Challenging old views of the American Indian

Duality: Images accepted for 500 years are in question. A new Smithsonian museum could supply some answers.

August 29, 2004|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

CLOSE YOUR EYES and conjure up what comes to mind when you hear the words "American Indian." No matter your political correctness, the dominant image is probably one of feathers and war paint, bows and arrows, buffalo and teepees, beads and skins, wisdom and warfare.

It is an image derived from adventure movies and childhood books, from sepia-tinged photographs and museum exhibitions, from exploitative television shows and earnest documentaries. Even recent publicity about Indian casinos cannot blemish its iconic power.

Whether the Indian in your image is villain or victim, it is likely some exotic "other," a more primal being somehow in touch with elemental nature which can be a source of savagery and spirituality.

Next month, the Smithsonian Institution - which had as much to do with cementing the image of the Indian in the American mind as any institution - opens its Museum of the American Indian, probably the last great museum to be built on the Mall in Washington. This $200 million facility, decades in the making, could go a long way toward challenging views of the American Indian developed since Europeans encountered these people in the 15th century.

"There really is a duality in the many, many images of the Native American over the last 500 years," says Rennard Strickland, an expert on Indian law at the University of Oregon. "It goes between what I call the `savage sinner' and the `red- skinned redeemer.' We tend to use the Indian as a mirror on which we reflect a lot of our own particular neuroses."

The duality can be seen in some of the earliest accounts: the noble friend who sat down for the first Thanksgiving dinner, the fool who sold Manhattan for $24 in beads, the enemy who kidnapped white women and raised them in savage ways.

"I think there has been a schizophrenia in the American perception of the Indian from the very beginning," says Orin Starn, an anthropologist at Duke University. "From very early on, there is this dual desire to, at the same time, on the one hand, exterminate them - either kill or remove them to make way for the United States - and to romanticize them, to admire them, to be like them.

"Go back to the Revolutionary War and the Boston Tea Party," he says. "Colonists there dressed up as Indians. There was this identification with being proud and wild and savage in rebelling against the British."

This continued, Starn says, in the 1800s, when U.S. troops were fighting Indians in the West. , "You are fighting to defeat these people but at the same time you are fascinated by these people who ride bareback with eagle feather headdresses, who know how to hunt with a bow and arrow, "he says.

Akim Reinhardt, a historian at Towson University, points out that Indians had a different role in the life of early colonists. .

"Indians, from the initial settlements in the colonial period up through the 1700s and the beginning of the nation, represented something scary to the colonists," he says. "It now seems preordained that those 13 Colonies would persist, but it was not clear at the time. The Iroquois confederacy in the North, the Cherokee and Creek confederacy in the South were, in fact, much stronger than the early European colonies. So they had a very different perception of Indians than we do now."

Reinhardt points to the popularity of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales and the widespread captive narratives - some fraudulent, some true - of people taken by Indians and later returned to white society, as evidence of the fear and fascination Indians represented to early settlers.

From the beginning, the settlers' attitudes toward the Indian were a mixture of avarice and altruism. Moving them out of the way to reservations was a way to get their land for expansion of the new country. But many also saw it as a way to protect these innocent people until they could be educated and brought up to the standards of Western civilization.

A change in the nation's view came about a century ago. Geronimo was captured in Mexico. The Battle of Wounded Knee ended the last Indian threat. Most thought their culture was on the verge of extinction. The romanticization began.

Buffalo Bill Cody had earlier put Indians on display in his Wild West Show. Others were seen in exhibitions at turn-of-the-century World's Fairs.

Edward Curtis began his photographic odyssey to document the cultures. Anthropologists and amateurs went about preserving a way of life that was seen as disappearing, a tragic, but inevitable byproduct of civilization. Many objects in the collection of the new museum were collected at this time.

Portrayal in movies

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.