While there are many answers to this question, one of the most important is simply this: sheer and utter ubiquity. In almost every form of popular media from television to film to literature to advertising, we are constantly being bombarded with the same creative devices over and over again. Over time they work their way into our brains and take on a whole new life as tropes.
One of the best websites out there for understanding the power of popular media in shaping the American consciousness is TVtropes.org. This website is a constantly expanding wikipedia style encyclopedia of tropes from creative works as diverse as video games, theater, music, and new media. It's tongue and cheek brand of humor and casual tone certainly makes for some entertaining reading.
But what exactly is a trope you ask? Here is the working definition from the website:
"Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means "stereotyped and trite." In other words, dull and uninteresting. We are not looking for dull and uninteresting entries. We are here to recognize tropes and play with them, not to make fun of them."
The website includes innumerable examples relevant to Drawing on Indians and I have excerpted some of them here. Be sure to click on the link and scroll down to see just how ubiquitous these tropes are across the media world (and feel free to add any new ones):
Indian Burial Ground
"A common cause for supernatural goings-on in America, commonly seen in movies: A house is haunted or Cursed due to being built on an Ancient Indian Burial Ground. The disturbed spirits of the ancients of the land then enact their bloody vengeance against those who wake them by turning off the lights, making hooting noises, creating flies and maybe, if they feel up to it, killing people."
"A character who is portrayed as nobler or of higher moral fibre than the norm, due to their race or ethnicity, which is that of a barbaric or savage tribe. (Often regarded as living the Good Old Ways). The savages in question are quite often American Indians, so you could probably call them Mary Sioux. Rare nowadays, except as a Sci Fi alien- though it has made something of a comeback with the idea of Magical Native American people being more in tune with nature than the greedy white people."
"There are plenty of people who believe that modern life is rubbish and would like to escape it and go live off the fat of the land. The Going Native trope plays to this fantasy by having a character lifted out of his typical environment and thrust into a new one, only to become a part of that new world. "
"American Indians (also Red Indians, Native Americans, Amerinds, or First Nations) discovered America by walking across a gigantic land bridge from Russia into Alaska. For a few thousand years they just took up space until Europeans rode massive wooden buckets across the ocean and crashed into the eastern shore. After a friendly 'getting to know you' dinner party, the killing started, and lines were drawn between the Civilized World and Injun Country."
Magical Native American
"After centuries of various atrocities (smallpox, Columbus, Custer, the Trail of Tears) perpetuated against "the savages", white people finally came to realize that Native Americans have rich identities and cultures. Furthermore, Native American tribes have their own rich and varied beliefs, many of which hold close to the idea of the value of everything on the earth...Of course, many non-Natives, especially those Hollywood types, saw a complex faith with a focus on ritual and spirits and broke it down to "magic." So, whenever someone needs to bring in a spirit guide, or magical superpowers, they bring in the Magical Native American."
"Indigenous people tend to be, well, poor. Indigenous people also have a tradition of war, unlike the rest of the world. So of course they're badasses. No matter what era, you're in, if you live in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, or Australia, indigenous people will be badasses. Rarely seen in the rest of the world, though. The American version of the Badass Native has costuming and prop elements as well. Note that this is Always Male, will often be magical. Overlap with Noble Savage."
"A common trope in 18th and 19th century adventure fiction, when vast swathes of the world were being explored and properly documented by Europeans for the first time, Mighty Whitey is usually a displaced white European, of noble descent, who ends up living with native tribespeople and not only learns their ways but also becomes their greatest warrior/leader/representative. Extra points if he woos The Chiefs Daughter along the way."
The Chief's Daughter
"Even in Darkest Africa, Injun Country, or the land of Wild Samoans, Everythings Better With Princesses. The Chief's daughter, in her Fur Bikini or Braids Beads And Buckskins, is often the first to greet or trust Mighty Whitey during his visit to the strange new land. She'll be inexplicably beautiful by Western standards with just enough racial traits to be exotic, and will be a Noble, Nubile Savage compared to the rest of her Barbarian Tribe, and a Friend To All Living Things."
"Under Hollywood History, all historical Central/South American nations are lumped into one exotic and barbaric people: the Mayincatec, featuring aspects of the Maya, Inca and the Aztecs, plus many others. It's a salad of exciting bits from all their histories, with a topping of myth and fiction. And the dressing is blood."
Want to see these TV tropes in action? Well, there isn't a better example out there than the famously flawed 1995 Disney animated film Pocahontas.
One of the best critiques is from regular TVtropes.org contributor The Nostalgia Chick. Her silly comments and sharp wit add a touch of humor to what could otherwise be a very dry subject. She also created a video critique of Pocahontas which you will find below:
Part 1 of 2:
Part 2 of 2: (scroll ahead to 3:38 for the most disturbing Disney movie line ever)
To conclude as only The Nostalgia Chick can:
"And hopefully now we're all a little less educated on our own history. And the movie leaves us with questions like, 'Why are there moose in Virginia? Where did all those majestic cliffs go in the interim 500 years? Why doesn't listening with one's heart bridge language gaps anymore? Why does Pocahontas lack a real nose — was she really fathered by Lord Voldemort?' Really, it's best not to think about it — the great mouse in the sky certainly doesn't want you to."
For more on Pocahontas, check out this previous post:
Portraying Pocahontas: or the Not-So-Modern Origins of the "Sexy Indian Princess"