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Recognizing stereotypes about Native America

By sarah_g_rooker on March 24, 2014 in Flow of History
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by Alan Berolzheimer

This article is largely adapted from Dorothy Schlotthauer Krass, “How Do We Look? Introduction to Native Peoples and Museums,” in Native Peoples and Museums in the Connecticut River Valley: A Guide for Learning (Historic Northampton, 1992). Ideas in Krass’ essay in turn draw on “How to Tell the Difference,” by Beverly Slapin, Doris Seale, and Rosemary Gonzales, in Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children.

Once you look closely and know what to look for, it’s surprising to realize how easily stereotypes about Native Americans slip past our perception filters. Even writings, images, or exhibits that attempt to be culturally sensitive can actually reproduce stereotypes that range from innocent misreadings to flat out racist. Despite the best intentions, it is easy to fall into this trap if Native people themselves are not consulted about their own history and culture. As teachers, we should strive to avoid presenting demeaning or inaccurate stereotypes to our students.

Here are some guidelines for recognizing stereotypes about American Indians in literature, imagery, and museum exhibits.

We can look at what has been chosen for presentation.

Can we identify the assumptions that underlie the choices? Absence is easily overlooked, but it’s a red flag. Are Europeans the only actors in the story being told or the history being celebrated? How does the absence of Native American actors distort our understanding of New England history? If Indian materials or perspectives are included, have they been chosen to emphasize either only resistance by native peoples to Europeans, or only cooperation between the two peoples? Or is the fluctuation of attitudes and actions by both peoples used to illustrate the richness and complexity of history?

We can look to see if  Indians are treated as ‘natural’ phenomena— resources found in a landscape.

Are native technologies presented as timeless and unchanging? Are Native American cultural traditions seen as simple biological adaptations to natural conditions while European traditions are complex responses to historical social phenomena? If all the images of native people show them in ceremonial regalia, are the Europeans also portrayed only in ceremonial clothing?”

We can ask questions like the following to help us recognize the distortion when Native American materials are presented.

  • Are native peoples portrayed as savages, primitive, simple, extinct? Or as human beings, members of highly defined and complex societies?
  • Are native traditions called superstitions, or are Indians’ beliefs and ceremonies describes in the context of their civilizations?
  • Are native people shown as “relentlessly ecological” or are Native American societies described as coexisting with nature in a delicate balance?
  • Are native peoples portrayed as all one color, one style, generalized? Or as. separate from one another, with each culture, language, religion, and dress unique?
  • Do all the Native Americans look alike, or are individual Indians depicted as individuals?
  • Is the relationship between material and non-material aspects of life assumed to be the same in Native American and Euro- American traditions?
  • Are Indian objects assumed to have been produced anonymously, by a culture, or by a village? Or are native artisans identified by name?
  • Is the language of description loaded with insulting racist overtones, or is it respectful?
  • Are actions depicted unevenly—are all the massacres on one side and all the victories or conquests on the other?
  • Is Native American violence assumed to be irrational, instinctive and blood-thirsty and non-native violence defensive, disciplined, and heroic?
  • Are native peoples represented as hunters and gatherers only, or is a range of occupations and genders included?
  • past tense only? Is the past unconnected to the present or are cultures represented with values, religions, and morals growing out of the past and continuing into the present?

Try to keep these kinds of questions in mind as you read or view information about Native Americans—or any group of people, for that matter. Certainly much that was written or produced before the last third of the 20th century presents a perspective that we would now consider biased, prejudiced, or misguided. As non-white, non-EuroAmerican, and female points of view become increasingly available, our collective understanding of world history is becoming ever more balanced and nuanced. We owe it to our students to keep abreast of these trends and expose them to the broadest range of ideas.