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American Indians: The Image of the Indian

Brian W. Dippie
Department of History
University of Victoria, British Columbia
©National Humanities Center

An early twentieth-century elementary school textbook quizzed pupils on their grasp of the lesson devoted to American Indians. It was a time of unblushing certainty about the superiority of civilization to “savagery.” “In what three ways were the Indians different from the white men,” the school text asked, and “What did the white people think of the Indians?” Judging from related questions, the correct answer was that the Indians were strange:

What was one of the strangest things that the Indians did?
What strange things did the Indians believe about spirits?
What strange things did the Indians do to drive the evil spirits away?

Today it is difficult even to talk about the racial stereotypes once so confidently assumed. Stereotyping as a subject for study may be historical, but the emotions it arouses are eminently present day.

Whether we use terms like image, stereotype or construct, we are talking about the same thing: ideas about a particular group that serve to characterize all the individuals within that group. Certain ideas entrench themselves as fundamental, and the rule of thumb is that such ideas are invariably self-serving—they promote the interests of the group that holds them, and they form the reality upon which that group acts.

It is a given today that the idea of the American Indian has been historically significant. It shaped the attitudes of those in the nineteenth century who shaped Indian policy. Indian policy—be it removal of the Eastern tribes in the 1830s, reservation isolationism beginning in the 1850s, or allotment of reservation lands and assimilation in the 1880s—cannot be understood without an awareness of the ideas behind it. Literature and the visual arts provide revealing guides to nineteenth-century assumptions about the Indian.

Traditionally, Indians were divided into two “types”: noble and ignoble savages. The Indian woman was either a princess or a drudge, the Indian man an admirable brave or a fiendish warrior. These venerable images, dating back to the earliest European contact with American natives, found their most influential literary expression in James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel Last of the Mohicans. Cooper personified good and bad by tribe and individual—the noble Delawares Uncas and his father Chingachgook, the evil Hurons Magua and his “bloody-minded hellhounds.” Lasting influence? Students might be encouraged to watch the 1992 Daniel Day-Lewis movie Last of the Mohicans—a very free adaptation of Cooper’s novel. Better yet, have them watch Dances with Wolves. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1990, and was a crowd favorite. Besides a sympathetic white hero in line with Cooper’s own Natty Bumppo, it starkly contrasts “good” Indians (the ever-so-noble Lakotas) and “bad” Indians (the villainous Pawnees, with their roach-cuts and face paint making them look like English “punks” on a rampage).

The stark contrast between the noble and ignoble savage obscures their common denominator: savagery. Savagery referred to a state of social development below civilization and, in some calculations, below an intermediate step, barbarism. Since savagery was inferior to civilization, the reasoning went; a savage was naturally inferior to a civilized person. The noble savage might be admired for certain rude virtues, and the ignoble savage deplored as brutal and bloody-minded, but the fate of each was identical. In time, both would vanish from the face of the earth as civilization, in accordance with the universal law of progress, displaced savagery. The ending of Dances with Wolves echoes this sentiment as an admirable culture, unaware of inexorable fate, is about to be swept away by a more progressive but less admirable one.

Swept away. Such was the theory of the Vanishing American. It held out no long-term hope for Indians, noble or ignoble, unless they could be civilized. Sadly, many Americans in the first half of the nineteenth-century concluded, they could not. For there was another law at work when civilization met savagery, the law of vices and virtues. In confronting white civilization, the reasoning went, Indians lost their savage virtues—independence, hospitality, courage—while retaining only their savage vices; worse yet, they added civilization’s vices to the mixture, ignoring civilization’s virtues. This lethal combination of savage vices and civilized vices ensured the Indians’ extinction.

The artist George Catlin (1796–1872), who based his entire body of work—including over 500 paintings done in the 1830s and several books recounting his travels—on the theory of the Vanishing American, provided a vivid description of the process at work:

In traversing the immense regions of the Classic West, the mind of a Philanthropist is filled to the brim with feelings of admiration; but to reach this country, one is obliged to descend from the light and glow of civilized atmosphere, through the different grades of civilization, which gradually sink to the most deplorable vice and darkness along our frontier; thence through the most pitiable misery and wretchedness of savage degradation, where the genius of natural liberty and independence have been blasted and destroyed by the contaminating vices and dissipations of civilized society. Through this dark and sunken vale of wretchedness one hurries as through a pestilence, until he gradually rises again into the proud and heroic elegance of savage society, in a state of pure and original nature, beyond the reach of civilized contamination … Even here, the predominant passions of the savage breast, of treachery and cruelty, are often found, yet restrained and frequently subdued by the noblest traits of honor and magnanimity,—a race of men who live and enjoy life and its luxuries, and practice its virtues, very far beyond the usual estimations of the world … From the first settlements of our Atlantic coast to the present day, the bane of this blasting frontier has regularly crowded upon them, from the northern to the southern extremities of our country, and, like the fire in a mountain, which destroys every thing where it passes, it has blasted and sunk them, and all but their names, into oblivion, wherever it has traveled.

Pigeon’s Egg Head (The Light) going to
and returning from Washington

Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Institute
Alcohol symbolized the fatal exchange: it turned once noble savages into “the poor, degraded, and humbled specimens which alone can be seen along our frontiers.” Resistance was futile. Should the Indians accept the inevitable and embrace civilization, they would be destroyed by its vices; should they resist civilization and go to war, they would be destroyed by its avenging sword.

Not everyone accepted such a grim prognosis. Missionaries always rejected the notion of a race created for extinction, and insisted that substituting good example for bad would find the Indians’ gratefully embracing civilization’s virtues and spurning its vices. Even Catlin held out hope. “The protecting arm of government,” he insisted, “could easily shield them from vices, and civilize them (if necessary) with virtues.” Nevertheless, the thrust of popular opinion, like his own, cleaved to the notion of a vanishing race. “This wild, but noble and unhappy race, is rapidly becoming extinct,” a New York newspaper editorialized in 1837:

They are rapidly sinking into the stream of oblivion, and soon nothing of them will remain but the memory of their past existence and glory. Where are now the descendants of Powhattan, the father of Pocahontas, or Tamenend and of Pontiac? Alas! They are blotted from the face of the earth, or swallowed up in the remnants of other tribes.

Science buttressed popular understanding of the Indian. In the middle of the nineteenth century, polygenesis—the theory of multiple creation of human “types”—provided a race-based explanation for permanent differences in racial capacity, thereby reinforcing notions about the incompatibility of savagery and civilization. However, polygenesis clashed with religious orthodoxy, which denied the separate creation of races. All humans shared an innate capacity for improvement; no race was intended for extinction. Later, evolutionary theorists, in advancing the case for survival of the fittest, gave new credence to the tradition of the Vanishing Indian, since there had to be losers as well as winners in the struggle for survival.

[Title Page] Colton’s
American Atlas

JH Colton, New York, 1855.

Images/descriptions provided by—Barry Lawrence
Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.
Artists after Catlin also doted on this theme. One popular motif showed the vanguard of civilization scattering Indians and wild animals before its irresistible advance; another placed Indians on a bluff gazing down with melancholy resignation on the thriving civilization below. Progress had made them outcasts in their own land. As for the contrasting images of noble and ignoble savage, expansion rendered the former something of an Eastern monopoly, the latter a Western one, while the Vanishing American subsumed both.

The Course of Empire,
from Harper’s New Monthly
, June 1867.
Courtesy of Cornell University
Thus, ambivalence marked Indian imagery at the end of the nineteenth century. In the long struggle for mastery of the continent, the image of the bloody savage had always qualified any regret occasioned by the passing of the noble savage. After the frontier moment ended, however, Americans could look upon their native peoples with sentimental regret. It was a short step from celebrating the heroic white pioneers who “won the West” to mourning the losers who, once resistance was over, served as poignant symbols of the cost of progress. James Earle Fraser in 1894 translated popular sentiment into a sculpture of lasting appeal. End of the Trail shows a mounted Plains Indian, head bowed, shoulders slumped, his spear pointing at the ground, resigned to his fate, which was that of his race. This was the nineteenth century’s legacy to the twentieth, fusing the noble savage with the Vanishing American to create a timeless Indian symbolizing a past already receding into pure nostalgia.

Guiding Student Discussion

Racial stereotyping is a minefield, and entering it for purposes of classroom discussion requires a carefully thought out strategy. The truth is that students are often impatient with the past. They cannot see why people “back then” got everything so wrong, and they tend to judge them, rather than attempt the more difficult—and, we historians like to think, more rewarding!—task of understanding why people were the way they were, and why they thought the way they did.

In order to discuss historical stereotypes, you have to introduce students to them. This runs the risk of coming across as advocacy. Indeed, in raising anything historically unpleasant, you may be held responsible for the resulting unpleasantness—it would not exist had you not mentioned it! Having introduced stereotypes, you are left to deal with them. Outright condemnation is easy, since it conforms to what students already think. Anything more challenging runs even greater risks.

Let me (literally!) illustrate the problem. You want to talk about stereotypes of African Americans and American Indians, so you show your class a cartoon of an African American eating watermelon and a photograph of a cigar store Indian. If your point is simply that these images prove the ignorance of EuroAmericans in the past, then you will have no controversy. If you introduce the same images to probe the underlying values of a society that considered them acceptable, then you invite controversy. Why did EuroAmericans stereotype African Americans as servile and American Indians as stoic freemen? And to what ends? What use did the EuroAmerican majority have for each race? The labor of one, of course, and the land of the other. How would those different uses shape stereotypes? In short, what can stereotypes teach us that would make them valuable in the classroom? What can they tell us beyond the obvious?

Students may remain un-persuaded. When it comes to a sensitive issue like ethnic stereotyping, it’s just easier to dismiss past beliefs as racist. What else is there to say? Why study the attitudes of another age if, by our standards today, they were deplorable?

The answer is in that qualifier—“by our standards today.” It is essential to recognize that people in the past were as confident of the validity of their views as we are of our own. Moral certainty underlay their actions, too. Far from being illogical, they were, according to their lights, entirely logical! And that’s a good departure point for discussion. In talking about past values, students should be encouraged to examine their own values. How are attitudes formed? How do we know what we know? How does experience shape our views? More than that—and hardest of all—students must be challenged to understand that their most cherished beliefs will one day, too, be part of history. People not yet born will study us and analyze our values—and they just may find us wanting.

Far from making us feel superior, then, history should chasten us. The past has been described as a foreign country. We must visit it with open minds and all due respect for its customs, eager to learn, not simply to judge. Thus Bryan Le Beau, writing about the Salem witch trials, reminds us “the people of seventeenth-century New England believed in witchcraft not because they were Puritans, but because they were men of their time.” And James McPherson, reviewing a book condemning Abraham Lincoln as a racist, observes that Lincoln “shared many of the racist convictions of his time,” but considered slavery “morally wrong” and was able “to transcend his prejudices and to preside over the greatest social revolution in American history, the liberation of four million slaves.” People from the past will never conform to present-day standards; if we would understand them, we must grant them their own worldview in order to evaluate their actions and to draw the critical distinctions that are the heart and soul of history.

Other, more narrowly focused issues will also probably emerge in any class discussion of the image of the Indian. Students like to distinguish “good” from “bad”. Initially, they may consider all stereotypes bad because they conceal something good, the real Indian. Two lines of questioning suggest themselves:

First, what was/is the “real” Indian? Do we define an Indian racially, by “blood quantum”? Or by an allegiance to traditional culture? Or by federal status (reservation/nonreservation)? How do we define a “real” Indian?

Second, are some stereotypes more acceptable than others? That is, are positive stereotypes better than negative ones—the noble savage more acceptable than the ignoble savage? It’s here that Dances with Wolves can be helpful. Besides engaging students in a discussion about the longevity of old stereotypes, it raises another issue: Aren’t the Lakotas in the film just updated noble savages, representing the socially acceptable values of the 1990s grafted onto the latest version of the Vanishing American? Just because the Lakotas get to be the good guys in Dances with Wolves, is it okay to stereotype them-or to see them off with tear-dimmed eyes at movie’s end as, faithful to the tradition of the vanishing race, they await the destruction of their way of life?

Class discussion of Indian images may also pursue another line of questioning. Granted stereotypes like the noble and ignoble savage and the Vanishing American, who, in particular, believed them—and how do you show that they believed them? Citing a few heavyweight thinkers proves little, and smacks of elitism. How about ordinary people? What did they think—and how do we know? Here the popular culture of any given period is relevant. Today we would look at the electronic media, films, music, etc.; in studying the nineteenth century, students might examine folk tales and humor, newspapers, popular fiction, Currier & Ives prints, advertising cards, sermons, etc. At the very least, the sheer pervasiveness of the major Indian stereotypes in popular culture will be a revelation to most students.

Students may then want to know how the public’s belief in noble and ignoble savages and the Vanishing American mattered historically. Given that people held certain views about Indians, So what? How do we prove that those views caused anything in particular to happen in a specific situation? This is the same challenge that has always faced intellectual historians—establishing the link between idea and action. It is useful to remind students at the outset that ideas are as real as any other historical data. Since history itself is a mental exercise, the historian can hardly deny people in the past a fully active mental life of their own. As a general proposition, what people believe explains what they do. When, for example, Congressmen in the nineteenth century debated Indian affairs and referred to the bloody savage to promote an aggressive policy, or talked about a noble race that had been dispossessed to advocate a humanitarian policy, we can see a belief system at work with direct, practical consequences.

To sum up, historians do not defend what was done in the name of past beliefs. They are not apologists or advocates. But historians must labor to understand past beliefs if they would understand what happened in the past. Ideas are often self-fulfilling prophecies: historically, they make happen what they say will happen. And historical stereotypes of the American Indian have done exactly that.

Historians Debate

Almost fifty years ago, Roy Harvey Pearce, a literary scholar, in his book The Savages of America: A Study of the Indian and the Idea of Civilization (1953; rev. ed., Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind, 1965), stated the assumption still fundamental to any examination of the image of the American Indian. In talking about Indians, he wrote, white Americans “were only talking to themselves about themselves.” Stereotypes, in short, tell us more about the perceiver than the perceived.

Every historical study of Indian images since has worked a variation on Pearce’s premise, be it “the white man’s Indian” (Robert Berkhofer, The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present [1978]), “the Vanishing American” (Brian W. Dippie, The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy [1982]), “the invented Indian” (James Clifton, ed., The Invented Indian: Cultural Fictions and Government Policies [1990]), “the imaginary Indian” (Daniel Francis, The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture [1992]), or “the constructed Indian” (Elizabeth S. Bird, ed., Dressing in Feathers: The Construction of the Indian in American Popular Culture [1996]). Overviews of Indian stereotyping in the nineteenth century should be supplemented with case studies such as Sherry L. Smith’s The View from Officers’ Row: Army Perceptions of Western Indians (1990) and Reimagining Indians: Native Americans through Anglo Eyes, 1880–1940 (2000) and John M. Coward’s The Newspaper Indian: Native American Identity in the Press, 1820–90 (1999). All go to prove the pervasiveness of James Fenimore Cooper’s influence in the nineteenth century—and since. Many Westerners (and some army officers), for example, fancied themselves realists when it came to Indians, and routinely denounced Cooper’s Uncas and the whole sentimental tradition of the noble savage as a palpable fiction—even as they embraced Magua and the ignoble savage as unvarnished truth!

Historians have given particular attention to the “So what?” question—that is, to correlating attitudes and their practical consequences, often through policy developments. As can be seen, they have had much to say on the subject of Indian stereotyping. But because of the seminal influence of Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans in giving memorable form to the noble savage, bloody savage and the Vanishing American, students of American literature continue to lead the way in probing Indian stereotypes. A readable, accessible book is Louise K. Barnett’s The Ignoble Savage: American Literary Racism, 1790–1890 (1975). It, and Richard Slotkin’s seminal work fusing literature and history, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860 (1973), point the way to recent “cultural studies” offering sometimes imaginative, sometimes tendentious readings of literary texts that advance the “postcolonialist” critique of American culture. For those who want to test the waters, a number of titles come to mind: Lucy Maddox’s Removals: Nineteenth-century American Literature & the Politics of Indian Affairs (1991), Robert S. Tilton’s Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative (1994), Cheryl Walker’s Indian Nation: Native American Literature and 19th-Century Nationalisms (1997), Susan Scheckel’s The Insistence of the Indian: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth-century American Culture (1998) and Renee L. Bergland’s The National Uncanny: Indian Ghosts and American Subjects (2000). Martin Barker and Roger Sabin’s The Lasting of the Mohicans: History of an American Myth (1995) documents the growth industry created by one novel over the years, while Alan Trachtenberg’s Shades of Hiawatha: Staging Indians, Making Americans, 1880–1930 (2004) uses the most famous Indian poem ever written, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Hiawatha (1855), as a launching pad for a broad-gauged investigation of Indian and immigrant stereotypes in the twentieth century.

The image of the Indian in art has been comparatively neglected. Two illustrated essays provide different interpretations. Julie Schimmel’s “Inventing ‘the Indian,’” in William Truettner, ed., The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier (1991), stresses the construction of the “Indian” in nineteenth-century art, while Brian Dippie’s “The Moving Finger Writes: Western Art and the Dynamics of Change,” in Jules Prown, et al., Discovered Lands, Invented Pasts: Transforming Visions of the American West (1992), focuses on visual representations of the fate of the Indian. Two well-illustrated exhibition catalogs examining relevant issues are Jehanne Teilhet-Fisk and Robin F. Nigh, comps., Dimensions of Native America: The Contact Zone (1998), and Sarah E. Boehme, et al., Powerful Images: Portrayals of Native America (1998).  Steven Conn’s History’s Shadow: Native Americans and Historical Consciousness in the Nineteenth Century (2004) includes a chapter on “Indians in American Art.”

There has been a growth industry in Edward S. Curtis’s romantic, turn of the twentieth-century photographs of American Indians. Barbara Davis’s Edward S. Curtis: The Life and Times of a Shadow Catcher (1985) is the most substantial of the many Curtis picture books, and students always enjoy looking at his work. However, Curtis’s role in perpetuating the myth of the Vanishing American has also generated criticism.  Christopher M. Lyman’s The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions: Photographs of Indians by Edward S. Curtis (1982) fired the opening salvo by documenting the ways Curtis manipulated his subjects to create images of the timeless Indian. Paula Fleming and Judith Luskey’s Grand Endeavors of American Indian Photography (1993) is useful for placing Curtis in context, while Mick Gidley’s Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, Incorporated (1998) analyzes Curtis’s commercial strategies in producing his photographic record of the Western tribes. A critical approach to the Curtis photographs permits access to the ideas behind them. Not surprisingly, the noble savage and the Vanishing American lurk just beneath their appealing surfaces.

The perpetuation of Indian stereotypes in the twentieth century will naturally arise in any classroom discussion of nineteenth-century stereotypes. Students invariably turn to film, television, and music as sources for their own ideas, and I have already mentioned the usefulness of a film like Dances with Wolves in stimulating interest. Consequently, the literature on cinema as a source for Indian stereotypes may prove relevant. The most recent studies (with up-to-date bibliographies) are Peter Rollins and John O’Connor’s Hollywood’s Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film (1998), Jacquelyn Kilpatrick’s Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film (1999), and Armando José Prats’ Invisible Natives: Myth and Identity in the American Western (2002). More broadly, twentieth-century popular culture and the Indian figure into the Elizabeth Bird anthology Dressing in Feathers, as well as Rennard Strickland’s Tonto’s Revenge: Reflections on American Indian Culture and Policy (1997), Ward Churchill’s polemical Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema, and the Colonization of American Indians (1998), and Philip J. Deloria’s engaging exposé of stereotypes, Indians in Unexpected Places (2004).

But in bringing the subject of Indian stereotypes in literature and art up to the present, it seems to me useful to end with something else—the contemporary American Indian voice. Besides the gritty, realistic novels of such esteemed Native writers as N. Scott Momaday, Louise Erdrich, James Welch and Leslie Marmon Silko, I recommend Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), a collection of short stories that keep an eagle eye on some of the absurdities of Indian stereotyping, and that served as the basis for Smoke Signals (1998), another film your students should see. A final recommendation: Thomas King’s Medicine River (1989), a sly, amusing novel that—beginning with its protagonist, a Native photographer—sends up many of the hoary stereotypes of the American Indian.

Brian W. Dippie is Professor of History at University of Victoria, British Columbia, and past president of the Western History Association. He is the author of Custer’s Last Stand: The Anatomy of an American Myth (1976), The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy (1982), Catlin and His Contemporaries: The Politics of Patronage (1990), and The Frederic Remington Art Museum Collection (2001). He has also contributed to numerous other volumes and edited or co-authored several volumes on the art and artists of the American West.

Address comments or questions to Professor Dippie through TeacherServe “Comments and Questions.”

Illustration credits

To cite this essay:
Dippie, Brian W. “American Indians: The Image of the Indian.” Nature Transformed, TeacherServe®. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY. <>


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