The Portrayal of Indigenous Women in Popular Culture

*Throughout this post, I use the terms Indigenous, Native American, Indian, and Native to refer to Indigenous people. I use Indigenous when my statements may apply to Indigenous people/ women as a whole, and use the others when specifically referring to people Indigenous to the U.S.

Indigenous involvement in film and media has long been a colonized perception of a race, generalized down to a couple of stereotypes. Despite the fact that there are 566 individual federally recognized tribes in the United States[1] and many more who are not federally recognized, all with very distinct cultures and practices, popular culture trends represent Native people in very narrow lenses. Instead of representing real tribes or Indian people, popular culture prefers costumes and fantasies in place of Native people and this has serious implications for Native American youth and most significantly, young Native girls and women. Popular culture perpetuates two stereotypes of Native American women: the noble and subservient savage and the sexy Indian princess, both inherently “savage” and derogatory in representation. Both stereotypes create a dangerous image for popular culture to view Native American women and worse, create a toxic image for young Native women to view themselves through media, beginning with films like Disney’s Pocahontas, and growing with various exploitations of Native women through racist and sexualized costumes.

Disney’s Pocahontas is intended for young boys and girls who, from a young age, experience the image of the mystical Native American. Set in early colonial times, Indians are introduced as peaceful caramel-skinned communities who are knowledgeable about land tending and have the ability to talk to animals and plants. Perhaps the most clearly racist aspect of the film is the wording expressed towards the Native people, “savages,” “heathens,” “pagans,” “devils,” and “primitive,” all terms that connote something wild, primitive, and inferior.[2] The film is oriented around young Native American “princess”, Pocahontas, who disobeys her father, Chief Powahatan, and becomes enthralled in a fatal love triangle with settler John Smith and tribal member Kocoum. Pocahontas is also in a love triangle of cultural sorts, ruptured between the New World and her traditional culture. The main implication with the film is that Pocahontas is a historical figure who, historians agree, had no romantic contact with John Smith and was not a princess, because tribes do not have royal hierarchy. Also, John Smith and Pocahontas’ hasty relationship would have been really quite unlikely in the culture she was really from. According to Dr. Cornel Pewewardy’s The Pocahontas Paradox: A Cautionary Tale for Educators, [the relationship] “most likely would not have happened during the time period in the movie, as it was a cultural norm for all tribal members to adhere to any strict directive from a parent.”[3] By disregarding this cultural norm and having Pocahontas betray her father, Disney marketed a very New World love story with the Pocahontas film that exemplifies that love conquers all, including culture and traditions. This observation is shared with Indigenous scholar Dr. Cornel Pewewardy who says, “In short, Disney has abandoned historical accuracy in favor of creating a marketable New Age Pocahontas who can embody dreams for wholeness and harmony.”[4] This film also displays both stereotypes of the noble savage woman and the sexy Indian princess. Pocahontas is able to talk and get advice from a wise willow tree, and expresses her feelings to her pets that she can also talk to. Reinforced with the lyrics to Pocahontas’ “Colors of the Wind”, popular culture assumes the stereotype that Indian people are inherently noble and spiritual. In the film, Pocahontas is a beautiful, voluptuous woman who has all of the euro-centrically “beautiful” features of a Native American, nice high cheekbones, long dark hair, beautifully sculpted eyes and lips, golden skin that is not too dark for Eurocentric values, and a slim hourglass body. She is always dressed in beautiful Indian garb, though none of it is culturally correct, and her long full figured legs are always revealed.

Disney’s barbie-doll figured Pocahontas

Pocahontas’ sexy Indian princess image shows popular culture that Native women are nothing more than beautifully seductive women and that is a toxic contribution to Native image. When young Indigenous girls and boys view this information, the sexualized stereotype is also pressured on them. According to the U.S Department of Justice, “American Indians are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault crimes compared to all other races, and one in three Indian women reports having been raped during her lifetime.”[5] The alarmingly high rate of sexual assault against Indigenous women is disturbing and is due to how America views Native American women, which is informed by popular culture’s lens. Also according to the US Department of Justice, “at least 70% of the violent victimizations experienced by American Indians are committed by persons not of the same race, a substantially higher rate of interracial violence than experienced by white or black victims.”[6] This is particularly troubling in the conviction process because jurisdiction lines become unclear since U.S tribes have sovereign legal systems.

Another popular culture artifact that has contributed to the misrepresentation of Native women is that of the Indian costume. Every year around Halloween, the Internet is bombarded with social media uploads of people in stereotypical Indian costumes involving redface, a tan mini-dress, and fringes on everything. But this costume didn’t get popular on its own, Native American Halloween costumes have perpetuated mockery for a long time. The origin of such a costume dates back to the white colonist playing Indian at the Boston Tea Party. Here, “at the earliest stage of “playing Indian,” the participants in the Boston Tea Party took on indigenous dress and war paint in order to rebel against British taxation and British identity.”[7] More recently, the popularity of wearing Native costumes, tacky clothing with dream catchers, feathers, “tribal” prints and headdresses peaked recently around 2011, when clothing designers like American Apparel and Urban Outfitters opted for the look to convey a spiritual and down to earth look. It is also far too common that Halloween specials of television shows choose to have one of their female characters dress up in a “sexy Indian princess” costume. In an episode entitled It’s Really Complicated (airdate: 11/26/12) of the show Gossip Girl, main female character Blair doesn’t even need to wait for Halloween to dress up in a sexy Indian princess costume, using the costume in her strip tease for her currently separated beau in an effort to get him back. This clearly sends the message that Native women are nothing but a costume, meant to be flaunted and objectified.

It’s Really Complicated (airdate: 11/26/12)

This is all on the show’s Thanksgiving special episode, and the implications here are pretty obvious. On a day that already serves as a memorial to a time of early colonialism and betrayal for Native people, it is portrayed as normal to dress up and mock Native culture by sexualizing the image of Native American women. I can understand that costumes are meant to be a fun way to experience another identity, but when that identity is someone’s race, culture, and life, a very clear line is crossed. For years the sexy Indian princess trope has been marketed to popular culture, and results in Native women being seen as nothing more than a fantasy, a form of invisibility.

Despite the countless negative misrepresentations of Native people and particularly Native women through film and media, Indigenous film-makers like Lisa Jackson, Anishinaabe, and many others are defying long perpetuated stereotypes. Within the film industry, a break out of Indigenous film-makers are defying Native involvement and replacing stereotypical representations of Indigenous people with films of just the opposite; films made by and for Native people. Currently more prominent with Canada’s First Nation’s film-makers than those in the states, the Indigenous film circuit is a fast growing movement that is revolutionarily Indigenizing how popular culture may view Native people. With her short film SAVAGE, Lisa Jackson explored her mother’s experience in the residential, or what we would call in the U.S, boarding school system. She says of the project, “SAVAGE is my response to the challenge. I’ve used my “obstructions” to bring a fresh take, at times even a humorous one (yes, there are zombies), on Canada’s residential school history, which–sadly–is still unknown to many Canadians. With SAVAGE I’m trying to subvert stereotypes about “Native issues” and use an unconventional approach to get underneath preconceptions and deliver an emotional experience.[8]

Popular culture is flooded with misrepresentation of Native people and perpetuates objectifying stereotypes surrounding Indigenous women. In a society where this leads to the sexual assault rate against Native women being nearly three times higher than that compared to any other race, it is so vital that there is real Indigenous representation in media. Native youth deserve positive Indigenous characters and historical figures in the popular culture surrounding them. Native girls and women deserve more than invisibility and abuse. Indigenous people are so much more than the cycle of stereotypes that are perpetuated in popular culture and though there is a long way to go, the Indigenous film circuit is a fast growing industry and a promising step in the right direction to re-orient popular culture’s representation of Native American women.

Link to SAVAGE, a 5 minute short film by Lisa Jackson, here: http://lisajackson.ca/Savage

sources:

[1] http://www.bia.gov/WhoWeAre/BIA/OIS/TribalGovernmentServices/TribalDirectory/

[2] The Pocahontas Paradox: A Cautionary Tale for Educators, Dr. Cornel Pewewardy

[3] The Pocahontas Paradox: A Cautionary Tale for Educators, Dr. Cornel Pewewardy

[4] A Barbie-Doll Pocahontas, Dr. Cornel Pewewardy

[5] http://www.justice.gov/ovw/tribal-communities

[6] http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/aic.pdf

[7] From Subhuman to Superhuman: Images of First Nations Peoples in Comic Books, Dr. Cornel Pewewardy

[8] http://www.ammsa.com/publications/windspeaker/lisa-jackson-windspeaker-confidential

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About mosife

Hi everyone! I'm Maiya Osife, I'm an anthropology major and plan to minor in Portland State's Indigenous Nations Studies program. I love working with lovely people and experiencing life in the PNW.

One thought on “The Portrayal of Indigenous Women in Popular Culture

  1. Hi Maiya 🙂

    I really enjoyed your essay about indigenous women in mainstream media. Despite knowing that Disney’s Pocahontas is almost completely inaccurate in its historical and cultural portrayals I didn’t even think that there were any negative implications of such representations, especially on children, who are the main audience for the film. This is sad considering it’s one of my favourite animated movies of my childhood, but thank you for bringing this to the attention of me and my fellow classmates at least. Knowing this now, I am really interested in re-watching the film with a new lens, and exploring more into Native filmmaking — Lisa Jackson’s SAVAGE is a great place to start, thanks for putting this on our radar!

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