Published on August 31, 2013 by Amy
The portrayal of Native Americans in popular culture has traditionally oscillated between the fascination with the noble savage who lives in harmony with nature and their depiction as uncivilized “bad guys” in the traditional Western genre.
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In 1851 Charles Dickens wrote a scathingly sarcastic review in his weekly magazine Household Words of painter George Catlin’s show of American Indians when it visited England. In his essay, entitled “The Noble Savage”, Dickens expressed repugnance for Indians and their way of life in no uncertain terms, recommending that they ought to be “civilized out of existence”. (Dickens’s essay refers back to Dryden’s well-known use of the term, not to Rousseau.) Dickens’s scorn for those unnamed individuals, who, like Catlin, he alleged, misguidedly exalted the so-called “noble savage”, was limitless. In reality, Dickens maintained, Indians were dirty, cruel, and constantly fighting among themselves. Dickens’s satire on Catlin and others like him who might find something to admire in the American Indians or African bushmen is a notable turning point in the history of the use of the phrase.
Eastern-European-produced Westerns were popular in Communist Eastern European countries, and were a particular favorite of Joseph Stalin. “Red Western” or “Ostern” films usually portrayed the American Indians sympathetically, as oppressed people fighting for their rights, in contrast to American Westerns of the time, which frequently portrayed the Indians as villains. They frequently featured Gypsies or Turkic people in the role of the Indians, due to the shortage of authentic Indians in Eastern Europe.
The concept of Native Americans living in harmony with nature was taken up in the 1960s by the Hippie subculture and played a certain role in the formative phase of the environmentalist movement, notably the so-called Legend of Rainbow Warriors, an alleged Hopi prophecy foretelling environmental activism. In the US cultural mainstream, the negative depiction of Native Americans came to be seen as politically incorrect in the 1980s, as reflected in the production of western films emphasizing the “noble savage” such as Dances with Wolves (1990). In 1989 (reprinted 1993), Viesti Associates produced a poster listing “The Ten Indian Commandments”, a purported Native American counterpart of the biblical Ten Commandments. The ten points listed echo the cliché of the native living in ecological harmony.
The popular media in the United States have had a love/hate relationship with Native Americans. In many films, such as Northwest Passage, Native Americans are the villains, attacking White settlers, often at the instigation of unscrupulous White men. But there are many Hollywood films that offer a more sympathetic picture. Most of the John Ford Westerns show respect toward American Indians, and they are the heroes of such major films as Broken Arrow and Dances With Wolves. Probably the most famous “Indian” in American popular media is the Lone Ranger’s sidekick, Tonto, most famously portrayed by Native American actor Jay Silverheels.
There have been many Native American characters in comic books and comic strips, such as Super-Chief, an Indian superhero created for DC Comics, and Akwas, a comic strip about Native Americans created by Mike Roy.
An Apache warrior named Nightwolf debuted in the 1995 video game Mortal Kombat 3, and has been a recurring protagonist of the franchise. He is one of the few mortals that are spiritually aware, acting as a historian and shaman of his people.
In the 2012 video game Assassin’s Creed III, set during the American Revolution, the protagonist is a half English, half Mohawk Native American named Ratonhnhaké:ton.