Why the Myth of the “Savage Indian” Persists
Peter Pan, the beloved children’s classic, is sure to stun modern readers with its descriptions of “redskins” carrying “tomahawks and knives,” their naked bodies glistening with oil. “Strung around them are scalps, of boys as well as of pirates,” J.M. Barrie writes. The language, and the characterization, would be read as an offensive stereotype today, hardly helpful in creating realistic or healthy views of Indigenous peoples.
Such characterizations, it turns out, are rife—and not just in older, “classic” works that might be explicable as products of their time. They are evident in television and literature modern enough to have fed the brains of people now parenting children of their own.
As a person of Indigenous heritage, a Native American media scholar, and an avid (almost worryingly avid) fan of all things pop culture, I’ve seen a range of representations of Indigenous people on TV shows and in books. In graduate school, I decided to turn a more academic lens on the situation. I analyzed approximately 60 popular TV shows, films, and books from the early 1990s to 2011—ones that were set in modern times or had contemporary elements, as opposed to works of historical fiction. My goal was to find out what impression the average non-Native consumer would have of today’s Native Americans from the media they grew up with.
What I found was a heavy dose of stereotypes, with—perhaps surprisingly—little sign of improvement over the decades. While some of the details changed, the overall picture was a harsh split between “good” and “bad” Indigenous characters. The negatively portrayed Indigenous characters were generally out of touch with their culture; they also often received benefits, operated casinos, were untrustworthy, and were frequently suggested to be “fake” Native Americans (especially in the eastern half of the country, where lineage is more likely to be “mixed”). Meanwhile, the more positively portrayed Indigenous characters were poor, living on reservations, honest, culturally knowledgeable, and often involved in supernatural occurrences.
The implication was that “real” Indigenous people must be impoverished, helpful to outsiders, and totally immersed in traditional Indigenous culture.
The stereotypes are almost comical at times—even I had to chuckle when the Native American policeman in Criminal Minds’ episode “The Tribe” was able to detect which FBI agent was wearing a hidden gun by the weight of his footsteps. But this is not a problem to be shrugged off. Stereotypes, when reinforced often enough, have been shown to affect how we view others, how we view ourselves, and what we think we know about other cultures. And this is especially true for young people.
Sadly, I saw no indication that these stereotypes shifted much over my study period, particularly in television. However, in more recent years, the media landscape seems to be getting broader, allowing for other worldviews to seep in.
The emphasis on “bad” and “good” Indigenous characters has a long history in American media. Most often in westerns and historical dramas, especially prior to the 1960s, the “bad” Indigenous characters were depicted as secretive or unwilling to assist Euro-American characters, while the “good” ones led Euro-American protagonists to gold, free land, help for their injuries, spiritual enlightenment, or anything else they needed or wanted. These tropes are sometimes referred to as the “savage” versus the “noble savage.”
In the 1970s to early 1980s television series Little House on the Prairie, set in the late 19th-century American Midwest, we watch a Native Osage man argue against killing illegal Euro-American squatters in Indian Territory—to which settler Pa Ingalls shouts, “That’s one good Indian!” Meanwhile, other Indigenous people are described as roaming over the land “like wild animals.” As Osage journalist Dennis McAuliffe Jr. talks about in his writings on Little House on the Prairie, the kindness of the Osage man is not returned. To be considered “good” characters, Native Americans are expected to consistently and happily put the colonists’ needs above those of their own community; any behavior outside of this, even nonviolent protest, is usually portrayed as “evil,” “savage,” or “backward.” As Pa Ingalls later says, “When settlers come into a country, the Indians have to move on.”
These two opposing Indigenous types can still be seen decades later. In the 1990 blockbuster film Dances With Wolves, situated on the American frontier, audiences fear the Pawnee warriors who attacked settlers but cheer for the Lakota Sioux, who adopted and raised a white girl and took in white Lt. John Dunbar, the hero of the film. In the 1992 hit movie The Last of the Mohicans, the antagonist is a Native who attacks a group of British soldiers—while we root for the Indigenous men who risk their lives to protect the British women accompanying those white soldiers.
While it’s important to honor Indigenous characters who attempt to build bridges toward peace, one wonders why there is not an equal mainstream fascination for Indigenous characters who assert the rights of their own people. Furthermore, it seems that Indigenous characters are often doomed to die even if they have been kind and helpful. Dunbar survives his predicament, but we’re told that his Lakota Sioux friends do not. And The Last of the Mohicans is a self-explanatory title (in spite of the fact that the Mohicans do indeed still exist, as the Stockbridge-Munsee Community).
The split can also be seen in children’s stories. Disney’s 1995 animated classic Pocahontas is perhaps the most well-known children’s film featuring Indigenous characters. The major conflict of the film comes when the English and the Powhatan prepare to go to war against each other. Pocahontas becomes the hero of the story when she mediates between the two groups and, finally, prompts her people to bring food to the English to ensure their survival and good relations between the two cultures. This dynamic, of Indigenous people giving freely to maintain a relationship with colonists, is an unhealthy one—every good relationship needs reciprocity, with both sides helping each other. Nevertheless, it is what Hollywood screenwriters, directors, and producers, among others, have long expected of “good Natives.”
The contrast is even more glaring in the 1994 film Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale, starring a young Adam Beach (a Canadian actor and member of the Saulteaux First Nations). Having experienced both unkind and caring Europeans, Squanto decides to assist the Pilgrims, while another even more mistreated Native character, Epenow, wants to attack them. Epenow is clearly the villain, Squanto the hero, and the film ends with a depiction of a Thanksgiving meal celebrating the exchange between Squanto and the Pilgrims. History proves that Epenow’s suspicions in the film may be valid, even if his aggression is not: Viewers may be aware that it would only be a few decades before the Pilgrims began to systematically appropriate land and livestock from their Indigenous neighbors, deny them legal rights in court, and possibly even poison the son and heir of the Wampanoag chief who had initially welcomed them.
Some children’s films, including The Indian in the Cupboard (1995) and The Legend of Tillamook’s Gold (2006), feature a Native American character who serves as a mystical guide to a non-Native child. Just as the “positive” Indigenous characters in other films give food and assistance to Euro-American colonists, these characters freely hand over even the most sacred aspects of their culture to Euro-American children, having only known them for a few hours. In Tillamook’s Gold, for instance, a Native American elder tells a young girl, “In our way, when a girl is your age, the medicine man asks her to go on a quest … a vision quest to find her power.” She proceeds to go on a vision quest, with the ultimate goal of finding buried treasure to become wealthy.
These representations put an unfair set of expectations on Indigenous people. Even children understand that friends need to help each other, and it isn’t fair to have a friendship where only one person keeps giving.
There are some brighter spots in the media landscape. Fortunately, some children’s books and comics have featured more complex Indigenous characters and more equitable cross-cultural friendships. The 1970s brought us works like Arrow to the Sun (1974) by Gerald McDermott and The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses (1978) by Paul Goble, authors who began telling more culturally informed Indigenous stories and at that time argued for more Indigenous authors. Since then, Indigenous people themselves have begun authoring a wide variety of children’s books.
More recently, although some Indigenous viewers found fault with a few aspects of Disney’s 2016 animated film Moana and its marketing campaign (including the sale of Maui costumes, which could be considered blasphemous), many Polynesian people felt that it faithfully presented their culture and was, overall, a strong representation of Indigenous people—particularly in the way it portrayed Moana and her grandmother as resilient, independent women. The use of Indigenous writers and voice actors for the film was also taken as a good sign for future collaborations.
Many people born in the 1970s and 1980s have fond memories of works that they grew up on and want to share them with their own children—only to stumble, often with surprise, upon what in today’s landscape translates to notes of blatant racism. When you come across such stereotypes in media as a parent or a viewer, your first step should be to make a conscious decision about whether this is the type of media with which you want to engage. If the portrayal is egregiously offensive, skip it entirely. Or, use less problematic pieces to start a conversation.
When you sit down to watch Little House on the Prairie with your child and find yourself struggling with derogatory remarks about Native Americans stealing food and killing pioneers, use them as a talking point. Did all Native Americans act this way, and if not, why didn’t the series include them? If Native Americans were stealing food, why did they have to do that, since they were obviously able to feed themselves before pioneers arrived? Do some research, alongside your children or other family members. Finally, consider the effects these stories have on us today and on the people who read them at the time they were first published.
These are difficult conversations to have, but they can be adapted to suit a child’s age. No one would advocate telling a 5-year-old about the full horrors of Christopher Columbus’ attack on Indigenous people, but a 5-year-old can understand that people were taken from their homes, had to work for people who were mean to them, and weren’t paid or able to leave. Such discussions are a basic exercise in empathy.
A final, crucial step to being a responsible media consumer is to look for works made by Indigenous artists or in collaboration with Indigenous artists. (Note that you cannot tell if an author is Indigenous by their name alone.) In Canada, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network plays shows for both adults and children; a few standouts for children are Raven Tales, Wapos Bay, Amy’s Mythic Mornings, and Anaana’s Tent, some of which have episodes available online. SkinsPlex, a free online site dedicated to Indigenous-created media, has short and feature-length films. Many Indigenous people have and are contributing to children’s literature (see sidebar).
Other promising stories have emerged from collaborations between Natives and non-Natives, and from writers who take the time to familiarize themselves with Indigenous issues. A heartening example comes from The X-Files show from the 1990s. Creator Chris Carter finished season 2 on a cliffhanger and had placed the final episode in Navajo/Diné territory. One Navajo character was seen carrying a body, which is a cultural taboo—and several Navajo people let Carter know this. Rather than ignore their complaints or become defensive, he met with Indigenous people and shaped the opening episodes of season 3 around their advice. The product was a clever demonstration of the power of oral tradition: Traditional storytelling practices save the lives of main characters Scully and Mulder after all physical records of their investigation have been destroyed. The episode arc stays rooted in X-Files drama but is a nice, knowledgeable tip of the hat to Indigenous traditions.
I often think back to how my parents navigated the TV shows, movies, and even classroom lessons that frequently give an unbalanced and negative view of Indigenous people. Rather than feel pressure to act as complete encyclopedias, their focus was to make being of Indigenous ancestry something I was proud of, and grateful for, assuming that this would prompt me to learn more about both my ancestry and other Indigenous people. My mother enjoys pointing out that I did, after all, go on to focus my master’s thesis on Native American issues. It seems like her job was done well.