A caveat; the terms I use are carefully chosen to reflect phrases used at a given time. When operating outside the strictures of time periods, I almost always use the term Native American rather than Indian or some of the pejorative terms found in the piece below.
Also, the selection of more direct tribe names is a nod to the fact that the Sioux nation is essentially a creation of non-Native Americans to refer to a loose confederation of tribes speaking similar languages.
With that said, what follows I am essentially trashing because I am not happy with it, either...I wrote it off the top of my head without referring back to my research, I broke the plan of going by decade, and just do not like the way it developed. But you might be briefly entertained....or not. So here it is.
Before the echoes of gunfire died out at Wounded Knee there was a complete shift in the paradigm. No longer could the Indian tribes be seen as a credible threat. The last vestiges of their power died on that field. At the same moment, a centuries old view began to change.
From the time the residents of Roanoke Island disappeared, Indians were viewed as a lethal threat. The thought of Indians rampaging through civilized lands killing, torturing, kidnapping, and scalping in an orgy of mindless violence was a long-standing, well-established belief.
Many people lived in fear of these mysterious sub-humans who lived purely to fight. They were brutal, uncivilized, savage people who moved with the wind, silent as a mouse, swift as a leopard, and as dangerous as any people had ever been.
The truth that the interaction of the various tribes with advancing white civilization had almost universally been disastrous for the tribes seldom seemed to cross the mind of most people. In truth, Native American military successes could be counted on one hand.
The gathering of the tribes under Pontiac had brief success but ultimately failed utterly. Tecumseh saw his attempt to reverse the loss of Indian lands crushed before it got started.
Indeed, most famous Native American war leaders were famed not for their success but for how long they put off ultimate defeat. Chief Joseph, Geronimo, Cochise, Mangas Coloradas, Captain Jack, and more were famed for having maintained resistance longer than anticipated.
Arguably, there were just two military successes with any lasting impact for the Native Americans.
The most successful of these was Red Cloud who forced the closing of forts and the Bozeman Trail. It was the one and only time Native Americans “won” a war and the results were temporary at best. Within 8 years the gains made were lost and indeed, further reverses occurred as a result.
A key event in that war was the mis-named Fetterman Massacre where the arrogant Fetterman led 80 men into a trap that saw them all killed. It was an ambush that shook the nation and gave credence to fears of Indian military power.
Those lessons were reinforced by what is generally considered the greatest Indian military success against white soldiers of all time, the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Often called Custer’s Last Stand, it was both the greatest victory and worst defeat the Indian tribes would ever encounter.
While the victory on the field is unquestionable, so are the results. When the nation learned of the loss of Custer and his command, the resulting outcry ended in the devastation of any semblance of Indian military power.
The last gasp of Indian power came about 14 years after the events at Little Big Horn. A movement called the Ghost Dance frightened some elements of society. Some have argued the events that followed were a result of the events at Little Big Horn.
The 7th Cavalry was shepherding members of the Lakota tribe to a reservation. Fears of their power demanded the Minneconjous stack their firearms. Arguments exist over who fired the first shot but there is no doubt about the outcome.
Any doubt that the last vestiges of Native American military had been destroyed were swept away in a hail of gunfire. Gatling guns swept the largely disarmed Lakotas. Men, women, children, babies, grandparents were shot to ribbons and left to freeze in ghastly positions in the bitter wintry conditions.
Frank Baum, who later would write The Wizard of Oz, wrote an editorial which often has the most controversial part repeated in which he stated, “The Whites,
by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the
American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will
be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why
To be fair, this portion of the quote is a mis-representation of the tone of the entire editorial but it became the sentiment most often repeated. It touched on the primary belief held by the majority of the nation.
Oh, to be sure there were exceptions. Standing Bear became a cause célèbre that allowed “Bright Eyes” to make well-attended speaking tours that publicized an alternative view of Native Americans. Various famous Native Americans had been paraded around the Eastern States on similar tours, though seldom including persons so eloquent as Bright Eyes.
As far back as 1883 Wild Bill toured with his Wild West Show. To be sure the image that often remained with those who attended these shows was the Indian attack that closed the show, but the entire experience showed another side as those who attended were able to see “Indian encampments” and interact with famous Native American personalities.
These interactions would lead to seeing another side of a people that had previously only been encountered in news reports, penny dreadfuls, or artwork by men such as Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson and Frederic Remington.
A kinder, gentler side of Native Americans was also occasionally presented in the famed Leatherstocking Tales in which Natty Bumppo. He was white but had the skills of the Indians as well as his trusted side-kick Chingachgook.
However, while there were occasional positive portrayals of Native Americans the overwhelming bent of the narrative was that they were savage, inhuman beasts to be feared and exterminated.
Fast forward to the year 2000 and the picture has changed markedly. The Native American is a tragic hero. He is the preserver of nature, paragon of virtue, down-trodden victim of the cruel white man, and spiritual wise man.
The Native American has become a pop culture hero. People seek out hallmarks of Native American culture and make them their own. Sweat lodges, drum circles, peyote, and similar sacred rites are co-opted in the interest of rejecting modern evil ways in favor of returning to the pure ways of the Native Americans.
At the high-water mark it seemed as if one in every three cars had a dream catcher hanging from the rear-view mirror. The view of Native Americans in the dominant social awareness had made a 180 degree change. Their holies, most sacred artifacts were nothing to be feared but instead a casual trinket meant to tell the world the possessor had the pure Native American spirituality.
How did this change happen?
It has been argued that almost from the landing at Plymouth Rock a systematic program of demonizing Native Americans was institutionalized. They occupied the land. Freshly arrived Europeans wanted the land. To justify taking the land required altering mindsets.
Thus the Native Americans were presented as sub-human and dangerous. To bring peace and safety required removing Native Americans. At times that meant forcing them off their land onto other lands. At other times it meant whole-sale killing.
Attempts at genocide are well documented. While the numbers of Native Americans killed through war, disease, and other means are widely debated what is not debated is that it was deliberate.
One of the most famous cases was the introduction of smallpox infected bankets into a population unprepared to deal with the disease. People were slain in apocalyptic numbers. It is difficult to perceive of such attempts at genocidal murder as having even the slightest bit of moral authority unless you first have established the victims are themselves unfit to live.
Thus the argument goes that any time there was a theft, assault or killing enacted by the Native Americans the incident was magnified to the point where their depredations demanded a rapid, catastrophic response that required no regret, regardless of how many Native Americans were killed.
Naturally, not everyone agreed with this vision. Protestations against the mistreatment of Native Americans are recorded as early as the voyage of Columbus. All too often, however, those voices were few in number and easily drowned out by those with other motivations.
It is important to point out there were times when the Native Americans bore some culpability as well. We should not blindly assume complete innocence on the part of the tribes and complete guilt on the part of the Europeans. Both sides engaged in behavior that the light of modern scrutiny would find reprehensible.
However, it is not in the scope of this book to determine who was right or wrong. Rather, we are looking at how the majority of the public perceived native Americans. From that standpoint, the overwhelming majority of the narrative revolved around how immoral, deadly, and brutal the Native Americans were.
Early on one popular narrative was the captive. Native Americans would carry off a woman during a raid who would be forced to live as an Indian, often bearing “half-breed” children brought on her through what was retroactively termed rape.
Ultimately through white courage she would be rescued from the sub-human existence she had been forced to live and repatriated to genteel society, though of course she was scarred forever by having been sullied through interaction with the red heathen.
Pejorative terms such as “red heathen” were found all throughout the narrative. Redeeming values were few and far between. The captors were brutish, violent, passionate savages. They lived to fight, kill, rape and murder innocents.
It was in 1823 that James Fenimore Cooper published The Pioneers in which we were introduced to a new kind of hero.
Natty Bumppo was white but he was raised by the Delaware Indians. He learned their ways and adopted them. He was so successful at “being Indian” that he had the chief of the tribe, Chingachgook, act as his sidekick.
Indeed, he was an early example of “the noble savage”. Honest, courageous, and loyal, he stuck with Bumppo even when that meant he stood in opposition to other Native Americans. In The Last of the Mohicans (1826) it cost him his son when Uncas is killed by the paragon of evil, Magua.
The success of the Leatherstocking tales spawned a host of imitators. Hallmarks of the genre are numerous. They always include a white man who is better at being Indian than the Native Americans themselves.
Typically they are silent in the woods, able to track anything, completely honest and without guile. Yet they maintain moral superiority over the Native Americans who fall into superstition and appear to have no motive in life other than following the hero
This character archetype became so prevalent that people instantly understood the character of Tonto when the Lone Ranger made his appearance on the radio in 1933. It had long been a staple in penny dreadfuls, magazine serializations, and dime novels, all of which were popular entertainment in the late 1800s.
Yet portrayals of Native Americans in a positive light were extremely rare. They had been portrayed as nothing but savages for so long that they were not even considered to be human beings.
It was not until United States ex rel. Standing Bear v. Crook in 1879 that any Native American was legally considered a person. This was a reflection of public perception.
How could they be considered people? Newspaper reports were heavily slanted in how they portrayed events. What became known as the “Fetterman Massacre” provides and excellent example of how events were disseminated to the public.
Fetterman had publicly stated he could take 80 soldiers and “ride through the entire Sioux nation.” On December 21, 1866 he got his chance. Using a technicality, he seized command of a rescue force Colonel Carrington had given to Captain James Powell. He led 80 other men into an ambush that replicated almost an identical ambush from just a few weeks prior
Within minutes 81 men were dead. They had been heavily armed, most of them with 7 or 16 shot repeating rifles. This was not a helpless civilian group but rather a military force trained to fight Indians that fell into a clever ambush and lost the battle.
Newspaper reports called it a massacre and emphasized the mutilations inflicted on the dead men. The portrayals of the events as a massacre and savage mutilation were a misrepresentation and weighed heavily on public opinion.
By contrast when Colonel Chivington murdered hundreds of “friendly” Indians under Black Kettle at Sand Creek and wore the most intimate parts of the women they had mutilated, most newspapers reported it as a battle, ignoring the fact the Colorado Territory militia violated numerous laws and treaties to attack an unprepared camp flying the American flag and, shortly after the ambush began, a white surrender flag.
How these events were portrayed goes a long way towards showing how the belief that a cohesive plan for demonizing the Indians had been emplaced. Portraying them as aggressors and murderers regardless of truth justified swift, harsh reprisals.
Indeed, the idea that Native Americans could not be civilized had long been in place. Andrew Jackson, memorialized on the twenty dollar bill as one of the greatest Americans in history, took part in the forced removal of the Cherokee despite the fact the Cherokee had developed such elements of civilization as a written language, newspaper and courts. Yet in the 1830 they were still considered too uncivilized to remain in their home lands.
It is worth noticing their lack of civilization became apparent to all when gold was discovered on their land. Once their land had value, these savages could not be tolerated living among decent folk but were forcibly (and illegally) removed from their holdings to Oklahoma.
It was part of the systematic portrayal of Native Americans as less than people. Even those who lived peaceably for decades could be portrayed as dangerous and undesirable as soon as their land was shown to be valuable.
Thus we see that from earliest times Indians were brutish savages unfit for civilized lands. They were portrayed in fiction, in news reports, and word of mouth as being immoral and unworthy of status as humans. They were a danger to society.
As the new millennium dawned the United States had experienced a major shift. There was no longer unexplored, unoccupied land to be found further west. The events at Wounded Knee were six years past, the last gasp of Native American resistance to the seizure of their land.
The most dangerous Native American leaders were either dead, living in captivity or had become sideshow attractions.
Cochise, Sitting Bull, Captain Jack and Crazy Horse were dead. Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, Red Cloud and Geronimo were living on reservations. From time to time one or the other of these once-feared Native Americans would appear in Wild Bills Wild West Show, at a World’s Fair, or at some other attraction as curiosities.
Geronimo serves as a primary example. He was one of the first people ever to ride in a Cadillac. For a brief time he was a Sunday School Teacher at a Baptist church until he was removed from the position due to his continuing propensity to drink and gamble on his shooting skills.
Native Americans were no longer something to be feared and dreaded. They were now a defeated people who lived on reservations, out of sight and out of mind except when put on display as curiosities. They were something to be viewed much like a traveling circus or one of PT Barnum’s acts.
When Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1905 one of the people in his parade was Geronimo. No longer the most feared man in the American Southwest, now he was just another draw in a celebratory occasion. The time was past to demonize the Native Americans and the time had arrived to begin portraying them as victims on occasion and patriots as others such as during Buffalo Bill’s show.
Since the Spanish-American War, the highlight of his show had changed from being an Indian attack on a cabin or wagon train to a battle with the new villains, the Spaniards. Native Americans were translated to heroes.
They were now revered for their skills in horsemanship and archery. They were now portrayed in a positive light in a show designed by a masterful entertainer that was often emulated and had a huge impact on how the masses viewed Indians.
Other fields of entertainment were similarly affected. One fine example would be the movie industry.
Still developing at the turn of the century, the movie industry featured large numbers of Westerns. To be sure the primary narrative remained the same; Indians were either the threat to the hero or a drunken buffoon.
But there were exceptions. The occasional film would be made wherein the hero would fall in love, invariably with an Indian princess. To prevent miscegenation, the Native American would perish by the end of the film, thus allowing the white hero to return to the embrace of other whites, but the positive portrayal would remain.
Arguably, these films had as much if not more of an impact on the national psyche than more standard fare. When the viewer had seen the cavalry surrounded by Indians skylining themselves on a ridge dozens of times, only to be defeated through timely intervention, the story more or less told itself. But when they saw something unusual such as the heroic princess sacrificing herself for love it was something new, unusual and unique enough to be memorable.
This is not to argue that seeing these movies changed attitudes but rather that seeing an alternative presentation of Native Americans would begin to seep into the collective consciousness. The more often they were shown in a positive light, the more opportunity there would be to dismiss old stereotypes and fears and replace them with new thoughts and ideas.
Sports provided another avenue. Baseball was a leading pastime in the early 20th century and a haven for Native Americans. Typically nicknamed "Chief", they often developed rabid cult followings and gained great stature, including multiple Native Americans starring in some of the World Series in the first decade of the 20th century.