List Common Native American Stereotypes Essay

Stereotypes about Indigenous peoples of North America are a particular kind of ethnic stereotypes found both in North America, as well as elsewhere. Indigenous people of the Americas are commonly called Native Americans, Alaska Natives or First Nations (in Canada).[1] The indigenous peoples of the Arctic, known as Eskimo peoples (which include but are not limited to the Inuit) and Aleuts, are included; only the terms "Native Americans" and "American Indians" traditionally exclude them. This article primarily discusses stereotypes present in Canadian and American culture. There are more numerous and varied stereotypes about Indigenous peoples than about any other ethnic group in the Americas. It is believed that some portrayals of natives such as bloodthirsty savages have disappeared. However, most portrayals are oversimplified and inaccurate; these stereotypes are found particularly in popular media which is the main source of mainstream images of Indigenous peoples world-wide.[2][3]

The stereotyping of Native Americans must be understood in the context of history which includes conquest, forced relocation, and organized efforts to eradicate native cultures, such as the boarding schools of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which separated young Native Americans from their families in order educate and to assimilate them as Euro-Americans.[4] "Since the first Europeans made landfall in North America, native peoples have suffered under a weltering array of stereotypes, misconceptions and caricatures. Whether portrayed as noble savages, ignoble savages, teary-eyed environmentalists, drunken, living off the Government, Indian princess/Squaw or most recently, simply as casino-rich, native peoples find their efforts to be treated with a measure of respect and integrity undermined by images that flatten complex tribal, historical and personal experience into one-dimensional representations that tells us more about the depicters than about the depicted." - Carter Meland (Anishinaabe heritage) and David E. Wilkins (Lumbee), professors of Native American Studies at the University of Minnesota.[5]

Indigenous terminology[edit]

Further information: Native American name controversy

The first difficulty in addressing stereotypes is the terminology to use when referring to Indigenous peoples, which is an ongoing controversy. The truly stereotype-free names would be those of individual nations. A practical reference to Indigenous peoples in general is "Native American" in the United States and "First Nations" or "Aboriginal" in Canada.[1] The peoples collectively referred to as Inuit have their own unique stereotypes. The communities to which Indigenous peoples belong also have various names, typically "nation" or "tribe" in the United States, but "comunidad" (Spanish for "community") in South America.[6]

All global terminology must be used with an awareness of the stereotype that "Indians" are a single people, when in fact there are hundreds of individual ethnic groups native to the Americas. This type of awareness is obvious when Euro-Americans refer to Europeans with an understanding that there are some similarities, but many differences between the peoples of an entire continent.[3]

American Indians / Native Americans[edit]

Further information: Racism in the United States § Native Americans

Stereotypes may be grouped with regard to different characteristics: physical, cultural, and historical.

Cultural and ethnic misconceptions[edit]

The Media Awareness Network of Canada (MNet) has prepared a number of statements about the portrayals of American Indians, First Nations of Canada and Alaskan Natives in the media. Westerns and documentaries have tended to portray Natives in stereotypical terms: the wise elder, the aggressive drunk, the Indian princess, the loyal sidekick, obese and impoverished. These images have become known across North America. Stereotyped issues include simplistic characterizations, romanticizing of Native culture and stereotyping by omission—showing American Indians in a historical rather than modern context.[7]

Native Americans were also portrayed as fierce warriors and braves, often appearing in school sports teams' names until such team names fell into disfavor in the later 20th century. Many school team names have been revised to reflect current sensibilities, though professional teams such as American football's Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins, baseball's Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians, and ice hockey's Chicago Blackhawks continue. Some controversial upper-level Native American team mascots such as Chief Noc-A-Homa and Chief Illiniwek have been discontinued; others like Chief Wahoo and Chief Osceola and Renegade remain. A controversy over the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo was resolved in 2012.

The use of Geronimoas the code name for Osama bin Laden in the operation that killed him is seen by some Native Americans as the continued stereotyping of Indians.[8]

Native American women are frequently sexually objectified and are often stereotyped as being promiscuous. Such misconceptions lead to murder, rape and violence of Native American women and girls by non-Native men.[9]

There is the outdated stereotype that American Indians and Alaskan Natives live on reservations when in fact only about 25% do, and a slight majority now live in urban areas.[1]

There is an assumption that Indians somehow have an intuitive knowledge of their culture and history, when the degree of such knowledge varies greatly depending upon the family and community connections of each individual.[1]

In the United States, Native Americans of the Native American racial type can be stereotyped as Mexicans or Latin American. This is because Mexicans of predominantly/significant Native American ancestry are a large group of Native Americans in the United States.[citation needed]

Indigenous women[edit]

Indian princess and the squaw are binaries of indigenous women's physical appearance. The Indian princess is often compared to Disney's Pocahontas, appears to look more American, with lighter skin, she has a small waist, small feet, long hair and big almond shaped eyes.[10] She is youthful, energetic, innocent and usually a martyr willing to sacrifice herself for others. The squaw is looked upon negatively and more dark. She is usually the ugly sister to the Indian princess and is anything but innocent, she is probably promiscuous and has many children.[11]

An Algonquin word, the term "squaw" is now widely deemed offensive due to its use for hundreds of years in a derogatory context. However, there remains more than a thousand locations in the U.S. that incorporate the term in its name.[6]

Substance abuse[edit]

Main article: Native Americans and reservation inequality § Substance abuse

Because of the high frequency of American Indian alcoholism, a stereotype has been applied to all American Indians. As with most groups, the incidence of substance abuse is related to issues of poverty and mental distress, both of which may be, in part, the result of racial stereotyping and discrimination.[12] Treatment for substance abuse by Native Americans is more effective when it is community-based, and addresses the issues of cultural identification.[13]

Historical misconceptions[edit]

There are numerous distortions of history, many of which continue as stereotypes.

There is an assumption that Indians lost possession of their land because they were inferior,[3] when the reality is:

  1. Many of the indigenous peoples died from diseases to which they had no immunity
  2. There were a number of advanced civilizations in the Americas,[14] but they did lack two important resources: a pack animal large enough to carry a human; and the ability to make steel for tools and weapons.[15]

One stereotype held by non-Indians is that Indians receive special privileges that other American citizens do not. This view is based upon failure to understand the nature of the relationship between Native tribes and the American Federal government. Tribes signed treaties that grant certain rights in exchange for the cession of land, therefore, many of these "privileges" are considered treaty obligations. So education and health care have been "bought and paid for" by Native ancestors.[1]

There is the myth that Indians are a dying race, i.e. "The Vanishing Red Man", when in fact census data shows an increase in the number of individuals who were American Indians and Alaska Natives or American Indian and Alaska Native in combination with one or more other races.[1]

Today, Native Americans are perceived as becoming rich because of gaming revenues. Not all tribes own tribal gaming operations/establishments and many tribal groups have issues on not everyone of their tribal ancestry being able to obtain paychecks if they can not prove their tribal membership roll.[citation needed]

Purchase of Manhattan[edit]

The "purchase" of Manhattan island from Indians is a cultural misunderstanding. In 1626 the director of the Dutch settlement, Peter Minuit, traded sixty guilders worth of goods with the Lenni Lenape, which they would have accepted as a gifts in exchange for allowing the settlers to occupy the land. Native Americans had no conception of private ownership of natural resources.[6]


The story told by John Smith of his rescue by the daughter of Powhatan is generally agreed to be untrue. Pocahontas would have been eleven or twelve at the time, so this popular tale of the "Indian Princess" and the Englishman has no basis in known facts.[6]

Inuit stereotypes[edit]

Inuit, often referred to as Eskimos (which many see as derogatory), are usually depicted dressed in parkas, paddling kayaks, which the Inuit people invented, carving out trinkets, living in igloos, going fishing with a harpoon, hunting whales, traveling by sleigh and huskies, eating cod-liver oil and the men are called Nanook in reference to the documentary Nanook of the North. Eskimo children may have a seal for a best friend.

Eskimos are sometimes shown rubbing noses together in greeting ritual, referred to as Eskimo kissing or preferably "Inuit kissing" in Western culture, and only loosely based on an authentic Inuit practice known as kunik. They are also often depicted surrounded by polar bears, walruses and inaccurately, with penguins, which do not live in the Arctic.

Effect of stereotyping[edit]

Stereotypes harm both the victims and those that perpetuate them, with effects of the society at large. Victims suffer the emotional distress; anger, frustration, insecurity, and feelings of hopelessness. Most of all, Indian children exposed at an early age to these mainstream images internalize the stereotypes paired with the images, resulting in lower self-esteem, contributing to all of the other problems faced by Native Americans. Stereotypes become discrimination when the assumptions of being more prone to violence and alcoholism limit job opportunities. This leads directly to Indians being viewed less stable economically, making it more difficult for those that have succeeded to fully enjoy the benefits in the same way that non-Indians do, such as obtaining credit. For those that maintain them, stereotypes prevent a more accurate view of Indians and the history of the United States.[3]

Research also demonstrates the harm done to society by stereotyping of any kind. Two studies examined the effect of exposure to an American Indian sports mascot on the tendency to endorse stereotypes of a different minority group. A study was first done at the University of Illinois, and then replicated at The College of New Jersey with the same results. Students were given a paragraph to read about Chief Illiniwek adapted from the University of Illinois' official website; while the control group was given a description of an arts center. In both studies the students exposed to the sports mascot were more likely to express stereotypical views of Asian-Americans. Although Chief Illiniwek was described only in terms of positive characteristics (as a respectful symbol, not a mascot), the stereotyping of Asian-Americans included negative characteristics, such as being "socially inept". This was indicative of a spreading effect; exposure to any stereotypes increased the likelihood of stereotypical thinking.[16][17]

In Alabama, at a game between the Pinson Valley High School "Indians" and McAdory High School, the latter team displayed a banner using a disparaging reference to the Trail of Tears for which the principal of the school apologized to Native Americans, stated that the cheerleader squad responsible would be disciplined, and that all students would be given a lesson on the actual history of the Trail of Tears. Native Americans responded that it was an example of the continuing insensitivity and stereotyping of Indians in America.[18][19] A similar sign was displayed in Tennessee by the Dyersburg Trojans when they played the Jackson Northside Indians.[20]

The effect that stereotyping has had on Indigenous women is one of the main reasons why non-Indigenous people commit violent crimes of hate towards First Nations women and girls.[21] Because Aboriginal women have been associated with images of the "Indian Princess" and "Squaw" some non-Indigenous people believe that Aboriginal women are dirty, promiscuous, overtly sexualized, which makes these women vulnerable to violent assaults.[21] Colonial culture has been foundation of these stereotypes creating a relationship of violence and hatred, which justifies the treatment of First Nations peoples to this day.[22]


Main article: Portrayal of Native Americans in film

Modern perpetuation of stereotypes[edit]

The mainstream media makes a lot of money making movies that play along with stereotypes; while accurate portrayals may be critically acclaimed they are not often made or widely distributed.[3]

Overcoming stereotypes[edit]

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) made efforts to improve the portrayals of Aboriginal people in its television dramas. Spirit Bay, The Beachcombers, North of 60 and The Rez used Native actors to portray their own people, living real lives and earning believable livelihoods in identifiable parts of the country.

Imagining Indians is a 1992 documentary film produced and directed by Native American filmmaker, Victor Masayesva, Jr. (Hopi). The documentary attempts to reveal the misrepresentation of Indigenous Native American culture and tradition in Classical Hollywood films by interviews with different Indigenous Native American actors and extras from various tribes throughout the United States.

21st century[edit]

Reel Injun is a 2009 Canadian documentary film directed by Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond, Catherine Bainbridge, and Jeremiah Hayes that explores the portrayal of Native Americans in film. Reel Injun is illustrated with excerpts from classic and contemporary portrayals of Native people in Hollywood movies and interviews with filmmakers, actors and film historians, while director Diamond travels across the United States to visit iconic locations in motion picture as well as American Indian history.

Reel Injun explores many stereotypes about Natives in film, from the Noble savage to the Drunken Indian. It profiles such figures as Iron Eyes Cody, an Italian American who reinvented himself as a Native American on screen. The film also explores Hollywood's practice of using Italian Americans and American Jews to portray Indians in the movies and reveals how some Native American actors made jokes in their native tongue on screen when the director thought they were simply speaking gibberish.

Inventing the Indian is a 2012 BBC documentary first broadcast on 28 October on BBC 4 exploring the stereotypical view of Native Americans in the United States in cinema and literature.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ abcdefWalter C. Fleming (November 7, 2006). "Myths and Stereotypes About Native Americans". PHI DELTA KAPPAN. 88 (3): 213–217. Retrieved February 14, 2011. 
  2. ^"Common Portrayals of Aboriginal People". Media Smarts: Canada's center for digital and media literacy. Retrieved December 8, 2014. 
  3. ^ abcdeDevon A. Mihesuah (1996). American Indians: Stereotypes and Realities. Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press, Inc. ISBN 0-932863-22-1. 
  4. ^"APA Resolution Justifications"(PDF). American Psychological Association. 2005. Retrieved 2013-01-21. 
  5. ^CARTER MELAND and DAVID E. WILKINS (November 22, 2012). "Stereotypes in sports, chaos in federal policy". The Star Tribune. Retrieved 2013-01-30. 
  6. ^ abcdNational Museum of the American Indian (2007). Do All Indians Live in Tipis?. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-115301-3. 
  7. ^"Common Portrayals of Aboriginal People". MediaSmarts. Retrieved 2013-10-28. 
  8. ^Allie Townsend (May 3, 2011). "Why 'Geronimo?' For Some, Bin Laden Code Name Holds Anti-Native American Implications". Time Magazine. Retrieved November 7, 2013. 
  9. ^M. Marubbio. Killing the Indian Maiden: Images of Native American Women in Film. 
  10. ^Buescher and Ono, Derek and Kent (1996). "Civilized Colonialism: Pocahontas as Neocolonial Rhetoric". Women Studies in Communication. 
  11. ^Garcia, Alma (2012). Contested images women of color in popular culture. Lanham, Md: Altimia Press. pp. 157–168. ISBN 0759119635. 
  12. ^Fred Beauvais, Ph.D. (1998). "American Indians and Alcohol"(PDF). Alcohol Health & Research World. 22 (4). 
  13. ^Elizabeth H. Hawkins; Lillian H. Cummins; G. Alan Marlatt (2004). "Preventing Substance Abuse in American Indian and Alaska Native Youth:Promising Strategies for Healthier Communities". Psychological Bulletin. American Psychological Association, Inc. 130 (2): 304–323. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.130.2.304. PMID 14979774. 
  14. ^Charles C. Mann (2005). 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Knopf. ISBN 1-4000-3205-9. 
  15. ^Diamond, J. (March 1997). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-03891-2. 
  16. ^Kim-Prieto, Chu (March 2010). "Effect of Exposure to an American Indian Mascot on the Tendency to Stereotype a Different Minority Group". Journal of Applied Social Psychology. 40 (3): 534. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2010.00586.x. 
  17. ^Vedantam, Shankar (March 25, 2010). "Native American imagery as sports mascots: A new problem". Psychology Today. Retrieved February 5, 2013. 
  18. ^Simon Moya-Smith (2013-11-18). "Alabama principal apologizes for 'Trail of Tears' banner at high school football game". NBC News. 
  19. ^Evan Bleier (November 19, 2013). "McAdory High School in Alabama apologizes for 'Trail of Tears' sign". UPI. 
  20. ^Tim Murphy (November 21, 2013). "Here's Another High School Football Team Promoting the "Trail of Tears"". Mother Jones. 
  21. ^ abMcNab, Miriam (February 7, 2006). "Aboriginal Women's Issues". Retrieved December 8, 2014. 
  22. ^Cannon & Sunseri, Martin J. & Lina (2011). Racism, Colonialism, and Indigeneity in Canada: A reader. Canada: Oxford University Press. pp. 5–6. ISBN 978-0-19-543231-2. 

External links[edit]

For centuries, Americans have regarded Native Americans as the “Other,” that is, fundamentally different from themselves. Majority Americans have viewed the Other (“Indians”) as lacking something, either in a good way or a bad way. Such a characterization of Indians is a stereotype. It does not represent the reality of Native American cultures and histories. It lumps together and defines Indians as somehow deficient. Stereotypes about Indians are represented in the imagery Americans have used to portray them and, in this imagery, there are two contradictory conceptions of Indians—favorable and unfavorable—that reflect the use to which the image is put.

Negative Portrayals

The most prevalent negative images of Midwest Indians in the 18th and 19th centuries showed them killing and/or capturing White people, especially women. Captivity images (often accompanying novels or “captivity narratives”) showed brutish Indian males overpowering terrified White women who, it was implied, would experience unspeakable horrors. This message was a one-sided one, that is, the brutality of war was ascribed to Indians alone. In reality, non-Indians killed many defenseless Indian women and children, took captives (whom they often killed), and tortured Indians; however, these scenes were not popular subjects for artists.


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Native people were fighting for their homelands, farms, and rights to territory they needed in order to make a living for their families. Usually, these regions had been guaranteed them by the federal government in treaties, but many Americans violated the law and trespassed, often attacking Indians in the process, as happened in the Ohio Valley. When Indians tried to defend themselves, they were attacked by troops. According to United States policy, land cessions had to be agreed to by Indians. In 1812 Tecumseh’s resistance movement was about the refusal of a component of the Indian groups in the region to be coerced into leaving their homes, fields, and hunting territories. This also was the case with Black Hawk, whose followers fought to remain in their villages, which they had not agreed to leave. The Sioux Conflict was a rebellion against fraud committed by Americans who seized Dakota land and assets without regard for the promises made during treaty negotiations. The Indian point of view on these matters largely escaped serious consideration by the general public.

By the late 19th century, Indians had been largely removed from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and southern Michigan. Some were on reservations in northern Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, where they were entitled by treaty to economic assistance. Reservation Indians were portrayed in popular art as depraved—lazy, incompetent, and immoral. In reality, Native people worked for American businesses and settlers in various capacities for very low wages—which enabled Americans to settle the region. Indians worked hard to supplement low wages by hunting, fishing, and gardening at the same time that the states tried to restrict these pursuits. In Michigan, Indian farmers (who generally had lost the land guaranteed them by the United States) bought land and paid taxes on it. Many Indian communities formed around and supported schools and Christian churches. Indian poverty was fueled by the failure of the United States to fulfill treaty agreements and prevent the exploitation of Native communities. Federal investigations eventually documented theft of land, property, and resources such as timber. Indian leaders worked to prevent or get compensation for these abuses. Much Indian imagery ignored the realities of economic and political adjustment and portrayed Indians negatively.

Since the 1970s, Congress and the Supreme Court have supported tribal sovereignty, that is, the recognition of the tribes’ right to self-government and economic self-support through management of their own resources. In media representations, we see Indians portrayed as lazy, greedy, and “fake” (not “really” Indian) as they pursued these rights.  Americans did not feel less American after they abandoned 19th century hair styles, horse and buggy transport, and gas lights. Yet, they viewed “real” Indians only as people from the past, who were not interested in making money and not capable of managing their own affairs. Indian communities’ efforts, for example to open casinos, or attain federal recognition or treaty rights to fish in certain places, have often been met with ridicule or hostility.

Romantic Portrayals

There also is a long history of Indian imagery that portrays Indians favorably. Portrayals of Noble Savages in the 18th and 19th centuries showed them as guileless or simple, strong, and helpful to Americans. Indians who signed cession and removal treaties appeared to be willing participants, in awe of White Americans. In fact, treaties often were signed under duress, only after Indians had argued futilely that they could stay on their land and still be useful participants in American society. Indians were farming successfully (even commercially) in many parts of the Midwest at the same time they were characterized by Americans as “hunters,” unable to make good use of the land they were asked to cede.

By the late 19th century, Indian portrayals stressed the inevitable extinction of “doomed” Indians. These images evoked pity for a vanishing people. But in the Midwest there were Indian communities that refused to leave their homeland. By the late 20th century, they had managed to retain or attain title to land and political recognition as tribes.

Most of the representations of Indian people in the Midwest showed Indians in long-ago settings, living simple, close-to-nature lives and, in their association with a past “Golden Age,” posing no threat to Americans in the early 20th century or beyond. In fact, this romantic image of Indians of yore was used to sell products and develop a regional economy in the Great Lakes region.


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Americans also used long-ago Indian imagery to bolster national identity. Local pageants celebrated U.S. and state histories, incorporating Indian themes. Indian imagery was popular with groups trying to identify themselves with heroic past traditions—for example, Boy Scout organizations, hobbyists, and athletic teams. In reality, Indian Americans were participating fully in 19th and 20th century life, as consumers, employees, and as viable communities with their own cultural traditions, political operatives, religious leaders, and veterans of the armed services. They had revitalized their communities and cultural traditions. The Indian population in the region had increased dramatically. Non-Indian organizations that “honored” Indians by appropriating and revamping Indian symbols (headdresses, woodcraft, dancing, and so on) created “Indianness” that, in reality, did not represent Indian life, past or present.


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Why did these stereotypical images that contrasted so sharply with the reality of Indian life persist for centuries, and why do they exist today? Go to “How We Know” to learn how scholars situate imagery in concrete historical contexts to answer these questions. Go to How We Know


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Do you want to learn more about Indian stereotypes? Go to the How We Know page, read the essay, and scroll down to the Consult Books, View Videos, and Use Online Sources sections.

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