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by Jasmin Diaz
Native Americans vs ColonizationSince the inception of colonization, Native Americans have suffered heavy territorial losses. A strong example being the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that forced Native Americans into reservations located in Oklahoma. (Burns). Such an act demonstrates that in the zealous and ambitious spirit of the settlers to colonize the west, the natives were cast in a lowly light being labeled as dangerous, unpredictable, and uncivilized. The stark difference in their method of living allowed for easy exploitation and propagation of these ideas to the rest of the world. This stereotype was used to justify the cruel violence exhibited towards them as they were left “...harassed, chased, bleeding and dead, with their plumage and colors despoiled.”(Burns). “The stereotype of the hostile savage helped assuage a sense of guilt which inevitably arose when men whose culture was based on the concept of private property embarked on a program to dispossess another people of their land.”(Redface). Compared to the well dressed and excessively fashion preoccupied society of the whiter hegemony, the almost bare and all too visible darker bodies of the natives were viewed as lacking in refinement. The improper and simple nature of the Indian is exemplified in the painting that follows below. Here the only individual of Native American descent is puzzled at the situation unfolding before them. All the others present have expressions showing great emotional investment in the happenings of the moment. The Indian however, is sitting down which is hinting at the lower station they occupied in early society, and the neutral, inquisitive posture conveys to the viewer the absence of reasoning on their part. Images such as this reflected the popular idea of Indians existing in another era of life and the inherent tension created by the exposure to the high class society that swept the Native Americans up into a state of confusion.
The Native American in SocietyDespite the angry and vengeful stereotype centralized around Native Americans, their stereotype carried a duality as well. This other perspective of the Indian is one that took advantage of the close relation to the land they had forged and was intricately ingrained into their culture. The wholesome, natural, and earthy vibes exuded from the Native American lifestyle was capitalized upon in order to add integrity to the ingredients of products such as cigars, butter, and beverages as seen in the image below. The individual featured is represented in a traditional head dress and surrounded by lush foliage that further demonstrates the naturalness of the Indian and by consequence, the pure origin of the product. This secondary view of natives was seen as an “alternate role model” whose strong independence allowed them to live outside the constraints of civilization.(Fleming). The double edged stigma relating to Native Americans is captured in Caitlin's letters detailing his observations stating, “...The North American Indian in his native state is, honest, hospitable, faithful, brave, war like, cruel, revengeful, relentless- yet honorable, contemplative, religious being.”(Burns). In Civilized society, the Native American is still judged by their appearance the artwork presents to the public a man who is outfitted in what appears to many at first glance a typical “street punk.” Upon closer examination however, it becomes apparent that the individual is dressed in such a manner that references to their heritage. The necklace and hairstyle call to mind Native American motifs. The image is a powerful reminder of the quickness with which we assess the identity of another because of differences and that “ Indians are submitted to a portrait process that cherishes individuality, material status, and vanity- all notions less highly regarded in Indian culture.”(Fleming).
American InfluencesThe concept of having to reform the Indian into the American mold is a “flesh-eating” disease that unfortunately took root in the minds of numerous Native Americans who went through reformation schools in order to alter their Indian skin and heritage into that of the acceptable American norm. The BIA circulated pamphlets suggesting a better life in urban areas for Native Americans.(Schwarz). Seen in the following picture, the young Indian children were educated for years in America and it resulted in them recreating themselves in the image of the average school kid with no remnant of their heritage. Schools not only attempted to change Native Americans but to also turn the image of their people into a spectacle. Sports teams have utilized the concept of the Indian as a figurehead for the team mascot. The iconic designs all feature an under dressed and painted Indian caricature. Imbuing them with hollers and circular dances. The prevalence of this image of the Indian extended into the film industry which represented Indians as “half-clothed savages, screaming war cries as they got shot off their horses by the white heroes.” (Redface). The pride derived from their culture became instead a source of embarrassment for native individuals who were constantly exposed to this prominent, skewed perspective of their tribes.
The prevalence of these stigmas surrounding Native Americans has created many hardships for them ranging from appropriation of land and culture. The forced subservience to colonizers, ridicule of their sacred garbs and rituals, and simplicity of life being mistaken for primitive savagery are all notions that have been struggled against time and time again. Regrettably most of all, the harshest difficulty imposed on this race is having trouble pinpointing a central identity because it has been torn away to such an extent, that their way of life has been reduced into a mere history lesson in the grand scheme of America’s journey to “greatness.”