Stanford University Native Americans Historical Trauma Essay


Write an essay on any aspect of the material discussed in the units, 1) Dispossession and Tribal Sovereignty; 2) Historical Trauma; 3) Indian Identity, Stereotypes, and Racism; or 4) American Studies. Do not try to be comprehensive (that is, cover everything or cover too much). Do not simply summarize or regurgitate the material.
Your work will be evaluated on 1) the extent to which your essay shows intellectual engagement with the material (it should be very thoughtful), and 2) your mastery of the material/concept(s)/issues you choose to discuss.

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Four Hundred Years of Wampanoag Dispossession
Posted on 27/11/2019 by Dead Flowers in Conversations, Countermedia, Edifice &
Artifice and tagged Colonialism, David J. Silverman, Propaganda, Racism, This is Hell!.
Transcribed from the 26 November 2019 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed
with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:
Any reasonably thoughtful adult would readily concede that a shared meal is a very poor
representation of colonial-Indigenous relations. The more common features of colonial
American history were Indian-colonial wars and race-based slavery.
Chuck Mertz: Thanksgiving is supposed to be about giving thanks for something—I’m not
really sure what, but something. I’ve never really been clear what this holiday is actually
about, and apparently history has been pretty unclear about it too. Here to help us learn the
true meaning of Thanksgiving, David J. Silverman is author of This Land is Their Land: The
Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving. David is
professor of history at George Washington University and specializes in Native American,
colonial American, and American racial history. He is an award-winning author, and his
most recent book prior to this one is 2016’s Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent
Transformation of Native America.
Welcome to This is Hell!, David.
David J. Silverman: Thanks for having me.
CM: You write, “Serious critical history tends to be hard on the living. It challenges us to see
distortions embedded in the heroic national origin myths we have been taught since
How traumatizing can critical history be? What happens when that trauma is confronted by
DS: In the case of the Thanksgiving myth, it forces Americans to come to the realization that
colonization was a bloody affair—that it wasn’t consensual, and that Native people didn’t
just disappear after the Thanksgiving dessert was served. We have to take a more critical
look back on where our country came from and recognize that there are colonial legacies
that live with us to this very day, not least of all the fact that we all live on lands seized from
indigenous people, and that the racial hierarchies that are so embedded in our society are a
colonial legacy.
It forces us to take a more critical look at our present and our future, and to ask ourselves
whether we want to do better than our forebears.
CM: In really general terms, it seems like what we are trying to avoid is how the United
States was born out of violence. Why don’t we want to have an origin myth of the United
States that includes violence?
DS: There are all kinds of reasons for that kind of historical amnesia. Those who don’t want
to confront this history worry about what justice will look like moving forward if we
acknowledge the truth. My job is not to craft policies that will promote justice in our society.
My job is to get the history right, and so that’s what I do.
Many white Americans in particular believe that the purpose of a history education is to
create patriots: to cultivate people who are proud of their country’s history, as opposed to
people who can analyze their country’s history critically.
CM: Is there are a fear, from people who are in denial about our violent past, of retribution
for that violent past?
DS: For certain. Their main concern is that there will be a redistribution of wealth in order to
address some of these historical wrongs. They are also often concerned that folks who
have previously been voiceless or powerless in our society will have a stake, and want their
interests represented in our policies.
CM: How does the way we celebrate Thanksgiving—how might that undermine any potential
for, let’s say, reparations for Native Americans?
DS: The Thanksgiving myth as it’s been propagated in American society since the late
1800s is a sanitized version of colonial American history. The first thing it does is sanitize
New England’s history. It refuses to address the fact that the relationship between the
Wampanoags and the English very quickly degenerated into violence, and eventually into
the terrible King Philip’s War of 1675-78. It refuses to acknowledge that even in New
England, colonists held slaves–and not just Africans as slaves, but indigenous people,
including the Wampanoags.
The Thanksgiving myth takes a sanitized version of New England’s history and makes it a
symbol for colonial America at large. Any reasonably thoughtful adult would readily concede
that a shared meal is a very poor representation of colonial-Indigenous relations. The more
common features of colonial American history were Indian-colonial wars and race-based
slavery. As a historian I would prefer for us to focus on those very real themes than the
mythical Thanksgiving feast.
CM: I’ve often heard people in the north—people including me—complain about the
denialism that we often hear from people in he south, from people who might fly
confederate flags: the denialism of the long legacy, that continues, of African-American
slavery in the south.
Yet here in the north, we seem to be in even greater denialism of Native American slavery,
because it’s something that never comes up at all. It was only a couple years ago that the
author of a book about Native American slavery was on our show to discuss the concept.
Have we erased Native American slavery and the institutions and legacy of slavery in the
north far more than even the south has?
DS: It’s been common in American history circles to refuse to address that very basic
feature of colonial American history. As your listeners might know, given that you’ve had
historians on previously who specialize in this area, our best estimates nowadays are that
somewhere between three and five million indigenous people suffered slavery at colonial
hands in this hemisphere during the greater colonial era. That higher number is forty
percent of the estimated volume of the transatlantic slave trade. So this wasn’t some kind of
eccentric exception to historic patterns of slavery in the colonies.
There’s no question about it. The north has engaged in its own historical amnesia just as
the south has, and I think the Thanksgiving myth and its whitewashing of Indian-colonial
warfare, of colonists’ aggressive and underhanded engrossment of Native American land,
and of the enslavement and forced indentured servitude of indigenous people is part of that
The whole point of the exercise is to have Native people voluntarily cede their territory so
that the United States can become a beacon of liberty and Christianity and democracy, and
then after the dessert is served, the Indians just disappear.
CM: You write, “A history of English-Wampanoag relations turn the bedtime story of the
Thanksgiving myth into a nightmare. European mariners called ‘explorers’ by historians
were in fact slavers who raided the Wampanoag coast for years before the pilgrims’ arrival,
capturing people for sale to different places of which they had never heard. The Plymouth
colonists were no better; despite their claims to piety, they introduced themselves to the
Wampanoag by desecrating graves and robbing seedcorn from underground storage barns.
Nevertheless, Massesoit, the tribal leader, extended a peaceful hand to the newcomers—
not out of innate friendliness but pity, and because his people needed allies against their
Narragansett Indian rivals after the Wampanoag suffered a devastating epidemic introduced
by Europeans. This horror was the dark background to the supposed first Thanksgiving.”
What happens to our understanding of our national origin when we erase slavery, thievery,
and all of the attacks and violence from the pilgrims? When I was a little kid looking at a
pilgrim with all those buckles—I never really understood all those buckles—I didn’t know
what the “pilgrims” really did. What happens when we erase slavery from the history of the
DS: The Native actors, and for that matter the English actors, become caricatures of
themselves. In the Thanksgiving myth, friendly Indians—there’s no explanation for why
they’re friendly, and there’s usually no tribal identification of who they are—reach out to the
pilgrims not because they wanted a defensive alliance, not because they wanted trade, but
because supposedly they wanted to gift their country to foreigners. The whole point of the
exercise is to have Native people voluntarily cede their territory so that the United States
can become a beacon of liberty and Christianity and democracy, and then after the dessert
is served, the Indians just disappear. There’s no explanation of where they went, if
anywhere, or of how the history of relationship between these two peoples went after the
Again, the people just become shadows of themselves. Telling the history in that mythical
way doesn’t require us to think hard about how torturous it really was, about how bloody it
was, about how violent colonialism is by its very nature, and that that foundation is the
bedrock of our country.
CM: You write, “The dishes had barely been cleared from the first Thanksgiving before a
litany of English crimes began to mount: atrocities like the New England colonists’ 1637
massacre of the Pequots of Mystic Fort (which Connecticut and Massachusetts memorialize
on the day of Thanksgiving), cheating Indians out of their land, herding them into
reservations and making them trespassers in their own country, exploiting Indian poverty
and English control of the courts to force Indians into servitude, degrading Indians by calling
them savages at every opportunity. The moral of the first Thanksgiving was that the English
and their descendants betrayed the Wampanoags who had once befriended them in their
time of need.”
Is the real story of Thanksgiving that of betrayal? And is the lesson for Native Americans a
reminder that white people cannot be trusted, that the United States cannot be trusted?
DS: Let me be clear to your listeners. Native people have been confronting white Americans
with the hypocrisy of their sanitized history since the 1600s. They’ve been quite vocal about
all that. But there’s no reason why this false history has to be attached to Thanksgiving. It
hadn’t been before, during the 1600s or the 1700s or the first several decades of the 1800s.
Indeed, Americans had been celebrating Thanksgiving without any reference to pilgrims
and Indians for quite a long time—actually, for longer than Americans have now been
making that association. That association is an invention of the late 1800s.
We were talking earlier about the way the north has sanitized its own history. This invention
came at a time when Anglo protestants in the northeast felt like their cultural authority was
slipping away. There was an influx of non-protestant immigrants from parts of Europe that
hadn’t been represented in the United States in force up to that time. Also, the country was
expanding to the west. And finally they wanted to distance themselves from what
contemporaries considered to be the Black and Indian Problems—the Black Problem being
Reconstruction in the south, and the Indian problem being the US-Indian wars of the Great
Plains and the Rocky Mountain west.
This false Thanksgiving myth was an invention of mostly Anglo protestant New Englanders
who wanted to hold up their ancestors as the Founding Fathers of the Country. Well, look,
here we are a century and a half later. We don’t need to do their bidding any longer. We can
get together with family and friends and be thankful for the goodness in our lives without
propagating a false history, and a damaging one at that.
CM: A false history, granted, but how well did the invention of Thanksgiving in 1863, when
the country was divided—how well did that work in bringing the country back together? How
well does it work as a tool of national unity?
DS: It has worked for white people for the better part of a century and a half. At the time,
southerners in particular were quite resistant to taking up the celebration of what they
considered to be a Yankee holiday. Thanksgiving was a Yankee holiday. But eventually it
took hold.
One of the reasons it took hold in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a
widespread white protestant anxiety over non-protestant European immigrants to the
country—Catholic, Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, and the like. It also took hold when it did
because it’s a myth that asks Americans from a variety of backgrounds to identify with the
pilgrims as “we,” and to think of the Native people as “they.” Even in a classroom full of
Europeans from various ethnic backgrounds, the children would be asked to see the
pilgrims as “my forefathers.”
That’s part of the way that people with last names like mine, Silverman, were indoctrinated
into conceiving of themselves as white people. That’s another reason why this myth has
taken hold the way that it has.
CM: You write, “The national origin myth upholds the traditional social order by teaching that
the rulers came by their position heroically, righteously, and even with the blessing of the
divine. Such themes are favored by those guarding their privilege against the supposed
barbarians at the gate.”
The blessing of the divine—is there something akin to an adoration of monarchy within the
national origin myth and, say, through the framers of the constitution, the “founding
fathers?” Did we inherit certain aspects of monarchy within our national origin myth despite
our national origin being about overthrowing a monarchy?
In the late 1860s and 1870s, Massachusetts divvied up the half-dozen or so Wampanoag
reservations throughout the state, granted citizenship to indigenous people, and then
declared them no longer recognized as Indians.
DS: All political and social orders want to buttress their authority by trying to indoctrinate
people with the idea that god—or whoever their spiritual authority is—wants that particular
social order to exist. In European history, there was the divine right of kings: the king and/or
queen is the representative of god on Earth. That’s been democratized in the American
through Manifest Destiny, the idea that god blessed the United States to expand, not at the
expense of Indigenous people, not for the purposes of spreading slavery, but to spread
liberty, democracy, and Christianity, and thereby salvation, through its expansion.
The Thanksgiving myth is very much an iteration of the ideology of Manifest Destiny. Here
we have Native people voluntarily ceding their country to these pilgrims, without any
bloodshed! In the myth, god wants that to happen. Think of the songs that accompany the
grade school Thanksgiving pageants which have been so common in American schools for
the better part of the century, songs like “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” This country is blessed
by god!
CM: You mention attempts on a peninsula at Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts,
beginning in the 1860s and 1870s, to “finally make Indians as a group vanish, as nature
supposedly intended, by bringing their land into the market and forcing them to scatter and
assimilate among the larger American population.”
Vanishing as nature intended, by bringing their land into the market—which makes the
market a natural function. How often do we accept crimes against humanity as simply
nothing more than the outcome of market forces? Does the market make even genocide
invisible? Is Thanksgiving about erasing the violence of the market?
DS: One of the most sinister aspects of white American dispossession of Indigenous people
has involved taking Native people’s communal land holdings, dividing them into private
property tracts, and then subjecting those private property tracts to taxation and confiscation
for debt. Private property has been a basic pillar of white American society since the
beginning of the United States, but for Indigenous people the private property regime is an
assault on their peoplehood.
When communal lands are divided and subject to taxation and confiscation for debt, it’s a
guarantee that a sizable portion of the people will have to scatter as they fall into financial
straits. Communal landholding usually doesn’t provide the mechanisms for many people in
the community to get far ahead of the group, but it also means that not that many people fall
all that far behind. It allows the group, as a group, to stay together.
In the late 1860s and 1870s, Massachusetts divvied up the half-dozen or so Wampanoag
reservations throughout the state, granted citizenship to indigenous people, and then
declared them no longer recognized as Indians. At that time, being Indian and being a
citizen were considered antithetical to one another. The white authorities who pushed these
policies had absorbed the ideology of Manifest Destiny and trafficked in this notion that
Native people were savage, pagan peoples—inferior peoples, destined by god to disappear.
So the fact that giving up their communal lands would speed this process along was seen
as a way of promoting destiny, not as an assault on indigenous people.
CM: Did we need victory over Native Americans, even through genocide, before we could
incorporate Native Americans into our national origin myths? Was the incorporation of
Native Americans into our national origin myths the final site of subjugation of Native
Americans by colonists?
Did we need to wipe them out before we let them into our myths?
DS: I think so. I’m often asked by audiences who have read this book or heard me talk:
couldn’t it have gone better than it did? And my answer is no, it could not. Indigenous
people, whether in North America or anywhere else around the world, didn’t concede to
their own subjugation, didn’t concede to foreigners seizing their lands and asserting their
jurisdiction. Everywhere around the world, including in New England and in North America
more generally, Indigenous people resisted.
If Europeans were going to establish colonies, and later establish a nation-state which
claimed the continent, it was going to be bloody work, in terms of relations with indigenous
people. And as long as indigenous people were resisting, one could not expect those
against whom they were resisting to incorporate them into a national origin myth. The
subjugation had to be finished before that process could occur.
CM: What’s wrong with imbuing Native Americans with a sense of kindness and care within
a US origin myth about Thanksgiving? As the story goes, they open their hearts and their
homes and their fields to the pilgrims, to the colonists. What’s wrong with imbuing Native
Americans with that sense of kindness and care?
DS: First of all, it’s not true. Depicting the Wampanoags as innately friendly when they
reached out to the English robs them of the context in which they were operating.
Ousamequin, their sachem, who was in charge of this diplomacy, faced a great deal of
opposition among his own people. They had suffered a century of European raids on the
coast, in which Europeans very often enslaved Wampanoag people and sold them
overseas, or brought them back to England for training as interpreters and guides.
Understandably, Wampanoag people were quite wary of Europeans and opposed to them
establishing permanent settlements along their coasts.
Ousamequin made this decision not because he had some kind of love for the Europeans
but because his people had suffered a terrible epidemic disease between 1616 and 1619,
just before the arrival of the Mayflower. His people were hobbled, and their Narragansett
tribal rivals to the west were trying to subjugate them to tributary status. The Thanksgiving
myth does violence to this actual history.
More importantly, the Thanksgiving myth makes light of Indigenous people’s very real
historical traumas. It depicts the only authentic Indians as frozen in time at the moment of
contact, and it blinds Americans to the existence of Native people in modern times. It blinds
modern Americans to the ways Native people have resisted colonization across the
centuries, the ways they made it through the apocalypse—they were really staring genocide
in the face—and the ways they have adapted to become part of contemporary society.
Native people are not some kind of subjugated foreigners. They are our countrymen and women. They are part of our national fabric. We shouldn’t be propagating a historical lie tied
to a national holiday that does damage to any part of our national community.
CM: You write, “The name ‘Day of Mourning’ hearkened back not only to the recent national
days of mourning held throughout the United States after the assassinations of John F.
Kennedy in 1963 and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. It also evoked the eulogy of King
Philip written in 1836 by William Apess, a Pequot preacher and activist who served the
Wampanoag community of Mashpee. In his eulogy, Apess declared the December 22, 1620
anniversary of the pilgrims’ landing and the Fourth of July to be days of mourning and not
joy for Indians, because of the evils whites had done to them.”
That’s 1836. So how new is the understanding that the United States did a horrible wrong to
Native Americans? Did the colonists actively erase Native Americans from their history, or
were they simply unaware of Native American history, because why pay attention to a
civilization that you’re going to destroy?
The Thanksgiving myth teaches white proprietorship in the nation. It doesn’t just neglect
the Native American role, but it teaches that white people were destined to rule this
country, and that from the start they were in control.
DS: Generations of white historians—a disproportionate number of whom were trained at
northeastern universities like Harvard and Yale—believed that the point of history was to tell
a narrative of progress. The reason that Native people weren’t important in that narrative is
that Native people were supposedly ‘primitives.’ They weren’t part of human society’s march
towards progress, towards betterment. What was the point in telling their side of the story?
A great many Americans have been passive recipients of this kind of history, and weren’t
taught to think about it critically. But Native people have been criticizing this kind of
whitewashing since the very inception of the United States—indeed, all the way back to the
revolutionary era and before that, during the colonial period. William Apess, Pequot minister
to the Mashpee Wampanoags at Cape Cod, was one of the most eloquent proponents of
this view, and he’s the first one to introduce the idea that on the on July 4 and December 22
(the anniversary of the pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth), Native people should pause and
mourn what they have lost.
I should note, by the way: Apess made this speech in front of an all-white audience in
Boston, in the middle of the period of Andrew Jackson’s removal of the eastern tribes. One
of the reasons he chose that particular setting is that white New Englanders were among
Andrew Jackson’s fiercest critics. What Apess was saying was, “Don’t get on your high
horse. Look in your own backyard at the way you treat your own Indigenous neighbors.”
CM: Is celebrating Thanksgiving sadistic? You write, “Thanksgiving eclipses Columbus Day
as the one time a year when the country considers the Native American role in the nation’s
past. It is bad enough to have gotten the story so wrong for so long; it is inexcusable to
continue the annual tradition of having a phalanx of teachers, politicians, and television
producers traffic in the Thanksgiving myth, and homeowners and shopping centers sport
decorations of happy Indians and pilgrims. These practices dismiss Native people’s real
historical traumas in favor of depicting their ancestors as consenting to colonialism. To call
the consequences harmless is to ignore the chorus of Native Americans, our fellow
Americans after all, who say the hurt is profound, particularly to their children.”
So is celebrating Thanksgiving sadistic? Is it deriving pleasure from inflicting psychic pain,
suffering, or humiliation on others?
DS: I think it’s neglect more than anything else. Most Americans don’t recognize that Native
people are part of modern society, and therefore don’t take their feelings into account.
I think it’s cruel by neglect. I don’t think most people are intentionally trying to hurt their
Native American countrymen and -women. But the way we celebrate the holiday is
damaging in another way as well, that might not be so readily apparent. The Thanksgiving
myth teaches white proprietorship in the nation. It doesn’t just neglect the Native American
role, but it teaches that white people were destined to rule this country, and that from the
start they were in control.
The only way that we’re going to come to terms with how we’ve come to this white
nationalist moment, with a white nationalist president promoting policies that are attacking
people of color in every iteration around this country, is to recognize that this mentality is
upheld by a thousand different buttresses. I would contend that the Thanksgiving myth is
one of those buttresses.
CM: You write, “The question was and still is how to move forward.” But how possible is it to
move forward when there are so many who are in complete denial of Native genocide and
white betrayal? How possible is it to move forward when there seems to be a resurgence in
this belief in white supremacy and privilege? Do you see any signs that we are more open
to reconsidering our national origin myth as what is is, a myth?
DS: I think half the country is and half the country isn’t, and we have a major fight on our
hands. I think the white nationalist moment is in no small degree a backlash against the fact
that white people aren’t going to represent a majority in this country for long, and will have
to cede a significant amount of their power to that basic demographic truth. I have found
that there is a sizable portion of the American public that is open to the message that I am
promoting. I’ve seen it in people who have attended talks that I have given; I have seen it in
the fact that radio shows like yours and many others are interested in this story.
I’m not naive. I’m not suggesting that achieving these goals will be easy. It won’t. It’s going
to require a fight. We just need to keep pushing our views, and I am hopeful that if we do
that and if we don’t tire out and if we don’t bow to convenience, that the truth will win out at
the end of the day.
CM: We should celebrate this or memorialize this as a Day or Mourning, not as a day of
thanks. We should remember that this is a day that reinforces myths that prop up white
supremacy and white privilege and continues the legacy of racism and colonialism that
Native Americans experience each and every day. So David, what do we serve at the
Thanksgiving meal when it’s a day of mourning?
DS: Many Wampanoags I know celebrate Thanksgiving. I’m not trying to discourage
anybody from getting together with family and friends to reflect on the goodness of their
lives. But if we’re going to attach the story of pilgrims and Indians to the holiday—and I don’t
think we need to—we need to get the story straight. That turns the story from one of
celebration to one of reflection. I think many people will reflect in the spirit of mourning,
which I believe is entirely appropriate to the real details of the story.
CM: David, I really appreciate you being on our show, thank you.
DS: Thank you for having me and thanks for fighting the good fight.
Featured image: Mashpee Wampanoag Land Sovereignty Walk and Rally, Washington DC, 2018.
Source: Portugal The Man (Twitter)
Stereotyping Native Americans
I is for Ignoble: Stereotyping Native Americans
By Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette F. Molin
Published February 22, 2018
A common belief in the contemporary United States, often unspoken and unconscious, implies
that everyone has a right to use Indians as they see fit; everyone owns them. Indianness is a
national heritage; it is a fount for commercial enterprise; it is a costume one can put on for a
party, a youth activity, or a sporting event. This sense of entitlement, this expression of white
privilege, has a long history, manifesting itself in national narratives, popular entertainments,
marketing schemes, sporting worlds, and self-improvement regimes.[1]
From the earliest period of European colonization, images of Indians found expression in
early drawings, engravings, portraiture, political prints, maps and cartouches, tobacconist figures,
weather vanes, coins and medals, and books and prints. Initially, depictions of Native males and
females were used to symbolize the North American continent in the international iconography
of the day, representations that proliferated. The Indian Queen, an emblematic figure in use by
the end of the sixteenth century, symbolized the Western Hemisphere. Her successor, the Indian
Princess, became representative of the American colonies. During the Revolutionary period,
America was portrayed as a feathered Indian defying British tyranny in printed materials of the
As the United States grew, it developed a mythology that helped provide Americans with a
laudable national heritage while serving to rationalize the dispossession and conquest of
indigenous peoples. As National Museum of the American Indian curator Cécile R. Ganteaume
points out, “American Indian imagery has been used by the federal government to distinguish the
United States from other nations and to define the nation for its citizens, by U.S. armed forces to
express military might, by American corporations to signify integrity and by designers . . . to add
luster and cachet to commercial products.”[2]
Institutionalized throughout the nation and exported to other countries, these images and
others include dual portrayals of the good Indian (those who help Europeans) and the bad Indian
(those who resist Europeans), nostalgic vanishing, brave warriors, romantic princesses, and
countless ignoble images of brutality and degradation. Such representations obliterate or mask
the realities of tribal nations struggling to maintain their populations, lands, resources, and
Questions about indigenous people often begin with terminology. “At the museums and on
social media,” Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian,
comments, “people ask at least once per day when we are going to take ‘American Indian’ out of
our name.”[3] As he responds, “Native Americans use a range of words to describe themselves,
and all are appropriate. Some people refer to themselves as Native or Indian; most prefer to be
known by their tribal affiliation . . . if the context doesn’t demand a more encompassing
description.”[4] With respect to Canada, Gover notes that “terms such as First Nations and First
Peoples are preferred.”[5]
American Indians are richly diverse, yet all too often their public portrayals—in books,
advertisements, shop signs, terminology, and even children’s toys and games—are greatly at
odds with actual Native peoples and cultures. As the National Congress of American Indians
points out, “There are 567 federally recognized Indian Nations (variously called tribes, nations,
bands, pueblos, communities and native villages) in the United States. Approximately 229 of
these ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse nations are located in Alaska; the other
federally recognized tribes are located in 35 other states.”[6] In addition, there are state
recognized tribes across the country as well as other differences.
This essay explores selected themes centered on centuries-old stereotypes of American
Indians: “Tomahawks and Knives”: Stereotypical Violence; “Words Are Weapons”: Language
Representations; “Stereotypes Sell”: Commercialization of Indians; “Self-Shaping”: Playing
Indian; “Braves” and “Chiefs”: Indian Mascots; and “I is for Indian”: World of Children. It is
illustrated with images from the Jim Crow Museum, drawn from its collection of objects
depicting Native Americans and consistent with its goal to tell stories of injustice towards all
“Tomahawks and Knives”: Stereotypical Violence
Almost any portrait that we see of an Indian, he is represented with tomahawk and scalping knife
in hand, as if they possessed no other but a barbarous nature. Christian nations might with equal
justice be always represented with cannon and ball, swords and pistols.[7]
Throughout U. S. history, Euro-Americans committed countless acts of violence against
Native people. Such acts include extermination or genocide, theft of Indian lands and resources,
captivity and enslavement, forced removals from homelands, and schooling aimed at destroying
Native cultures.
Violence continues today. A study by the U.S. Department of Justice shows that “American
Indian and Alaska Native women and men suffer violence at alarmingly high rates.”[8]
In an American Psychiatric Association blog post, research scientist Melanie Peterson-Hickey
observes that high suicide rates among Native Americans are well documented, noting that the
“trauma resulting from a history of race-based policy, discrimination and oppression has
significant and longstanding impact.”[9]
Nonetheless, as Tuscarora Chief Elias Johnson has pointed out, American Indians are
represented as barbarous, with tomahawk and scalping knife in hand. In contrast, EuroAmericans are depicted as innocent victims of savagery, especially from Indian males.
It is believed that European representations of Native people as violent date back to as early
as 1591, when engraver Theodor DeBry engraved and published artist Jacques LeMoyne’s 156465 drawing of Indian scalping. Furthermore, from the 17th to the 19th centuries, non-Indian
observers portrayed Indians intent on “savage war” more violent than “civilized” combat of
European and American governments. Increasingly lurid details of Indian savagery also appeared
in captivity narratives, published from the 1600s to the 1800s, accounts of non-Indians captured
and held prisoner by Indians. Dime novels, inexpensive booklets first marketed in 1859, became
popular as well. This bestselling fiction portrayed Indians as savages preying on defenseless
Wild West shows, performed across North America and Europe from the late 1800s into the
20 century, dramatized Indian attacks on stagecoaches and cabins as well as mock battles
between cavalry and Indians. William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and other showmen, including Plains
Indians, drew huge audiences. These shows, and related influences, inspired filmmakers to
produce Westerns depicting hordes of Indians attacking Euro-Americans. As a matter of fact,
many American Indians were taken captive by non-Indians, tortured, incarcerated, murdered, and
expelled into slavery. Because Europeans and Euro-Americans colonists threatened Native
peoples, many resisted mightily to defend their families and homelands.
The ongoing perception of Indians as dangerous contributes to negative expectations,
interactions, and consequences. Thus, Indians are incarcerated at high rates, encounter
discrimination and hate crimes, and experience other negative impacts. Stereotyped Indian
violence also leads non-Indians to fear Native people.
Nonetheless, the “barbarous nature” representation of Indians, voiced by Elias Johnson,
continues to pervade American culture via school curricula, books and toys, sports teams, media
advertisements, and other means. Such representations prevent others from seeing Native people
realistically, including in a range of roles, settings, and occupations.
“Words Are Weapons”: Language
In contrast to the inane stereotype of the Indian as soundless, we know from the vast storehouse
of our oral traditions that Aboriginal peoples were peoples of words. Many words. Amazing
words. Cultivated words. They were neither wordless nor illiterate in the context of their
linguistic and cultural roots.[10]
Although more than 300 Native languages existed in what is now the continental United
States, “as different from each other as Turkish, English, and Chinese,” that number greatly
diminished in the aftermath of European colonization.[11] Indigenous population loss through
disease and war exacted a toll as did ongoing measures to Europeanize and Christianize Native
people at the expense of their own cultures and languages. Such measures included the
establishment of mission and government boarding schools to implement English-only and other
harsh policies. As federal commissioners wrote, “their barbarous dialect should be blotted out
and the English language substituted.”[12]
With English, a lexicon of words and phrases became entrenched, a shorthand way to refer to
all Native people, language reflecting stereotypical attitudes and behaviors. Savage, pagan, injun,
brave, buck, chief, redskin, squaw, papoose, and other terms became commonplace. The
negative impact was heightened with the addition of adjectives such as wild, dirty, pesky,
sneaky, and worse. “In an abusive society,” activist Suzan Shown Harjo points out, “language is
a control mechanism . . . and words are weapons used to signal status information, such as who
are the inferior and superior folks.”[13]
“Words such as savage, buck, squaw, and papoose,” author Mary Gloyne Byler emphasizes,
“do not bring to mind the same images as do the words man, boy, woman and baby.”[14] While
some words (squaw, papoose) can be traced to specific Native languages, they have been
removed from their cultural origins and turned into generic, pejorative labels. Other terms may
have been benign, but have been weaponized over time, also by context. Even Pocahontas, the
name of a historical figure, is misused as a slur.
Compounding slurs, media such as Hollywood films and Wild West shows contributed to the
notion that American Indians, regardless of linguistic background, speak a fictional, substandard
version of English. Variously described as Hollywood or Pidgin English or “Tonto-speak,” its
grammatical markers include formulaic grammar, including the use of “um” (“speak-um”) and
“me” instead of “I” (“me speak-um”). This language became entrenched, endlessly repeated
across time and place. It portrays Indians as silent and wordless or incapable of speaking proper
English or other “civilized” languages.
“Stereotypes Sell”: Commercialization of Indians
Stereotypes sell. To this day, consumers recognize the stylized Indian chief on cans of Calumet
baking powder and the kneeling Indian maiden on packages of Land O’Lakes butter.[15]
For hundreds of years, merchants have used images of American Indians to advertise and
market merchandise. Products include tobacco, associated with Native Americans, advertised via
tobacconist figures, or cigar store Indians, and more. According to author Ralph Sessions,
“English tobacconists were among the first to capitalize upon the image of the Native
Americans.”[16] Figures, intended to represent the inhabitants of the New World, advertised shops
carrying the “Indian weed.” “The earliest visual evidence of the use of a tobacconist figure in
America,” Sessions notes, appears outside a tobacco shop depicted in an 1810 watercolor by
painter Baroness Hyde de Neuville.[17]
The tobacconist figures, made from wood or cast iron, soon became popular across North
America. At first, “the female figure . . . was by far the more popular, outnumbering male figures
four to one.”[18] Omnipresent as today’s neon signs and billboards, these figures usually appear as
generically “Indian.” Cigar store Indians and other products associated with tobacco continue to
appear across commercial venues.
Marketers also invoked Native associations with herbs and plants to sell medicinal
concoctions. Popular during the 1800s, Indian medicine shows, a number featuring Indian or
Indian-impersonator performers, pitched a range of patent or proprietary (across the counter)
nostrums or remedies as cure-alls, among them Kickapoo Indian Salve, Big Chief Liniment, and
Indian Stomach Bitters. The burgeoning advertising industry was patently instrumental to the
rise of medicine shows during the period. As author Brooks McNamara points out, “Nostrum
advertising continued to develop on a prodigious scale in nineteenth-century America,” with
presses pouring forth “a sea of handbills, posters, flyers, free magazines, trade cards” and more
to promote products.[19]
Native food associations, too, contributed to companies promoting a range of products using
Indian names, titles, and images. “Advertising objectifies,” author Deborah Doxtator notes. “It
transforms the image of historical figures such as Tecumseh … and Pontiac into trivial objects
that can be possessed, used up and thrown away.”[20] The same is true of commercialization that
exploits titles (Big Chief Meat Snacks) and “loanwords” (Squaw Peas). Furthermore, when
companies appropriate tribal names like Sioux (Sioux Bee Honey/Sue Bee Honey), they suggest
an association with specific Indian nations.
Once advertisers in America, Japan, and other countries began using images of Native people
after the 1850s, historian Daniel Francis writes: “Suddenly images of the Indian were appearing
on the pages of mass-circulation magazines, on billboards, on the shelves at the local
supermarket.”[21] These images relegate people to a timeless past. “Any appropriation of
American Indian images or cultural imagery to sell a product,” scholar Victoria E. Sanchez
asserts, “amounts to perpetuation of institutionalized racism and is a contributing factor to
insensitive stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, and stigmatization.”[22]
“Self-Shaping”: Playing Indian
While minstrel shows have long been criticized as racist, American children are still socialized
into playing Indian. Columbus Day celebrations, Halloween costumes and Thanksgiving
reenactments stereotype Indigenous Peoples as one big distorted culture. We are relegated to
racist stereotypes and cultural caricatures.[23]
Let’s Play Indian, a children’s book by Madye Lee Chastain, is one of countless examples of
playing Indian, a practice engaged in by outsiders who appropriate, or take on, American Indian
identities and cultural ways. Chastain’s main character transforms herself into “a really truly
dressed-up painted Indian,” who runs, whoops, and waves her tomahawk.[24] As columnist Ruth
Hopkins notes, “Some folks contend that since it’s acceptable to dress up as a cowboy, they
should get a pass for dressing up as an ‘Indian.’ Wrong.”[25] While children frequently dress up
to play a cowboy, nurse, or fire fighter, these are occupations. Being American Indian is not a
profession or vocation. It is a human identity, tribally specific and integral to Native personhood
and nationhood.
Let’s Play Indian is not an isolated example of playing Indian. Actually, the practice has a
long history. As scholar Rayna Green writes: “Almost from their very arrival in the Americas,
Europeans found it useful, perhaps essential, to ‘play Indian’ in America, to demand that tribal
peoples ‘play Indian,’ and to export the performances back to Europe, where they thrive to
date.”[26] The Boston Tea Party, which helped spark the American Revolution in 1773, is an early
example. Sounding war whoops and masquerading as Mohawks, colonial men boarded ships in
Boston Harbor and threw chests of tea overboard to protest British tea taxes. White males such
as these were the first of many participants to engage in Indian play. Woodcraft Indians, Camp
Fire Girls, Boy Scouts, Wild West and Indian medicine shows, hobbyists, and sports teams are
among numerous examples. Playing Indian cuts across race, class, gender, age, and group
affiliations. Some people engage in such “play” temporarily, as in Halloween costuming, but
others appropriate Indian names and identities on an ongoing basis.
Playing Indian also extends to depictions of animals dressed as Indians in a variety of
products, including books and toys. These portrayals are dehumanizing, suggesting that Native
people are creatures of fantasy and not fully human.
Playing Indian with one-size-fits-all images of American Indians is contrary to actual Native
peoples, past or present. Such practices prevent other people from learning about, or
understanding, Native America. Such “play” masks low per-capita incomes, high unemployment,
poor health, and other realities. As Philip J. Deloria, author of Playing Indian, points out: “…the
ways in which white Americans have used Indianness in creative self-shaping have continued to
be pried apart from questions about inequality, the uneven workings of power, and the social
settings in which Indians and non-Indians might actually meet.”[27]
“Braves” and “Chiefs”: Indian Mascots
Native American mascots have very little to do with Native Americans. They do not, nay,
cannot, represent indigenous men and women. Much like blackface, such inventions and
imaginings, meant to represent a racial other, tell us much more about Euro-Americans….They
reflect and reinforce the fundamental features of racial and gendered privilege in a settler society,
particularly a sense of entitlement to take and remake without consent and to do so without the
burden of history, the challenges of knowing, or the risk of penalty.[28]
A popular version of playing Indian arose in the early part of the twentieth century in
organized sports, with team names such as Braves, Chiefs, Indians, Savages, Redskins, and
Warriors. These monikers, evoking masculine ideals of bravery and aggression, became
widespread at a range of institutions, including K-12 schools, colleges and universities, and
amateur and professional athletic leagues and franchises.
Teams with “Indian” names come with a variety of practices, among them the adoption of
“red-face” mascots costumed as Plains Indians, ersatz Indian dances and rituals at halftime, face
paint and feathered headdresses, and the antics of war whooping, tomahawk chopping fans. Band
members, drill teams and cheerleaders (including “Indian princesses,” “Redskinettes,” and the
like) contribute to the overall theme. Such representations have become normalized, a familiar
part of everyday America. “These images are so powerful,” activist Charlene Teters has testified,
“that many non-native people do not see us as modern people with a valued history, living
culture, language or a future.”[29] Challenging such images requires seeing them for what they are
(and are not). Author Dave Zirin, for instance, notes: “I started looking into [the Redskins] more
after a young girl of Native American ancestry saw the logo on a media folder in my bag and
asked me fearfully why ‘the man’s head had been chopped off.’” He concluded: “…once you see
it, you can’t unsee it.”[30]
Team logos, rife with “chopped off” Indian heads, are emblazoned on fields and arenas,
programs and memorabilia, and across a range of venues. Audiences, fans or not, are bombarded
with radio, television, newspaper, and electronic media coverage. Teams, especially franchises
worth billions of dollars, market an astonishing array of commercial products, such as pennants,
caps, mugs, plates, notebooks, mascot figures, bobble heads, and even toilet paper. Starting
with infant apparel and other merchandise, marketing is aimed at all age groups, the better to
groom fans and keep revenue flowing into team coffers.
Demeaning “Indian” language, too, reinforces imagery, as in:
Hail to the Redskins.
Hail Victory!
Braves on the warpath.
Fight for old D.C.
Scalp ‘um, swamp ‘um, we will
Take ‘um big score.[31]
Although some teams have denied or sanitized racist versions of fight songs and other
representations, the historical record reveals the truth. Through efforts by opponents of Indian
mascots, a number of institutions, especially at the K-12 and college levels, have changed a
range of practices, including team names. Professional teams such as the Redskins and the
Cleveland Indians have been the most resistant to change.
“I is for Indian”: World of Children
But I am hurt and often outraged by how my children experience their Indianness in mainstream
The lives of children are saturated with American Indian stereotypes: “I for Indian” in
alphabet books, “Ten Little Indians” song and dance, plastic “Indian villages,” coffee-can “tomtoms,” cardboard totem poles, “Indian” Barbie dolls, Pocahontas costumes, and more. As
educator Jim E. Warne has testified, “Today’s average U.S. education about Indians is reduced to
cutting out construction paper feathers, coloring book tepees and tomahawks, and Pilgrim hats
for Thanksgiving.”[33]
Consistent with such instruction, “I for Indian” too often appears in alphabet blocks, cards,
and books. Juxtaposed with objects (A for apple, B for ball), it is also accompanied by a dancing,
whooping, war painted “Indian” and other stereotypical imagery. Besides objectifying Native
peoples, “I for Indian” is known to manifest “the anachronistic placement of past-tensed
‘Indians’ with modern items or settings.”[34] Such anachronisms contribute to misconceptions
about Native Americans, past or present.
Native people are also treated as objects in counting songs, books, and toys. “Ten Little
Indians” is the best known example by far, appearing in nursery school curricula, toys,
recordings, games, YouTube videos, and theater productions. Written in 1868 as “Ten Little
Injuns” by songwriter Septimus Winner, this hit “comic song and chorus” features “injuns”
dying by different means “until there were none.” [35] Adults continue to teach the song,
seemingly oblivious to its violent, racist history, counting down Indians to annihilation.
Clinical psychologists report that constant encounters with false images result in Native
children internalizing stereotypes that interfere with their developing positive self-images and
racial identities. Likewise, researchers have studied the development of racial awareness,
attitudes, and feelings in young children. “The first six years of life are important for the
development of all social attitudes,” psychologist Gordon Allport has written. “A bigoted
personality may be well under way by the age of six….”[36] For writer Mary Gloyne Payne Byler,
“far from being harmless, stereotypes are one of the most common manifestations of prejudice
and one of the most persistent.”[37]
Whatever the source, inaccurate images and information about Native people are particularly
harmful during children’s formative years. In a study by Children NOW, a child advocacy
organization examining children’s perceptions of race and class in the media, Native youngsters
said they see themselves as “poor,” “drunk,” “living on reservations,” and “an invisible
race.”[38] The Children NOW study concludes that “Native American youth are concerned about
portrayals of their race in the media.”[39] So are countless historians and other educators who
object to the maltreatment of Native peoples and cultures. Scholar Michael Dorris puts it bluntly:
“To deprive our children (who grow up to become no less deprived adults) access to the wealth
and sophistication of traditional Native American societies is indefensible . . . this treasure trove
of experience and intelligence, perfected over tens of thousands of years residence on this
continent, is allowed to be eclipsed by dumb, racist drivel.”[40]
C. Richard King, redskins: Insult and Brand (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016),
Cécile R. Ganteaume, “Americans: Major New Exhibition Asks, Why Do Images of American
Indians Permeate American Life?” National Museum of the American Indian magazine, vol. 18,
no. 3 (Fall 2017): 20-27.
Kevin Gover, “Five Myths about American Indians,” The Washington Post, November 22,
2017. (accessed January 13, 2018).
Gover, “Five Myths about American Indians.”
Gover, “Five Myths about American Indians.”
National Congress of American Indians, “Tribal Nations and the United States: An
Introduction,” January 15, 2015. (accessed January 13, 2018).
Elias Johnson, A Native Tuscarora Chief. Legends, Traditions and Laws of the Iroquois, or Six
Nations, and History of the Tuscarora Indians. Lockport, NY: Union Publishing Co., 1881.
[reprints available]
André B. Rosay, “Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and Men,”
U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs National Institute of Justice, May
2016. (accessed January 15, 2018).
Melanie Peterson-Hickey, “American Indians, Mental Health, and the Influence of History,”
American Psychiatric Association blog post, November 6,
2015. (accessed January 15, 2018).
Emma LaRocque, “Here Are Our Voices—Who Will Hear?” Preface to Writing the Circle:
Native Women of Western Canada, compiled and edited by Jeanne Perreault and Sylvia Vance
(Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), xv.
Elizabeth Seay, Searching for Lost City: On the Trail of America’s Native
Languages (Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2003), ix.
J.D.C. Atkins, “The English Language in Indian Schools,” in Americanizing the American
Indians: Writings by the “Friends of the Indian” 1880-1900, ed. Francis Paul Prucha (Lincoln:
University of Nebraska Press, 1978): 197-206.
Suzan Shown Harjo, “Watch Your Language!” Indian Country Today, July 4,
2001. (accessed October 26,
Mary Gloyne Byler, “Taking Another Look,” in Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience
in Books for Children, eds. Beverly Slapin and Doris Seale (Philadelphia, PA: New Society
Publishers, 1992): 81-87.
Jeffrey Steele, “Reduced to Images: American Indians in Nineteenth Century Advertising,”
in Dressing in Feathers: The Construction of the Indian in American Popular Culture, ed. S.
Elizabeth Bird (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996): 45-64.
Ralph Sessions, The Shipcarvers’ Art: Figureheads and Cigar-Store Indians in NineteenthCentury America (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005), 86.
Sessions, The Shipcarvers’ Art, 86.
“Cigar-Store Indian,” in Encyclopedia of North American Indians, ed. Frederick Hoxie
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), 123.
Brooks McNamara, Step Right Up: An Illustrated History of the American Medicine
Show (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1976), 13, 16.
Deborah Doxtator, Fluffs and Feathers: An Exhibit on the Symbols of Indianness: A Resource
Guide (Brantford, Ontario: Woodland Cultural Centre, revised edition, 1992), 46.
Daniel Francis, The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian
Culture (Vancouver, B.C.: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1993), 175.
Victoria E. Sanchez, “Buying into Racism: American Indian Product Icons in the American
Marketplace,” in American Indians and the Mass Media, eds. Meta G. Carstarphen and John P.
Sanchez (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012): 153-168.
Dwanna L. Robertson, “Playing ‘Indian’ and Color-Blind Racism,” Indian Country Today,
September 20, 2013. (accessed October 30, 2017).
Madye Lee Chastain, Let’s Play Indian (New York: Wonder Books, 1950).
Ruth Hopkins, “My Native Identity Isn’t Your Plaything. Stop with the Mascots and
‘Pocahotties,’” The Guardian, June 19,
2015. (accessed October 2, 2017).
Rayna Green, “The Tribe Called Wannabee: Playing Indian in America and Europe.” Folklore,
vol. 99, no. 1 (1988): 30-55.
Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 189-190.
C. Richard King, redskins: Insult and Brand, 31-32.
Charlene Teters, in “Stolen Identities: The Impact of Racist Stereotypes on Indigenous People,”
Hearing before the Committee on Indian Affairs, United States Senate, 112th Congress, May 5,
2011. (accessed October 29, 2017).
Dave Zirin, “You Can’t Unsee It: Washington Football Name and Quiet Acts of
Resistance,” The Nation, September 5, 2014. (accessed October 6, 2017).
Connie Griffith, My Life with the Redskins (New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1947), 39.
Nancy Marie Mithlo, “Our Indian Princess”: Subverting the Stereotype (Santa Fe, NM: School
for Advanced Research, 2009), viii.
Jim E. Warne, in “Stolen Identities: The Impact of Racist Stereotypes on Indigenous
People.” (accessed October 29, 2017).
Robert B. Moore and Arlene Hirschfelder, “Feathers, Tomahawks and Tipis: A Study of
Stereotyped ‘Indian’ Imagery in Children’s Picture Books,” in American Indian Stereotypes in
the World of Children: A Reader and Bibliography, 2nd ed., eds. Arlene Hirschfelder, Paulette
Fairbanks Molin, and Yvonne Wakim (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 1999): 55-80.
Julianne Jennings, “The History of ‘Ten Little Indians,’” Indian Country Today, October 11,
2012. (accessed January 15, 2018).
Gordon Allport, The Nature of Prejudice (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.,
1954), 297. [Reprint edition: New York: Basic Books, 1979]
Mary Gloyne Payne, “Editorial: Mary Gloyne Payne,” Indian Affairs, no. 62 (December 1965),
Children NOW. A Different World: Native American Children’s Perceptions of Race and Class
in the Media. (Oakland, CA: Children NOW,
1999), (accessed January 15, 2018).
Children NOW.
Michael A. Dorris, “Foreword to the First Edition,” in American Indian Stereotypes in the
World of Children: A Reader and Bibliography, 2nd ed., vii-viii.

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