* A variety of terms have been used to describe the population found in the Americas in the 15th century. Erroneously labeled "Indians" first, the term was used for several centuries. Recent opinion has shifted it to Native American. For purposes of this treatise, the terms will be used interchangeably in accordance with the more widely understood terms, typically shifting with what concurrent usage would have been unless the most prevalent word was particularly offensive such as "redskin" or similar. No intent to offend should be read into the usage of any term. Several words will be used that are very offensive in most contexts. It is expected the reader will be able to comprehend the context and realize no hatred or disrespect is intended or held by the author.*
At the turn of the 19th century, it was a cry that instilled fear in the hearts of many Americans. Thoughts of heinous tortures, cruel deaths and post-mortem scalping filled the head as that most feared and dangerous fighting man of North America was called to mind by the dread cry.
Fast forward a century and Native Americans are held in honor, revered for their mystical bond with the land, their superior moral values, and their naturalistic ways. Their integrity is unmatched, their valor unquestioned, their purity the last bastion of goodness in a world gone mad.
When and where did this change? How did we go from fearing the very mention of Indians to having one of their holy relics hanging on our rearview mirrors in the form of Dreamcatchers? This will be a short essay on the topic that is in the process of being expanded to a full length book.
From the moment Europeans first started settling North America, verbiage was used to form public opinion. By carefully controlling the portrayal of the natives it was possible to control how they would be dealt with.
In the search for land, one of the first needs was to find justification for the seizing of the land which often required forced removal at best and genocidal tactics at worst. To allow these actions to proceed without kick-back from the European populace, public opinion had to be manipulated.
As a result, the Indians were labeled "savages" and "barbarians" in the time-honored methods hailing back at least as far as Classic Greece. As such, they were held to be a lesser race and of little value.
There were exceptions, however. Even at the earliest moments of European settlement in the Americas, some people objected both to the labels and the mistreatment of the Natives. They were and would continue to be a minority. However, the majority of people believed the terminology was accurate.
As the Colonies developed and expanded, the cultural needs to justify the wholesale appropriation of land without regard to the property rights of those who formerly possessed it continued to lead to the portrayal of the natives as savage, uncivilized brutes who understood only force. It was also understood that they loved to fight and lived for war.
By the time the United States of America achieved their independence from England, the terms of engagement were set. The Indians were a speed bump on the path to continental domination. They were also incapable of meaningful military opposition to the U.S.
This is demonstrated by the failed attempts of men like Chief Pontiac and Tecumseh to form coalitions of tribes to fight the incursions of the ever-expanding U.S. The greatest alliances the Indians ever managed to cobble together were defeated with comparative ease by what is charitably termed militia, hardly the elite military units of the age.
When General "Mad Anthony" Wayne smashed the forces of Tecumseh at Fallen Timbers in 1794, the remainder of the conquering of the Indians was really just mop-up duty. Forever more the various tribes would be divided, outnumbered, outgunned, and dominated technologically.
They would have a last gasp attempt in the War of 1812 at which time the British assisted the coalition so long as Tecumseh led his men in helping the British defend Canada. At the conclusion of the war, however, their promises were as dead as Tecumseh himself.
Yet somehow, the idea that the forced removal from their lands of the Indians had to be justified. As a result, the Indians continued to be portrayed as "savages", "brutes", "unthinking killers" who gloried in war and attacked for no reason. They were part of the national narrative as a very real threat to the peace and security of the states even though the truth was the various tribes had no chance of defeating the armed forces of the United States.
Even their greatest triumphs were hollow. Fettermen's command numbered 81 men, Custers Last Stand saw only about 210 deaths. Red Cloud did get the closure of incursions into Sioux territory, but that was for only about 3 years.
Other than those minor victories, the battles with the Indian tribes consistently saw huge casualties for the Indians and very few casualties for the better armed, better mounted, better supplied US Cavalry.
Despite the evidence, the media of the day played up the idea that the Indians were universally murderous and quite successful at wreaking havoc all across the country. Accusation became truth.
By 1864 this idea was so prevalent that when Colonel John Chivington made his famous speech in Denver where he recommended killing and scalping every possible Indian, even the women and children because "Nits make lice", he was roundly applauded.
The Indians, despite having lost battle after battle, war after war, and treaty after treaty were still hated and feared, barely even considered people. In fact, it was not until 1879 when Chief Standing Bear, with the help of General Crook and some like-minded people, sued for the right to be considered a person that Indians were considered as "real people" who had rights as citizens. Prior to that they could not even bring suit in court.
Meanwhile, news reports throughout the mid to late 1800s were rife with stories of the "depredations" of Geronimo, the plains wars with the Sioux and so forth. If one followed the news reports, one would have thought the uncivilized savages were winning the wars for possession of the continent as they slaughtered members of wagon trains, raided towns, killed, pillaged and plundered ranches and mines and generally raised havoc.
Yet even as this malicious picture of an altered truth was being presented, there was a small but noticeable current of opposition. Sarah Winnemucca and Susette LaFlesche (aka Inshta Theamba or Bright Eyes) were popular members of the lecture tour. They would give speeches to thousands upon thousands of people on the plight of the Indians. Their powerful presence and charismatic speeches began to sway the opinions of many of the Eastern seaboards' intellectual elite.
Adding to this was the beginning of what would grow to be a leading marker of frontier related fiction. Beginning in 1823, James Fenimore Cooper began publishing his Leatherstocking tales wherein Natty Bumppo, better known as Hawkeye, would use his upbringing with the Native Americans to save high-born British girls, save settlers and soldiers, and generally navigate his way through an increasingly dangerous world.
Often accompanied by his sidekick and adoptive brother Chingachgook and Chingachgooks son Uncas, Hawkeye was and continues to be a very popular character which continues to hold the attention of the public as evidenced by the 1992 hit movie Last of the Mohicans, hardly the first and almost certainly not the last treatment that story will receive.
So even as the public narrative held the Indians to be savage butchers incapable of civilization there were elements of popular culture available that counteracted that narrative. Indeed, Chingachgook became such a type that the faithful Indian side-kick became a staple of the frontier genre.
In more serious literary circles, it was Helen Hunt Jackson who was making waves. In 1881 she published A Century of Dishonor, a ground-breaking book that caused many people to re-think their dealings with the Native American population. However, there was still land in the hands of that population, so public opinion was not yet ready to change.
December 29, 1890 marked a turning point. Generally hailed as the final moment of the Indian resistance to U.S. domination, it removed the threat of an Indian uprising from the mind of the public conscious.
This was fully illustrated by the 1894 James Earle Fraser sculpture titled The End of the Trail. It represented the "new Indian", picturing him as a noble, valiant warrior who battled on behalf of purity and good against overwhelming odds and the evils of progress.
Coming only a year after Frederick Jackson Turner had given his famous Frontier Thesis, it quickly entered the public consciousness. Coupling things like this with seeing the Indians in the various traveling Wild West shows caused people to see the Native Americans in a new light.
While most of the shows indeed had some sort of Indian attack as part of the show, they also had demonstrations of horseback riding, marksmanship, and other skills deemed to belong to the "Native Americans". And soon even the attacks would change.
In 1894, the Spanish-American War took place. Suddenly the Wild West shows had a new target. Even the most famous of them, the Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, changed the narrative to where the Native Americans were heroes in the epic conclusion to the show.
More importantly, he had camps of Native Americans where they could be seen interacting as families...as people. Millions of people saw the Native Americans were not the savages they had been portrayed to be.
The court of public opinion was shifting. Now the narrative needed to be changed. Included was the growing public awareness of places like Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
Carlisle was largely brought to the national consciousness through sports. Glenn "Pop" Warner took over as coach in 1899 and, except for 3 years he was at Cornell, continued to coach them until 1915.
During his time there the Carlisle team traveled extensively and with great success. Games with major universities drew huge crowds who tended to cheer for the underdog Carlisle kids. Undersized, under-equipped, they continued to amass victories over better established, equipped college teams.
The height of their popularity came with Jim Thorpe. By the time he won two Gold Medals in the 1912 Olympics he was a household name and was held up as an example of what the "properly civilized red man" could do.
Nor was he the only popular Native American athlete. One easy example would be Carlisle alumnus Charles Albert "Chief" Bender. He was a popular baseball player from 1903-1917 and well-known for tying a record with 3 shut-outs in the 1911 World Series.
His nationality was never in question. One popular anecdote involves his response to heckling, often in the way of stereotypical war-whoops when he went to the mound. Upon hearing them, he would turn to the offending party and shout back, "Foreigners!"
With literature, theatre, and sports showing Indians as heroes rather than uncivilized killing machines, the tide of public opinion was turning. This extended even to the new nickelodeons which would soon become the booming Cinema industry.
Many of the early actors were displaced Native Americans who found the pay excellent and the work enjoyable. Many early reels depicted Native American camp life and often enough stories presented them favorably. This would later change to where Indians in the movies were primarily the villains but at the inception there were very many positive portrayals.
Slowly but surely people were encountering a different side to the Native American population. A picture that attained a reasonable amount of circulation showed Geronimo in a Cadillac.
No longer the feared marauder who raided and killed at will, he was now a car-riding Sunday School teacher (though he later lost that job over his inability to stop gambling on his marksmanship and penchant for drinking).
World War I saw another thread develop in the change in view. Many men soldiered alongside of Indians from various tribes and found they were no different than the white man standing alongside. Some had more courage, some less. Some had more integrity, others less. Some had more martial talent, others less. They were real people with real feelings.
Shortly thereafter, the Lone Ranger entered the picture. Accompanied by "his faithful Indian companion Tonto", he entered the airwaves in 1933. Soon millions of listeners thrilled to the adventures of the duo.
The Lone Ranger formula owed much to the Leatherstocking tales. The Lone Ranger was frequently rescued from mortal danger by the wily, talented Tonto. Tonto could track a raindrop through the Mississippi, hear a centipede walk at a hundred miles, shoot the gun from the hand of a desperado, or convince the cavalry to follow him wherever he needed to go.
The Lone Ranger may have been the star but Tonto was a hugely popular character and indispensable to the program. Kids grew up with the picture of a guy who spoke pidgin English, was ever faithful, capable, honest, caring, and trustworthy. Tonto was a paragon of virtue and no slur was allowed to be cast at him.
As the 50s and 60s approached, Tonto came to be viewed as a bit regressive as Hollywood took up the cause of the Native Americans. Movies such as Broken Arrow (1950) saw major stars such as Jimmy Stewart portray the Native Americans in a positive light.
Television shows such as Bonanza and Gunsmoke also regularly had Native American protagonists. Often shown as victims of broken treaties, scheming land barons, and victims in other ways, now the Native American had come to represent the mistreated American.
Even the spy spoof Get Smart got in the act with at least one season one episode that saw Smart dealing with Indians trying to get just recompense for the string of broken treaties. It still showed Indians wearing "traditional Indian" gear...a bizarre mish-mash of plains tribes and coastal customs that saw the episode end with a monstrous arrow being shot. But it also addressed many of the very real issues the Indians had faced throughout the history of the U.S.
Pop culture in the 50s and 60s also found seeds of "Indianness" that they looked to for guidance. As the various major movements of the 60s got in to full swing, a search for "spiritualness" took place. Many of the leaders of various Hippie enclaves found their desired spiritual advisers in Indian shamanism.
Sweat lodges and various other accoutrement's of Indian Shamanism began to crop up. Books such as Black Elk Speaks became the Bibles for a movement to attain the "Indian spirituality". Peyote became a popular drug.
Of course, adherence to the actual Native religion was cast aside in the search for the next thrill, but the allegiance and gratitude owed to the Native Americans remained behind. Their source as people connected to the land and to the Great Spirit caused them to be held in great honor by many converts.
The impetus of the drift into Indian spirituality also helped lend weight to the Red Power movement that would culminate in the actions of the American Indian Movement (AIM).
In the heat of the 60s, takeovers became a hallmark and the Red Power movement took full advantage with high-profile takeovers of Alcatraz, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building in Washington DC, and perhaps the most famous, their stand-off at Wounded Knee where Russell Means and Dennis Banks were both involved as members of AIM.
The high profile actions AIM took penetrated the national consciousness and drew a great deal of attention to the extant mistreatment of Native Americans, to their deplorable conditions on the reservations, and to the habit of breaking treaties demonstrated by the US government.
Also bringing attention to these issues were high-profile stars like Marlon Brando standing with tribes in Washington and Oregon in battles over fishing rights. He also famously sent a stand-in Native American to refuse an Oscar in 1973. However, his highest profile actions revolved around the fishing rights battles.
The issue of fishing rights entered the mass consciousness as being part of the natural affinity Native Americans had to the land.
This affinity was so strong that the 1970s "Keep America Beautiful" campaign featured Iron Eyes Cody as an Indian who cried when trash was thrown from a car.*
Thus we see that a variety of factors ranging from mass media to wartime experiences to hippie counter-culture began to feature the Native Americans as heroes rather than as victims. By so doing, they achieved a cachet as "cool" that heretofore had been unavailable.
They also had many factors working in their favor. They had the underdog role while still being revered as tremendous fighters. In fiction they were now almost universally portrayed in ways that showed them to be victims fighting to right deplorable wrongs, a condition most Americans believed echoed the role America itself has always played.
Awash in the love for all things Native American, people began seeking symbols to show their affinity for Native Americans. Along with that was the ever-growing Environmental movement which sought to associate itself with the "earth-smart" wisdom of the Native Americans, a wisdom that was based in their religion.
Thus the popularity of Dreamcatchers rose. Coming with an intriguing story and catchy name, these tokens of a serious religious rite became a kitschy association that declared ones love for all things Native American that could hang from the rear-view mirror.
Thus as we look back we see how and why Native Americans went from being feared to loved. And that is the tale to be seen in Dreamcatchers on the Rearview Mirror:Looking Back at Native Portrayals in Popular Culture in the 20th Century.
*Iron Eyes Cody was portrayed as Native American but was in fact Italian. This is an interesting sub-text that demonstrates how complete the shift had been; once, Indians tried to pass for white. Now a white was trying to pass as an Indian.