Stereotypes of indigenous peoples of Canada and the United States

Stereotypes of indigenous peoples of Canada and the United States include many ethnic stereotypes found worldwide which include historical misrepresentations and the oversimplification of hundreds of indigenous cultures. Negative stereotypes are associated with prejudice and discrimination that continue to affect the lives of indigenous peoples.[1]

A logo variation of the fictional MLB mascot Chief Wahoo, used by the Cleveland Indians from 1946 to 1950, which exhibits the stereotypical image of an American indigenous (Native American) person

Indigenous peoples of the Americas are commonly called Native Americans (United States excluding Alaska and Hawaii), Alaska Natives, or First Nations people (in Canada).[2] The Circumpolar peoples, often referred to by the English term Eskimo, have a distinct set of stereotypes. Eskimo itself is an exonym, deriving from phrases that Algonquin tribes used for their northern neighbors.[3]

It is believed that some portrayals of natives, such as their depiction as bloodthirsty savages have disappeared. However, most portrayals are oversimplified and inaccurate; these stereotypes are found particularly in popular media which is the main source of mainstream images of Indigenous peoples worldwide.[4][5]

The stereotyping of American Indians must be understood in the context of history which includes conquest, forced displacement, and organized efforts to eradicate native cultures, such as the boarding schools of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which separated young Native Americans from their families to educate and to assimilate them as European Americans.[6]

Indigenous terminology

The first difficulty in addressing stereotypes is the terminology to use when referring to Indigenous peoples, which is an ongoing controversy. The truly stereotype-free names would be those of individual nations. A practical reference to Indigenous peoples, in general, is "American Indian" in the United States and "First Nations" or "Indigenous" in Canada.[2] The peoples collectively referred to as Inuit have their own unique stereotypes. The communities to which Indigenous peoples belong also have various names, typically "nation" or "tribe" in the United States, but "comunidad" (Spanish for "community") in South America.[7]

All global terminology must be used with an awareness of the stereotype that "Indians" are a single people, when in fact there are hundreds of individual ethnic groups, who are all native to the Americas. This type of awareness is obvious when European Americans refer to Europeans with an understanding that there are some similarities, but many differences between the peoples of an entire continent.[5]

American Natives

Since the first Europeans made landfall in North America, native peoples have suffered under a weltering array of stereotypes, misconceptions and caricatures. Whether portrayed as noble savages, ignoble savages, teary-eyed environmentalists, drunken, living off the Government, Indian princess/Squaw or most recently, simply as casino-rich, native peoples find their efforts to be treated with a measure of respect and integrity undermined by images that flatten complex tribal, historical and personal experience into one-dimensional representations that tells us more about the depicters than about the depicted.

Carter Meland (Anishinaabe heritage) and David E. Wilkins (Lumbee), professors of Native American Studies at the University of Minnesota.[8]

All of the myths about American Indians can be understood in the context of the metanarrative of the United States, which was originally "manifest destiny" and has now become "American exceptionalism". Myths and stereotypes persist because they fit into these narratives, which Americans use to understand their own history.[9] This history includes the description of Native Americans in the Declaration of Independence as "merciless Indian savages". These stereotypes have historical, cultural, and racial characteristics.

Historical misconceptions

There are numerous distortions of history, many of which continue as stereotypes.

There is the myth that Indians are a dying race, i.e. "The Vanishing Red Man", when in fact census data shows an increase in the number of individuals who were American Indians and Alaska Natives or American Indian and Alaska Native in combination with one or more other races.[2]

There is an assumption that Indians lost possession of their land because they were inferior,[5] when the reality is:

  1. Many of the indigenous peoples died from diseases to which they had no immunity
  2. There were a number of advanced civilizations in the Americas,[10] but they did lack two important resources: a pack animal large enough to carry a human; and the ability to make steel for tools and weapons.[11]

Purchase of Manhattan

The "purchase" of Manhattan island from Indians is a cultural misunderstanding. In 1626 the director of the Dutch settlement, Peter Minuit, traded sixty guilders worth of goods with the Lenni Lenape, which they would have accepted as gifts in exchange for allowing the settlers to occupy the land. Native Americans had no conception of private ownership of natural resources.[7]


The story told by John Smith of his rescue by the daughter of Chief Powhatan, Pocahontas, is generally agreed by historians to be a fabrication. Pocahontas was most likely eleven or twelve at the time, and this popular tale of the "Indian Princess" and her rescue of Smith has no basis in known historical facts.[7]

Cultural and ethnic misconceptions

The Media Awareness Network of Canada (MNet) has prepared several statements about the portrayals of American Indians, First Nations of Canada, and Alaskan Natives in the media. Westerns and documentaries have tended to portray Natives in stereotypical terms: the wise elder, the aggressive drunk, the Indian princess, the loyal sidekick, obese and impoverished. These images have become known across North America. Stereotyped issues include simplistic characterizations, romanticizing of Native culture, and stereotyping by omission—showing American Indians in a historical rather than modern context.[4]

Native Americans were also portrayed as fierce warriors and braves, often appearing in school sports teams' names until such team names fell into disfavor in the later 20th century. Many school team names have been revised to reflect current sensibilities, though professional teams such as American football's Kansas City Chiefs, baseball's Atlanta Braves, and ice hockey's Chicago Blackhawks continue. Some controversial upper-level Native American team mascots such as Chief Noc-A-Homa and Chief Illiniwek have been discontinued, while some such as Chief Osceola and Renegade remain. A controversy over the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo was resolved in 2012.

There have been issues with the continuation of professional team names and mascots especially in the Washington Redskins name controversy. In 2013, President Obama and NBC sportscaster Bob Costas voiced their objection to the name. After a petition, the Trademark and Trial Appeal Board ordered the cancellation of six federal trademark registrations in 2014. The Redskins are appealing this ruling.[12] The team was renamed the Washington Football Team in 2020.

There is the outdated stereotype that American Indians and Alaskan Natives live on reservations when in fact only about 25% do, and a slight majority now live in urban areas.[2]

There is an assumption that Indians somehow have an intuitive knowledge of their culture and history when the degree of such knowledge varies greatly depending upon the family and community connections of each individual.[2]

Indigenous women

Native American and First Nations women are frequently sexually objectified and are often stereotyped as being promiscuous. Such misconceptions lead to murder, rape, and violence against Native American or First Nations women and girls by non-Native men and sometimes women.[13]

An Algonquin word, the term "squaw" is now widely deemed offensive due to its use for hundreds of years in a derogatory context. However, there remain more than a thousand locations in the U.S. that incorporate the term in its name.[7]

Substance use

Because of the high frequency of American Indian alcoholism, a stereotype has been applied to all American Indians. As with most groups, the incidence of substance use is related to issues of poverty and mental distress, both of which may be, in part, the result of racial stereotyping and discrimination.[14] Treatment for substance use disorders by Native Americans is more effective when it is community-based, and addresses the issues of cultural identification.[15] This stereotype became most prominent in the mid to late twentieth century when alcoholism became the number one cause of death according to the Indian Health Services (IHS). Reports from the mid 1980s state that this was the time period when the IHS began to primarily target the treatment of alcoholism over its past treatments of infectious diseases.[16]

Inuit stereotypes

Inuit, often referred to as Eskimos (which many see as derogatory), are usually depicted dressed in parkas, paddling kayaks, which the Inuit people invented, carving out trinkets, living in igloos, going fishing with a harpoon, hunting whales, traveling by sleigh and huskies, eating cod liver oil and the men are called Nanook about the documentary Nanook of the North. Eskimo children may have a seal for a best friend.

Eskimos are sometimes shown rubbing noses together in greeting ritual, referred to as Eskimo kissing in Western culture, and only loosely based on an authentic Inuit practice known as kunik.[17] They are also often depicted surrounded by polar bears or walruses.[18]

Effect of stereotyping

Stereotypes harm both the victims and those that perpetuate them, with effects on society at large. Victims suffer emotional distress: anger, frustration, insecurity, and feelings of hopelessness. Most of all, Indian children exposed at an early age to these mainstream images internalize the stereotypes paired with the images, resulting in lower self-esteem, contributing to all of the other problems faced by American Indians. Stereotypes become discrimination when the assumptions of being more prone to violence and alcoholism limit job opportunities. This leads directly to Indians being viewed less stable economically, making it more difficult for those that have succeeded to fully enjoy the benefits in the same way that non-Indians do, such as obtaining credit. For those that maintain them, stereotypes prevent a more accurate view of Indians and the history of the United States.[5]

Research also demonstrates the harm done to society by stereotyping of any kind. Two studies examined the effect of exposure to an American Indian sports mascot on the tendency to endorse stereotypes of a different minority group. A study was first done at the University of Illinois and then replicated at The College of New Jersey with the same results. Students were given a paragraph to read about Chief Illiniwek adapted from the University of Illinois' official website, while the control group was given a description of an arts center. In both studies, the students exposed to the sports mascot were more likely to express stereotypical views of Asian-Americans. Although Chief Illiniwek was described only in terms of positive characteristics (as a respectful symbol, not a mascot), the stereotyping of Asian-Americans included negative characteristics, such as being "socially inept". This was indicative of a spreading effect; exposure to any stereotypes increased the likelihood of stereotypical thinking.[19][20]

In Alabama, at a game between the Pinson Valley High School "Indians" and McAdory High School, the latter team displayed a banner using a disparaging reference to the Trail of Tears for which the principal of the school apologized to Native Americans, stated that the cheerleader squad responsible would be disciplined and that all students would be given a lesson on the actual history of the Trail of Tears. Native Americans responded that it was an example of the continuing insensitivity and stereotyping of Indians in America.[21][22] A similar sign was displayed in Tennessee by the Dyersburg Trojans when they played the Jackson Northside Indians.[23]

The effect that stereotyping has had on Indigenous women is one of the main reasons why non-Indigenous people commit violent crimes of hate towards First Nations women and girls.[24] Because Aboriginal women have been associated with images of the "Indian Princess" and "Squaw" some non-Indigenous people believe that Aboriginal women are dirty, promiscuous, overtly sexualized, which makes these women vulnerable to violent assaults.[24] Colonial culture has been foundation of these stereotypes creating a relationship of violence and hatred, which justifies the treatment of First Nations peoples to this day.[25]


Modern perpetuation of stereotypes

The mainstream media makes a lot of money-making movies that play along with stereotypes; while accurate portrayals may be critically acclaimed they are not often made or widely distributed.[5]

Overcoming stereotypes

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) made efforts to improve the portrayals of Aboriginal people in its television dramas. Spirit Bay, The Beachcombers, North of 60 and The Rez used Native actors to portray their own people, living real lives and earning believable livelihoods in identifiable parts of the country.

Imagining Indians is a 1992 documentary film produced and directed by American Indian filmmaker, Victor Masayesva, Jr. (Hopi). The documentary attempts to reveal the misrepresentation of Indigenous American Indian culture and tradition in Classical Hollywood films by interviews with different Indigenous Native American actors and extras from various tribes throughout the United States. In 1996, Plains Cree actor Michael Greyeyes would play renowned American Indian warrior Crazy Horse in the 1996 television film Crazy Horse.[26]

21st century

Reel Injun is a 2009 Canadian documentary film directed by Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond, Catherine Bainbridge, and Jeremiah Hayes that explores the portrayal of American Indians in film. Reel Injun is illustrated with excerpts from classic and contemporary portrayals of Native people in Hollywood movies and interviews with filmmakers, actors and film historians, while director Diamond travels across the United States to visit iconic locations in motion picture as well as American Indian history.[27]

Reel Injun explores many stereotypes about natives in film, from the Noble savage to the Drunken Indian. It profiles such figures as Iron Eyes Cody, an Italian American who reinvented himself as a Native American on-screen. The film also explores Hollywood's practice of using Italian Americans and American Jews to portray Indians in the movies and reveals how some Native American actors made jokes in their native tongue on screen when the director thought they were simply speaking gibberish.[27]

Inventing the Indian is a 2012 BBC documentary first broadcast on 28 October on BBC 4 exploring the stereotypical view of Native Americans in the United States in cinema and literature.

See also

  • Chief Wahoo
  • Code name Geronimo controversy
  • Indian giver
  • Native Americans in popular culture
    • List of sports team names and mascots derived from indigenous peoples
    • List of trademarks featuring Native Americans
    • Native Americans in children's literature
    • Portrayal of Native Americans in film
    • List of fictional Native Americans
  • Noble savage
  • Racial profiling
  • Stereotype threat
  • Stereotypes of groups within the United States


  1. Anna V. Smith (October 8, 2018). "Why don't anti-Indian groups count as hate groups?". High Country News.
  2. Walter C. Fleming (November 7, 2006). "Myths and Stereotypes About Native Americans". Phi Delta Kappan. 88 (3): 213–217. doi:10.1177/003172170608800319. S2CID 145661359. Retrieved February 14, 2011.
  3. Waite, Maurice (2013). Pocket Oxford English Dictionary. OUP Oxford. p. 305. ISBN 978-0-19-966615-7. Some people regard the word Eskimo as offensive, and the peoples inhabiting the regions of northern Canada and parts of Greenland and Alaska prefer to call themselves Inuit
  4. "Common Portrayals of Aboriginal People". Media Smarts: Canada's center for digital and media literacy. March 7, 2012. Retrieved October 19, 2018.
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  7. National Museum of the American Indian (2007). Do All Indians Live in Tipis?. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-115301-3.
  8. Carter Meland; David E. Wilkins (November 22, 2012). "Stereotypes in sports, chaos in federal policy". The Star Tribune. Retrieved January 30, 2013.
  9. Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne; Gilio-Whitaker, Dina (2016). All the Real Indians Died Off: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans. Beacon Press. ISBN 978-080706265-4.
  10. Charles C. Mann (2005). 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Knopf. ISBN 978-1-4000-3205-1.
  11. Diamond, J. (March 1997). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-03891-0.
  12. "Timeline: The furor over the Redskins' name". Washington Post. Archived from the original on February 7, 2018. Retrieved October 4, 2018.
  13. M. Marubbio (December 15, 2006). Killing the Indian Maiden: Images of American Indian Women in Film. University Press of Kentucky. p. 231. ISBN 9780813124148. rape and stereotypes of Native American women.
  14. Fred Beauvais, Ph.D. (1998). "American Indians and Alcohol" (PDF). Alcohol Health & Research World. 22 (4).
  15. Elizabeth H. Hawkins; Lillian H. Cummins; G. Alan Marlatt (2004). "Preventing Substance Abuse in American Indian and Alaska Native Youth:Promising Strategies for Healthier Communities". Psychological Bulletin. 130 (2): 304–323. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.130.2.304. PMID 14979774.
  16. Rhoades, Everett R.; Mason, Russell D.; Eddy, Phyllis; Smith, Eva M.; Burns, Thomas R. (1988). "The Indian Health Service Approach to Alcoholism among American Indians and Alaska Natives". Public Health Reports. 103 (6): 621–627. JSTOR 4628553. PMC 1478162. PMID 3141956.
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  20. Vedantam, Shankar (March 25, 2010). "Native American imagery as sports mascots: A new problem". Psychology Today. Retrieved February 5, 2013.
  21. Simon Moya-Smith (November 18, 2013). "Alabama principal apologizes for 'Trail of Tears' banner at high school football game". NBC News.
  22. Bleier, Evan (November 19, 2013). "McAdory High School in Alabama apologizes for 'Trail of Tears' sign". UPI.
  23. Murphy, Tim (November 21, 2013). "Here's Another High School Football Team Promoting the "Trail of Tears"". Mother Jones.
  24. McNab, Miriam (February 7, 2006). "Aboriginal Women's Issues". Retrieved December 8, 2014.
  25. Cannon & Sunseri, Martin J. & Lina (2011). Racism, Colonialism, and Indigeneity in Canada: A reader. Canada: Oxford University Press. pp. 5–6. ISBN 978-0-19-543231-2.
  26. Boedeker, Hal (July 7, 1996). "TNT'S 'CRAZY HORSE' IS A DUD OF A TRIBUTE". Retrieved November 30, 2020.
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