Shadows of the Indian: Stereotypes in American Culture

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The Indian of popular culture has never existed anywhere -except in imagination. Nonetheless, these illusory Indians are so authentic to most Americans that no alternate images are acceptable. Even in recent decades, when increased awareness to the sensitivities of minority groups has become more prevalent, the Indian has not benefited as much as might be expected, perhaps because the Indian is seen as almost a mythic figure.

Raymond William Stedman examines the emergence of this figure from the first contact with white men, when the Indian was viewed as a "curiosity," through various incarnations that included the Noble Savage and, to the Puritans, almost a Satanic presence lurking in the woods.

From the time of Pocahontas and her legendary rescue of John Smith from beheading, the Indian maiden has stood for an idealized womanhood, lovely, compassionate -and ready to sacrifice her own feelings should she find herself in competition with a white woman for a white man. Either all Indian women are "princesses" -or they are beneath notice as "squaws." The Indian male, on the other hand, has been seen as a more straightforward sexual threat, wild, virile, and lusting after white women. As a companion, he can be loyal to his white friend, but rarely is he treated as an equal.

The stereotype of the "savage Indian" is easily recognized. The shock value of a raised hatchet or a flaming arrow was quickly realized, and never forgotten. Scalping-brutality-torture, the images abound. But it did not take long for the commercially minded to realize that "tame" Indians could sell merchandise. In the medicine shows of America, feathered "chiefs" were there in person to do the selling -and their images still hawk products today on the printed page or television screen.

Drawing upon multiple areas of literature, art, and popular culture, Stedman isolates the pervasive themes and counterfeit images attached to the American Indian. It is his contention that from the stereotype of a wooden, solemn "noble elder," as the object of sexual fantasies, the butt of demeaning ethnic jokes, and sentimentalization as the ultimate servant-companion, American culture rarely portrayed the Indian as he really is but presented instead a distorted, false shadow. 
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