In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Native Americans

  • Introduction

Cinema and Media Studies Native Americans
Pamela Wilson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0120


What role have fictionalized American “Indians”—and real, living, breathing Native Americans—played in America’s story about itself? Bataille 2001 (cited under Early, Colonial, and Exhibition Images of American Indians) notes that Native Americans have been mythologized by anthropologists, the tourist industry, and popular culture, which have created the “Indian that never was.” As Brian Klopotek has remarked, “The Indian—distinguished here from Native American people—is a stock character in the non-Native psyche, a metaphor rather than a fully functioning human” (Klopotek 2001, cited under Gendered Representations of Native Americans). One of the dominant, mythicized periods of American history inscribed into legend has been the frontier era and the conquest of the American West. The cultural genocide, colonization, and geographical displacement of Native tribes and peoples during America’s westward expansion was repeatedly reinterpreted and reconstructed in popular culture to create new master narratives that painted America’s indigenous peoples as noble primitives, vestiges of an earlier era whose culture was destined to die, or as bloodthirsty and amoral savages whose coexistence with the expanding American nation was not possible. In addition, as Deloria 1998, Bird 1996, Huhndorf 2001, and Chavez 2005 (all cited under Indigenous Peoples in the American Imagination) illustrate, from children’s games of “playing Indian,” Halloween costumes and Boy Scout rituals to New Age pseudo-shamans, media-constructed representations and performances of Indianness still permeate mainstream American cultural practices. In recent years, attention has been focused on new approaches, with the addition of Native American scholars adding their own perspective as well as increased attention to films, journalism, and other media written, produced, and/or directed by Native Americans—narratives that are generally not about the mythic American West but more often about contemporary lifestyles as well as issues of culture, heritage, politics, and identity. These self-inscribed representations are the subject of the second half of this bibliography. Beverly Singer emphasizes that Native Americans today are seeking to intervene in this “running narrative of conquest” and to “rectify and balance the one-sided, stock image of Indians as ignorant, distrustful, and undesirable through continued work in the film industry.” Native artists and activists have taken up the pen, the microphone, and the camera to craft both nonfiction media pieces (to inform, arouse, and persuade a larger public through journalism, broadcasting, and documentary) and fictional narrative media such as literature, feature films, television series, and video games. (For similar issues on a global scale, please see the Oxford Bibliographies article on Indigenous Media.)

Representations and Stereotyping of Native Americans in Media and Popular Culture

There is no shortage of literature about stereotypes of Native Americans in media and popular culture. In fact, there seems to be a glut of books on the topic. Ranging from historical chronicles and lists of films to scathing political analyses, these studies focus upon the ways that creators and distributors of mainstream culture and media have, over the past century or more, constructed images of Native Americans. The Western theme dominated American popular culture from the days of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows, dime-store novels, and 1930s radio dramas to the classical Hollywood Westerns in both cinema and on television, where Western series were the highest-rated programs of the late 1950s. So it is not surprising that the vast majority of images of Native Americans (fictive or real) in mainstream media during the past century have been in the context of the Western genres, and as a result, the majority of scholarly literature has focused upon the portrayal of Indians in Westerns. A smaller but significant body of scholarship has focused on gendered characterizations of Native Americans in popular culture and, in particular, the “Indian Princess” cultural myth caricatured to exaggeration in children’s films such as Disney’s Pocahontas (1995) yet still yearned for by amateur white genealogists seeking a “Cherokee princess” in their ancestries (see, e.g., Marubbio 2006 and Ono and Buescher 2001, both cited under Gendered Representations of Native Americans). The majority of these studies were written during two major periods, the 1970s and 1990s, when the attention of scholars—following a rise in public awareness and public discourse—was most focused upon providing better insights into multicultural awareness, the distinct cultures and contributions of America’s ethnic and racial groups to the larger national narrative, and especially on how the media have contributed (and continue to contribute) to generalized perceptions, misconceptions, and stereotypes about these cultural groups. The following sections provide clusters of citations that allow us to follow the trajectory of the ways that American Indians have been perceived and imaged in the national American imagination over the course of a century, from the early-20th-century representations in museum exhibitions and productions, documentaries, silent Hollywood feature films, and related genres, through the “golden age” of the Hollywood Western (on film and later on television) as well as the era of self-conscious reshaping of images of Indians in many mainstream films beginning in the 1960s.

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