Common portrayals of Indigenous people

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Media have always shaped the public’s perception of Indigenous people: the wise elder (Little Big Man); the princess (Pocahontas); the loyal sidekick (Tonto)—these images have become engrained in the consciousness of  North Americans.

Hollywood’s versions of “how the West was won” relied totally on the presence of Indigenous people, who were to be wiped out or reined in. The few Indigenous characters in film or TV were typically played by non-Indigenous actors such as Ricardo Montalban, Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch – a practice that went on as recently as 2013’s The Lone Ranger, which cast Johnny Depp as the title character’s sidekick Tonto. Canadian Ojibway author Drew Hayden Taylor points out that this miscasting was a direct result of the perception that Indigenous nations had been consigned to history: “Everyone thought the Indians were all dead, so who else were they going to get?” [1]

Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond’s award-winning documentary Reel Injun (2010) examined the portrayals of Indigenous people in Hollywood films. Through numerous interviews with producers like Clint Eastwood and extracts of relevant films, Diamond explores how media portrayals have influenced our understanding and misunderstanding of Indigenous people. The celebrities that appear in the documentary and talk about their experiences include Mohawk musician Robbie Robertson (The Band), filmmakers Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man) and Chris Eyre (Phoenix, Arizona) and acclaimed Indigenous actors Graham Greene (Dances with Wolves, Thunderheart), Wes Studi (The Last of the Mohicans, Geronimo), Adam Beach (Phoenix, Arizona; Flags of our Fathers) and Zacharias Kunuk (Atanarjuat / The Fast Runner).

Portrayals of Indigenous people as being primitive, violent and devious, or passive and submissive, are widespread in movies and TV programs and in literature ranging from books to comic strips. As award-winning Indigenous author Thomas King puts it in his book The Inconvenient Indian, it is only “in the last twenty years Indian actors have found roles that do not involve the nineteenth century, roles that don’t require loincloths and full feather headdresses.”[2]  

Misrepresentation—how many ways?

Indigenous people remain highly stereotyped in most mass media, in ways that are sometimes less remarked upon than stereotypes of other groups. While the Disney film Peter Pan now starts with a warning about stereotyped depictions and slurs against Indigenous people, Pocahantas has no such message. (Disney does include a similar warning for Aladdin, a film made around the same time, about its depiction of Arabs.)[3] Some of the most common stereotyping traps are various forms of romanticization, historical and cultural inaccuracies, stereotyping by omission and decentring, and simplistic characterizations of Indigenous people.

Romanticization

We can find romanticization in the following images of Indigenous people that have dominated media for nearly a century:

  • The princess
    This is the stereotype of a beautiful Indigenous woman who is sympathetic enough to the white man’s quest to be lured away from her culture and community to marry into his culture and help further his mission to colonize her people. “The Indian princess is strictly a European concept,” writes Indigenous scholar Joseph River Wind. “The nations of this country never had a concept of royalty. We do not have kings, queens or princesses.”[4] Nevertheless, the stereotype persists, most visibly in the continued popularity of the Disney film Pocahantas, which Anishinaabe writer Jesse Wente describes as “probably the most widely watched piece of entertainment of Indigenous peoples.” Despite the fact that the historical Pocahantas “would have been a child when she met [English settler] John Smith… she’s portrayed scantily clad for most of the film,” which contributes to another aspect of the stereotype - “that Indigenous women are somehow sexually active or mature at a very young age.”[5]
    Pocahantas from the Disney movie of the same name.
  • The warrior
    One of the most widely used stereotypes in cinematographic history, the “Indigenous warrior” is fierce and formidable and a threat to civilized society. Bare-chested and brandishing a war lance, this warrior is the epitome of the “savagery” that must be “courageously overcome” by “progressive elements” pushing West. A recent example is the character of Jacob Black in the Twilight books and series, a member of the Quileute people who, as a werewolf, represents the stereotype in a particularly literal way. The use of Indigenous men in the names and logos of sports teams plays on a stereotype of masculinity that is so extreme as to be literally inhuman: as Jesse Wente points out, “Indigenous people are the only humans that are cast as mascots and as team names.”[6]

These images appear in many forms and in surprising places. In his photo exhibit Scouting/For Indians, 1992-2000, Jeff Thomas, from the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, captured images of the warrior in forms ranging from historical statuary and coats of arms carved on the walls of Ottawa banks and office buildings, to contemporary book covers. Thomas says he took these photographs to raise awareness of the often unconscious “demonization and eroticization” of Indigenous people.[7]  

  • The noble mystic
    Elevated to a sphere of goodness unreachable by those living in contaminated non-Indigenous society, and usually possessing some spiritual connection to the land, the “noble mystic” communes in a cloud of mysticism and places no value on material possessions.[8] A related stereotype is “the mystical all-knowing Indian with one foot in the astral plane, the other in a canoe … they melt in and out of the bush almost as effortlessly as they   speak metaphorical wisdoms.”[9]

Historical and cultural inaccuracies

Film and TV producers have never let details get in the way of a good story. Nowhere is this truer than in depictions of Indigenous life, where artistic license is liberally applied in portraying dress, customs, livelihoods and spiritual beliefs and ceremonies. This reduction of cultural heritage and diversity (which most audiences do not even notice) is understood to be both a symptom of the problem (not taking Indigenous people seriously) and an unconscious yet systematic way of perpetuating erroneous stereotypes. What occurs in many films, says critic Ward Churchill, “is roughly parallel to having a Catholic priest wear a Rabbi’s headgear and Protestant cleric’s garb while conducting High Mass before a Satanist pentagram, simply because each of these disparate physical manifestations of spiritual culture is visually interesting in its own right.”[10] As Thomas King puts, it, “the Indians that Hollywood shows on the silver screens of North America bear only a passing resemblance to Native people.”[11]

Stereotyping by omission and decentring

Most film depictions of Indigenous people are set in a 50-year period in the mid-19th century. Where are the stories of Indigenous people before the arrival of the European settlers, and where are the stories about Indigenous life today?

The article “Stereotyping Indians by Omission” notes that Indigenous people are “the only population to be portrayed far more often in historical context than as contemporary people.”[12] Thomas King points out that this limits the available roles for Indigenous actors: “Most Indian actors wind up in historical roles. Provided they look Indian. That’s the catch. If you don’t look Indian, you don’t get historical Indian roles.”[13]

Indigenous people are also often removed from a central role in narratives they appear in so that non-Indigenous characters can take centre stage. In this stereotype, Indigenous people may be portrayed sympathetically but require a non-Indigenous protagonist to save them or achieve their goals. (Additionally, this protagonist is often shown as becoming more accomplished at the Indigenous culture’s own skills and culture.) This stereotype dates back at least as far as the novel The Last of the Mohicans, with more recent examples being Dances with Wolves, Avatar and The Book of Boba Fett (the latter two feature fictional alien species that are equated to Indigenous peoples in the narrative.)[14]   

Though this situation has improved – particularly on Canadian TV, thanks to shows such as Trickster and Letterkenny, but also due to American shows such as Reservation Dogs – Indigenous characters remain rare in many genres and media. A study of children’s animation in Canada, for instance, found just four out of 121 characters were Indigenous. And even more troubling, all four of these characters were from the same show (Molly of Denali), meaning that a child who did not see that particular show would never see a single Indigenous character in Canadian children’s animated programming.[15]

Simplistic characterizations

Perhaps most destructive to the image of Indigenous people is the lack of character and personality afforded to them by the media. Indigenous people are almost always cast in supporting roles or relegated to the background and are rarely allowed to speak or display their complexity and richness as human beings. Whatever character they do have tends to reveal itself only in terms of their interactions with non-Indigenous people. Rarely is an Indigenous character portrayed as having personal strengths and weaknesses or shown acting on their own values and judgements.

Historically, Indigenous characters have rarely been permitted to tell their own story, especially in large studio films. Most stories are conveyed through the lens of the European experience. A common device used by Hollywood to attach familiar values to Indigenous culture has been to script a non-Indigenous character as narrator (Dances with Wolves, Little Big Man). While these attempts purport to treat Indigenous people sympathetically, the reality is that the Indigenous character is robbed of their voice.

The bigger picture

A number of academics contend that Hollywood’s depictions of Indigenous people are based on much broader motives than simply winning audiences. In American Indians: Goodbye to Tonto, J.R. Howard says that in the American psyche, Indigenous people have fulfilled their purpose: “Indian resistance having served to fuel the myths of conquest and glory, and the American divine right to conquest.”[16]

These stereotypes persist because they are not questioned by media makers and audiences, and because of media industry perceptions that non-stereotyped portrayals won’t sell. History textbooks often repeat myths and stereotypes about Indigenous history and colonization, such as one workbook that said, “First Nations peoples agreed to move to different areas to make room for new settlements… where they could live undisturbed by the hustle and bustle of the settlers.”[17]

Biased and racist perceptions in the media industry are the reason why even more prominent and accurate portrayals of Indigenous people often become diminished or stereotyped during the production of a media text. The video game DarkWatch, for example, demoted Indigenous character Tala from lead to sidekick, in favour of a non-Indigenous male character, due to fears that having an Indigenous main character would hurt sales. The same marketing team also contributed to the stereotype of the sexualized Indigenous woman by having Tala appear nude in Playboy, the first video game character to do so.[18]  

Ward Churchill argues that the myths and stereotypes built up around Indigenous culture were no accident. He maintains that these myths served to explain in positive terms the decimation of Indigenous people and their ways of life by “advanced” cultures in the name of “progress”. It was then necessary to erase the achievements and very humanity of the conquered people. “Dehumanization, obliteration or appropriation of identity, political subordination and material colonization are all elements of a common process of imperialism,” he says. “The meaning of Hollywood’s stereotyping of American Indians can be truly comprehended only against this backdrop.”[19]

For this reason, some argue that improved representations of Indigenous people can only come when the media industry treats Indigenous people as equals. Jesse Wente cites the agreement that Disney signed with leaders of the Sámi, an Indigenous people who live mostly in Finland, before making the movie Frozen II: “It’s a treaty… in keeping with how Indigenous nations have tended to negotiate with other entities in the past.” Wente called the contract “an optimistic moment to show us what could potentially be done here in Canada with a similar studio,” arguing that “we have to push corporations to change, including the ones that have a problematic history.”[20]

The final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls includes a similar call to action, asking the media industry to:

  • ensure authentic and appropriate representation of Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQIA+ people, inclusive of diverse Indigenous cultural backgrounds, in order to address negative and discriminatory stereotypes
  • support Indigenous people sharing their stories, from their perspectives, free of bias, discrimination and false assumptions
  • increase the number of Indigenous people in broadcasting, television and radio, and in journalist, reporter, producer and executive positions
  • take proactive steps to break down the stereotypes that hypersexualize and demean Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQIA+ people.[21]

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[1] Archer, B. (2006) “Casting calls that defy logic.” The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/casting-calls-that-defy-logic/article20414835/

[2] King, T. (2017). The inconvenient Indian illustrated: A curious account of native people in North America. Doubleday Canada.

[3] Dean, G. (2020) “Disney Plus now warns viewers of racist stereotypes in older films, including ‘Peter Pan,’ ‘Dumbo,’ and ‘The Jungle Book’.” Business Insider. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/disney-plus-racism-stereotypes-warning-peter-pan-dumbo-aladdin-2020-10

[4] River Wind, J. (2008) The Basic Indian Stereotypes. Native American Sprituality. Retrieved from https://www.dailyom.com/cgi-bin/discuss/displaydiscussion0.cgi?beg=100&did=2771

[5] Wente, J. Anishinaabe, Serpent River First Nation. (2019) Testimony to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

[6i] Wente, J. Anishinaabe, Serpent River First Nation. (2019) Testimony to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

[7] Shinhat M. (2000) “Scouting for Indians 1992-2000: Recent photographs by Jeff Thomas.” Capital Xpress. Retrieved from http://www.mollyakshinhat.ca/scouting-for-indians.html

[8] Strickland, R. (1997). Tonto’s revenge: Reflections on American Indian culture and policy. University of New Mexico Press.

[9] Taylor, D. (1996) Funny, You Don’t  Look Like One:  Observations  from  a Blue-Eyed Ojibway. Theytus.

[10] Churchill, W. (2001) Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema, and the Colonization of American Indians. City Lights Publishers.

[11] King, T. (2017). The inconvenient Indian illustrated: A curious account of native people in North America. Doubleday Canada.

[12] Yarrow, A. (2007). Stereotyping Indians by omission. Retrieved May, 2, 2009 from http://www.bluecorncomics.com/omission.htm

[13] King, T. (2017). The inconvenient Indian illustrated: A curious account of native people in North America. Doubleday Canada.

[14] Townsend, C. (2020) Tropes in Entertainment Media: ‘Mighty Whitey.’ North Texas Daily

[15] Russo, C., et al. (2021) Examining Children’s Animated Television in Canada (2018/2019). Children’s Media Lab. Retrieved from https://drive.google.com/file/d/1joJnhJLu8CTZ1dtTB6UPPqZdIKbd0wB0/view

[16] Howard, J. R. (1983). American Indians: Goodbye to Tonto. Awakening Minorities: Continuity and change. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.

[17] Lee-Shanok, P. (2017) “GTA book publisher accused of whitewashing Indigenous history.” CBC News. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/childrens-textbook-includes-inaccurate-account-of-indigenous-history-1.4315945 

[18] (2017) “Indigenous game designer challenges stereotypes.” Unreserved, CBC News. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/radio/unreserved/unreserved-honours-the-strength-of-indigenous-women-1.3472826/indigenous-game-designer-challenges-stereotypes-1.3476519

[19] Churchill, W. (2001) Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema, and the Colonization of American Indians. City Lights Publishers.

[20] Simonpillai, R. (2019) “Disney signed a contract with Indigenous people before making Frozen II.” Now Toronto. Retrieved from https://nowtoronto.com/movies/news-features/disney-frozen-2-indigenous-culture-sami

[21] Final Report. (2019) National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Retrieved from https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Final_Report_Vol_1a-1.pdf

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The Diversity and Media Toolbox is a comprehensive suite of resources that explores issues relating to stereotyping, bias and hate in mainstream media and on the Internet. The program includes professional development tutorials, lesson plans, interactive student modules and background articles.

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