The following are just a few of the stereotypes and myths that are often found in depictions of Native Americans, and which should be challenged and corrected when they emerge. These examples focus on historical representations and do not fully address biases found in modern-day portrayals. For more information on stereotypes, see for example, The Basic Indian Stereotypes by Joseph Riverwind (Taino).
Tipis and Wigwams
While some Native Americans lived in tipis or other structures adapted to nomadic life, dwellings varied widely depending upon region, climate, available resources, lifestyle and tradition. The Pueblo Indians of the Southwest, for example, lived in terraced-style stone and adobe houses, while people in the Northwest lived in spacious buildings made of wood. Some tribes in the East lived in huge longhouses constructed of tree poles and bark, while the Navajos of the Southwest lived in hogans, a hexagon tree pole structure covered with mud.
Indian Chiefs and Princesses
The concept of an "Indian princess" is a European invention. Similarly, most tribes did not have a single "chief" who acted as supreme leader in the western sense. Europeans and Americans often cast the rank of "chief" onto Native Americans because they could not easily conceive of a society without formal hierarchy, and in order to identify a leader with whom they could negotiate (for land, trade, etc.).
Feathers and Loincloths
Not all Native Americans wore breechcloths or feathered headdresses. Originally, in fact, nearly every American Indian tribe had its own distinctive style of dress, and the people could often tell each other's tribal identities by looking at their clothes, headdresses and ornamentation. In addition to loincloths, Native American men also wore leather leggings, short kilts, fur trousers, or just went naked. Women wore skirts, leggings and one-piece dresses. In some cultures, shirts were optional, while in others women always wore tunics or mantles in public. Headgear, footwear, cloaks and formal dress were variable as well. Historically, eagle feathers were worn only by certain members of the Plains cultural groups who had distinguished themselves as worthy of such adornment. Feathered headdresses were not worn as everyday clothing, but rather for special ceremonial occasions. After colonization, as tribes were forced into closer contact with each other, they began to borrow some of each other's tribal dress, so that fringed buckskin clothing, feather headdresses and woven blankets became popular among people outside of the tribes in which they originated. During this period, Native Americans also began to adapt some European styles and began decorating cloth garments with beadwork, embroidery and designs.
Savages and Warriors Native Americans are often depicted with tomahawks, "war paint," and other imagery that convey a primitive way of life or hostile nature. While warfare and conflict did exist among Native Americans, the majority of tribes were peaceful and only attacked in self defense. Just like European nations, American Indian tribes had complex histories and relationships with one another that sometimes involved combat, but also included alliances, trade, intermarriage and the full spectrum of human ventures. The stereotype of the "savage" can also be seen in portrayals of Native Americans as "mighty hunters." While meat was certainly a staple for most Native American communities, many also cultivated a wide variety of crops. In addition to the three basics-corn, beans and squash-there were over 300 other food crops harvested in the New World, including sweet potatoes, sunflowers, wild rice, vanilla beans, cocoa , a wide variety of nuts and many types of peppers. The homogenized image of Native Americans as warriors and hunters above all else, or the converse-romanticized heroes living in harmony with nature-reflects a shallow and objectified representation of their lives that obscures family and community life, spirituality, and the intricacies inherent in every human society.
Lewis and Clark: The Unheard Voices ©2005 Anti-Defamation League