- About Us
Shadows of the Indian
Stereotypes in American Culture
Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
Shadows of the Indian: Stereotypes in American Culture. By Raymond William Stedman. Foreword by Rennard Strickland. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 281 pages. $24.95.
Reviewed by Albert L. Hurtado, Lecturer, Department of History, University of Maryland, author of articles on Indian and White relations, the most recent being a study of Indian and White house-holds on the California borderland frontier in 1860, in the Western Historical Quarterly.
Raymond William Stedman wrote this book to describe and to help destroy the false images of Indians that are so pervasive in our popular culture. In his foreword, Rennard Strickland, a Cherokee and Osage lawyer, attaches an additional purpose to the book: to eliminate the racist stereotypes of Indians so that national Indian policy can "escape the baggage of the backward trap of distorted memories" (p. xiii). Shadows of the Indian belongs to the same genre as Roy Harvey Pearce's Savagism and Civilization (1965) and Robert F. Berkhofer's The White Man's Indian (1978), and Stedman takes the reader through some familiar territory. Like other authors, he traces the historical development of Indian stereotypes. Trouble began when Columbus misnamed Caribbean native people indios, believing that he had reached the East Indies. The Columbian geographical error was soon remedied, but his name for Native Americans remains with us. Through the centuries authors, playwrights, poets, screenwriters, artists and actors have embellished the popular image of the Indians. Stedman attacks Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe, Thomas Berger, Mark Twain, radio scriptwriters of "The Lone Ranger," and the authors of dozens of forgettable paperback novels. He was able to find some redeeming qualities in the work of James Fenimore Cooper, playwright J. N. Barker (The Indian Princess; or La Belle Sauvage, 1808), and screenwriter Michael Blankfort (Broken Arrow, 1950). Stedman discusses the well known list of Indian stereotypes that include (but are not limited to) Indian princesses, lusty "squaws," drunken "bucks," the "noble savage," cruel and implacable warriors, Indian rapists who covet yellow-haired maidens, and "half-breeds" torn between white civilization and a " savage" heritage. His main contribution is his discussion of recent popular fiction, films, radio and television. Indeed, in this respect, his book is a treasure trove for trivia buffs. He recounts the predictable plots of scores of grade B films and comments on the actors, directors and screenwriters who created them. To demonstrate the variety of uses for Indian stereotypes, he gives an account of Sacheen Littlefeather's appearance at the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony where she explained why Marlon Brando was not on hand to accept his award for Best Actor. He re-fused the Oscar, she said, because of Hollywood's record of portraying Indians in an unfavorable light. Few thoughtful listeners could have disagreed with that judgment, but the Academy did not appreciate having their trophy spurned and the crowd tried to shout down Brando's Indian princess surrogate. Stedman hints that Brando used Littlefeather's Indian princess image to gain sympathy for his decision and to deflect public anger. He asks rhetorically, "Did Marlon Brando, when he let the body of that lovely lass in her long braids shield him from the blows of a hostile audience, choose the most irresistible of all Indian images?" (p. 31). The reader is left to wonder about Brando's motivations.
Stedman likewise presents a detailed examination of the paperback novels with Indian characters which appeared in the 1950s and 60s. Not only does he analyze personalities who appear in the text, he describes the images that appeared on the covers. The plots were often thinly veiled devices which used male and female Indian stereotypes as titillating sexual objects. All of this shows that stereotypes of Indians remain persistent in the popular culture of white America. For those who are not able to recognize dehumanizing stereotypes on their own, Stedman provides a few guidelines for readers and viewers who should ask: Is the vocabulary demeaning? Do the Indians talk like Tonto? Do the Indians belong to the feather-bonnet tribe? Are comic interludes built upon firewater and stupidity? Are the Indians portrayed as an extinct species? Are the Indians either noble or savage? Is the tone patronizing? Is Indian humanness recognized? These questions seem obvious and con-descending, but Shadows of the Indians shows that the persistence of demeaning Indian stereotypes is a continuing problem that demands the attention of everyone who writes and reads about Indian people. We should do away with these racist images. Will Sampson, an Indian actor portraying a television sheriff, put it best when he finally tired of the Lone Ranger-Tonto jokes of his white deputy. "Hey . . . Buck," he sighed. "That's enough . . . NO more."