Skip to main content

The "Violent Savage"

Historically and today, representations of Native American men have frequently relied on stereotypes of violence, savagery, or primitivism. Popular images depict Native American men at war with whites and with other tribes. These images in American culture establish and reinforce an understanding of Native American men as inherently violent.

Curiously, some illustrations in popular sources of the time period present the Native American man as a friendly native with a desire to use his violent nature in ways that benefit and protect white America. The sheet music piece “Big Chief Killahun” (Fig. 2) celebrates Native American violence, as long as this violence exists in an appropriate context according to the white population. Composers and illustrators alike worked to ease cultural anxieties about the Native American man as primitive by portraying the "Noble Savage" as a friendly protector of America.

Violent stereotypes were used to justify the white population's efforts to subdue Native Americans. If the so-called "red man" was a threat, it became not only acceptable but necessary to protect whites from his “violent nature.” The white man could then appropriate violent masculinity, allowing him to celebrate the very thing he had used to condemn Native Americans as "savages."

Another popular stereotype was the “vanishing Indian," who had been conquered, subdued, or otherwise disappeared. If the Native Americans in pulp stories and popular songs were the last of their kind, then they no longer posed a threat to white domination.

Depictions of the Native American as violent savages extended beyond images of war or conflict into hunting scenes. Such hunting scenes might feature a shirtless Native American man riding a rearing horse, spear poised for the kill (see Fig. 7). Rarely do such images provide any sense of purpose or context for the hunt, such as cooking, consuming, or using the animal. Instead, the violence and “adventure” of the kill is the focus.