"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Electronic Handheld Island Indians

Imagine you are sailing across the Caribbean.  Suddenly a terrible storm with 20 foot swells batters your small boat.  The vessel creaks and moans before it finally breaks apart, leaving you adrift in the wide open sea.

But wait... you see a small tropical island and you start paddling.  Your mind is going through all the scenarios.  Is there any food?  Is there any water?  And most importantly...

Are there any Natives?

Something inside you has you worried.  Could there be Indians living on that island?  Could they be savages, cannibals even?  Even in these remote parts there could be lost tribes who have never seen a white person before.  Maybe they'll think you're a god and you can impress them with your magical technology.  You laugh away all the silliness but somehow that doesn't put your mind at rest...

Have you ever stopped and wondered: Why would you ever think such things?  You didn't just dream up these stereotypes.  You probably learned them somewhere.  But where?

If there is one group of people who love to draw upon our native neighbors, its advertisers.  They take the most potent symbols in our culture and use them to sell their products, the Indian being no exception.

Whether it's a chief in a war bonnet selling Natural American Spirit tobacco (cause Indians have a long and sacred tradition with tobacco)...

an awkward Amazon Indian making us laugh for Bud Light (cause Indians are primitive people unable to adapt to modern ways)...

or a crying Indian shaming us into cleaning up our environment (cause Indians have a special, sacred bond with Mother Earth)...

...advertisers rely on our limited cultural presumptions about native people to sell their stuff.

The RadioShack commercial plays on the classic stereotype of the tropical island savage.  This stereotype says that people living on isolated tropical islands are primitive, unsophisticated natives ready to either cook and eat or worship the first white guy who washes ashore.

It has been worked and reworked in literature, film, and television for centuries.  Ever since the first Europeans set foot in the Caribbean and the South Pacific, we have heard tales of half-naked, blood-thirsty, idol-worshiping savages that have lit our imaginations on fire.  These tales of encounters between civilization and savagery are so powerful, they will probably never go away.

These same tales also serve to reinforce stereotypes about native people.  While it is easy to laugh away these stereotypes as silly ideas about far away people from some long lost past, the truth is they still affect the way we deal with real people today.  Ask yourself, how much do you know about the native peoples of the Caribbean or South Pacific?  How many of your responses can be traced to something you saw in a movie or on TV?

Lastly, these advertisements once again demonstrate America's cultural obsession with the exotic Other.  Whether they be natural/spiritual Indians or cannibalistic savages, our culture can't help but keep drawing on those Indians.

Oh yeah... lest we forget one of America's favorite movie characters:

For more on the Cannibals of the Caribbean check out this informative page on the Newspaper Rock blog: http://www.bluecorncomics.com/pirates.htm

1 comment:

  1. Somebody remind me not to write a blog post on a Saturday night again. Blah!