Throughout my life, I have been exposed to many depictions of Native Americans, some accurate, some not, some acceptable, and some offensive. These depictions have served many purposes. To sell or advertise goods, to get a laugh, or to create intrigue and interest. Though I have always been able to identify the depictions most guilty of cultural appropriation and exoticism, I viewed the majority as fairly unobjectionable. Through this unit, I have gained the insight to be more critical of a much larger range of depictions. I now have the knowledge to identify which depictions push stereotypes and exoticism in even the smallest detail. Though several factors contributed to this realization, the most profound one was our trip to The Museum of the American Indian. We mostly focused on the exhibit “Americans”. This exhibit offered countless depictions of Native Americans through American History. Several of these depictions I initially was confused as to how they were inappropriate, but through a greater understanding of Native American history and discussion with the class, I came to see how they were problematic. Two examples of this are the Cherokee Brewery Company advertising card and the Beauty Parade magazine illustration. These experiences have brought me to the conclusion that the large majority of depictions of Native American peoples and culture are offensive and harmful.
While visiting the museum, I observed many depictions of Native Americans that I did not initially find problematic, but once I understood the background I came to understand how they were offensive and ignorant. For example, the Cherokee Brewing Company advertising card from 1885, a drawing of a Cherokee Indian about to shoot a bow. He is standing in front of several tipis and the drawing is covered with words and phrases advertising the company’s products. There are several issues I find problematic in this image. First of all, the drawing includes tipis in the background. Though tipis are often associated with Native Americans, “The Cherokee never lived in tipis. Only the nomadic Plains Indians did so. (Museum of the Cherokee Indian).” This error in the representation demonstrates a clear lack of respect for Cherokee culture and the generalization of all Native Americans as one group. Because of the Native American dependence on their natural resources, “The source of American Indian Identity is, as it has always been, their association with the land on which they live. (Land and Identity)” The homes of Native Americans are influenced by the land on which they live, meaning it can be considered part of the land. Disrespecting the history of the Cherokee is to disrespect their identity as well. In addition, the advertisements surrounding the image demonstrate that the idea of the Cherokee is being exploited to sell alcohol. This is a form of exoticism because it portrays Native Americans as different and intriguing in order to get people interested in the company. This image exoticizes, generalizes, and disrespects the culture of Native American peoples, and though it may not be easy to see at first it doesn’t make it any better.
Exoticism has always been used to draw interest and intrigue to a certain object or subject that is considered out of the ordinary to many people. As discussed in class, exoticism (specifical exoticism of Native Americans) is often used to sell goods because while a consumer is looking at a strange and interesting depiction of a Native American they are also looking at the product. This tactic was used in the Beauty Parade magazine in 1952 when they published a drawing of a white woman scantily clad in Native American garments. She wears stereotypical Native American colors and patterns with beads and feathers covering her outfit. The magazine is a monthly publication from the 1940s and 50s of drawings of pin-up girls in skimpy outfits. The intent of these drawings is to create sexual appeal in order to sell the magazine. I found the magazine has only published drawings of white pin-up girls implying the idea that only a white woman can create sexual appeal, which is incorrect and racist. This is made worse by the fact that the woman in this particular drawing is wearing what is supposed to be Native American garments, which entails cultural appropriation. In addition, the garments she wears are very inaccurate. The garments she wears are used as a form of lingerie which they were never used for in Native American society. Initially, if I had seen this drawing I would find it perhaps mildly offensive, but with a greater understanding of Native American culture of history, I have come to see this drawing as truly horrible and racist. The magazine used elements of Native American culture, which weren’t even accurate, in order to sell more copies.
All these examples are fairly old and outdated, but I even today see depictions of Native Americans every day and I had previously believed the majority to be acceptable. This unit has given me a greater appreciation of the history and culture of Native Americans. This greater appreciation has allowed me to understand that almost every depiction of Native Americans by someone not extremely familiar with their culture contains elements of exoticism, cultural appropriation, or straight-up racism.
“Beauty Parade Magazine Illustration.” Americans, americanindian.si.edu/americans/#gallery/beauty-parade-magazine-illustration.
“Cherokee Brewing Company Advertising Card.” Americans, americanindian.si.edu/americans/#gallery/cherokee-brewery-company-advertising-card.
“FAQ.” The Museum of the Cherokee Indian, www.cherokeemuseum.org/learn/faq#q2.
Kidwell, Clara Sue, and Alan R. Velle. “Land and Identity.” Native American Studies, pp. 21–37.
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