Myth of the Mono-Cultural Native

Alea Stutz

Myth of the Mono-Cultural Native

Ever since indigenous tribes of the American West were wrongly dubbed “Indians” by a famous Christopher Columbus in 1492, references to native people are synonymous with terms such as “red man”, “teepee”, and “headdress.”  The image of indigenous communities perpetuated in American culture focuses on war dances, mystic shaman, and desolate prairie communities tracking herds of buffalo. However, is it realistic to assume that all tribes hosted the same native dress? They all lived off their buffalo spoils? They all traveled in nomadic teepee gatherings? No. Thanks to popular culture throughout the 19th -21st centuries, indigenous cultures have been bleached into one stereotypical group of feather bearing, teepee living, buffalo hunting people. No myth is further from the truth. Native Americans were a diverse community of tribal groups, and each had their individual tactics of dress, house, and lifestyle best suited to their territorial home.

The recent Hollywood blockbuster film, “The Lone Ranger,” embodies the modern myths of mono-cultural Native Americans. This movie was controversial because of its depiction of Tonto, the Long Ranger’s indigenous accomplice. Tonto is depicted as an outcast member of a traveling group, complete with mystical healing powers and the ability to talk to animals. He embodies every single misconception about indigenous tribes from the American West. Throughout the movie, Tonto talks to inanimate objects, communicates with every other native in Comanche, and seems immune to the slaughter of his people in a show of warrior-like manhood. From the feathered headdress to his trances, Tonto exemplifies a stereotypical representation of a Native American, and utterly rejects the diversity in a vivacious group of people.[1]

To demonstrate the great diversity among indigenous people, I will use primary sources such as documents from the Corps of Discovery and sketches from an 1800’s school book to demonstrate the wide variety of indigenous dress, house structure, and lifestyle. These also provide insight as to why such a strong ethnic community has been squeezed down to one monotone civilization today.7939scr_81b726f748e8652

Established by President Jefferson in 1804, the Corps of Discovery attempted to map the newly purchased American West, and gather information about existing indigenous populations in the area. Lead by Captains Lewis and Clark, the journey lasted over two years and 7,000 miles roundtrip.  Images of the first greeting between Lewis and Clark and a group of natives in present day Nebraska undermines modern stereotypes of the “feathered Indian,” since it blatantly omits the stereotypical buckskin and bead-clad native[2]. In the sketch, indigenous people sit comfortably in simple cloth (not leather hide) without a single headdress in sight. In fact, one native dons a turban. No teepee settlements are in sight, and no Armageddon of horses awaits to take the natives roaming across the open plains. This sketch exemplifies the one of many tribes who did not live the nomadic life of a stereotypical tribe, and demonstrate the diversity found on the Corps of Discovery in the American West.wimerpontiac

Another set of images, which were commissioned to be in a European school on the East coast of North America, aimed to teach European Americans about the native communities[3]. Figures 2 and 3 depict the Shewamett Indians. Both of these images lampoon stereotypes of indigenous communities with single style dress, hair, or house. One sketch portrays a multitude of natives dressed in attire ranging from blanket wraps to crowns and capes. The natives have more diversity in their dress than the white soldiers! This depicts how few natives complied with the clichéd attire, and each tribe was dedicated to their own traditional style.

wimersmithrescueThe second image again debunks the myth of mono-styled clothing, but also portrays the different style of indigenous house. In the background, a permanent thatch house resides in the forest. This demonstrates how some native tribes were not nomadic buffalo hunters, but established perpetual residence in a specific niche. This second image also alludes to the beginnings of controversy surrounding native attitudes and savagery. One native man (dressed in a leopard skin toga) attempts to sack a white settler, while another native (in a cloth dress and an elaborate helmet) refuses to let him hurt the European. Conflicting interests in the native populace pertaining to dealing with settlers is one root of why native cultures, today, are remembered as only nomadic and territorial. No good war story ever came out of peaceful living.

Turning to the historian reports on native culture, a reconstruction of indigenous homes demonstrates the variety and creativity of different native tribes to adapt and personalize their structures so they best suited their environment. Sifting through the structural advantages and disadvantages of wigwams, longhouses, wattle houses, grass houses, chickees, adobe villages, plank houses, and igloos, it is clear that indigenous tribes were not mono-structural, and not all wandering people groups. Structure and length of stay depended entirely on food security and climate. Tribes based in the forests and mountains were more permanent since their food didn’t migrate. Tribes based in the plains were more restless, following water sources and migratory animal tracks. On top of this, many tribes utilized different styles of house for different occasions. During a hunt, an otherwise permanent native might utilize a shrub house as a makeshift camp. A wigwam tribe might build a longhouse for religious ceremonies or tribal meetings. A plank house community might change to a wattle community because of a tree blight. [4]

The History Chanel website utilizes accounts from the Corps of Discovery, as well as interviews from Native Americans alive today, to categorize different tribes into ten major groups based on the land they occupied: the Arctic, the Subarctic, the Northeast, the Southeast, the Plains, the Southwest, the Great Basin, California, the Northwest Coast, and the Plateau. Each different climate zone was home to a multitude of different tribes, and each zone had varied traditions concerning dress, ritual, home, and treatment of European settlers.[5]

This website also illuminates how Native Americans became a single entity in American popular culture. Nomadic tribes of the artic and plains seldom had contact with other groups, and therefore had limited warfare between them. However, the permanent settlements on the coast had long lasting sentiments against their neighbors, and white settlers used this against them. Native groups assisted in wiping each other out on the coasts, coaxed by white men to wage war against other original inhabitants. This meant that white settlers spent most of their colonizing military power on fighting nomadic tribes (such as Comanche and Apache) who were plain dwellers. Since these tribes did travel in teepees, and their festive dress did consist of feathered head décor, these were the myths carried back to civilization by military forces who had fought these tribes, and morphed into all-applicable stereotypes for native communities across the Americas. [6]

Colonizers not only brought back the illusion of a mono-cultural native populace, but their rules and regulations forced tribes to simplify their traditions, so they actually did become very similar to one another. Religious protocols demanded the eradication of traditional dances and rituals[7], and violators were punished as exemplars. This demonstrates how white settlers brought their ideal stereotype to life: they wanted a single breed of tribe, one whose culture they understood and could control, and steered the indigenous populace into complying. Today, there a roughly eleven different Native American dances where there used to be “literally hundreds of dances and variations across the continent,”[8].

Contrary to popular cultural portrayals, indigenous people of the American West were not mono-culturally feather-wearing, teepee-living, plain-roaming individuals. Each tribe adapted their life and dress style to reflect their climate, and also adjusted their artistic practices to suit their tribal needs. Western civilization stereotyped all tribes based on the ones they had the most conflict with, and eventually enforced bleaching of the indigenous culture because of their own voracious desire for control. The perception of one Native American culture is a distorted self-fulfilled prophecy: Europeans wanted to see only one breed of native, so they forced all tribes to contort themselves to fit this one lifestyle, which denied them the individual practices that made them uniquely beautiful.

Bibliography:

 

Gas, Patrick, “Captain Lewis & Clark holding a council with the Indians,” etching, A Journal of the

Voyages and Travels of a Corps of Discovery, Under the Command of Capt. Lewis and Capt.

Clarke.

“Native American Cultures.” History.com. A&E Television Networks

“Native American Dances – History and Information.” Native American Dances – History and Information.

Legends of America, n.d. Web

“Native American Houses.” Native American Homes: Wigwams, Longhouses, Tepees, Lodges, and Other

                  American Indian Houses.

 

Sinclair, Thomas, Events in Indian History, 1841-43, Lithograph, Lancaster or Philadelphia.

The Lone Ranger. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2013

[1] The Lone Ranger. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2013

[2] Patrick Gas, “Captain Lewis & Clark holding a council with the Indians,” etching, A Journal of the Voyages and Travels of a Corps of Discovery, Under the Command of Capt. Lewis and Capt. Clarke.

[3] Thomas Sinclair, Events in Indian History, 1841-43, Lithograph, Lancaster or Philadelphia.

[4] “Native American Houses.” Native American Homes: Wigwams, Longhouses, Tepees, Lodges, and Other American Indian Houses.

[5] “Native American Cultures.” History.com. A&E Television Networks

[6] “Native American Cultures.” History.com. A&E Television Networks

[7] “Native American Dances – History and Information.” Native American Dances – History and Information. Legends of America, n.d. Web

[8] “Native American Dances – History and Information.” Native American Dances – History and Information. Legends of America, n.d. Web

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s