A Week in the Life of the Stereotypical Indian

Vincent Schilling

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.

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marten's picture
Billy Bob; That would be ideal. No one taking offense at anything. It would be like just letting a bully poke at you whenever he/she feels like it. You just be passive. That is the Christian ideal. More power and God's blessings to such a saintly person. A bully is not satisfied with passivity. He/She wants a reaction. And, get this, bullies are ususally cowards. They hide behind numbers. They usually hate themselves, and feel inferior to others. They don't pick on their own size. They need their target to be weaker by age, gender, size, or whatever. The note about Sacheen Littlefeather. Thanks for the info about her father. I read, back then, that her parents were Filipino and German. This info was dug up by Rona Barrett, who was highly regarded. But if the Apache tribe claims her on their tribal rolls, that should be put to the public, as well as Rona Barrett. At any rate, that incident at the oscars hurt the Native Americans. I heard from an oscar buff, that we probably won't see a Native American ever nominated after that. But, I say, never say never! You see, oscar is a game. And in any game, players can be manipulated. Happened since day one! Back to stereotypes. Another major one, is the poor Indian stereotype. No one, except us, it seems know about: Jim Thorpe; Billy Mills; The 5 Indian ballerinas from Oklahoma; Will Rogers; Roy Rogers; Dennis Weaver; singers like Keely Smith, Kay Starr, Johnnie Ray, Lee Wiley, Mildred Bailey, and others. Believe me when I say these were esteemed by their peers. Also various instrumentalists, like Link Wray. Google them!
marten's picture
I live near an area with many people who know show biz, from the old days to current times. What they reveal about the private John Wayne, or the one at the studios would shock you. But they saw it all back then. They valued their jobs, so they kept their mouths shut. But now, many are retired, and don't have to worry about their jobs, so..they speak up. I'll leave it at that. You must do your own research to find out. BUT, actor Robert Mitchum revealed that John Wayne wore 4" heels in his boots. (Maybe contributing to that odd walk?) Many of our people don't know or realize that the stereotype of Indians (usually played by non-Indians) is all that people all over the world know. Even in the remotest jungles, they who have movies, think the reel Indians are the real Indians. Even other ethnics buy into this stereotype. It's all they know. But these ones will howl if their people are stereotyped in the movies. Even in the industry, they think that Sacheen Littlefeather, (a very nice lady) was a real Indian at that oscar ceremony back in 1973. She was a Filipina/German actress, according to columnist Rona Barrett, back then. This perpetual stereotyping cost Indian actors some good parts, because industry bigwigs believed that a real Indian was refusing an oscar for Brando; thus, the backlash. Actor Will Sampson publicly bemoaned the Brando/Littlefeather action, when he was denied a supporting actor nomination for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest". Anyone who sees the movie comes away with a deep regard for the character of the Chief, who is a main character, and is superbly portrayed by Will Sampson. Stereotypes hurt Native Americans all their lives. And now, with more and more ethnics, many of whom are ignorant, the prejudices are increasing daily. Native Americans must be educated about all this.
toso mustaj's picture
I love it when they use Iron Eyes Cody's pictures to depict a Native American -- HE WAS ITALIAN!!!!
toso mustaj
marymorg's picture
This past weekend my granddaughter and I went for a swim in the hotel pool that we were staying at and we swam with a couple of children who also happened to be Native. I asked them where they were from and they really didn't know how to respond because they had just moved from South Dakota. The little boy seemed agitated and I asked him what was wrong and he replied; "Those white people over there act like they never saw an Indian before!" I told him "Some people just don't know any better!" It brought me back to a year earlier when I had worked for an Indian Studies Department and was the only Indian in that department. The teacher was white but claimed Indian preference to get her job and acquire the two year teaching degree that was designed for Natives to teach Native students. Yep! She was as FAKE as they come and the school district backed her. She always bragged about how the students and I were in the whitest county in the state! I always wondered if there was a hidden threat in those words? She even went as far as telling us that she belonged to the "otter" clan. She and her covert entourage was as insidious as they come. One day I sat in on one of her classes and she happened to be covering stereotypes, racism and discrimination. There was no lesson in what happened in her class that day and those students will remember what she had done and said for the rest of their lives. First off she put a map of Minnesota on the white board and in black font she labeled the SE part of the state as Corn, the SW she had labeled as Nothing, the NE was labeled Iron Range, the NW she labeled beets and in Red font all caps in the central part of the state she labeled RED LAKE and below that she wrote DRUNK INDIANS! She asked the class how does this make you feel? Everyone of those boys heads were hanging and she was waiting for a reply, one student said it makes me angry! She waited for more replies, then she looked at me and said; "Maryanne, how does that make you feel?" I told her, Patty can you see where the anger comes from it comes from things like that! while pointing at her whiteboard. I told her obviously, the person who constructed this is uneducated and is probably also a bigot! She then stated lets move on, She asked if anyone knew the difference between racism and discrimination? She went on to define the words and had intertwined the two and I interjected telling her the differences, she said lets move on and at this point, her face was red, she talked about stereotypes and asked the students to list some stereotypes concerning native people, not one of the students said a word, she said; "They are drunks, dumb, lazy, cannot talk, live in run down homes..." I stopped her again and said, "Our leaders both past and present were and are very articulate people. I will admit our past leaders used very simple language but were very wise in their choice of words, they used so few words but the words they used meant a lot! A student said like; "I Will Fight No More Forever!" I said exactly! I also asked Patty Jo Erven; "When was the last time you were on an Indian reservation? Some people live in state of the art homes!" Patty never said anything positive to the students that day, she only wanted to know how it made the students feel. This brings me to my point. You cannot teach anyone where you have never been! This goes for culture and language. Sure someone can recite the Ojibway language from the top of their head but it is not the same as growing up with the language. The intimacies and nuances of the language is just not there. Kids are alot smarter than what you give them credit for they know who are and what is REAL! Aho!