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September 01, 2011

A Song for the Horse Nation: Typecast Indians

P4178_HorseBK #90
Spokane woman on horseback with infant in baby carrier, 1899. Colville Reservation, Washington. P4178

As a child in the early 1970s, I conceived many notions about family, identity, and life roles by sitting in front of my grandmother’s television set. Raised in the city by my non-Native mother and grandmother, I learned about single-parenting issues from A Family Affair and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. My female role models, Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda, were stylish, independent, career-minded women, much like my mother. My first impression of Native culture also came by way of television, through the genre of Hollywood Westerns. On celluloid, garishly painted, red-faced actors portrayed Natives as savage scalpers and merciless killers bent on unspeakable acts of murder and violation.

In films such as War Arrow (1953), wild “Kioways” on the warpath madly circle wagon trains of doomed pioneers. In Kit Carson (1940), other pioneers in peril are saved from Shoshone attacks as they ramble through Monument Valley, Utah. In the end, the hero—a frontier scout, cavalryman, or cowboy—gets the girl, and the Indian meets a grisly death. These death scenes, humorous and horrendous, involved dramatic feats of demoralizing comeuppance: an Indian grave shot from his war pony, somersaulting into the sagebrush, or shot and dragged behind his porn, arms flailing pitifully. Unfortunately, many other children my age drew the same conclusion about Indians as I did: we were dirty savages and merciless killers of women and children. Being the only Native American in my grade school, I became the target of hollering, war whoops, and hand-to-mouth “Indian” chanting.

Through illustration, portraiture, photography, journalism, and film, generations of Native people have been haunted by the cultural stereotypes of the past five centuries. Seventeenth-century European illustrations of Iroquois scalpers, battle reenactments in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows, dime novels, and souvenir postcards, for instance, have shaped the public’s erroneous sentiments about Native Americans. Depending on the political agenda of the time—whether in Europe or North America—the evolution of Native identity in the popular press has been dominated by two extreme stereotypes: savage marauder or docile member of a conquered race.

In the United States, portraying Native Americans in a hostile light justified extreme measures in Indian policy, such as the use of brutal military force, land theft, and treaty violations. The idea of Indians as uncivilized and un-Christian also legitimized forced conversions, mandatory attendance at boarding schools, and other religious abuses.

A century ago, the popular pastime of postcard collecting created a market for a flood of images that greatly contributed to the miseducation of several generations of Americans about who Indians are. To me, the seemingly benign photographs document the success of the length and exhaustive U.S. military campaign to forcibly obtain Indian lands. By the late nineteenth century, most tribes had been relegated to reservations, creating dependence on government subsidies. Other forms of dependence and need manifested themselves in the extremes of religion or alcoholism. No matter the grim reality, in the postcard images, Indians and horses are paired to create a sense of nostalgia and security—a commercial device to lure homesteaders and financiers to the newly tamed West.

Westward expansion gave rise to the railway, tourism, and mass production. Adventure-seeking travelers were lured west by the brochures and souvenir books produced by companies such as the Santa Fe Railroad and the Fred Harvey Company, whose advertising images promised the thrill of Indian encounters.

P16618 Early 20th-century postcard of Cree man in traditional dress on horseback. P16618. It appears that the warrior pictured here has been cut out and given another background, a technique common to images in this genre.

Unfortunately, the posed portraits in both postcards and brochures created misconceptions and false expectations about American Indians. Images like these continue to serve as a kitschy measuring stick of “Indian-ness,” warping our own sense of Native identity and expression even as we modernize our communities and strive to continue our traditions in language, ceremonies, and arts.

These types of images have led to the commercial manufacture and gaudy interpretation of the most sacred Native objects. Curios come in a variety of forms, from hideous war bonnets and grotesque collector dolls to the “End of the Trail” belt buckles found in airport gift shops. In turn, these representations—usually in the visage of iconic chiefs and alluring Native maidens—reach large-scale international audiences through the mediums of Hollywood productions and sports team logos as well as vehicle, clothing, and food brands. To add insult to injury, the mass-produced appropriations create untold prosperity for everyone but the tribes themselves.

From century-old postcards to contemporary logos, these stereotypical images have distorted and oversimplified our cultures. They have created false understandings of the traditions of the hundreds of tribes that have their own languages, stories, art forms, and ceremonies. The self-esteem of our youth is damaged as they recoil from these grotesqueries and eventually their own true cultures. Ironically, our communities have often become dependent on perpetuating these Hollywood ideals in order to sustain any measure of economic stability.

Yet, as we endeavor to share with the world our unique voices and lifeways, our communities are increasingly empowered to redefine and celebrate our authentic identities. At the heart of my own nostalgic quest for the Indian and his horse, I need not look any further than my own photo albums. Today, one of my most cherished photographs is of my dad, John C. Martin, and his horse Skipper. Photographed on family land near Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, he is the image of a real Indian, a hardworking, spiritual man who has embodied many different identities throughout his life: husband, father, grandfather, educator, tribal councilman, businessman, and rancher. But he’s truly a Navajo cowboy at heart.

—Linda R. Martin (Navajo)


From A Song for the Horse Nation, edited by George P. Horse Capture (A’aninin) and Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Lakota). Published by the National Museum of the American Indian in association with Fulcrum Publishing.  ©2006 Smithsonian Institution. All rights reserved.

A Song for the Horse Nation is curated by Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Lakota). The accompanying book, edited by Her Many Horses and the scholar George P. Horse Capture (A’aninin), is available at the museum’s shops and the museum’s Web site.

For the online exhibition, visit http://nmai.si.edu/static/exhibitions/horsenation/

For an online overview, visit http://nmai.si.edu/explore/exhibitions/item/?id=905.

The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in New York, the George Gustav Heye Center is located at One Bowling Green in New York City, across from Battery Park. The museum is free and open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursdays until 8 p.m. For information, call (212) 514-3700 or visit the museum’s Web site at http://www.americanindian.si.edu/.



This picture is really great "Spokane woman on horseback with infant in baby carrier, 1899". Nice blog..

thanks for sharing for such informative topic contains lot of information

Love the picture of the Spokane woman with her baby in the cradleboard.

I've love the colored art! I didn't know that it was common to cut out the main part for a different background.

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