February 22, 2016

Studies on native american stereotyping


Little research investigating the effects of stereotypes and attitudes regarding Native Americans and how this relates to discrimination has been conducted. One such contemporary conflict involves the use of Native American images, logos, and names by athletic teams.


To understand the impact of images and stereotypes on the prejudice, discrimination, and racism directed toward contemporary Native Americans a historical perspective is helpful. These social issues result from centuries of social relations and policies that were oppressive and dehumanizing, shaped by the hostile attitudes of European Americans (Barrett, 2003; Berkhofer, 1979; Collier, 1947; LaDuke, 1999, Venables, 2004).

As Berkhofer suggests in his writings, an almost insidious relationship exists where the images and stereotypes of North American indigenous peoples have impacted Indian-White relations and government policies and the relations and policies have impacted the images and stereotypes.

Although many non-Natives have had minimal contact with Native Americans, non-Natives still have some image or opinion of Native Americans. In recent years, traditional depictions of Native Americans have come under critical examination because of their overt or implied racist connotation. Much of the misleading and flawed imagery derives from stereotypic portrayals of Native Americans in comic books, film, literature, history books, television, and general hearsay (Trimble, 1988).

Native American stereotypes appear in a variety of areas within American culture such as sports, art, literature, mass media (movies and television), and education. There have been some analyses examining Native American stereotypes in literature, novels, and textbooks used in history classes across the United States. Trimble (1988) reports that a 1975 analysis found that books reviewed were built on traditional and historical images of the “dirty, drunken, cruel and warring savage” and “the glorified but naïve native” (p. 189). Another analysis reported that Native Americans were described as noble savages when helping non-Native Americans and “treacherous or filthy savages” when fighting against non-Natives (Trimble, 1988, p. 189).

A comprehensive review of the literature by the American Indian Historical Society (AIHS) examined more than 300 books related to history and culture that were then used in schools across the United States (Hansen & Rouse, 1987; Trimble, 1988).

The reviewers concluded that not one book could be considered a reliable or accurate source of Native American history and culture. In fact, most books were found to contain misinformation, distortions, omissions, and were derogatory to Native Americans. Frequent references were made to Native Americans being “primitive, degrading, filthy, warlike, savage, hostile, fugitives, runaway slaves, riffraff, and bold” (Trimble, 1988, p. 189).

The mass media has also played a significant role in promoting Native American stereotypes, particularly the motion picture and television industries. They have produced a large number of films that convey another version of Native American culture and history that are often biased, unflattering, or distorted.

Films have both created and perpetuated many negative and culturally inaccurate images of Native Americans. Vrasidas (1997) argues that for many people, movies and television are their two primary sources of information. Many contemporary negative attitudes and stereotypes about Native Americans persist because television and film played a significant role of internalizing and eternalizing these misconceptions.

Native Americans were often depicted in Westerns as brutal and evil, raiding settlers, scalping them and whooping at the same time (Aleiss, 1995; Trimble, 1988). At the end of the movie, the Natives were seen as defeated and vanishing (Aleiss, 1995; Churchill, Hill, &
Hill, 1978).

When Native characters were “good guys”, they were often a scout, helper, or sidekick of the non-Native, but still inferior (Trimble, 1988). Often these earlier movies were nonspecific in identifying specific tribes, and when they did, tribes were often inaccurately represented.

Native Americans in these movies almost always wore feathers or war-bonnets, cloth headbands, rode horses, and communicated by using nonverbal signals (smoke signals, birdcalls, beating a drum) (Churchill et al, 1978; Trimble,1988), characteristics which are specific to only a few plains tribes. In addition, if a Native American did speak, it was a fabricated language or broken English (Churchill et al, 1978; Trimble, 1988).

Until recently, non-Natives that looked Native American such as Hispanics, Greeks, or Italians played these roles, such as Iron Eyes Cody, Sal Mineo, Robert Blake, Charles Bronson, and Barbara Carerra.

After WW II, the film industry started to portray Native Americans somewhat more as heroes than villains. The image went from the “hostile warrior” stereotype toward an image of interracial harmony. Vrasidas (1997) acknowledges that in recent years television and film have portrayed Native Americans in a more realistic fashion, but argues Hollywood has a long way to go before changing four centuries of misrepresentations.

Edgerton (1994) conducted an analysis of the movie the Last of the Mohicans, which many suggested as representing a step in the right direction. He found there were still many Native American stereotypes endorsed in the movie, including tensions between Native Americans and Europeans, and the previously discussed paradoxical portrayal of Native Americans as being both the “good Indian” and the “bad Indian”.

It could be argued that this is true to life, in that there are good and bad people in all cultures, However, the “good Indian” – Hawkeye played by Daniel Day-Lewis, is only half-Native, and possesses qualities of belonging with nature, noble, brave, and sensitive. The “bad Indian” – Magua played by
Wes Studi, is shown as savage, brutal, and barbaric.

According to Edgerton, when looking at good and bad character types and traits, there was a composite that was deeply conflicted and contradictory that is often common with racial and ethnic stereotyping.

Tan, Fujioka, and Lucht (1997) attempted to ascertain if stereotypes towards Native Americans were effected by television portrayals, along with personal contact. They sampled 191 Euro-American students at two northwestern universities located within 30 miles of a Native reservation. The authors hypothesized that the more contact subjects had with Native Americans, the less likely they were to have negative attitudes about them. This contact could either be personal or vicarious (television). In addition, they hypothesized that positive information would lead to positive attitudes and negative information would lead to negative attitudes (Tan at al. 1997).

The dependent measure used in the study was a survey dealing with racial images. The scale asked respondents to rate whether Native Americans
were closer to one of two polar adjectives on a 7-point scale. Items included were, wealth, work ethic, intelligence, dependency, patriotism, crime, trust, drugs, family ties, tolerance of other races, and alcohol use.

Tan et al. (1997) concluded that frequency of contact consistently predicted stereotyping of Native Americans. In particular, frequent personal contact lead to positive stereotypes. These data offer limited support concerning vicarious contact. Specifically, it was shown that positive TV attributes led to positive attitudes and negative TV attributes led to negative attitudes, but the effects were weak and each only predicted one stereotyping factor out of four. The authors suggest the scarcity of television portrayals about Native Americans, reported by the subject’s recent recall, may have diluted the possible effects (Tan at al. 1997).

Trimble (1988) examined the hypothesis that stereotypes of Native Americans appear to be changing with the times. A series of studies were conducted in 1970, 1973, and 1976 to see if differences in stereotypes of Natives American traits existed across a sevenyear time span. Both Native Americans and non-Natives listed as many words as they could to describe Native Americans.

From these lists, a 38 word list was compiled and a separate group of subjects were administered the 38 word list of traits. From this list, subjects were asked to choose 15 words from the list and rank them from 1-most typical to 15-least typical. The 1970 study found that non-Natives rated words differently than the Natives and saw Native Americans in a stereotypical fashion.

Traits non-Natives endorsed were distrustful, drunkards, ignorant, lazy, proud, and suspicious. Native Americans saw themselves as being defeated, mistreated, proud, drunkards, and quiet. The most commonly picked traits from the 1970 study were compiled into a 15-word list. In 1973, the 15-word
list from 1970 was used, and subjects were asked to add more traits if they wanted. Another group of subjects were then asked to rank the 15 traits.

This time non-Natives tended to view Native Americans as defeated, drunkards, ignored, mistreated, and poor. Native Americans endorsed themselves as being ignored, mistreated, faithful, and proud.

The same procedure was done in 1976, and non-Natives saw Native Americans as being mistreated, militant, and stubborn. Native Americans also saw themselves as being militant, but also as ignored, and faithful. Words that continued to be on the list at all three points in time were artistic, defeated, drunkards, lazy, mistreated, and shy. Although the results of the three studies suggest stereotypes can change with the passage of time, certain stereotypes have remained and continue to remain.

Additional research investigating stereotypes and attitudes towards Native Americans has produced mixed findings. For example, Hansen and Rouse (1987) also conducted a study examining Native American stereotyping. The study included 226 college students enrolled in sociology and anthropology courses at a large southwestern university.  Seventyfive percent were European American, 9% African American, 7% Hispanic, and 1.3% Native American.

The study consisted of three sections. In the first section, subjects were presented with a list of 10 positive/negative pairs of adjectives asking them to choose which were characteristic of Native Americans. Subjects were given the option of saying Native Americans were not characterized by the pair and therefore neutral.

Overall, 50% of the subjects characterized Native Americans with the positive term, 24% characterized them with the negative term, and 26% chose the neutral option.

The second part of the study consisted of background information and questions pertaining to exposure to Native Americans, with the final section consisting of a 40-item opinion and knowledge survey about Native Americans. Results showed that concepts conceived as traditional cultural stereotypes received only mixed support such as; simple, primitive, traditional, warlike, hunters, and “as the past.” More subjects saw Native Americans as part of the past and saw them as more traditional.

When examining personal stereotypes, the majority of subjects did not view Native Americans as negative, but saw them as strong, hardworking,
and patriotic. Subjects also tended to reject homogenous lumping of Native Americans in favor of a more heterogeneous perception. However, subjects believed that Native Americans should be bicultural, and received most of their information about Native Americans from television, movies, and books.

Ancis et al. (1996) examined college student’s attitudes towards Native Americans in various social and educational situations and found an overall positive attitude towards Native Americans except for the case of a Native person receiving free health care. The authors suggest that the overall positive attitudes may be indicative of the increased attention recently given to the historical and current conditions of Native Americans (Ancis et al.,1996).

Sandefur and Lam (1985) randomly sampled residents of Oklahoma City in an attempt to assess their stereotypes of African Americans and Native Americans. Using a Likert scale format, subjects read five statements about Native Americans and five statements about African Americans and completed a social distance measure for each group.

Results from this study indicated Euro-Americans in Oklahoma City perceived more social distance between themselves and African Americans than themselves and Native Americans, and stereotypes of African Americans were more negative than stereotypes of Native Americans.

Bennett and Simons (1991) studied attitudes towards Native Americans in the Upper Midwest, where negative perceptions existed. The authors cite these above studies and suggest these findings are inconsistent with their findings because of the diverse methodologies used in each study. Moreover, comparisons with studies of stereotypes and  attitudes of other ethnic groups are therefore difficult.

In order to address this issue,Bennett and Simons (1991) used a well-established stereotype measuring methodology conducted on three generations of Princeton University students (e.g. Katz & Braly, 1933; Gilbert, 1951; Karlin, Coffman, & Walters, 1969). This stereotype measurement consists of an adjective checklist in which subjects rate how descriptive an adjective is for both European Americans and some other group.

Bennett and Simons (1991) administered this checklist to college students who had a permanent address that was located within the boundaries of a reservation. It was hypothesized that living on a reservation would have given subjects a more real-life impression of Native American people than what is seen in the media, thus, obtaining a more valid measure of stereotypes and prejudice that exists through actual intergroup interaction.

They found, using the adjective checklist methodology that a distinct, negative stereotype of Native Americans existed. In addition, this negative stereotype was comparable to those held towards African Americans in the late 1960’s (Bennett & Simons, 1991).

One possible explanation for this discrepancy in findings of attitudes towards Native Americans could have to do with the nature of the studies. For example, social psychological theories would suggest that ethnocentrism is more likely to occur in the Bennett and Simons (1991) study than in the other studies.

For non-Natives living on a reservation, ethnic biases are more salient based on a cultural perspective. The conflict that occurs over real and tangible resources has progressed for generations in and around Native American reservations.

Attitudes held by participants in the studies by Ancis et al., (1996) and Hanson and Rouse (1987) may have been based on images presented through media in which the actual participants have not had real contact with Native people. In other words,there was no real conflict or history of personal conflict between participants in the studies and Native Americans, therefore any ethnic biases were not salient.

In the recent decades, blockbuster Hollywood productions such as, Dances with Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, and Geronimo, have presented, for the most part, a romanticized account of Native American people and their struggles. However, in areas where Native people constitute the largest minority group, conflict over real life issues continues to exist, maintaining stereotypes and prejudice.

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