Stereotyped Images

Lenape manStereotyped Images of Native People

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Web Editor Note:  The Native man is a Lenape!

When Benjamin West painted The Death of General Wolfe in 1770, he memorialized a famous British commander who died during England’s struggle to seize Quebec (1759). But West memorialized something else, too. As you can see, West included an American Indian in the painting, along with numerous British officers and soldiers. But why? There wasn’t a Native American with Wolfe when he died.

The artist used the stereotype of the “Noble Savage” to bring an aura of reverence to the General’s passing. Just as the Indian observes and ponders Wolfe’s demise, we are all invited to “learn” from the war hero’s death.

Death of Wolfe paintingBy using the Noble Savage image in the painting, West tells the viewer as much about indigenous peoples’ status as he does about the General’s prominence. The Native American is noble – ignorant, but capable of learning – but he also is savage. Either the soldiers are boiling hot, or the Native American is freezing cold. Why are Indians commonly portrayed as half-naked?

When used in artistic portrayals like this one, the “Noble Savage” stereotype sends subtle and not-so-subtle messages about American Indians. The stereotype suggests that indigenous peoples are in need of being converted or civilized by the dominant (European and, later, American) culture, that they will reap benefits upon assimilation and that they are capable of serving a role – albeit a subservient one – in the dominant group’s fulfillment of its destiny.

Did you notice the Native American when you first looked at the painting? Why? What, if anything, did you notice about him? Did his presence impact your perception of the event portrayed? How?

Image Source: Fact Sources: Scott B. Vickers, Native American Identities: From Stereotype to Archetype in Art and Literature (University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque), p. 4; Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, p.74-76.

Image Source: Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America The Death of General Wolfe, 1770. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; transfer from the Canadian War Memorials, 1921.

Lesson 2 –

Daniel Boone part 1With the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the United States government began a mass campaign against indigenous peoples, forcibly removing them from their homelands. When military officials relocated Native American groups, sometimes forcing them to walk hundreds of miles, thousands of indigenous people died. But White artists of the era chose to portray American Indians, who did not want to forfeit their land, as the aggressors – rather than the federal government that expelled them. And the iconic image of the Native American as the “Demonic Indian” or “Ignoble Savage” was literally etched into our national landscape.

Daniel Boone Struggling with the Indian is a permanent sandstone relief in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

Danile Boone fightThe Native American in the sculpture is huge in stature, his facial features exaggerated and devilish. He is unmistakably violent. He is meant to be feared.

What did you think when you first saw this image? Have you seen American Indians portrayed this way before? If so, where?  Did you play “cowboys and Indians” when you were growing up? If so, how does that form of child’s play relate to the “Demonic Indian” stereotype?

Image Source: Image Source: Enrico Causici, Daniel Boone Struggling with the Indian, 1826-27. Sanstone sculptural relief in the rotunda on the United States Capitol, Washington, D.C.

No MASCOTS samplesLesson 3 –

Stereotypes of Native Americans and outright racism underscore these athletic team mascots. The imagery and practices associated with Native mascots further mis-education about indigenous peoples. The use of Native mascots is tied directly to the stereotype of the Demonic Indian – a war-driven, violence-prone warrior who elicits fear. Why else would professional sports teams and schools choose Native images as mascots?

Native mascots also perpetuate another myth about American Indian culture – that Native America is purely historical and devoid of any contemporary relevance. These images hide the fact that Native American cultures are living cultures.

Further, many teams have chosen to create their own imagery to “represent Native cultures” or have taken culturally significant items and practices out of context, thereby distorting them. Barbara Munson, a member of the Oneida Nation and an activist with the Wisconsin Indian Education Association, explains:

“We experience (the use of Native mascots) as no less than a mockery of our cultures. We see objects sacred to us – such as eagle feathers, face painting and traditional dress – being used not in sacred ceremony, or in any cultural setting, but in another culture’s game. … Yes, we are proud of the warriors who fought to protect our cultures from forced removal and systematic genocide and to preserve our lands from the greed of others. We are proud, and we don’t want them demeaned by being “honored” in a sports activity on a playing field.”

Do you root for teams that use Native mascots? Do you wear T-shirts, caps or other items that promote these teams? Have you ever thought about what the mascots mean? Why or why not?

Image Source: Fact Source: Barbara Munson, “Not for Sport,” and Cornel Pewewardy, “Beyond the ‘Wild West,’ ” Teaching Tolerance (Spring 1999).

This information is from Teaching Tolerance, lease visit their website: