Representations of Native Americans in the Mass Media
- Casey Ryan KellyCasey Ryan KellyDepartment of Critical Communication and Media Studies, Butler University
The historical construction of Indian in American popular culture poses serious challenges for conducting research about representations of indigenous culture, identity, and politics. Mass-mediated representation deserves specific attention, as popular entertainment has been one of the most significant historic battlegrounds over the status of indigenous identity in American culture. Representations of American Indians have been reworked and negotiated as they have circulated through a variety of mediums, including theatrical performances, silent films, Westerns, prime time television, independent films, advertising, sports culture, and so on.
Beginning with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope, introduced the at the 1893 Chicago Columbian World’s Exposition, American mass entertainment has been preoccupied with the drama of westward expansion and the noble savage of the American frontier. Later, the films of John Ford developed the Hollywood image of the screen savage. Film continued to address the topic of American Indians through the lens of the 1960’s and 1970’s counterculture, 1980’s imperial nostalgia, 1990s sympathy and revisionism, and, in the 21st century, through native filmmaker’s reclamation of indigenous visual sovereignty. Not all media are uniform in their portrayals. The televisual Indian evolved quite differently than her/his counterpart in film. At some points, television has been even more progressive in its portrayals of American Indian characters, more willing to feature native actors and storylines than mainstream Hollywood film. Besides film and television, sports and advertising have had the most influence on popular conceptions of American Indians. While commodified images of American Indians are ubiquitous in popular culture, sport culture (mascots) has become the most popular site where Indian imagery is used to generate a profit. Struggles over everything from the moving image to sports mascots demonstrate the importance of studying the power of the image, particularly in the context of American settler colonialism.