Stereotypes of Native Americans have a problematic history. Images have played a large role in spreading incorrect or exaggerated ideas about Native peoples. Although these pictures are sometimes difficult to examine closely, it is important to understand such stereotypes as part of the historical record. A small selection of such images from the APS collections is reproduced here, to make the pictures available for study and critical analysis.
Some illustrations of conquest from the 1600s and 1700s falsely portrayed indigenous people as superstitious and uncivilized. During the 1800s, a century of intense conflict between Natives and whites, many images presented a distorted view of Indian warriors, showing them not as men fighting to preserve their lands and rights, but rather as bloodthirsty savages.
Other pictures, by contrast, reflected idealized views of the supposed “vanishing race.” Well into the 1900s, Natives were portrayed in literature and images, some quite melodramatic, that featured noble heroes and beautiful princesses.
Some Native Americans learned to manipulate stereotypes. One 1950s photograph shows a Cherokee man dressed in Plains garb and performing for tourists, a practice known as “chiefing.” With his deerskin clothes, feather headdress, and bow, the man was posing as the “Indian” whom non-Natives expected to see.
Science and scientific images also sometimes contributed to stereotypes of Natives. In the 1800s and early 1900s, many scientists tried to prove that whites were a superior “race” by measuring, recording, and comparing the physical features of people from different ethnic groups.
Soon thereafter, the controversial American eugenics movement misused evolutionary theory. Eugenicists argued that some people—including ethnic minorities such as Native Americans—had “inferior” genes and thus should be discouraged from reproducing. Such ideas caused significant damage before they were finally discredited.