American Indian Stereotypes:
500 Years of Hate Crimes©
by Steven W. Baggs (who would welcome your comments...)
Janice would bring me a Tootsie Roll Pop about twice a week. I liked that, I liked Tootsie Roll Pops, and I especially liked the friendliness in her chubby cheeks. I considered her a friend. How my other friends felt about her giving me these treats - I didn't give much consideration to at all. Janice wasn't the most popular girl in our fifth-grade class. She was quiet and overweight, but generally speaking, a normal fifth-grader. A year or so later, in the sixth or seventh grade,
I learned that I was supposed to view all the Janices of the world differently. Janice was my first American Indian friend. I must have been a slow-learner, not learning until I was about twelve years of age that I was supposed to dislike and distrust American Indians. Most of my friends already knew that Indians held a lesser social status than whites. It was not uncommon to hear: "You hardly ever see an Indian until the middle of the month when their government check comes in, and then the downtown bars are full of 'em. Lazy drunken Indians!"
My hometown of Yankton, South Dakota, was and is probably not much different from many small American towns. Yankton takes its name from the language of the Nakota nation - Ihanktunwan, meaning "end village." This fact is still not well known. I remember as a youngster thinking that Yankton must be some shortened form of Yankee-town, probably a name from New England. Apparently we honored some type of association with American Indians, though, because our high school athletic teams were called the Bucks, our yearbook and homecoming celebration were called Arickara [sic], and our school paper was The Woksape. I have yet to discover why Arikara has remained misspelled.
I have often wondered how my old high school buddy of Norwegian descent felt in the homecoming ceremonies, resplendent in full buckskin regalia, an elaborate headdress, and facial "war-paint." More importantly, how did the local American Indians feel about these young non-Indians parading around in costumes resembling those of their early Lakota leaders?
In the 1950s and 60s in a small midwestern community, there wasn't much thought given to political correctness, ethnic sensitivities, or racism. News reports of these problems came from the big cities back east or in the South. I recall such statements as, "Put the Indians back on the reservations." Most who heard this sort of statement probably laughed it off as harmless and thought it as impossible as "Sending the niggers back to Africa." Were these harmless jokes? Or was it that years and generations of delegitimization and negative attitudes toward minority groups had become so commonplace that individuals no longer heard the harsh reality and prejudice in the tone of their remarks?
Despite the "so-what" attitude of much of the community, the school board recently succumbed to the pressures of political correctness, ethnic respect,
and long-overdue common sense and did away with the "Indian chief's" head as the school's mascot logo. The high school athletes are still called the Bucks - only now they sport the image of an antlered deer. It should be interesting to watch and see what becomes of the yearbook, homecoming coronation, and school newspaper.
People are taught to stereotype other people. Stereotyping is a learned form of classifying and labeling others based on inaccurate information or assumption rather than on factual knowledge. It is not a new phenomenon. Individuals and societies, to assert their dominance over others, have been cruelly and crudely labeling others for thousands of years. It is a systematic imputation whereby the "self" or some particular group attests to its superiority over the "other." Stereotyping is a form of delegitimization, "...beliefs that downgrade another group with extreme negative social categories for the purpose of excluding it from human groups that are considered as acting within the limits of acceptable norms and/or values" (Bar-Tal 1990).
"Indian" is a word commonly used by many white Americans and, whether intentional or not, may convey a negative image of indigenous Native American peoples. Although the word "Indian" is a misnomer, it is still used by many scholars and native peoples in collectively referring to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Raymond W. Stedman explains in Shadows of the Indian how difficult the terminology can be when writing about the First Americans. Native Americans is too inclusive. "Cowboys and Native Americans" doesn't address the image appropriately. Additionally, Native Americans in this century's context can also include Polynesian descendants in Hawaii, Native Guatemalans, Native Canadians, and Native Mexicans. "Being possessed of knowledge of their pre-Columbian heritage, Indians are less concerned about their collective designation than they are about their tribal or national identities. They can be called Indians or Native Americans or First Americans, but they are Oneidas and Kiowas and Cherokees" (Stedman 1982:xvii).
Labeling the German, the Scot, the Pole, the Welshman, the Frenchman, and the Englishman as European and white is as vague and misleading as calling the Apache, the Aztec, the Mandan, the Ojibwa, and the Yanomano, Indian and red-skinned. Let it suffice, for the sake of this writing, that the indigenous peoples, nations, and tribes discussed will be called American Indians and the European immigrants who arrived post-1492, Euro-Americans and whites. Tim Giago, publisher of Indian Country Today, stated that it is preferable to use an individual's tribal affiliation whenever possible. The term Native American has become less popular, since anyone born in the United States can call themselves Native American. Giago continued with:
We realize the word 'Indian' is a misnomer, but for generic purposes, we are forced to use it when speaking of many different tribes. ... Any politically correct thinker who believes Native American is the preferred identification tag for the Lakota or any other tribe is wrong. Most of us do not object to the use of Indian or American Indian. And as I said, Native American can be used by any American native to this land (Utter 1993:66).
The culture, language, physical features, and history of American Indians are as diverse as that of Europeans. If you ask a young Lakota boy if he speaks Indian, don't be surprised (after he shrugs off the absurdity of your question) if he asks you whether or not you speak European. The incessant image remains that somehow all American Indians are the same and are to be clumped together as a single ethnic entity. This is perhaps one reason that negative stereotyping continues to be so tempting. It is much simpler to dominate and express superiority over the "others" when they all belong to the same generic category - Indians.
Through millennia, most of mankind has had an obsession with labels - a need to classify things in some orderly system to better understand them. When Scandinavian explorers first arrived in North America in A.D. 1001, they called their new world Vinland. The short-lived colony that Lief Ericsson established in Newfoundland was on the northern part of the island at what is now called L'Anse aux Meadows. The sea-faring Scandinavians encountered a peculiar group of people inhabiting Newfoundland when they arrived. They called the residents of this new world skraelings, a word roughly translated as "barbarians, weaklings, or even pygmies." Although it is still not certain, these early inhabitants of Newfoundland were probably Eskimos (Thornton 1987:12). Scandinavian peoples did not persist in attempts at colonization; consequently, white Euro-American children of the twentieth century did not grow up playing "cowboys and skraelings," and there have never been wooden cigar store skraelings greeting patrons at the local general store.
Few written records exist concerning European explorations to the New World after the Scandinavian visits of the eleventh century until after 1492 when Christopher Columbus accidentally sailed into the Caribbean region of the Western Hemisphere. Failing to convince the Portuguese to finance his quest for a westward route to Asia, the Italian mariner sought the aid of the Spanish royalty. The Catholic monarchy of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella ultimately financed Columbus's visionary voyage by providing him with three ships. On October 12, 1492, Columbus and his crew visited the Arawak people of the island of Guanahani, in the Caribbean Greater Antilles. He thought he was off the coast of Asia. Columbus named the people he encountered los indios, which at the time meant people of a darker race. He renamed their island San Salvador. Columbus made four expeditions to the Caribbean and founded the settlement of Isabella on the island of Hispaniola. He never made it to the continent of North America although his men did land on the South American coast of what is now Venezuela (Thornton 1987:12).
Columbus wrote about how generous and loving the Arawak people were and how easy their conversion to Christianity would be. The quest for more converts to Christianity was of great interest to the Spanish monarchy, for there is great strength in numbers. The conversion process began immediately, and it was only a short time before enslavement practices followed. Columbus captured great numbers of native people and transported them to Spain and other islands desirous of slave labor. Cruel treatment and foreign diseases all but annihilated the Arawak people. Columbus was arrested for his abusive treatment of the Arawaks, taken back to Spain in chains, and stripped of his colonial office. He was later released and once more allowed to sail, provided he never set foot on Hispaniola again (Chalk 1990:179).
Christopher Columbus died in political obscurity, to the end convinced that he had reached the coast of Asia. The several thousand native Arawaks of the Caribbean island "discovered" by Columbus were reduced to nearly zero by 1535 because of the abusive exploitation and diseases brought by the European explorers and overzealous entrepreneurs. Characterized as something "halfway between humanity and animality", New World inhabitants were doomed from the moment of first contact with Europeans (Berkhofer 1979:13).
Strict Christian definitions of what humans should be, generated the white European image of the Native American Indian. The Indios lacked everything that resembled Christian norms. The sauvaiges were uncivilized, uncultured, uncultivated, and unpredictable in their "foreign-ness." European explorers looked at, valued, and reported on indigenous peoples according to what the explorers knew of their own civilization and the powerful Christian worldview of the time. The early Spanish expansionists and clergy were therefore convinced that the native savage souls needed saving, and in so doing, they easily justified their conquests and enslavement policies. This fifteenth-century clumping together of all the diverse first peoples of the Americas as a single group, Indians, by ethnocentric European societies marked the beginning of racist stereotyping in the New World.
The image of New World heathens and infidels was well established in the minds of Europeans prior to colonization. This image, projected through Judeo-Christian values and ideologies, was such that it placed all Indians on a social plane much lower than whites - although not as low as blacks. Native peoples' resistance to the invading Europeans and their reluctance to submit to a "superior" race changed their image from one of an exotic, yet inferior, people, to one of a hostile, contemptible nuisance. The "Indian problem" would not and will not go away.
The tendency began with Christopher Columbus and continues today that European and Euro-American lifeways define the standards for American Indian cultures. Euro-Americans have rarely considered evaluating and accepting tribal American lifeways as distinct and viable cultural entities. The Christian-influenced European expansionists could not comprehend the uncomplicated elegance of American Indian spirituality and the naturalness of indigenous religions. Indeed, the monomaniacal Christian attitude allows little deviance from its staid beliefs and values. Pope Clement VI, in a papal bull Intra arcana written in 1529 to Charles V, wrote:
We trust that, as long as you are on earth, you will compel and with all zeal cause the barbarian nations to come to the knowledge of God, the maker and founder of all things, not only by edicts and admonitions, but also by force and arms, if needful, in order that their souls may partake of the heavenly kingdom (Washburn 1971:11).
The power of the organized religions extant in the Old World was indeed formidable. The papal authorization to use "force and arms" to help the New World's indigenous population "partake of the heavenly kingdom" was the license granted to Europeans to take full possession of the Americas. Genocide was not the expressed intention of the European invaders although it was nearly the result of Euro-American conquests in the New World. The seeming genocide had already begun via the diseases introduced by white explorers. Genocide, ethnocide, and holocaust sound harsh in their usage when applied to the early Euro-American treatment of American Indians; yet, they are the only words one can use to explain the millions of deaths and the complete obliteration of entire tribes of American Indians.
The peopling of North America began about 14,000 years ago. Some anthropologists claim, albeit with little evidence, that the earliest settlers arrived as early as 40,000 years ago. There may have been three major migrations into North America by way of Beringia, the land bridge that once connected present-day Alaska with Siberia. The three possible waves of migration and the wide range of diffusion of specific bands of people throughout the North American continent over the several thousand years prior to European contact further the notion that many distinct groups of people inhabited the continent. Again, the idea of lumping all Indians together is as inappropriate as lumping all Europeans together or all Africans together.
It is impossible to determine exactly how many American Indians populated North America prior to Columbus's arrival. Studies in the area of aboriginal populations have been numerous and substantially varied in their results. Russell Thornton extensively details the issue in American Indian Holocaust and Survival and concludes that: "The aboriginal population of the conterminous United States area was probably 5+ million when Columbus arrived in the Western Hemisphere in 1492" (32). This 5 million-population figure was reduced to 600,000 by 1800 and to 250,000 individuals by the end of the nineteenth century. A population decrease of ninety-five percent over four hundred years does not just happen. Do genocide and holocaust suddenly sound apropos?
Writers and textbook publishers of American history have generally omitted or, if mentioned at all, glossed over historic accounts of genocide and inhumane treatment of American Indian populations. Had factual accounts of European colonization and Euro-American settling of the Americas existed, it is doubtful that the white population would have allowed these accounts to be placed on the bookshelves. One such factual account that does exist, and which virtually condemns a certain group of early colonists, is that of the 1637 Puritan annihilation of the Pequots in the Connecticut Valley. Over five hundred noncombatants, prisoners, and surrendering Pequots were murdered in the confrontation. The few who survived were sold off to other tribes or to plantations in the West Indies. The account reads:From initial contact to present times, the white Judeo-Christian attitude toward American Indians has been one of superiority. Divine providence and manifest destiny allowed the immigrant Europeans to use whatever means possible to secure the Americas as their New World. The Puritans found help in their expansionist exploits when thousands of indigenous inhabitants succumbed to a smallpox epidemic in the early 1630s. The town records of Charlestown, Virginia, report that "without this remarkable and terrible stroke of God upon the natives, [we] would with much more difficulty have found room, and at far greater charge have obtained and purchased land" (Chalk 1990:185). The Puritan policy was God-directed and anyone who opposed the church opposed God.The original American Indian populations were demoralized, depressed, and severely reduced throughout the seventeenth century. The ever-expanding Euro-American contingent was hale and hearty and eager to conquer new frontiers and acquire more and more land. By 1700 the white population far outnumbered that of the American Indian. The Europeans' proclamation of sovereignty over North America was irreversible. A few notable figures in early American history vainly attempted to unify the Indian and white societies. Thomas Jefferson was the most renowned of the early leaders who held some respect for the ill-fated native populations. He sought to allow the Native Indians some sovereignty over their lands. Jefferson was, however, a strong advocate of assimilation. He once spoke to a delegation of Delawares, Mohicans, and Muncies to urge them to give up their hunting lifestyle in favor of one of agriculture. Jefferson urged: "When once you have property, you will want laws and magistrates to protect your property and persons...You will find that our laws are good for this purpose...you will unite yourselves with us...form one people with us, and we shall all be Americans..." (Washburn 1971:61). This was an interesting perspective coming from the slave-owning President.
In 1638, the Puritans and their Indian allies signed the Treaty of Hartford, which declared the Pequot nation dissolved. The spirit behind this genocide is encapsulated in the victory sermon of Increase Mather, a leading Puritan minister, who asked his congregation to thank God 'that on this day we have sent six hundred heathen souls to hell' (Chalk 1990:180).
Successive presidents and federal agencies did not accept Thomas Jefferson's idealistic goal of Native peoples' rights to hold on to their lands and pass them on to their progeny. Congress created the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1824 as an agency of (none other than) the United States War Department. Thomas L. McKenney was the first head of the new agency, and he chose to call it the Office of Indian Affairs. The agents of the Indian Affairs office were responsible for all intercourse dealing with the Indian peoples and for the apprehension of anyone committing crimes against an Indian. The initial plan was that offenders would be tried by military court martial which, of course, Congress would ultimately not allow. Offenders were subsequently turned over to the nearest appropriate civil authority. Arresting an individual guilty of a crime against an Indian was probably a rarity in the early 1800s, but getting a white judge and jury to convict a white man of a crime against an Indian was surely an impossibility. (It would seem we have made little progress in two hundred years.)
Ever-increasing white populations and frontier expansion created more and more conflict and a greater need for legal guidelines and government intervention. Problems between the white population of the state of Georgia and the Cherokee Nation caused Supreme Court Chief Justice Marshall to reach the decision that: '[The] original fundamental principle [is] that discovery gave exclusive title to those who made it. The history of America from its discovery to the present day proves, we think, the universal recognition of these principles.' Marshall further declared that the principle of discovery, 'was a right which all asserted for themselves, and to the assertion of which, by others, all assented.'... 'However extravagant the pretension of converting the discovery of an inhabited country into conquest may appear,' wrote Marshall in his decision, 'if the principle has been asserted in the first instance, and afterwards sustained; if a country has been acquired and held under it; if the property of the great mass of the community originates in it, it becomes the law of the land and cannot be questioned' (Washburn 1971:66).
The end result of the Cherokee-Georgia situation was and still is, in Native American situations, very predictable: the Cherokees lost and the government forced them to relinquish their lands and remove to a marginalized existence on western reserves. America drove the Indians to the other side of the Appalachians, west of the Mississippi, and onto the southern plains. Next came the demand to concentrate them west of the Rockies.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs was taken from the War Department and placed under the auspices of the Department of the Interior in 1849 with the major responsibility of policing the activities of the Indians falling upon the military. "The difference between soldiers and militant people of the frontier on the one hand, and the Christian missionaries on the other was one of degree, for both groups intended to change or convert the perceived savages by the sword or by the word of God" (Mieder 1995:online).
"The only good Indian is a dead Indian," is one of the more infamous of the various popular slogans of frontier times. The original coiner of the phrase cannot positively be identified. Historians often credit General Philip Sheridan, but many other notables expressed similar sentiment by employing some version of the horrendous slogan.
Congressman James M. Cavanaugh of Montana, in a debate on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1868, is remembered to have said:
'I have never in my life seen a good Indian (and I have seen thousands) except when I have seen a dead Indian.' This statement was, sadly, the general attitude of the white Euro-American population of the late nineteenth century. Cavanaugh went on to say: 'I believe in the Indian policy pursued by New England in years long gone. I believe in the Indian policy which was taught by the great chieftain of Massachusetts, Miles Standish. I believe in the policy that exterminates the Indians, drives them outside the boundaries of civilization, because you cannot civilize them' (Mieder 1995: online).
Wolfgang Mieder illustrates further the popularity of the proverbial slogan, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian," by saying it certainly was not General Philip Sheridan, nor was it an even more (in)famous Indian fighter who made the following incredible remarks at a speech in January, 1886 in New York:I suppose I should be ashamed to say that I take the Western view of the Indian. I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth. The most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian. Turn three hundred low families of New York into New Jersey, support them for fifty years in vicious idleness, and you will have some idea of what the Indians are. Reckless, revengeful, fiendishly cruel, they rob and murder, not the cowboys, who can take care of themselves, but the defenseless, lone settlers on the plains. As for the soldiers, an Indian chief once asked Sheridan for a cannon. 'What! Do you want to kill my soldiers with it?' asked the general. 'No,' replied the chief, 'want to kill the cowboy; kill soldier with a club.'
The speaker of this regrettable passage was none other than the "rough rider" himself, Teddy Roosevelt, who published his racist and expansionist views and an account of his exploits on the American frontier in his book The Winning of the West in 1889. Theodore Roosevelt became President of these United States five years after delivering these hateful comments (Mieder 1995:online). To add insult to injury, Roosevelt's image is carved into the mountain of a region of the Black Hills of South Dakota that is sacred to many American Indians.
Where did the American Indians come from? For five hundred years, white Europeans and Americans have proposed myriad theories in their efforts to understand and explain the existence of the aboriginal peoples of the Americas. The early explorers and colonists saw wild uncivilized beings that roamed the continent and seemed to lack the ability to manage the land productively. Immigrant Christian societies found people who were obviously human but did not quite fit into the mosaic that they had learned. After all, following the great flood and the re-peopling of the Earth by Noah's family, how could one explain these New World inhabitants? How did they come to exist on this remote continent? Perhaps they were part of one of the "lost tribes" from Biblical texts, and somehow degenerated into a barbarian society. More enlightened scholars entered the fray and proposed the theory that Indians must be a new variety of human species, a Homo sapiens americanus. Perhaps they did not migrate to the New World at all but originated here. The belief of most native peoples is summarized as follows:
Each tribe has its own creation story and most are complicated. Some tribes believe that they emerged from this continent from sacred, underground sites. One theme that runs through some tribes' creation story is that the world was first covered with water, then living beings - animals mostly - brought mud from the bottom to form the earth before humans emerged from the underground. These places of emergence are revered as sacred sites. Others believe they were created by the union of divine figures or emerged from the sky. Some believe that they were created by the stars and placed in the Western Hemisphere. In other words, tribes universally recognize the Western Hemisphere as their motherland (Mehesuah 1996:46).
Thomas Jefferson, environmentalist and President, professed a belief in the equality of mankind, with obvious degrees of superiority and inferiority. Additionally, the respected eighteenth-century hypothesizer and naturalist, Comte de Buffon, categorized the American Indian in the following manner:For, though the American savage be nearly of the same stature with men in polished societies, yet this is not sufficient exception to the general contraction of animated Nature throughout the whole Continent. In the savage, the organs of generation are small and feeble. He has no hair, no beard, no ardour for the female. Though nimbler than the European, because more accustomed to running, his strength is not so great. His sensations are less acute; and yet he is more cowardly and timid. He has no vivacity, no activity of mind. ... It is easy to discover the cause of the scattered life of the savages, and of their estrangement from society. They have been refused the most precious spark of Nature's fire. They have no ardour for women, and, of course, no love of mankind. ... Their heart is frozen, their society cold, and their empire cruel (Berkhofer 1978:42).
The chronology of incredible, as well as incredulous, explanations that civilized scholars proffered to the world about American Indians were not limited to adventurers, theologians, politicians, and philosophers. Scientists and new evolutionary thinkers came around in the nineteenth century and were more than willing to share their theories about the inhabitants of the New World. Craniology and/or craniometry, the study and measurement of skull and brain size, became a popular scientific technique whereby white races acquired additional ammunition to bolster their argument of inherent superiority over all others. These new scientific theories greatly aided white American policymakers to rationalize further their (mis)treatment of Indians and blacks in the United States. Samuel G. Morton was the leader of the American School in the area of craniology studies. Another disciple of the school, Josiah C. Nott, in 1854, published the article, Types of Mankind: Or, Ethnological Researches. Nott summarized his findings thus:
Intelligence, activity, ambition, progression, high anatomical development, characterize some races; stupidity, indolence, immobility, savagism, low anatomical development characterize others. Lofty civilization, in all cases, has been achieved solely by the 'Caucasian' group. Mongoloid races, save in the Chinese family, in no instance have reached beyond the degree of semi-civilization; while the Black races of Africa and Oceanica no less than the Barbarous tribes of America have remained in utter darkness for thousands of years. ... The Barbarous races of America (excluding the Toltecs) although nearly as low in intellect as the Negro races are essentially untameable [sic]. Not merely have all attempts to civilize them failed, but also every endeavor to enslave them. Our Indian tribes submit to extermination, rather than wear the yoke under which our Negro slaves fatten and multiply. ... The pure-blooded savage still skulks untamed through the forest, or gallops athwart the prairie. Can any one call the name of a single pure Indian of the Barbarous tribes who - except in death, like a wild cat - has done anything worthy of remembrance (Berkhofer 1978:59)?
The distressing comments of celebrated scholars, politicians, clergy, and military leaders have continued ad nauseum for over half of a millenium. Reading about the post-contact history of the American Indians at times becomes overwhelming and infuriating. It is almost unbelievable that such high-ranking individuals had the callousness and cultural ignorance to say some of the things that they are recorded to have said. (Then again, there are leaders today who get away with absurd racist statements and somehow remain in positions of power.) There must be some inherent perverse need in certain societies to squash the little guy. Beat him up, and keep him down! Is the victor so insecure and fearful in victory that he must continue to throw salt in the wounds of the defeated? Societies teach their youth to fear and despise their enemies. Fear and hatred of American Indians, as well as of blacks and of any other ethnic non-white group, has been engrained in the minds of Euro-Americans for generations. Thucydides reported to the residents of Melos the following statement of the Athenians:
"You know as well as we do that, when these matters are discussed by practical people, the standard of justice depends on the quality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept" (Washburn 1971:42).
The stories of the white attitude and behavior in colonial and pioneer times in the United States and the documented history of genocidal attacks are frightening. One such despicable account in American history concerns the Yuki Indians of northern California. When the first whites stumbled upon Round Valley, near San Francisco, in 1851, there were about 3,500 Yuki residents living in the area. Previously, Spanish Californians had preyed on the women and children, using them as servants, field hands, and camp wives. The new invaders were no more benevolent than their predecessors were. The new frontiersmen likewise took the women and children for themselves and for trade with the Spanish. California law allowed its citizens to keep Indians as indentured servants for as long as fifteen years. Moreover, apprehended kidnappers of Indians could not be prosecuted unless there was a white witness to testify against them. The federal government moved the Yuki onto fenced reservations. White farmers promptly tore down the fences so their livestock could graze on the reservation land. The white settlers preferred that the Yuki sacrifice their traditional Indian lifeways to the suffering of their own livestock. The farmers successfully apportioned more land, forcing the Yuki farther into the mountains. When crooked federal agents illegally diverted food intended for the reservation population, the hungry Yuki raided the livestock herds of the whites. H. L. Hall, cattle supervisor for the Round Valley reservation, would not tolerate the theft of livestock by the Indians. In organizing a manhunt, Hall reportedly said that no man who would not kill all the Indians he encountered should go. On one particular hunt, Hall and his group killed 240 Yuki in revenge for the killing of a valuable stallion. That same year, 1859, California Governor John B. Weller granted state commissions to companies of volunteers that excelled in killing Indians. Weller commissioned these volunteers in lieu of federal troops since the troops were reported to be on friendly terms with the Yuki. Upon completion of their mission to kill the Indians regardless of age or sex, Governor Weller sent his congratulations to the volunteers for doing "all that was anticipated," and his "sincere thanks for the manner in which it [the campaign] was conducted" (Chalk 1990:195). The Yuki population in 1848 of 3,500 individuals was reduced to about 400 by 1880.
Disease, kidnapping, vigilantism, and state-sanctioned mass slaughter of American Indians were the means to solving the Indian problem. Other means allowed for the destruction of traditional lifeways and starvation. Colonel Richard I. Dodge in 1867 at Fort McPherson, Nebraska, advised a group of British hunters to "Kill every buffalo you can. Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone" (Chalk 1990:198).
By the end of the nineteenth century, the American Indian people had been decimated. United States military records show a minimum of 1,470 official incidents of Army action against Indians from 1776 to 1907. The Army, Navy, and Marine Corps have all played some role in various Indian conflicts, many of which occurred between 1866 and 1891 (Utter 1993:103). Treaties were made, regularly broken, frequently altered, or, more often than not, completely ignored. The federal and state governments often re-acquired land designated for reservations if it was found that the land held significant economic value. Such was the case of the Treaty of 1868 with Red Cloud, which assigned South Dakota's Black Hills as part of the great Sioux reservation. The subsequent discovery of gold, and the ensuing gold rush, however, led to the loss of the Black Hills by the Lakota people. The treaty was ignored and the Indians remanded to less desirable reservation lands. Embittered Plains Indians of the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana made last-ditch efforts at protecting their lands and rights. Negotiations and warfare were of no consequence against the "Great White Father." Ute uprisings in western Colorado were put down. Northern Cheyennes were exiled to Oklahoma. General George Armstrong Custer's ill-advised attack at the Little Bighorn River in Montana against Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, the Oglalas, and the Cheyennes resulted in Custer's death and that of two hundred and twenty-five of his men (Josephy 1968:340). Vine Deloria, Jr. included a section on American Indian humor in Custer Died for Your Sins, in which he relates the old story that "Custer is said to have boasted that he could ride through the entire Sioux nation with his Seventh Cavalry and he was half right. He got half-way through" (149). This victory by the "savages" increased the government's efforts to further suppress the Indian populations. Any organized activity on the part of Indians was held suspect. The Ghost Dance ritual of the Nevada Paiutes spread to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The dance was a supernatural plea for the disappearance of the white man and the reappearance of the buffalo.
The spiritual activities of the 1870s and -80s provoked the paranoid federal government to send in the Army for closer scrutiny of Indian activities throughout the Dakota Territory and ultimately led to the massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890. The revered leader, Sitting Bull, was killed, or rather, politically assassinated, near Standing Rock, partly for his involvement in the sacred rituals. The atrocious action of the federal troops resulted in the death of nearly three hundred Sioux men, women, and children. The Lakota people of Big Foot's community had already surrendered and were in the process of being disarmed when some fighting broke out. The Army opened fire on the defeated warriors, the innocent women and children, and the elderly of Black Foot's people. Bodies of unarmed women and children were scattered a distance of two miles from the initial encounter. The Army troops had clearly chased and gunned down nearly everyone in the community. Alvin M. Josephy, Jr. states: "This episode marked the completion of the white man's conquest of the Indian in the United States" (342).
The more things change, the more they remain the same. The white man seems unwilling to give up his conquest of the American Indian. As well, the American Indian has not lost his fighting spirit. The twentieth century still finds descendants of this continent's indigenous peoples in conflict with those whose ancestors took their lands and lifeways. In the 1960s, the American Indian Movement (AIM) evolved in the cities and eventually found its way into rural and reservation areas. Students of law, advocates against the continuing oppression of American Indians, civil rights leaders, other significant individuals and their followers began their Trail of Broken Treaties. Considered radical and hostile by many Native people and non-Indians, the American Indian Movement, nonetheless, had a great many legitimate issues and viable complaints to present to the federal government. Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt, Russell Means, Herb Powless, Carter Camp, and many others were adamant that their claims of injustice be taken seriously and that American Indians have some input into their own destiny.
What ensued was Wounded Knee II. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Justice Department all became involved in what the government deemed riotous militancy on the part of the movement. Many AIM members were beaten, arrested, or found dead of causes unexplained. An assistant prosecutor in the state Attorney General's office, William Janklow, stated: "The only way to deal with the Indian problem in South Dakota is to put a gun to the AIM leaders' heads and pull the trigger" (Matthiessen 1980:107). The only good Indian is a dead Indian? Janklow later confirmed making the statement in a television interview and added, "I never met anybody with a bullet in their head that bothered anybody" (First Nations, online). Speaking in century-old, Teddy Roosevelt-like racist rhetoric, Janklow went on to become South Dakota's Attorney General and, eventually, governor of the state.
It bears mentioning again, that from first contact with Europeans, the die was cast and the indigenous Nations of North America were destined to be cast off. "The imputation of a solitary ethnicity to several hundred heterogeneous societies was accomplished for one purpose only: it suited the convenience, psychology, and bureaucracy of Euro-American management" (Dorris 1975:75). Christopher Columbus lumped the numerous multi-faceted nations of peoples into one category - Indians. The category stuck and the diverse cultures of American Indians melded into a "solitary ethnicity," an ethnicity devoid of the myriad distinctions the several hundred original nations of North America once possessed. This single category provided greater ease by which the dominating powers could assert their superiority and affix their stereotypes.
Stereotypical appellations abound and run the gamut from negative to paradoxically positive. "Real" Indians are simultaneously poor and proud, inarticulate and noble, savage and defeated, drunk and ecological. Most white Americans would probably not describe an American Indian as upwardly mobile or sophisticated, and if it ever were to happen that these terms would be used, then that individual would most likely be labeled as having lost his or her culture (Dorris 1975:81). Not me, Kemosabe? Me not lose-em culture!
By the end of the 1800s, white America thought that it had "tamed" the noble savages sufficiently and that it was time to show to the world that we now honor the Indians. What better way to promote good will than through "Wild West Shows," literature, and motion pictures? William Frederick Cody's expertise as Army scout and buffalo killer was no longer in great demand. Cody teamed with Doc Carver in 1883 and started Carver and Cody's Wild West Show. The partnership soon dissolved, and the old pony express rider opened with his own show, Buffalo Bill's Wild West. Cody employed many Pawnee and Sioux from the plains states. The troupe thrilled audiences across the continent and in Europe with trick riding, marksmanship, and mock Indian attacks on stagecoaches. Various U.S. military encounters with the Indians, including Custer's adventure at the Little Bighorn, were marquee attractions. All this entertainment success brought criticism from Christian reformers and government agencies alike. The reformers feeling that "Indians had just begun to climb up the ladder from barbarism" condemned the shows as contrary to the desired attributes of civilization. John H. Oberly, commissioner of Indian affairs in 1889 stated:The Wild West Shows further served to demoralize the American Indians who participated in them. Many Indians died on tour from diseases contracted in foreign countries. Reformers and assimilationists severely criticized the government when it sent "prisoners of war" on a "European holiday." In 1891, the new commissioner of Indian affairs, Baptist minister Thomas Jefferson Morgan, decided, with the insistence of the military, that the imprisoned "ring-leaders" of the Ghost Dance troubles at Wounded Knee atone for their crimes by serving in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in Europe. Once again, several performers died or were stranded in foreign countries. The exploitation of the "noble savage" in the Wild West Shows was but another chapter in the continuing saga of the white man's quest for domination over the American Indian.
The effect of traveling all over the country among, and associated with, the class of people usually accompanying Shows, Circuses and Exhibitions, attended by all the immoral and unchristianizing surroundings incident to such a life, is not only most demoralizing to the present and future welfare of the Indian, but it creates a roaming and unsettled disposition and educates him in a manner entirely foreign and antagonistic to that which has been and now is the policy of the Government (Moses 1984:199).
The Indian woman of early literature and film was depicted in only two categories. She was either a princess or a squaw. Either she was a dangerous and seductive threat to the white frontiersman, or she was the faceless, dutiful figure tagging along behind her buck with papoose in tow. Her only utterance was "Ugh." The word "squaw" means wife, but only through a very rough interpretation and in only one of the hundreds of Native American languages (Stedman 1982:25). The princesses of celluloid fame generally served the white man, fell in love with him, and died tragically. Early white male stars who played Indian roles in western film pantomimed their Indian-ness in braided wigs and make-up; likewise, established white actresses always played Indian princesses. Some of those seen bathing in the streams and in chic haute couture doeskin dresses were Yvonne de Carlo (The Deerslayer, 1943), Elsa Martinelli (Indian Fighter, 1955), Linda Darnell (Buffalo Bill, 1943), Debra Paget (Broken Arrow, 1950), and Donna Reed as Sacagawea in The Far Horizons (Stedman 1982:29). In 1995, the Disney production of Pocahontas converted unreality to incredibly profitable reality. The provocatively dressed animistic princess with the Barbie doll figure was a delightfully happy, although totally false image. "The movie ignores the reality that Pocahontas was only 12 at most when she met John Smith. She did not love him, she did not marry him, and she died at the age of 22 in England" (Mihesuah 1996:10).
Racial stereotypes and profound misrepresentations of American Indian history are endless and overwhelming in their abundance. Fifteenth century Europeans at first contact planted the seeds of negative imagery of the American Indians, and their Euro-American descendants continue to replant those seeds. Laura Ingalls Wilder, in 1935, impressed young readers of her Little House on the Prairie, with such passages as:
Mrs. Scott said she hoped to goodness they would have no trouble with Indians. Mr. Scott had heard rumors of trouble. She said, 'Land knows, they'd never do anything with this country themselves. All they do is roam around over it like wild animals. Treaties or no treaties, the land belongs to folks that'll farm it. That's only common sense and justice.' She did not know why the government made treaties with Indians. The only good Indian was a dead Indian. The very thought of Indians made her blood run cold (Mieder: online).
The author of perhaps the most highly acclaimed American fairy tale, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, likewise contributed to the annals of American infamy. About ten years prior to his writing of the wonderfully harmonious multicultural kingdom of Oz, L. Frank Baum was the editor of The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, a weekly newspaper published in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Although Baum could write beautiful children's fairy tales full of emotion and acceptance in the Land of Oz, he personally held quite opposing views of cultural plurality in the land of the Lakotas. Following Sitting Bull's assassination by Indian Police, L. Frank Baum's The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer on December 15, 1890, published the following:Following the Massacre at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890, the Commander of the Army in the West, General Nelson A. Miles condemned the U. S. military's handling of the incident and tried unsuccessfully to have the officer in charge court-martialed. Almost three hundred Lakota people died at Wounded Knee, compared to thirty-one of the four hundred seventy soldiers. Less than one week after the Wounded Knee Massacre, The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer published yet another editorial advocating genocide:
Sitting Bull, the most renowned Sioux of modern history, is dead. He was an Indian with a white man's spirit of hatred and revenge for those who had wronged him and his. ... The proud spirit of the original owners of these vast prairies inherited through centuries of fierce and bloody wars for their possession, lingered last in the bosom of Sitting Bull. With his fall the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished, and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them. 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 not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are. History would forget these latter despicable beings, and speak, in later ages of the glory of these grand Kings of forest and plain that Cooper loved to heroism ( Venables: online).
The peculiar policy of the government in employing so weak and vacillating a person as General Miles to look after the uneasy Indians, has resulted in a terrible loss of blood to our soldiers, and a battle which, at best, is a disgrace to the war department. ... The PIONEER has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extirmination [sic] of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untameable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past (Venables: online).
The present day media have generally refined their commentary toward political correctness. The genocidal rhetoric has essentially disappeared. The film and literature industry is more attuned to sensitivity levels in ethnic matters, largely because of another holocaust in Europe a few decades ago. It is no great secret that the United States is a racist society, and well it should be after five hundred years of thorough indoctrination. Today's modus operandi seems to be one of total avoidance of the fact that negative stereotyping of American Indians exists, as well as one of highly stylized mockery under the guise of "honoring" indigenous peoples. In a statement about baseball's Cleveland Indians' mascot, Paul D. Gonzales, a San Ildefonso Pueblo, said, "I don't think I want my daughter and her people honored this way. The image of Chief Wahoo looks too much like a drunken Uncle Tomahawk with a big red nose. Not exactly a hero for any child" (Gonzales: online).
"The war-hoops of the fans were deafening, as the Seminoles scalped the Volunteers, 49 to 7." "The tomahawk-chopping spectators went wild when the Redskins massacred the Forty-Niners." Imagine a new sports franchise starting up and naming its team the New Orleans Negroes, the Riverside Rednecks, or the New York Jews? Sorry coach, the Indians, Redskins, Bucks, Braves, and the like are not complimentary gestures to American Indians. Employing derogatory nicknames of a particular group of people, as mascots of a sports team, should no longer be acceptable. Major League Baseball suspended a baseball team owner in Cincinnati for comments like, "...my million-dollar niggers." The residents of Arizona impeached their governor for several reasons, one of which was his poor choice of words in referring to a young minority group as "piccaninnies." Most recently, the Professional Golf Association censured one of its members for making racially tinged comments. A television broadcasting company fired a golf commentator for his remarks about lesbians and boobs. With current social pressures at the point where society can bring down governors and celebrities, why is it that we allow the continuing defamation of American Indians? It's time to give it up, white America, five hundred years of hate crimes, stigmatizing, and stereotyping is enough. Vine Deloria, Jr. encourages socio-economic goals rather than legal adjustments by writing:Old habits die hard. White American society cannot undo its many injustices though it can make attempts at correcting some. We can teach the truth about American history, and we can admit that we have wronged the American Indian. All American people can start taking progressive steps toward eliminating the hate and the negative images in much the same way as they approach the subjects of crime, sex, and drugs - through education. Our negative perceptions are learned in our homes and in our schools and observed in many areas of our daily lives. We must address and eliminate the problem of stereotyping in the same places where it is learned: in the home, in the schools, and in our daily experiences. White Americans must be mindful, however, that they cannot expect forgiveness from American Indians, nor should American Indians offer it. White America has all too easily ignored the physical and ethnic genocide of American Indians. The litany of the white man's dehumanizing verbiage directed toward the Indian boggles a mature mind. The concept of racial stereotyping is based typically on ignorance. It is purely adolescent in its practical application and boringly anachronistic in its perpetuity. The ill-gotten false image engrained into the mind of an aggressive society is devastating to the targeted society. The genocidal consequences of that same ill-gotten image targeted at this continent's first peoples by Euro-Americans five hundred years ago continue today. It is still the same old tune, played with different instruments.
But the understanding of the racial question does not ultimately involve understanding by either blacks or Indians. It involves the white man himself. He must examine his past. He must face the problems he has created within himself and within others. The white man must no longer project his fears and insecurities onto other groups, races, and countries. Before the white man can relate to others he must forego the pleasure of defining them. The white man must learn to stop viewing history as a plot against himself (Deloria 1970: 174).
"The only good Indian is a dead Indian" is a dead proverb. Many refuse to accept its death. They prop it up a chair, nurture it, and in so doing, diminish their own reality. The white man loses so much through his insistence on living uni-culturally in a multi-cultural society. Bury the old proverb and the hatred along with it. Let your neighbors know how inaccurate, distasteful, and unattractive their stereotypical comments of American Indians are, help them bury their hate, and give them a Tootsie Roll Pop.
Steven W. Baggs , University of South Dakota Anthropology 311,
Social Science Writing,
Dr. Brian L. Molyneaux 1 May 1997
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Washburn, Wilcomb E. (1971) Red Man's Land White Man's Law. Norman and London. University of Oklahoma Press.
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