"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

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Portraying Pocahontas: or the Not-So-Modern Origins of the "Sexy Indian Princess"

One of the single most pervasive and harmful facets of the 500 year history of "drawing on Indians" remains the sexual objectification of Native women. It's an important issue that can often be lost in the sea of appropriation and faulty information that sadly marks the modern state of Native representation in the wider American culture. But it's an issue that rears its ugly head every October 31st.

"Sexy Indian Princess" anyone?

This issue is in fact part of a larger trend that extends beyond Native communities. Throughout American history, women of color have always been treated as the racialized sexual other for the white male majority.

As Whitney Teal writes in her article One Woman's Costume is another Woman's Nightmare at the Women's Rights section of Change.org:

Consider the "Chiquita Banana" stereotypes of Latinas, oversexed black Jezebels, or the seemingly pliant and sexually subversive Japanese geisha. All of those stereotypical costumes correlate with a tame, sexually pure image of white women, like the European colonist with her full-length skirt, the Scarlett O'Hara on the plantation. Of course, there are also sexy stereotypes for white women, but most aren't ethnicity-specific and most people don't routinely lump all white women into one category.

The fact that Native women are most commonly assaulted by non-Native men is not surprising to me, but does add a historical slant to the idea of how harmful cultural appropriation can be for women. Historically, men have used the implied "natural" sluttiness of women of color as justification for rampant rape or not-really-consensual relationships with women of color, particularly Native women who came into contact with colonists.

Many modern issues for American Indians have roots that run deep in American history. This issue is no different. Reading various articles and comments about this matter, I was reminded of a particular chapter in a particular book that shows just how far back this problem goes.

Camilla Townsend is a history professor at Rutgers University where she specializes in first contact interaction between Native people and Europeans. In 2004, she published Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma which discusses the earliest interaction between the English colonists and the Indians at Jamestown.

Before I even read the book, I fully expected to learn about this early interaction and see how it set the stage for Native-Western encounters in the ensuing 400 years of American history. What I did not realize was how important the previous 100 years were for the English colonists who left England that fateful December of 1606. Long before they set foot in the muddy tidal flats of the James River, these earliest “americans” already had an idea of Native women fixed fast in their minds.

The motley band of one hundred and forty four Englishmen who landed in Virginia in 1607 were far from uneducated. The history I learned growing up had me believe that these English gentlemen shunned hard work in favor of fruitless gold prospecting, all while stumbling about and starving in this "savage new land." While it is true they faced many obstacles, they at least had done the required reading before they left.

The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589)

Indeed, it is the overview on New World literature available to the English colonists that makes Professor Townsend's book so compelling. It is in her description of these sixteenth century works that the origins of the “sexualized Indian” becomes so abundantly clear.

She writes of lurid tales of an exotic land spreading throughout Europe within the first few years of Columbus' arrival in the Americas. From the earliest illustrations, America was routinely depicted as a naked Indian woman, a metaphor not lost on the Spanish conquistadors who conquered the “virgin” lands of the New World. Even the English described the Indians in and around the failed Roanoke colony as sweet and welcoming, “devoid of all guile and treason.” (p. 28)

These works inspired hundreds if not thousands of Englishmen to risk their lives and money to journey to this land of “opportunity.” Native women were portrayed as not only accessible but willing. It was seen as practically divine mandate that these Englishmen sow their seed in the new world both literally and figuratively.

As Townsend writes:

“There is no question that John Smith and his peers- those who wrote such books, and those who read them- embraced a notion of an explorer as a conqueror who strode with many steps through lands of admirers, particularly admiring young women... the colonizers of the imagination were men- men imbued with almost mystical powers. The foreign women and the foreign lands wanted, even needed, these men, for such men were more than desirable.” (p. 29)

European men fabricated the “New World” into a perfect masculine fantasy where savagery and sexuality mingled together in a myriad of tantalizing forms.

As the title of Townsend's book suggests, a certain young Indian girl entered the equation as soon as the Englishmen arrived. Today, she stands tall as the embodiment of the sexualized Indian princess who threw herself upon the white man John Smith in order to save his life. It is also a story that bleeds more fiction than fact.

Townsend brilliantly puts Pocahontas, the woman and the myth, in their historical context:

“Pocahontas, we must remember, was a real person. She was not always a myth. Long before she became an icon, she was a child who walked and played beneath the towering trees of the Virginia woods, and then an adult woman who learned to love-- and to hate-- English men. Myths can lend meaning to our days, and they can inspire wonderful movies. They are also deadly to our understanding.” (ix-x)

The tale of Pocahontas and John Smith came to prominence thanks to Smith's publications. He happily describes the young thirteen or fourteen year-old Pocahontas in alluring terms, “nubile and sexy” joined by other naked young women. (p. 74)

The Abduction of Pocahontas (c.1618)

In reality, she was a mere ten or eleven years old. A young girl who tried to live an ordinary life in extraordinary times.

All of the depictions of Pocahontas and Smith since their real-life encounter have only served to transform the historical reality of statutory rape into something not only palatable but pleasing for readers and movie audiences alike.

One only needs to look at the more modern depictions of Pocahontas to see this myth in action:

"Pocahontas" (c.1848)

"Pocahontas" (c.1883)

Pocahontas (1995)

The New World (2005)

A young attractive teenage girl tantalizing the white man.  Not the normal eleven year old girl of history.  In essence, the myth and not reality.  And sadly a myth with very real consequences even today.

Reading the various articles about sexual violence against Native women, the countless problems with sexy Indian costumes, and the historical insights on Pocahontas really made me sit up and think this Halloween.

I hope it does the same for you.

For more information:

Native American Women and Violence at NOW

Indian Women as Sex Objects at Blue Corn Comics

Pocahontas Bastardizes Real People at Blue Corn Comics

The Pocahontas Myth at Powhatan Renape Nation


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Stanton, North Dakota: The Home of Sakakawea

In the summer of 2009, I lived in a rather unremarkable small North Dakota town.  Situated just off the confluence of the Knife and Missouri Rivers, it features straight streets and tall trees.  It has a corner gas station and one bar.  It even has a small city park down by the river where on a good day the walleye are biting.

But Stanton, North Dakota is not just another prairie town.  Stanton, North Dakota is special.  Stanton, North Dakota is the Home of Sakakawea.

The signs are everywhere:

Her name welcomes you into town...

 ...as her image graces the map

They have a city park named after her...

...and a gas station too!

View Larger Map

She even follows you as you drive down the main highway!

The woman we know today as Sakakawea or Sacagawea or Sacajawea was not born in Stanton or even in North Dakota.  She was born a Lemhi Shoshone in present-day Idaho.

She was kidnapped by a group of Hidatsa in a raid when she was all of twelve years-old.  She was taken to the Hidatsa village located today at the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site just a mile north of town.  The now thirteen year-old Sakakawea was sold to the French trader Toussaint Charbonneau.  She spent four years living in a Hidatsa earthlodge toiling away for her "husband" until the storied Corps of Discovery arrived in 1804.  The rest as they say...

...is history.

Or is it?

We all know the story of Sakakawea.  She led Lewis and Clark across the plains, through the mountains, and down to the Pacific.  Her skills in finding food and translating foreign tongues proved invaluable.  Her fortuitous run-in with her Shoshone brother was practically destined.  And she did all this while carrying her infant son "Pomp".

This is the history we were all taught growing up.  It is the true story of a remarkable woman who accomplished remarkable things.  But it is so much more than just history.

The story of Sakakawea is part of our national cultural consciousness.  She is a mythic figure on par with the greats in American history.  How else could she get her own space in Statuary Hall in our nation's capitol:

Sakakawea stands second only to Pocahontas in our cultural obsession with a figure about whom we know so very little.  Not once do we hear her voice in the historical record.  Instead, we know this young woman through the writings of a select few white men, each with their own opinions, biases, and expectations.

Two hundred years after she returned to the villages of the Knife River, her image remains in that place but it is not an image she would recognize.  Two centuries worth of artists, writers, and politicians have worked together to create our common perception of this young woman.  From a handful of sources, they've carved her in stone, cast her in bronze, and painted her on canvas.  They made her physical, all while cementing her place in myth and memory.

I invite you all to stare into the eyes of Sakakawea and ask yourself one question...

...do we really know her?


Monday, October 18, 2010

Lenawee, Tecumseh, Indians: Drawing Three Deep in Michigan

Q: What sports do Indians play?

A: Soccer, basketball, volleyball, and track!

Well, at least according to this driver:

(click image to enlarge)

I snapped this quick photo many weeks ago while cruising along the highway on my way to Metro Beach to see the voyageur encampment (read about that adventure here: Tim the Fur Trade Reenactment Indian)

The stickers support the young athletes at Tecumseh High School located in the small town of Tecumseh, Michigan.  A better look at the logo can be had at the Tecumseh Indian Fan Club website:


Indian mascots remain today throughout our country as one of the most visible forms of drawing on Indians.  They range from the generic Indians to specific tribes like the Chippewas or Seminoles to more "descriptive" terms such as Warriors or Redskins.

They can also tie into much older examples of drawing on Indians.  Take this line from the Tecumseh Public Schools website about the history of the town:

"Tecumseh was one of the first settlements of the Michigan Territory, and the first in Lenawee County. It was first platted in 1824 by Musgrove Evans. Evans was deeply impressed with the culture and beliefs of the Native Americans of the area and named the settlement after the great Shawnee Chief, Tecumseh."

Thus a possible origin of the Indians mascot but the Indian borrowing goes back even further.  Tecumseh is located in Lenawee County which owes its name to the work of one Henry Schoolcraft, famed ethnographer of Michigan's Indian peoples.  According to the Michigan DNR website:

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, author and Indian agent, mixed words and syllables from Native American, Arabian and Latin languages to make up Native American-sounding words for some of the 28 counties set off in 1840. They include Alcona, Allegan, Alpena, Arenac, Iosco, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Oscoda and Tuscola.

 and Lenawee specifically is...

From a Native American word meaning "man," either from the Delaware "leno or lenno" or the Shawnee "lenawai."

Here is a map of Michigan listing all the county names and a short list of other Michigan counties with "Native American-sounding" names:

(Click to enlarge and see all the counties)


Believed to have been made up by Henry R. Schoolcraft with "al" from the Arabic for "the," "co" the root of a word for "plain" or "prairie," and "na" for excellent; thus the word is interpreted as "excellent plain."


A name made up by Henry Schoolcraft, it is a combination of the Latin "arena" (sandy) and the Native American "ac" (earth). The combined words mean "sandy place."


This was a favorite name used by Henry Schoolcraft for Native American boys and men in his writings. He interpreted the word to mean "water of light."


This word was a Henry Schoolcraft creation, originally spelled Calcasca. One suggestion is that this is a play on words. Schoolcraft's family name formerly was Calcraft. The Ks may have been added to make the name appear more like a Native American word.


Created by Henry Schoolcraft (Ottawas and Ojibwas did not use the letter L), who gave the name "Leelinau" to some Native American women in his stories.


This Schoolcraft creation is believed to be a combination of two Ojibwa words, "ossin" (stone) and "muskoda" (prairie).

Wow!  Three layers of drawing on Indians all located in one small Michigan town.

Americans have always been obsessed with giving things Indian names.  At least twenty-one states draw their names from Indian origins and the list of counties, cities, and towns that do likewise goes on forever.

I believe that this process of Indian place-naming ties into broader issues of myth-making and identity in American history.  From the earliest days of our young Republic, Americans have used the Indian as a proxy to authenticate their claim to this landscape and define themselves as Americans.  Indian place names inherently bring with them all the popular notions and qualities of "Indianness"- the same qualities we want in ourselves and our land.

The same is true with mascots.  People choose Indian mascots not because they are "honoring Native Americans" but rather to invoke that very essence of Indianness (or at least one version of it).  That means strength, honor, pride, and a "savage" nature perfectly suited for the football field.  The problem with these mascots is that they perpetuate one-dimensional stereotypes and undermine the ability of American Indian Nations to portray accurate and respectful images of their culture, spirituality, and traditions.

For more on Indian place-names check out:

The Penobscot Building

For more on Indian names in consumer culture check out:

Pemmican Brand Beef Jerky: Part II

For more on Indian mascots check out:

Mascot Indians

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Happy Indigenous Americans Day!

Well, it's that time of year again- Columbus Day

Time for people to celebrate the myth of Christopher Columbus.  The man who brought western civilization to America and initiated the divinely mandated conquest of a continent.  He sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and for that we say thank you?

Not everyone agrees of course.  The voices may be few and far between (in the mainstream media at least) but every second Monday in October more and more people are voicing their opinions.  More and more people are stopping to think about what this day supposedly celebrates.  More and more people are starting to reconsider:

And for those of you who think this will never happen anywhere big, here's a group of people who heeded the call back in 1990.  It's just a small little place that goes by the name of South Dakota:

Thune: Anniversary of Native Americans’ Day is cause for celebration and reflection

I encourage everyone to read a few news articles about the Columbus Day holiday with a skeptical eye.  Columbus is a sacred figure for many Americans so attacking him is tantamount to burning the flag or defacing Mount Rushmore.  But realize, history is rarely black and white.

500 years can hide a lot of dirt and Christopher Columbus is one figure whose popular image is suspiciously clean.