Native American Stereotypes in Film and Literature

So I want to start this blog post off with a disclaimer. I am not Native American, I am not among the people most affected by this topic, and I’m definitely not an expert on the topic.

However, while I was writing my book, I realized that even if I was writing in a sub genre that attempts to undo some of the negative things done by the standard Western, I was still writing a Western with a Native American character, and had to be really careful not the make some of the dumb mistakes that people of European decent in the US tend to make when creating Native American characters in film and literature. So I did some reading.

Now, let’s leave old school Westerns out of this, because we all know that they’re racist–I mean, I can’t tell you how many Westerns I watched in my research period that had things like “I’m going to shoot the first injun I see” uttered within the first ten minutes with no apology. But there are also mistakes non-indigenous people make even when trying to create Native American heroes.

One of the big ones is being oblivious to the fact that there are specific tribes—“Native American” is not one amorphous group, and you accordingly can’t mix and match clothing, mythology, and customs. Old movies, and even more recent, sympathetic ones like Dances with Wolves are purported to have done this all the time. So when writing my book, I did my best to represent a specific tribe of Native Americans, the Me-wuk people. I researched their food gathering and preparing customs, their burial customs, and their myths.

Another mistake commonly made is to portray Native American characters as close to the earth, born environmentalists, and superior trackers. This one was a bit trickier for me, since the book is written in 1848, and a Native American man would actually be a lot closer to the Earth, hunting and the like. However, did my best to not make the indigenous character in my novel an expert, and portray the Narrator (a non-indigenous character) as just as skilled as hunting and trapping as him.

One last troubling trend is portraying Native Americans as a vanishing race, of a different time, wiped out long along and not part of the modern world. There are currently about 5.2 million indigenous North Americans alive in the US, a fact you wouldn’t be aware of from lots of popular media.

As I said, I’m not expert, and this is just a bit of what I’ve picked up along the way. Hopefully I have, through reading articles and blogs, and from learning from the mistakes other people have made, done some of the work of creating a non-stereotypical Native American character in my novel.

 

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About thebaffledkingcomposing

Pamela DiFrancesco is a writer with a community college degree in journalism, a fancy art school degree in fiction and a penchant for community organizing. A native of Pennsylvania coal country, Pamela lives in Astoria, Queens, writes, and does whatever else it takes to pay the bills. In the past, Pamela has worked for newspapers and taught children journalism in an after-school program. Pamela's fiction can be found on the web at Cezanne's Carrot and Monkeybicycle, in print in The Carolina Quarterly (who nominated "The Chuck Berry Tape Massacre" for the Best American Mystery Writing anthology) and forthcoming in The New Ohio Review. When not writing, Pamela practices acts of love and kindness in hopes of a radically different world, and is preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse through acts of badassery.
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3 Responses to Native American Stereotypes in Film and Literature

  1. JC Loen says:

    Interesting read. I’ve faced the same problems “solving” a Native American character in my book.

    • Yeah, I learned a lot from the reading I did, notably Ward Churchill’s “Fantasies of the Master Race” which breaks down a lot of the Native American stereotyping in film. Hopefully we both managed to avoid some of the pitfalls!

      • JC Loen says:

        I’ll definitely check out “Fantasies of the Master Race.” A book I’ve picked up, but haven’t gotten around to read yet is “Education of Extinction” by David Wallace Adams. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s relevant to my character’s background. I think being aware of the pitfalls is a good start to avoid them 😉

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