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Misrepresentations of Native Americans

            Europeans impressions of the Native American Indians were made and cemented through printed images and illustrations.  The term Indian in itself is already a misconception that originated from Christopher Columbus who thought that his expedition had arrived at a country in Asia.  Other explorers like Columbus had given Europe impressions about the New World but none were more enduring than the printed images.

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            While some were accurate portrayals of Indian life and people, as shown by John Smiths’ paintings, many others were simply fabrications, borne out of romance and dramatization of the New World’s native inhabitants.  Because of these images, the Indian gradually took certain characteristics in the minds of Europeans.  These attributes were simply misconceptions that evolved through a combination of ignorance, imagination and the need for adventure.  The New World was an unknown region and what could be a better way to make the settlers appear more heroic than to depict their enemies as people who were the opposite of the civilized Europeans.  Because of this, the Indians gradually came to be known and visualized as primitives, barbarians, violent, pagans, and naive.

            The earliest representations of Indians in European print were always of the same themes: Indians were only half-clothed or nude; if they weren’t savages and barbaric, they were childlike in ways, manners and thinking.  In murals and iconography materials, they were portrayed as exotic and threatening, impressions that proved enduring.  In one painting shown in the Penn Library, an Indian was shown to have a turban with only a loin cloth covering his body.  The Indian had a spear that he used to kill two people.  In an other painting, a wild animal had the face of a human, presumably the face belongs to an Indian.

            The most famous of all the early illustrations were the engravings created by Theodor

 de Bry and his sons beginning 1590.  de Bry had never been to the New World and his

representations were made using information taken from accounts of those who had been to the lands of the Indians.  As a result, his engravings were often inaccurate.

            These misconceptions about Indians were not only limited to their appearance.  It involves wrong notions about their cultural, philosophical and spiritual practices.  Some of the most enduring misconceptions include:

l  being called Braves, Squaws or Papooses

l  primitive ways of living

l  spiritual healers

l  wearing of feathers

l  alcoholism

l  living in reservations

l  dishonesty

l  violence

Braves, Squaws, Papooses

            Many people believe that a Native American Indian male is called Brave, while a woman called a Squaw and a child is called Papoose.

            The term papoose is an Algonquian term for the cradle boards that carry a child.  But in Europe, the term refers to an Indian offspring regardless of which tribe he came from.  A squaw also comes from the Algonquian tribe that means woman.  A squaw is a gracious and hospitable woman. However, the term degenerated and later became associated with prostitution.  The term Brave was coined by early traders to refer to the Native American males for their training and preparedness to defend their home turfs, communities and families.  This probably gave rise to those images and engravings depicting Indians in fights.  It is a misconception that Indian men were only good for fighting or defense of their villages.  They do more than that.  The men were in charge of building the homes and hunting game for food.

Primitive Ways of Living

            The root of this impression could be traced back during the times of the early settlers when the simplicity of the Indian way of life greatly contrasted with the excesses of civilized Europe.  Even up to the present, the Native Americans still teach simple living to their children but that value is far from being primitive.

Spiritual Healers

            The misconception of Europeans and other non-Native Americans that these tribes are mystics and have spiritual powers stem from the fact that Indians have close affinity with the environment and nature.  The Indians’ religions are founded on this respect for mother nature.  Because of their attunement to their environment, they have a natural sensitivity to some things.  For instance, the natives know from the wind’s direction whether there will be storm.  This is not something mystical but comes from experience.

            Also, the natives’ rituals and religious symbols may cause others to think of them as having special meanings.  But these rituals and symbols could be likened to the Catholic mass and images of saints displayed in churches.  The mysticism surrounding their religion and spirituality is simply the result of non-exposure to the natives’ way of life.

            As for spiritual healing, the Native Americans utilize herbs and other medicinal roots to cure some common ailments.  They use barks and roots of trees to dull pain, cure wounds, and even as laxatives.  In fact, the Indians were the first to introduce an effective medicine for malaria.  Although the process can be considered crude, it is not shrouded in mystery.

Wearing of Feathers

            Native Americans wear headdresses made from bird feathers but only during ceremonial events, and not every tribe wears them.  In relation to this, some tribal warriors wear war bonnets to represent their victories and bravery in fighting enemies and defending their territories.  Each feather in the war bonnet represents an honorable deed, which could be likened to the awarding of medals of valor to soldiers.  The tribes that used war bonnets were those living along the west side of the Mississippi River.  Other tribes use head wear of different styles and materials.  The head wear is representative of a tribe’s affiliation and custom, and this could be a cloth wrapped around the head or an elaborate hat with flowers, reeds and feathers.  Many Europeans and other non-Native Americans mistakenly think that all Indians wear feathers on their head primarily because of the early engravings and prints, and the depiction of the natives in Hollywood movies.

Alcoholism

            It is a popular belief that all Indians are alcoholics.  This myth has began in the early years of trading between the Native Americans and early European traders, visitors and explorers.  Alcoholic beverages were introduced to the Native Americans through their contacts with Europeans.  According to an article from PageWise, the foreign traders knew of the intoxicating effect of alcohol and wanted the tribesmen to be intoxicated in order to gain an upper hand in the trading of goods.  Because of the presence of alcohol, the natives gradually lost their advantage in the trading market.  Not only that, alcohol has affected their life, often resulting to illness and even death to a native who had been addicted to alcohol.  It is also theorized that drinking had become the Indians’ way of numbing the loss of their lands and cultural heritage to the Europeans settlers.

            While it is a fact that there are still many Indians who are alcoholics, many were able to reject the habit and made something for themselves.  Many Indians have made positive contributions to the enrichment of the American culture.

Living in Reservations in the West

            Prior to the settlements of the European immigrants, Indian nations populated the entire country.  Some live in the East while others live in the West.  The encroachment of the European settlers, the fightings, and the subsequent killings of many natives have forced those who remained in the tribes to move farther from the settlers.  Eventually, the number of European settlers had multiplied, further driving away the Indian tribes from their lands.  Many of those sent to the New World were the miscreants of society.  There were many lawless people who didn’t hesitate in harming many of the peace-loving natives.  Ultimately, most tribes were driven to live in reservations.  But many of them were able to rise above their abject conditions by getting education, employment and setting up of their own businesses.  Based on the 2006 Census, Native American populations are unevenly distributed in the 50 states of the country.  For instance, there are 8.6% of Native Americans in South Dakota and about 1.5% in Washington.

Dishonesty

            The impression of dishonesty as a trait among Native Americans was propagated by some of the early settlers in the colonies.  To get away with their looting and killing of natives, the unscrupulous settlers had to justify their actions by branding the natives as a dishonest lot, among others.  The Native Americans have signed peace treaties with the government and have upheld the terms contained in them.  Often, it was the government that usually broke the covenants.

            One instance wherein the Europeans had shown deceit was during the ceremony marking the peace treaty between the Jamestown settlement and the Powhatan Confederacy leaders.  Some leaders of Jamestown put poison in the Indians’ drinks, causing the death of 200 Powhatans and the killing of 50 more by other means.

Violence

            The engravings and prints portraying the natives of the New World had given Europeans the impression that the Indians were a violent race.  This impression endured through time because of the fightings and wars between the settlers and the natives.  However, before the wars began, the early settlers of Jamestown were well-tolerated by the Powhatan Confederacy.  They lived off on traded foods from the Indians.  The tribes even attempted to adopt the settlers by marrying off the chieftain’s daughter Pocahontas to John Rolfe.  For some years, peace between the two races was maintained.  But the death of Pocahontas and his father resulted to greater animosity between the Jamestown colony and the Natives.  While the Natives had their share of atrocities and violence, they were mostly prompted to those actions in retaliation to the Europeans usurping of their lands and crops.

References

Floy, P.C.  (1990).  Unbiased Teaching about American Indians and Alaska Natives in

    Elementary Schools. ERIC Digest. Retrieved September 18, 2008, from

    http://www.ericdigests.org/pre-9217/indians.htm

Virginia Historical Society.  (2003).  Early Images of Virginia Indians.  Retrieved September

    18, 2008, from http://www.vahistorical.org/cole/overview.htm

PageWise Inc.  Alcohol Among Native Americans.  Retrieved September 18, 2008, from

    http://www.essortment.com/all/nativeamerican_ragq.htm

PENN Library Exhibitions.  CULTURAL READINGS: Colonization & Print in the Americas.

    Retrieved September 18, 2008, from

    http://www.library.upenn.edu/exhibits/rbm/kislak/viewers/viewers.html

Native Americans.com Home Page.  Powhatan Confederacy.  Retrieved September 18, 2008,

    from http://www.nativeamericans.com/PowhatanConfederacy.htm

The Seven Fires Council: Our People, Our Future.  Retrieved September 18, 2008, from

    http://www.merceronline.com/Native/intro.htm

 

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