Stereotypes about indigenous peoples of North America

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Stereotypes about indigenous peoples of North America are a particular kind of ethnic stereotypes found both in North America, as well as elsewhere. Indigenous peoples of the Americas include Inuit, Iñupiat, Cup'ik/Yup'ik peoples and American Indians, commonly called Native Americans or First Nations (in Canada).[1] This article primarily discusses stereotypes present in Canadian and American culture. There are more numerous and varied stereotypes about indigenous peoples than about any other ethnic group in the Americas. While some of the worst portrayals of natives as bloodthirsty savages have disappeared, oversimplified or inaccurate portrayals remain, particularly in movies, which are the main source of popular images not only in the Americas but world-wide.[2]

The stereotyping of Native Americans must be understood in the context of history which includes conquest, forced relocation, and organized efforts to eradicate native cultures, such as the boarding schools of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which separated young Native Americans from their families in order educate them as Euro-Americans.[3] "Since the first Europeans made landfall in North America, native peoples have suffered under a weltering array of stereotypes, misconceptions and caricatures. Whether portrayed as noble savages, ignoble savages or, most recently, simply as casino-rich, native peoples find their efforts to be treated with a measure of respect and integrity undermined by images that flatten complex tribal, historical and personal experience into one-dimensional representations that tells us more about the depicters than about the depicted." - Carter Meland (Anishinaabe heritage) and David E. Wilkins (Lumbee), professors of Native American Studies at the University of Minnesota [4]

Ethnic terminology[edit]

The first difficulty in addressing stereotypes is the terminology to use when referring to indigenous peoples, which is an ongoing controversy. The truly stereotype-free names would be those of individual tribes. Based upon the practical need to have a way to refer to people with common issues is the use of American Indian or Native American in the United States, First Nations or Canadian Indian in Canada.[1] The Inuit and Eskimo peoples (never referred to as Indians) are distinct and have their own unique stereotypes.

All global terminology must be used with an awareness of the stereotype that "Indians" are a single people, when in fact there were, and continue to be hundreds of individual ethnic groups native to the Americas. This type of awareness is obvious when Euro-Americans refer to Europeans with an understanding that there are some similarities, but many differences between the peoples of an entire continent.[2]

American Indians / Native Americans[edit]

Stereotypes may be grouped with regard to different characteristics: physical, cultural, and historical.

Physical characteristics[edit]

Native Americans are perceived as having one identical look, one certain shade of skin color as well as having only straight, black hair. [5] The assertion that Native Americans cannot grow facial hair is a common misconception and stereotype. [6] [7] [8] The common explanation for this "miracle" is that they tear out their beards until they stop growing at all. To a large extent, these stereotypes are based on famous stories by Karl May ("Winnetou"), a German teacher who wrote innumerable novels about Native Americans in the 19th century. Interestingly, May had never seen Native Americans with his own eyes. [9]

An example of physical stereotyping guiding behavior occurred during the 2012 campaign for US Senate in Massachusetts, when supporters of Sen. Scott P. Brown used the tomahawk chop and war whoops to express their derision of his opponent Elizabeth Warren for claiming Cherokee and Delaware ancestry. European Americans thus feel justified in judging the right of an individual to claim Indian identity not based upon reality, but based upon their own stereotypes of what an Indian looks like. "To mock real Indians by chanting like Hollywood Indians in order to protest someone you claim is not Indian at all gets very confusing."[10]

Cultural misconceptions[edit]

The Media Awareness Network of Canada (MNet) has prepared a number of statements about the portrayals of American Indians, First Nations of Canada and Alaskan Natives in the media. Westerns and documentaries have tended to portray Natives in stereotypical terms: the wise elder, the aggressive drunk, the Indian princess, the loyal sidekick, obese and impoverished. These images have become known across North America. Stereotyped issues include simplistic characterizations, romanticizing of Native culture and stereotyping by omission—showing American Indians in a historical rather than modern context.[11]

Native Americans were also portrayed as fierce warriors and braves, often appearing in school sports teams' names until such team names fell into disfavor in the later 20th century. Many school team names have been revised to reflect current sensibilities, though professional teams such as American football's Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins, baseball's Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians, and ice hockey's Chicago Blackhawks continue. Some controversial upper-level Native American team mascots such as Chief Noc-A-Homa and Chief Illiniwek have been discontinued; others like Chief Wahoo and Chief Osceola and Renegade remain. A controversy over the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo was resolved in 2012.

The use of Geronimo as the code name for Osama bin Laden in the operation that killed him is seen by some Native Americans as the continued stereotyping of Indians.[12]

Native American women are perceived as being sexually available and willing to have intercourse with any and every man. Such misconceptions lead to murder, rape and violence of Native American women and girls by non-Native men.[citation needed]


Indians are stereotyped as having no religion (being "heathen", not Christian).[2]

Native Americans are perceived as worshiping objects and beings they consider sacred.[citation needed]

Substance abuse[edit]

Because of the high frequency of alcoholism among some Indians and reservations, a stereotype has been applied to all American Indians. As with most groups, the incidence of substance abuse is related to issues of poverty and mental distress, both of which may be, in part, the result of racial stereotyping and discrimination.[13] Treatment for substance abuse by Native Americans is more effective when it is community-based, and addresses the issues of cultural identification.[14]

Historical misconceptions[edit]

There are numerous distortions of history, many of which continue as stereotypes.

  1. Most of the indigenous peoples died from diseases to which they had no immunity
  2. There were a number of advanced civilization in the Americans,[15] but they did lack two important resources: a pack animal large enough to carry a human; and the ability to make steel for tools and weapons.[16]

Today, Native Americans are perceived as becoming rich because of gaming revenues. Not all tribes own tribal gaming operations/establishments and many tribal groups have issues on not everyone of their tribal ancestry being able to obtain paychecks if they can't prove their tribal membership roll.[citation needed]

Inuit stereotypes[edit]

Inuit or Eskimo people are usually dressed in parkas, paddling kayaks, carving out trinkets, living in igloos, going fishing with a harpoon, hunting whales, traveling by sleigh and huskies, eating cod-liver oil and the men are called Nanook in reference to the documentary Nanook of the North. Eskimo children may have a seal for a best friend.

Eskimos are often believed to have an unusually large number of words for snow. This is however, an urban legend.[17]

Eskimos are sometimes shown rubbing each other's noses together as some sort of greeting ritual (Eskimo kissing). They're also often depicted surrounded by polar bears, walruses and inaccurately, with penguins, which only live in the Southern hemisphere and not in the Arctic. Sometimes Eskimos themselves are depicted living on the South Pole, which is again wrong for the same reason.

Effect of stereotyping[edit]

Stereotypes harm both the victims and those that perpetuate them, with effects of the society at large. Victims suffer the emotional distress; anger, frustration, insecurity, and feelings of hopelessness. Most of all, Indian children exposed at an early age internalize stereotypes, resulting in lower self-esteem, contributing to all of the other problems faced by Native Americans. Stereotypes become discrimination when the assumptions of being more prone to violence and alcoholism limit job opportunities. This leads directly to Indians being viewed less stable economically, making it more difficult for those that have succeeded to fully enjoy the benefits is the same way that non-Indians do, such as obtaining credit. For those that maintain them, stereotypes prevent learning the truth about Indians and the true history of the United States.[2]

Research also demonstrates the harm done to society by stereotyping of any kind. Two studies examined the effect of exposure to an American Indian sports mascot on the tendency to endorse stereotypes of a different minority group. A study was first done at the University of Illinois, and then replicated at The College of New Jersey with the same results. Students were given a paragraph to read about Chief Illiniwek adapted from the University of Illinois' official website; while the control group was given a description of an arts center. In both studies the students exposed to the sports mascot were more likely to express stereotypical views of Asian-Americans. Although Chief Illiniwek was described only in terms of positive characteristics (as a respectful symbol, not a mascot), the stereotyping of Asian-Americans included negative characteristics, such as being "socially inept". This was indicative of a spreading effect; exposure to any stereotypes increased the likelihood of stereotypical thinking.[18][19]

In Alabama, at a game between the Pinson Valley High School "Indians" and McAdory High School, the latter team displayed a banner using a disparaging reference to the Trail of Tears for which the principle of the school apologized to Native Americans, stated that the cheerleader squad responsible would be disciplined, and that all students would be given a lesson on the actual history of the Trail of Tears. Native Americans responded that it was an example of the continuing insensitivity and stereotyping of Indians in America. [20] [21]

Overcoming stereotypes[edit]

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) made efforts to improve the portrayals of Aboriginal people in its television dramas. Spirit Bay, The Beachcombers, North of 60 and The Rez used Native actors to portray their own people, living real lives and earning believable livelihoods in identifiable parts of the country.

Unfortunately the mainstream media make a lot of money making movies that play along with stereotypes; while accurate portrayals may be critically acclaimed they are not often made or widely distributed.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Walter C. Fleming (November 7, 2006). "Myths and Stereotypes About Native Americans". PHI DELTA KAPPAN. Retrieved February 14, 2011. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Devon A. Mihesuah (1996). American Indians: Stereotypes and Realities. Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press, Inc. ISBN 0-932863-22-1. 
  3. ^ "APA Resolution Justifications". American Psychological Association. 2005. Retrieved 2013-01-21. 
  4. ^ CARTER MELAND and DAVID E. WILKINS (November 22, 2012). "Stereotypes in sports, chaos in federal policy". The Star Tribune. Retrieved 2013-01-30. 
  5. ^ "Native American Hairstyles". Native Languages of the Americas website © 1998-2009. Retrieved 2011-01-21. 
  6. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions - Page 2". WWW Virtual Library - American Indians, Index of Native American Resources on the Internet. Retrieved 2008-05-08. 
  7. ^ "Iroquois History". Jordan S. Dill. Retrieved 2008-05-08. 
  8. ^ "Idaho Natives: American movies help perpetuate European stereotypes". Idaho Natives. Retrieved 2011-01-21. 
  9. ^ "Idaho Natives: American movies help perpetuate European stereotypes". Idaho Natives. Retrieved 2011-01-21. 
  10. ^ TREUER, DAVID (September 29, 2012). "Kill the Indians, Then Copy Them". The New York Times. Retrieved 01/28/2013. 
  11. ^ "Common Portrayals of Aboriginal People". MediaSmarts. Retrieved 10/28/2013. 
  12. ^ Allie Townsend (May 03, 2011). "Why ‘Geronimo?’ For Some, Bin Laden Code Name Holds Anti-Native American Implications". Time Magazine. Retrieved 11/07/2013. 
  13. ^ Fred Beauvais, Ph.D. (1998). "American Indians and Alcohol". Alcohol Health & Research World 22 (4). 
  14. ^ Elizabeth H. Hawkins; Lillian H. Cummins; G. Alan Marlatt (2004). "Preventing Substance Abuse in American Indian and Alaska Native Youth:Promising Strategies for Healthier Communities". Psychological Bulletin (American Psychological Association, Inc.) 130 (2): 304–323. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.130.2.304. 
  15. ^ Charles C. Mann (2005). 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Knopf. ISBN 1-4000-3205-9. 
  16. ^ Diamond, J. (March 1997). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-03891-2. 
  17. ^ Geoffrey K. Pullum (9 July 1991). The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-68534-2. Retrieved 3 January 2013. 
  18. ^ Kim-Prieto, Chu (03/2010). "Effect of Exposure to an American Indian Mascot on the Tendency to Stereotype a Different Minority Group". Journal of Applied Social Psychology 40 (3): 534. 
  19. ^ Vedantam, Shankar (March 25, 2010). "Native American imagery as sports mascots: A new problem". Psychology Today. Retrieved 02/05/2013. 
  20. ^ Simon Moya-Smith (11/18/2013). "Alabama principal apologizes for 'Trail of Tears' banner at high school football game". NBC News. 
  21. ^ Evan Bleier (November 19, 2013). "McAdory High School in Alabama apologizes for 'Trail of Tears' sign". UPI. 

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