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Native Americans

Native American Representation: An Introduction

After the Europeans arrived in the Americas, the words "savage" and "Indian" became very closely linked. The English understood themselves as different from, and superior to, the indigenous people. Early stereotypes of Native Americans as savage and inferior became a persistent theme in the American consciousness.

White audiences arrived in America with preconceived notions about what it meant to be cultured, civilized, and moral, and they defined themselves in opposition to Native Americans. Emphasizing Native Americans’ divergence from the white ideal became a means of affirming Euro-American superiority over Native Americans.

Ideologies of white supremacy justified colonization and westward expansion, and informed legal systems that allowed the US to exercise political, social, and economic power over its inhabitants. America’s rise to power through expansion and empire-building was synonymous with the displacement and poor treatment of native inhabitants. Believing themselves superior culturally and racially, white Americans justified their efforts to assimilate and Americanize Native Americans throughout the nineteenth century.

Ideas about Native Americans during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were informed by this complicated history of struggle and conflict. The images in this exhibit illustrate some of the popular conceptualizations of Native Americans during this time period.

Native American Masculinity in the Masculine Space of Publication

American studies scholar Amy Kaplan says, “Nationhood and manhood have long been intimately related in American history through the dynamic of territorial expansion.” Much of this territorial expansion took place on the American Western frontier, and conflict with Native Americans played a large part in forging "the ideology of white masculinity.”

If white American masculinity and the conquering of Native American peoples and lands are linked historically, they are perhaps even more closely tied through racial representations in popular “pulp” literature, sheet music, and illustrated merchandise. The covers of pulp novels and magazines, which were produced largely by and for male readers, create an interesting study in popular representations of Native Americans. In general, these representations imagine Native American men on the spectrum from “violent savage” to “noble savage.” Though the interplay of these tropes is more complex than an either/or binary, the images support white American definitions of masculinity, opposing those who are “primitive” (violent) with those who are “civilized” (conquered). These definitions were further emphasized in performances of redface, in which white actors explored Native American cultures, constructed popular images, and, in doing so, claimed authority over Native people.

Though representations during this time period do not always define Native Americans as strictly savage or civilized, this section of our exhibit will highlight the ways different representations exemplify the popular sterotypes of violent (primitive) savage and civilized (noble) savage. The following pages examine popular images of Native Americans to show how they express historical anxieties about race, political power, sexuality, masculinity, and white cultural superiority.