5 Common Indigenous Stereotypes in Film and Television

Pocahontas
Walt Disney Pictures

The 2013 remake of “The Lone Ranger,” featuring Indigenous sidekick Tonto (Johnny Depp), renewed concerns about whether the media promotes stereotypical images of Indigenous peoples. In film and television, Indigenous tribal members have long been portrayed as people of few words with magical powers.

Often the Indigenous characters in Hollywood are dressed as “warriors,” which perpetuates the false notion that tribal members are savages. On the other hand, Indigenous women are often depicted as beautiful maidens who are available to White men. Collectively, the stereotypical images of Indigenous peoples in Hollywood continue to influence public perception of this long misrepresented group.

Beautiful Maidens

While the media often portrays Indigenous men as warriors and medicine men, their female counterparts are typically portrayed as beautiful objects of desire. This maiden stereotype can be found in Land O’ Lakes butter product labels and promotions, Hollywood’s various representations of “Pocahontas,” and Gwen Stefani’s controversial portrayal of an Indigenous princess for No Doubt’s 2012 music video for “Looking Hot.”

Indigenous author Sherman Alexie tweeted that with the video No Doubt turned “500 years of colonialism into a silly dance song and fashion show.”

Representations of Indigenous women as universally promiscuous beings or objects of sexual desire for White men have serious real-world consequences. In fact, Indigenous women suffer from high rates of sexual assaults, often perpetrated by non-Indigenous men.

According to the book Feminisms and Womanisms: A Women’s Studies Reader, Indigenous girls are also often subjected to derogatory sexual comments.

“Whether princess or squaw, Native femininity is sexualized,” writes Kim Anderson in the book. “This understanding finds its way into our lives and our communities. Sometimes, it means constantly having to fend off the advances of people with an appetite for the ‘Other.’ It may involve a continual struggle to resist crass, sexualized interpretations of one’s being…”

'Stoic Indians'

Unsmiling Indigenous peoples who speak few words can be found in classical cinema as well as in cinema of the 21st century. This representation of Indigenous tribal members paints them as one-dimensional people who lack the ability to experience or display a similar range of emotions as other racial groups.

Adrienne Keene of the Native Appropriations blog says that portrayals of Indigenous peoples as stoic can largely be traced to the pictures of Edward Curtis, who photographed tribal members in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“The common theme throughout Edward Curtis’s portraits is stoicism,” Keene explains. “None of his subjects smile. Ever. …To anyone who has spent any time with Indians, you know that the ‘stoic Indian’ stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth. Natives joke, tease, and laugh more than anyone I know—I often leave Native events with my sides hurting from laughing so much.”

Magical Medicine Men

Indigenous males are often portrayed in film and television shows as wise men with magical powers. Usually performing as medicine men of some kind, these characters have little function other than to guide White characters in the right direction.

Oliver Stone’s 1991 film “The Doors” is a case in point. In this film about the famed rock group, a medicine man appears at key moments in Jim Morrison’s life to shape the singer’s consciousness.

The real Jim Morrison may have really felt that he connected with a medicine man, but his thinking was likely influenced by Hollywood depictions of Indigenous peoples. In all cultures, there have traditionally been individuals with an impressive knowledge of the healing qualities of plants and herbs. Yet, Indigenous peoples have been portrayed in film and television time and time again as medicine men who have no other purpose but to provide spiritual guidance for White characters.

Bloodthirsty Warriors

In films such as “The Last of The Mohicans,” based on James Fenimore Cooper’s book of the same name, there is no shortage of Indigenous warriors. Hollywood has traditionally portrayed Indigenous peoples as tomahawk-wielding savages, ready to attack White characters and their families. These problematic representations also often have Indigenous characters engage in barbaric practices such as scalping people they have killed and sexually violating White women. The Anti-Defamation League has attempted to set this stereotype straight, however.

“While warfare and conflict did exist among Native Americans, the majority of tribes were peaceful and only attacked in self-defense,” the ADL reports. “Just like European nations, American Indian tribes had complex histories and relationships with one another that sometimes involved combat, but also included alliances, trade, intermarriage and the full spectrum of human ventures.”

As the character, Thomas-Builds-the Fire notes in the film “Smoke Signals,” many Indigenous peoples have no history of being warriors. Thomas points out that he came from a tribe of fishermen. The warrior stereotype is a “shallow” one the ADL asserts, as it “obscures family and community life, spirituality, and the intricacies inherent in every human society.”

In the Wild and on the Rez

In Hollywood films, Indigenous peoples are typically portrayed as living in the wilderness and on reservations. In reality, considerable numbers of tribal members peoples live off reservations, including major cities and just about everywhere else across the U.S. and around the globe. According to Washington University in St. Louis, 60% of the Indigenous population lives in cities. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that New York, Los Angeles, and Phoenix boast the largest Indigenous populations. In Hollywood, however, it is rare to see them portrayed living anywhere that's not desolate, rural, or in the wilderness.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "5 Common Indigenous Stereotypes in Film and Television." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, thoughtco.com/native-american-stereotypes-in-film-television-2834655. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2021, September 8). 5 Common Indigenous Stereotypes in Film and Television. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/native-american-stereotypes-in-film-television-2834655 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "5 Common Indigenous Stereotypes in Film and Television." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/native-american-stereotypes-in-film-television-2834655 (accessed October 21, 2021).