing to sacrifice herself for others. The squaw is looked upon negatively and more dark. She is usually the ugly sister to the Indian princess and is anything but innocent, she is probably promiscuous and has many children.
An Algonquin word, the term "squaw" is now widely deemed offensive due to its use for hundreds of years in a derogatory context. However, there remains more than a thousand locations in the U.S. that incorporate the term in its name.
Because of the high frequency of American Indian alcoholism, a stereotype has been applied to all American Indians. As with most groups, the incidence of substance abuse is related to issues of poverty and mental distress, both of which may be, in part, the result of racial stereotyping and discrimination. Treatment for substance abuse by Native Americans is more effective when it is community-based, and addresses the issues of cultural identification.
There are numerous distortions of history, many of which continue as stereotypes.
There is an assumption that Indians lost possession of their land because they were inferior, when the reality is:
- Many of the indigenous peoples died from diseases to which they had no immunity
- There were a number of advanced civilizations in the Americas, but they did lack two important resources: a pack animal large enough to carry a human; and the ability to make steel for tools and weapons.
One stereotype held by non-Indians is that Indians receive special privileges that other American citizens do not. This view is based upon failure to understand the nature of the relationship between Native tribes and the American Federal government. Tribes signed treaties that grant certain rights in exchange for the cession of land, therefore, many of these "privileges" are considered treaty obligations. So education and health care have been "bought and paid for" by Native ancestors.
There is the myth that Indians are a dying race, i.e. "The Vanishing Red Man", when in fact census data shows an increase in the number of individuals who were American Indians and Alaska Natives or American Indian and Alaska Native in combination with one or more other races.
Today, Native Americans are perceived to have become wealthy due to casino revenues. Not all tribes own tribal gaming operations/establishments and many tribal groups have issues related to tribal ancestry not being able to obtain paychecks unless they can not prove their tribal membership roll.
Purchase of Manhattan
The "purchase" of Manhattan island from Indians is a cultural misunderstanding. In 1626 the director of the Dutch settlement, Peter Minuit, traded sixty guilders worth of goods with the Lenni Lenape, which they would have accepted as a gifts in exchange for allowing the settlers to occupy the land. Native Americans had no conception of private ownership of natural resources.
The story told by John Smith of his rescue by the daughter of Powhatan is generally agreed to be untrue. Pocahontas would have been eleven or twelve at the time, so this popular tale of the "Indian Princess" and the Englishman has no basis in known facts.
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Inuit, often referred to as Eskimos (which many see as derogatory), are usually depicted dressed in parkas, paddling kayaks, which the Inuit people invented, carving out trinkets, living in igloos, going fishing with a harpoon, hunting whales, traveling by sleigh and huskies, eating cod-liver oil and the men are called Nanook in reference to the documentary Nanook of the North. Eskimo children may have a seal for a best friend.
Eskimos are sometimes shown rubbing noses together in greeting ritual, referred to as Eskimo kissing or preferably "Inuit kissing" in Western culture, and only loosely based on an authentic Inuit practice known as kunik. They are also often depicted surrounded by polar bears, walruses and inaccurately, with penguins, which do not live in the Arctic.
Effect of stereotyping
Stereotypes harm both the victims and those that perpetuate them, with effects of the society at large. Victims suffer the emotional distress; anger, frustration, insecurity, and feelings of hopelessness. Most of all, Indian children exposed at an early age to these mainstream images internalize the stereotypes paired with the images, resulting in lower self-esteem, contributing to all of the other problems faced by Native Americans. Stereotypes become discrimination when the assumptions of being more prone to violence and alcoholism limit job opportunities. This leads directly to Indians being viewed less stable economically, making it more difficult for those that have succeeded to fully enjoy the benefits in the same way that non-Indians do, such as obtaining credit. For those that maintain them, stereotypes prevent a more accurate view of Indians and the history of the United States.
Research also demonstrates the harm done to society by stereotyping of any kind. Two studies examined the effect of exposure to an American Indian sports mascot on the tendency to endorse stereotypes of a different minority group. A study was first done at the University of Illinois, and then replicated at The College of New Jersey with the same results. Students were given a paragraph to read about Chief Illiniwek adapted from the University of Illinois' official website; while the control group was given a description of an arts center. In both studies the students exposed to the sports mascot were more likely to express stereotypical views of Asian-Americans. Although Chief Illiniwek was described only in terms of positive characteristics (as a respectful symbol, not a mascot), the stereotyping of Asian-Americans included negative characteristics, such as being "socially inept". This was indicative of a spreading effect; exposure to any stereotypes increased the likelihood of stereotypical thinking.
In Alabama, at a game between the Pinson Valley High School "Indians" and McAdory High School, the latter team displayed a banner using a disparaging reference to the Trail of Tears for which the principal of the school apologized to Native Americans, stated that the cheerleader squad responsible would be disciplined, and that all students would be given a lesson on the actual history of the Trail of Tears. Native Americans responded that it was an example of the continuing insensitivity and stereotyping of Indians in America. A similar sign was displayed in Tennessee by the Dyersburg Trojans when they played the Jackson Northside Indians.
The effect that stereotyping has had on Indigenous women is one of the main reasons why non-Indigenous people commit violent crimes of hate towards First Nations women and girls. Because Aboriginal women have been associated with images of the "Indian Princess" and "Squaw" some non-Indigenous people believe that Aboriginal women are dirty, promiscuous, overtly sexualized, which makes these women vulnerable to violent assaults. Colonial culture has been foundation of these stereotypes creating a relationship of violence and hatred, which justifies the treatment of First Nations peoples to this day.
Modern perpetuation of stereotypes
The mainstream media makes a lot of money making movies that play along with stereotypes; while accurate portrayals may be critically acclaimed they are not often made or widely distributed.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) made efforts to improve the portrayals of Aboriginal people in its television dramas. Spirit Bay, The Beachcombers, North of 60 and The Rez used Native actors to portray their own people, living real lives and earning believable livelihoods in identifiable parts of the country.
Imagining Indians is a 1992 documentary film produced and directed by Native American filmmaker, Victor Masayesva, Jr. (Hopi). The documentary attempts to reveal the misrepresentation of Indigenous Native American culture and tradition in Classical Hollywood films by interviews with different Indigenous Native American actors and extras from various tribes throughout the United States.
Reel Injun is a 2009 Canadian documentary film directed by Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond, Catherine Bainbridge, and Jeremiah Hayes that explores the portrayal of Native Americans in film. Reel Injun is illustrated with excerpts from classic and contemporary portrayals of Native people in Hollywood movies and interviews with filmmakers, actors and film historians, while director Diamond travels across the United States to visit iconic locations in motion picture as well as American Indian history.
Reel Injun explores many stereotypes about Natives in film, from the Noble savage to the Drunken Indian. It profiles such figures as Iron Eyes Cody, an Italian American who reinvented himself as a Native American on screen. The film also explores Hollywood's practice of using Italian Americans and American Jews to portray Indians in the movies and reveals how some Native American actors made jokes in their native tongue on screen when the director thought they were simply speaking gibberish.
Inventing the Indian is a 2012 BBC documentary first broadcast on 28 October on BBC 4 exploring the stereotypical view of Native Americans in the United States in cinema and literature.
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