I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

Shadows of the Indian: Stereotypes in American Culture

Raymond William Stedman

In Shadows of the Indian: Stereotypes in American Culture, Raymond William Stedman examines both the myths and the cultural contrivances by which inaccurate Indian (*Stedman uses this outmoded label throughout) stereotypes have been perpetuated throughout American history. Stedman’s narrative is organized topically, focusing on specific stereotypes and their cultural exemplifications. Many of his explanations go as far back as the days of Columbus and New World exploration because, Stedman argues, many Indian misinformation stems back to this age. The staying power of Indian stereotypes, Stedman argues, similar to Brian Dippie’s argument surrounding the steadfastness of Custer’s Last Stand mythology, speaks to their imbedded nature in American national identity. The explication of stereotype origins is crucial to understanding the future of both Indian and the greater United States’ future. The popular image that has been cultivated over centuries has played a major role in shaping political policies.

Stedman’s overarching theme in Shadows of the Indian is that the white man has bent the image of the Indian to his advantage in sundry ways, all of which have no resemblance to Indians in reality. Stedman expounds upon this theme, not with a clear narrative, but rather by looking at specific utilizations of Indian representations in cultural examples. Beginning with an assessment of the roots of the distortion in the age of exploration, Stedman states that in firsthand accounts of the time Indians were often described as naked, childlike, without religion, and apathetic towards proprietary concerns. Accounts of this nature were necessary if Europeans were going to be able to justify conquering them. Indian males were often typecast in the role of servile sidekicks to white men. James Fenimore Cooper’s Chingachook friendship with Natty Bumppo represents this kind of relationship, however Stedman, points out that Cooper’s treatment of Chingachook was actually generous and human when compared to other representations, and may actually represent, regrettably, the apex of humanitarian depictions of Indians.

Another stereotype that Stedman addresses is that of Indian speech, which is often characterized as stilted and awkwardly uneducated. In John Ford’s Stagecoach, one gets a sampling of this kind of speech, as well as several other stereotypes, such as the untrustworthy enemy who can comprehend no other course of action than to blindly satisfy carnal desires by ambushing parties of white men. Like R. Philip Loy and Edward Bushcombe, Stedman believes that film has had the most powerful impact on Western myth and Indian stereotypes, but he takes the extra step to trace the origins of Indian representation in film to theater reenactments. Both Brian Dippie and Stedman write of the importance of reenactment to developments of myth. The film took the hot-blooded, lusty, and simpleton images of the theater and recorded them permanently into the nation’s memory. The film allowed the Indians stereotypes to be solidified, “fixed in frame” in a way comparable to the images Martha Sandweiss examines in Print the Legend. Stedman’s study further illuminates the manner that the Western historical arena has been manipulated, often by those far removed from it geographically and chronologically, however, unlike Goetzmann, Dippie and others, Stedman sees no basis in reality for the myths surrounding the Indians.

Feature Photo: Illustration from 1896 edition of The Last of the Mohicans, by F.T. Merrill. The drawing occurs when Hawk-eye attacks Magua in the cave where Alice is held captive. The Last of the Mohicans, J. Fenimore Cooper, 1896. Illustration by F.T. Merrill.

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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