Imagined Nations

Depictions of American Indians

Is redskin a racial slur? The U.S. Patent Office says so. So do many Native Americans who have protested the use of the term by that team. Activists say the team’s name and its logo — the image of a generic Indian man in profile, with braids and long feathers — celebrate negative stereotypes about America’s indigenous people.

On this show, we’re taking a long look at how Native peoples have been represented — and misrepresented — in U.S. history. We’ll also ask how American Indians themselves have challenged and reinvented those depictions. We have stories about art in the early days of European conquest, dioramas in America’s museums of “natural history,” and a 19th century football team that was actually made up entirely of American Indian players.

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BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.

FEMALE NEWS REPORTER: Well, right now there is a protest underway because of the Washington Redskins’ team name. Now this is the scene looks like–

BRIAN: That was the news from Minneapolis this month, when thousands took to the streets to protest the refusal of Redskins’ owners to do away with what many say amounts to a racial slur. As it turns out, these sorts of slurs have a long connection to football. Consider this cartoon about a Michigan game against a team of Indian students.

DAVID ADAMS: And it shows an Indian with a scalping knife, and he’s flicking at the Michigan player with a helmet on. The Indian is saying, how am I going to get that fellow’s scalp?

BRIAN: Today on BackStory, how images of American Indians have evolved, and how they’ve been used to justify the taking of Indian land.

CHRISTIAN MCMILLAN: Indians couldn’t possibly actually have any right to a specific piece of land. Because they just flitted around the landscape.

BRIAN: The long and often ugly history of depicting American Indians. Don’t go away.

PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

MALE SPEAKER: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. Ed Ayers is away this week. We’re going to begin today with a woman named Veronica Pasfield. She’s a member of the Ojibwe Bay Mills Indian community in Michigan.

VERONICA PASFIELD: And I’m a mom. And the mom of Tyler [? Baron. ?]

PETER: When Tyler was in second grade, his class did a unit on the Patowatomi, a tribe with roots in the Ann Arbor area, and close connections to the Ojibwe.

VERONICA PASFIELD: And so we had a whole month of these great activities, learning about, you know, our traditional ways, and our language. And I came into the class every week and supplemented the curriculum with things like, you know, teaching about the drum and teaching about harvesting wild rice, things like that.

PETER: The class ended with a field trip to the local natural history museum to see dioramas of the traditional native life.

VERONICA PASFIELD: And there, lined up amongst the dinosaurs and the geodes, and the taxidermied animals, was this tableau of approximately three to four dozen little glass terrariums that were populated with these little sort of happy meal figures of tribes across North America.

BRIAN: You’ve probably seen these sorts of dioramas of native life. They’re all over natural history museums. Sometimes they’re life-sized. Sometimes they’re miniaturized. But they always feature scenes of traditional tribal life, people drying meat in front of a pueblo, people gathering for war near their tee-pees, that kind of stuff.

VERONICA PASFIELD: So the kids are just absolutely transfixed by this scene before them and my son seemed kind of confused by this. You know, being a tribal child, being a child who’s active in his community, he’s looking at these little people and seems a little bit more confused, less enthusiastic than his classmates.

BRIAN: Tyler’s class headed back to school with one last assignment, to draw a picture of what they learned about the Potawatomi.

VERONICA PASFIELD: So the drawing that my son made was of two skeletons at the bottom of very deep graves with two RIP headstones at the top. This overriding message that he got from these dioramas was that Indians were dead. And I knew at that moment that I couldn’t stand by and watch this happen.

PETER: Veronica approached the museum’s director. And together they tried to come up with ways to update the dioramas. But after several experiments, they agreed that there was a fundamental problem with the very idea of these dioramas.

BRIAN: The form had become popular at the end of the 19th century. That was a time when museums were frantically gathering artifacts from what they saw as the last remains of a dying culture. And Pasfield believes that the dioramas are a perfect encapsulation of what was happening to actual Indians at that very time.

Tribes were being contained on reservations. And Indian culture was being actively stamped out on the grounds that it was a thing of the past. In the end, the small natural history museum in Michigan decided to remove the dioramas. And that raised a whole new range of questions.

VERONICA PASFIELD: I remember a really great conversation I had with the director about, well gosh. What are we going to do now if native people aren’t in this exhibit? Where are we going to see them? And I said to her, you know, why is it the job of a natural history museum to talk about indigenous people?

Take your students to powwow. Take your students to an urban Indian center. There are countless online resources, countless movies. Bring in speakers. There just so many ways that you can learn about a culture from the people who created the culture that the dioramas really were unnecessary.

PETER: American Indians are hardly the only people whose culture has been twisted and turned in any number of grotesque fashions over the course of our nation’s history. But what’s unique about representations of Indians is that at their core, they’ve relied on the notion that Indian culture no longer exists. And non-Indians in America have been telling that story for well over 100 years.

BRIAN: And so today on the show, as school children don feather headdresses and act out the supposed first Thanksgiving meal, we’re taking on the long and often ugly history of depictions of American Indians. When did the narrative of their culture’s extinction take shape? How did non-Indians depict natives before they were relegated to a thing of past? And how have American Indians countered those popular depictions of them?

PETER: We’ll begin with a story from the late 19th century, the very same era in which the first of those museum dioramas we just heard about were starting to show up. It begins in 1893 at the Carlisle Indian boarding school in Pennsylvania. The superintendent of that school, a man named Richard Henry Pratt, had banned the game of football a few years earlier after one student had broken his leg in a game. But now, at the urging of a number of young men at the school, Pratt was beginning to see football in a new light.

DAVID ADAMS: What he saw in it was a very sort of modern sport.

BRIAN: This is historian, David Adams, author of a book about Indian boarding schools. David says that in the 1890s, football was widely thought of as a complex, strategic, and modern sport. This image was helped along by the fact that the most advanced schools, schools like Harvard, Yale, and Brown, also had the best football teams.

DAVID ADAMS: So his idea was that if Indians could display their equality on a football field, they in fact would display their ability to totally assimilate into the culture. And so Pratt saw this as a way of advertising his model of Indian education.

BRIAN: Pratt’s model of education had one core objective– to Americanize Indians by removing them from their family cultures.

DAVID ADAMS: I guess we would call him a radical assimilationist. He believed that Native American cultures were worthless. But he believed that there was not any inherent genetical defect in Indians. And so he believed they could be fully integrated into the American scene. And he saw football as a means of doing that.

BRIAN: So Pratt agreed to create a team with two conditions, one, that his boys play fair, and two, that they whip the best teams in the country. It worked. The Carlisle Indian School team took to the gridiron and consistently beat college football juggernauts for the next 24 years. They were fast, strong, and strategic, working within the loose rules of the early game.

DAVID ADAMS: Carlisle was famous for out-foxing the opposition. One of the trips when they were playing Harvard, for example, in one year, they actually shoved the football up the jersey one of one of their players. And all the players could rush down the gridiron. And Harvard didn’t know who had the ball. And so they scored a touchdown that way.


BRIAN: But if Pratt’s main objective with all of this was to make the general public view his students as regular Americans, well, that just didn’t happen. That’s because the press took the spectacle of an Indian football team playing white teams. And they ran with it.

DAVID ADAMS: They began to see football in a sense as a re– sort of a replaying of frontier conflict.

MALE SPEAKER 2: All the manifold interests of present and the past, the near and the far, were collected on the instant on Soldier’s Field.

BRIAN: This is from the Boston Globe, when Carlisle took on Harvard in 1896. Over 500 years of education were represented by the young palefaces in crimson, while centuries of fire, and the sun worship, medicine men, incantations, ghost dances, and mound building where flashed before the inner vision by the appearances of the young men from Carlisle.

PETER: The number of cartoons in which they were displaying football players going after scalps, for example, was cer–

BRIAN: Oh, come on. They literally were going after scalps?

PETER: Yes. There’s one cartoon, in fact. And it shows an Indian with headdress and scalping knife. And he’s looking at a Michigan player with a helmet on. And under the cartoon, the Indian is saying, how am I going to get that fellow’s scalp? And that’s, of course, because of the helmet. So–

BRIAN: Oh, boy.

DAVID ADAMS: So yeah, they were fighting things like that.

BRIAN: In spite of the setback, in public, Pratt celebrated the immense popularity of his team. After all, it turned out athletic legends like Jim Thorpe. And it toured the nation, marching in parades and staying in the nicest hotels all over the country.

DAVID ADAMS: Anytime that the games were played on neutral territory, in other words, not on the college campus of Yale or Harvard, but a neutral territory, and they were often played in New York City and Boston, the white crowd, they were always cheering for the Indians.

PETER: The grand irony of all of this, says Adams, is that the team was popular precisely because it mapped so neatly onto a storyline that cast Indians as noble savages who had been vanquished in the march of Western civilization.

DAVID ADAMS: This is the sort of the romantic image of nature’s noblemen. And so there was this tendency for many the fans to identify with the Indians. And the beauty of it was that you already had the land, OK. So I mean– because football’s a game about territory. And so you could cheer–

BRIAN: I hadn’t out of that.

DAVID ADAMS: Yeah, lines, and boundaries, and territory. And so fans could watch this game, cheer for the Indians who’d been terribly wronged. In the meantime, they had lost the land. So there was– it was sort of a win-win situation.

BRIAN: After some of the best seasons that any team of the era racked up, Carlisle’s successes on the field eventually faded away. But the 19th century warrior image that was so associated with the team most certainly did not. You’re probably aware of the controversy swirling around today’s Washington Redskins.

Well, team owner, Dan Snyder, has defended the continued use of the name by saying it was coined by a Carlisle football alum, a guy named Lone Star Dietz. Here’s Snyder on ESPN’s Outside the Lines.

DAN SNYDER: Coach Dietz was Native American. He named the team. The historical facts are the historical facts.

BRIAN: It’s not clear that that was the case. Scholars have suggested that Dietz faked a native identity for himself in order to take advantage of various opportunities for Indians at the time. But Adam says that by invoking Lone Star Dietz to defend the name, Dan Snyder is playing on the same romanticized notions that fans and sportswriters held in the heyday of the Carlisle football team.

DAVID ADAMS: He’s tapping in, I think, into the sportswriters’ desire or a tendency to sort of want to replay [? Indians ?] of another age, which is in contradiction to what Carlisle was trying to do.

BRIAN: David Adams is a Professor Emeritus at Cleveland State University and author of Education for Extinction, American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875 through 1928.


PETER: It is time for a short break. We get back, we’re going to talk about how English colonists used Native Americans to market the new world.

BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. We’re talking about the changing depictions of American Indians by non-Indians. We’re going to turn the clock back now to when those depictions began.

BRIAN: After Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas, Europeans were abuzz about his discovery and about the indigenous people who lived there. It didn’t take long for the newcomers’ accounts of these mysterious inhabitants to make their way back to Europe.

JOYCE CHAPLIN: There would have been some just peaceful, descriptive ones. This is what Indian people look like. This is what they wear.

BRIAN: This is historian, Joyce Chaplin. She says there was another strain of images as well.

JOYCE CHAPLIN: There were also a lot of alarming woodcuts and other illustrations that depicted Indians as cannibals with butchered human bodies hanging in the background. And the idea that American Indians were cannibals, all of them indiscriminately, remains a very powerful and lasting prejudice based on those early images.

BRIAN: These outlandish illustrations came mostly from the Spanish, the first colonizers. The earliest English illustrations of the New World came later, most notably from an English colonist named John White.

PETER: White was a member of a small, privately funded expedition that first explored Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina back in 1585. Sir Walter Raleigh, who was bank rolling this whole thing, commissioned White to document the lives of the local tribes who lived there. I asked Chaplin, who has written about White’s work, to describe some of these watercolors.

JOYCE CHAPLIN: He does sort of long shot images of Indian towns, as if he were doing an aerial view almost. And then he does close ups of people engaged in certain activities, or even just portraits– somebody standing there in their everyday clothing, or maybe with some special implements, like a bow and arrow for hunting.

When the images were last on a big display at the British Museum a couple years ago, the curators at the museum worked out reconstructions of what the pigments would have looked like originally. So these people that, you know, I’ve looked at as a scholar years and years and years, who kind of look blank, suddenly pop. They’re looking right back at me. And that really underscored the way in which White was being very careful to depict people possibly even as individuals.

PETER: So anybody who had the opportunity to look at these images would almost feel as if he or she were walking through the town and encountering what John White encountered.

JOYCE CHAPLIN: That seems very clearly to be his intention. You are there. I was there. I could see what these people look like. And here they are. I will introduce them to you.

PETER: Right, so this isn’t a depiction, a hostile depiction of savage people who need to be removed. It’s a much more benign view.

JOYCE CHAPLIN: Yes. There’s an image of one of the towns that shows the people gathered. They’re dancing. More to the point, they’re growing corn. So the whole sense is, this is great. Look how prosperous these people are. These are very peaceful images in sharp contrast to those that had been done of cannibals in the New World, whether they existed or not.

But what always strikes me about the images is how White organizes and displays Indians as if they’re performing to an audience. And so immediately in the pitch that he gives in presenting these images, you have room for suspicion. Could it really have been this nice? Why are all the native people being depicted smiling, and looking welcoming, and holding food?

PETER: You think that might not have been accurate, Joyce. Is that what you’re saying?

JOYCE CHAPLIN: Oh, I agree probably people smiled some of the time and held food. But it really looks like it’s emphasizing all the positive attributes.

PETER: So, Joyce, you’ve given us the picture. And it’s a land of peace and plenty, at least that’s what White wants people to think. What motivates him to create these images. There’s no image of conflict. What’s going on?

JOYCE CHAPLIN: Obviously, this is a set of images intended to look appealing, that this is a place where the English will be welcome and will find plenty to eat, a very helpful population. Also because this is colonization done on a small scale, done on the cheap and not a lot of money is put into this, so really the organizers of the Roanoke colony need to recruit settlers. They need to recruit investors. They have to make the colony look good, look inviting.

PETER: Does that lead to an idea that maybe White had this in mind in the kind of imagery he created that is so– was this propaganda?

JOYCE CHAPLIN: It was propaganda, absolutely. The settlement, if it were going to continue at Roanoke, would depend on settlers signing up, investors putting up the money. There were other economic options for investors at this point in time. So a pitch would have to be made. Why do this? What do you get out of this? I mean, there were really pretty serious questions about why it would be worth anyone’s while. So images of a New World that seems productive, that has enough food, that has people who have access to copper, for instance, and possibly other metals, that would have been what investors would have wanted to have seen.

This is a part of the world that seems very bountiful, where the English with metal agricultural tools could probably do even better, with healthy populations, indicating that other populations could move in and do just fine. Nevertheless, there would also be a sense that there’s room for work. The metal tools would make a difference. These are people who should be Christianized.

There are things that the English could accomplish by moving into this part of the world. Not just that they would manage to survive or thrive, but they would fulfill various nationally defined missions to spread Protestantism, to claim territory for England. So the images have that complexity built into them, that they seem very welcoming and non-judgmental about the native people. On the other hand, there’s a message about the room for colonization that these people and their homeland imply.

PETER: So Joyce, the challenge in a way, for us is to take these benign, generous images that seem to me ethnographically accurate and look forward to the history of European-Native American encounters across North America, throughout the Americas. And things look darker and different as we move on. How do we make that connection? Is there something about these benign images that serve perhaps less than benign purposes?

JOYCE CHAPLIN: It’s hard to say what White’s own motivations were. But certainly in the way he made it seem, that this was a land with plenty of room for English people, that set up an expectation that plenty of English people ought to show up. And that’s what happened, that a lot of English people showed up. They wanted land.

They assumed, like White did, that there was plenty of room for them, that America would just keep producing a lot of food and English population could flourish on a much larger scale than Native American populations did. And really, that whole idea that there was plenty of space for Europeans means that this is a fantasy about removing native populations from that landscape, as if there isn’t a real connection between them and the land.


PETER: Joyce Champlin is a historian at Harvard. Her research on John White’s paintings appears in A New World, England’s First View of America. We’ll post some of these early images on our website,


BRIAN: Some of the most iconic images of Native Americans come to us in the form, not of paintings, but of photographs. Perhaps you’ve seen some of the photos created by the ethnologist, Edward S Curtis. In 1907, Curtis published a giant, 20 volume set called The North American Indian.

In one striking image, we see a Navajo family on horseback in single file. They’re riding away, you might even say disappearing into the wilderness. And while some of Curtis’s work paints Indians in a heroic, as well as tragic light, there are many who have criticized them is exploitative. Subjects had no say in how the images would be used. And some say native peoples were portrayed as an undifferentiated mass, a backwards race, primitive, defeated in war, and destined to fade from history.

PETER: Martha Sandweiss is a historian who has written about early photographs of American Indians. And she tells a more complicated story, one that takes us all the way back to the very first photos of native people produce in the 1840s. These were daguerreotypes, the first ever photographic technology and a wonder of the day.

A single portrait could take hours to produce, and yielded a single image on a silver coated plate that could not be copied. They demanded the subjects’ active participation. And largely because of that, says Sandweiss, those pictures told a different story than the later images did.

MARTHA SANDWEISS: You see people at a Cherokee political convention in 1843 inviting a photographer to make their pictures. You see a missionary in Great Britain in 1845 pausing to have his photograph made to further his fundraising efforts. Or you can look at a daguerreotype studio in Saint Louis in 1847 and see the great chief Keokuk being photographed, along with his family, which suggests that Keokuk, like anybody else, wanted a family portrait to take home.

And he is in Saint Louis probably to negotiate tribal business with the resident Indian agent who lives there in that frontier city. So he’s wearing a spectacular bear claw necklace. He has silver rings in is ear. He’s wearing a huge silver peace medal that he’s gotten from the federal government. And he’s holding a silver tipped cane, which is also a symbol of his status within his tribe.

PETER: Yeah, and he would accentuate his, what we call otherness, his difference. Because it’s going to work to his advantage.

MARTHA SANDWEISS: Exactly. And let’s face it, he’s got a lot of bling on.


The bear claw necklace, the silver peace medal. You know, I think Keokuk is calculating how best to make an impression on the photographer and all the people who will see this picture. He’s a person to reckon with.

BRIAN: Well, looking forward, Marty, what happened? If image making, image taking in the first period does seem to be a negotiated activity and it’s not imposing the stereotypical images, it’s not something that’s taken from Indians. it’s a product of collaboration. What happens? Is it so just technological that photography with negatives we have replicable images and they circulate? What’s happening with photography?

MARTHA SANDWEISS: I think technology really changes everything. When glass negatives become popular in the late 1850s, 1860s, 1870s, suddenly photographers can make a theoretically infinite number of paper prints from their glass negative. Then they can make money by selling many copies of their portraits of Indians.

PETER: Yeah, So the sitter doesn’t control the image anymore, or at least once the negative exists it’s out of the sitter’s control.

MARTHA SANDWEISS: Exactly. So the photographer, instead of pleasing the sitter, is anticipating, how can I please oh, those hundreds or thousands of people out there who might want to buy this photograph?

PETER: And so what happens with those images? Do they become stereotypical, less flattering? How does the imagery change?

MARTHA SANDWEISS: Well, a couple of things happen once you can make these multiple copies of paper prints. They’re on paper. They’re mounted on cardboard mounts. And in the vast majority of cases, they’re sent out into the world with words attached to tell you how to understand the photograph that you’re looking at.

PETER: Right. These pictures are deployed for a variety of purposes, first to make money, but also to serve the purposes of the government, serve the purposes of white society. Describe some of those uses and the way, in effect, these pictures are reframed, repackaged, and tell a different story.

MARTHA SANDWEISS: Well, one of the largest producers of photographic portraits of Native Americans during the 19th century is really the federal government. The federal government is sponsoring expeditions that go west. And the federal government is interested in recording the faces of mostly men and sometimes women who come to Washington as part of diplomatic missions.

And in 1877, the federal government gathers together many hundreds of these pictures into a catalog. Every textual description of a person has a number. And you could go to the federal government and order picture number 483. And when they sent you picture number 483, it would have a copy of the very caption from that catalog cut out and glued to the back.

So when you acquired the photograph, you would flip it over. And you would learn how you were supposed to understand it and interpret it. And sometimes the captions for these photographs change.

PETER: Oh, interesting.

MARTHA SANDWEISS: There’s one fantastic photograph in the catalog of a Sioux Indian named Little Crow. And when the photograph was first made of him in the 1850s, he was a good Indian. And he had promised to have his hair cut and become civilized. That’s what an older caption tells us.

But later, Little Crow leads a battle against the whites in the so-called Minnesota massacre of 1862. And his caption in the catalog changes. And he becomes a parable for the treacherous Indian and for the idea that you really can’t trust them.

PETER: Native Americans wouldn’t be too keen on this. What is the reaction to the extent you can surmise, or what evidence do you have, for how Indians feel about the history of this imagery, of pictures of them?

MARTHA SANDWEISS: You know, it’s really risky to generalize about how Indian peoples responded to photographic technology. Some tribes welcomed it. Other tribes, associating camera technology with other kinds of technology that had been hurtful to their tribes, guns, cannons, were much more reluctant to collaborate with photographers.

But I think what many people are coming to understand now is that the meanings that were attached to photographs in the 19th century, those words that were scrawled on the back that told you Uncle Joe was a good Indian. Or Uncle Jack was a bad Indian. You know what? Those aren’t the only stories we can attach to these photographs. Photographs don’t have a single, fixed meaning.

PETER: Right. So Uncle Joe may have become generic Indian as his image was circulated. But it is possible, and it has happened, that he can be re-embedded, re-contextualize, re-appropriated, taken back by his descendants.

MARTHA SANDWEISS: Exactly and the Yankton Lakota tribe during the 1980s did a project just like this. They got together a number of those Indian portraits that had been published in the government catalog of 1877. And they reeled those photographs back in. And families attached their own stories to those photographs. And they published their own catalog.

They know who was a good hunter, and who was a good dad, and who fought the whites, and who refused to sign the treaty. Those stories have been handed down. And now those stories are being reattached to a picture. And I think that’s a tremendous project. And it suggests that photographs that people may have discounted for, you know, well over a century now, can live again in powerful ways within native communities.

PETER: Martha Sandweiss is a historian at Princeton University. You can see examples of some of the early daguerreotype images she talked about in her book, Print the Legend, Photography in the American West.


BRIAN: It’s time for another break. But stick around. Because when we return, the President of the United States breaks ground for– wait for it– the biggest cigar store Indian ever.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.


PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. We’re talking today about some of the ways American Indians have been depicted over the course of American history. So far, we’ve covered representations that you can see. But what about images of Indians that come from what we hear? One of our producers, Kelly Jones, spoke with an anthropologist who has studied speech patterns of Indians in popular culture. And Kelly brought back this report.

KELLY JONES: If I asked you to play Indian, what’s the first thing you would do? That’s what anthropology professor, Barbra Meek, asks her undergrads at the beginning of the semester. Their responses might sound familiar.

BARBRA MEEK: You know, you get the obvious responses of the, how, white man, and the raising of your hand, and the dropping of your voice.

KELLY JONES: Meek’s students are reenacting what they’ve seen and heard in movies and on TV. And Meek is super curious about what they hear when pop culture Indians speak.

BARBRA MEEK: One of my overall interests in all of this is trying to understand the kind of social work that language does, especially when we’re not paying attention to it. And so part of my work is figuring out what exactly is it that marks that speech as Indian-like.

KELLY JONES: Meek calls Indian-like speech Hollywood Injun English. It has different grammatical roles and features, but no basis in any actual Native American practice or speech pattern. It’s totally made up. Other pop culture stereotypes index different images.

BARBRA MEEK: Hollywood has never been shy about portraying Greeks as crazy or Mexicans as lazy, but the image that’s crafted by Hollywood Injun English is the image of the disappearing Indian. Here’s how it works. Rule number one, it has to sound foreign. We hear that in the how greeting, like this one from the chief in Disney’s 1953 Peter Pan.



BARBRA MEEK: OK, so the immediate interpretation is that this is someone who is from somewhere else.

KELLY JONES: Along with the how, Hollywood Injuns also invent words, ditch verb tenses, and say me instead of I to refer to themselves, all in order to sound more foreign, like in this Bugs Bunny episode from 1960.

BUGS BUNNY INDIAN: Boss, Boss. Where um you go, Boss? Oh, boy. Me wouldn’t like to be me tonight.

BARBRA MEEK: So in that case, you hear the use of um, which is really pervasive across linguistic performances. And it’s not really derived from any actual linguistic practice in real life.

KELLY JONES: Rule number two is, Hollywood Injun English has to be slow and plotting in comparison to the more fluent speech of the other characters. Take this clip from a 1988 episode of MacGyver.


-Hello, my name is Standing Wolf. Bitter Flats is a place of power. If wires go up, they will harm the spirits of the mountain.

-Look, Standing Wolf, I respectful your beliefs.


BARBRA MEEK: In contrast to the other characters who are speaking quickly and more fluently, and the American characters are portrayed as having more difficulty in expressing themselves.

KELLY JONES: Rule number three, Hollywood Injun English must be sprinkled with references to nature. Here’s an Indian in an episode of Quantum Leap from 1990.

QUANTUM LEAP INDIAN: My brother, the hawk, all it’s life, it flies where it wants.

KELLY JONES: Or again, the chief from Peter Pan.

PETER PAN INDIAN CHIEF: For man moons, red man fight pale face Lost Boys. Sometime you win.

BARBRA MEEK: So another one here is the, for many moons, right. Because American Indians characters, or at least in the imagination, right, counts time using the celestial bodies, rather than clocks, or watches, or something. And again, it positions the American Indian character in a less civilized, more primitive slot.

KELLY JONES: And finally, rule number four. The truest Hollywood Injun is a stoic one, who is all but silent. Either a narrator or other character can speak for them, as is the case in many John Wayne movies. Or they can mutter monosyllabic like Shep Proudfoot in Fargo, which came out in 1996.


-So do you remember getting a call Wednesday night?


-You do reside there at 1415 Fremont Terrace?


-Anyone else residing there?


-Well, Mr. Proudfoot, this call came in past three in the morning.

KELLY JONES: Lest you think that Hollywood Injun English is part of a vanishing era, here’s a clip from Parks and Rec, a show that’s still on the air at the time of this broadcast. In this scene, the character, Ken Hotate, a tribal elder of the Wamapoke Indians, is performing a ritual to lift a fake Indian curse from the town, a curse that he faked threatened to put there.




BARBRA MEEK: At this point, we get subtitles that read, I am not saying anything. No one can understand me anyway.


-Hooka. Mana hey. Doobie, doobie, doo.


BARBRA MEEK: In case you didn’t catch that, it was a slow and low doobie, doobie, doo.

KELLY JONES: OK so this isn’t Hollywood Injun English. It’s to Hollywood Injun gibberish. We can laugh along with Ken as he pulls one over on the citizens of Pawnee. But I think that Ken Hotate is an Indian character that proves the rule, real Indian practice remains hidden behind an imaginary style of speaking that has nothing to do with actual Native American languages. Because when he’s not trying to fake a real Indian language, you can hear the low and disfluent Hollywood Injun influence in that character’s English.

KEN HOTATE: There are two things I know about white people. They love Matchbox 20. And they are terrified of curses.

KELLY JONES: You’d think we would have come a long way from the how of the Indian chief in Peter Pan in 1953. But Hollywood Injun English is not a vanishing practice.

BRIAN: That’s Kelly Jones, one of our producers. We also heard from Barbra Meek, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan.

PETER: In February, 1913, just over 100 years ago, President William Howard Taft came to Staten Island for a groundbreaking ceremony. Congress had set aside a piece of federal land on a cliff top there for a new monument. It would be known as the National American Indian Memorial.

FREDERICK HOXIE: It was really going to be a spectacular construction.

PETER: This is Fredrick Hoxie, a historian at the University of Illinois. This monument, he explains, was going to consist of an enormous bronze statue of an Indian warrior replete with feather headdress, a bone and arrow dangling in one hand, and the other hand outstretched in a sign of peace. The 160 foot statue would sit atop a seven story pedestal with a museum at its base. All told, the monument would tower more than 900 feet above the water, making it higher than the Statue of Liberty.

FREDERICK HOXIE: And the idea was to symbolize the free gift of a continent to the newcomers from Europe. And it was supposed to symbolize this transition from the old, savage ways of life to the new, modern America.

BRIAN: The memorial was the brainchild of Rodman Wanamaker, son of the Philadelphia department store founder. He had an active interest in American Indians, or at least in the idea of them. Like many of his time, he was convinced that Indians were going extinct, hence his proposal for a memorial. Here’s how it was described in the official program handed out at the groundbreaking ceremony.

FEMALE SPEAKER: A lonely, lofty figure, where the sea will forever moan a dirge for a vanished race, where sun and stars, and wind and thunder, the gods in his great world cathedral, may utter this speech of his soul, but now to fall upon unheeding ears of bronze. Posterity will applaud the honor we do ourselves in gathering up the life story of this virile and picturesque race, while yet the rays of the setting sun fall upon their departing footprints.

PETER: Now if you go to our website, you can see some photos of this dedication ceremony which, not accidentally, took place on Washington’s birthday. And you’ll see that there were all sorts of prominent dignitaries there, including a few dozen Indian chiefs. Turns out, they were representing tribes from all over the country. And so I had to ask Fred Hoxie, 32 Indians from around the country? Why would they participate in this bizarre event?

FREDERICK HOXIE: Well, that’s a great question. They came to be visible. They came to be– to redeem the invisibility [INAUDIBLE]. And you know, the bar was pretty low for American Indians to have an impact on the American public at this time. This is a time when Americans believed that Indians were savage people who could not survive in the modern world. So first of all, just to be there, to be present, to be a part of the ceremony was something that was at least a symbol that they hadn’t gone away.

PETER: So this is a bit of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, this is a memorial to the vanished Indian. And then the Indians show up?

FREDERICK HOXIE: Right. But the other thing is that I’ve tracked many of the delegations who came. And it’s interesting that many of the people who did come were actually political leaders in their community who use the opportunity of being present in New York City, of being in the presence of well, the President of the United States, and Congressman, and other people to say, and by the way, we’d like to have a talk with you about the leasing of our lands, and about the fact that you’re sending our children away to school. And we’re doing this.

It was sort of like one of those G20 summits, where everybody poses fora picture. And then in the hallways, they grab each other by the elbow. And so these were very savvy political leaders. And they were struggling to find a way to have a voice, to have an impact on the society around them. And this ceremony was an opportunity to do that.

PETER: The ceremony concluded with a flag raising, and then with all the Indians who were there signing a document called Declaration of Allegiance to the United States. Over the next few months, Wanamaker had that same document taken to 66 Indian reservations all over the country. The person leading that expedition had to explain to many of the Indians signing it that it wasn’t bestowing citizenship on them, but rather giving them the right to honor their country.

If you ever been to New York Harbor, you know there is no humongous American Indian there. Ground was broken for the monument. But organizers weren’t able to raise the funds to actually build it. And with the advent of World War I, public support for the project quickly, well, it vanished. As for the Indians represented at that bizarre event, not only did they decidedly not vanish, Hoxie says they emerged from the 19-teens with a more prominent voice than they had ever had before.

FREDERICK HOXIE: During World War I, American Indians served in the Army and in the Navy, even though they weren’t citizens. They won lots of accolades for their service. But they also began to pick up on the rhetoric, once America entered World War I, the rhetoric of Woodrow Wilson about self determination of nations, and about people being able to pick their own leaders.

And that language resonated with American Indian leaders of the time, some of whom had been at that ceremony, and others in their circles, who said, well, gee, captive nations. That sounds pretty familiar to us. Self determination, that’s a great idea. How about if we have a little of that here? And they began to advocate for citizenship, and as citizenship, not just to blend in with everyone else, but citizenship to give them the ability to fight publicly for their interest, to testify in court, to act in all the ways that a citizen should in a democracy.

PETER: And one of the reasons we have courts and citizens exercise their rights in courts is to protect their property. So the irony of a great memorial to the free gift of the land is that it might be a point of departure, energizing moment for reclaiming that ownership of the land.

FREDERICK HOXIE: Absolutely. And there’s another thread that begins to surface right at this same time of Indians using the United States Court of Claims and other courts to enforce the treaty agreements that had been made in the 19th century. Many times treaties had provisions that had long been forgotten about hunting and fishing rights, or about property rights, boundaries, land use, and so on. And Indians in the early 20th century began going to court to try to have those rights enforced.

And there were victories and defeats. But what really drew people into this effort was the fact that they could actually have, literally have, a day in court. They could bring their cases forward, and again, be heard and be seen as modern participants in American society.

PETER: That’s Frederick Hoxie, a historian at the University of Illinois. We’ll post some drawings of the proposed monument, as well as some newspaper accounts of the groundbreaking at


BRIAN: Our final story for the hour picks up where Fred Hoxie left off, with one of the court battles he talked about. It involved the Hualapai tribe of Northwestern Arizona, who in the years between the two world wars, went head to head with the mighty Santa Fe Pacific Railroad.

Because the Santa Fe’s tracks ran through the desert, the railroad was desperate to control any and all water sources along their line. They claimed rights to a spring that would later become part of the Hualapai reservation. And they had the chutzpa to charge the Hualapai for access to that water.

PETER: For their part, the Hualapai argue that they had been using the spring long before any settlers, not to mention railroads, came along. And so the land should belong to them. That claim invoked a legal principle dating back to the 1800s. But it had since fallen out of practice with reservations and shifts in Indian policy. It was known as Aboriginal Title. Anyone who claimed it needed only to point to where they were living at the time.

BRIAN: Historian Christian McMillan has written about this case. He told me that popular images of Western Indians as somehow outside of standard conceptions of property rights was central to the Santa Fe Railroad’s case.

CHRISTIAN MCMILLAN: So there are two things that they base their claim on, one a broad sense amongst Americans at the time that Indians, especially like the Hualapai, who were generally considered nomadic in a really pejorative sense of that word, couldn’t possibly actually have any claimable rights to a specific piece of land. Because they just flitted around the landscape. So that’s one sort of broad idea that many possess. The law really is based on that at the time. But then–

BRIAN: So Indians can’t really owned stuff.

CHRISTIAN MCMILLAN: Not all, not all Indians. I mean, you know, as you know, depending on where we’re talking about in the country and what time of American history.

BRIAN: Right, but at this moment with this tribe.

CHRISTIAN MCMILLAN: And yeah, who lived in this particular way, who were not farming massive amounts of land. They didn’t build buildings, et cetera. They are considered to be the lowest of the low when it comes to any kind of claimable property rights. But the Santa Fe also knew they had to have an actual legal basis for claiming this land.

And they claimed that they had bought this land from two settlers towards the end of the 19th century, before the railroad reached this land. And part of the dispute is over whether or not they bought this tract of land before the reservation came into being as a legal place from the executive order.

BRIAN: So the Santa Fe was there before the Indians.

CHRISTIAN MCMILLAN: That’s their claim. And what’s really fascinating about this is that as the case progressed, they started collecting depositions. And the two men whom they claim to have bought the land from both disavowed that claim and said, no, we could have never sold this land to the railroad. Because it was always Hualapai land.

BRIAN: Well, this isn’t just about land, and water, and the law. It’s about some pretty impressive human beings, as I understand it. I want you to tell me about one of them, this Indian activist named Fred Mahone. What’s the deal with him?

CHRISTIAN MCMILLAN: Sure. Fred Mahone was born towards in end of the 19th century, went to the on reservation school until he left for Chilocco Indian School in the Midwest. And then as did about 90% of the young men in the Indian boarding schools, Chilocco among them, shipped off to France to fight in the American Expeditionary Force during World War I.

When he came back to the United States after the war, he went to Southern California to look for work and somehow made contact with what was called the Mission Indian Federation, a really, frankly, radical Indian separatist group who wanted total sovereignty over their own affairs.

And Mahone became enamored of this message and really taken by other Indians in great numbers, frankly, standing up for what he believed to be their essential rights, which was their right to decide for themselves how to run their lives, and at base to claim their land, and to have their land be theirs and be in their control. And he latches on to the Peach Springs controversy, because it’s still going on in the early 1920s.

BRIAN: Well, it sounds like we need an actual lawyer here, right? Mahone was not an attorney, if I’m correct.


BRIAN: But this guy, Felix Cohen, who worked for the Interior Department was an attorney. Tell me a little bit about Cohen and his conceptions of the law.

CHRISTIAN MCMILLAN: Cohen was a brilliant lawyer in many, many respects. Cohen picked up this case in the late 1930s, after the Department of Interior and the Justice Department lawyers had gotten a hold of the case and said there was no case. They looked at all the depositions that had been collected. They looked at the evidence. And their claim was at the Hualapai had no property right claim to this land. And this went on for 15 years before Cohen got a hold of it.

BRIAN: That they were operating with a same imagery as the Hualapai. They’re kind of feckless, mobile, not really developing that right.

CHRISTIAN MCMILLAN: Right. Cohen really picked up where Mahone left off. It was Mahone’s great insight and other Hualapais to document their land use on the Hualapai reservation. He interviewed Hualapai elders. He took photographs of grave sites, photographs of farms. He interviewed a dozen white settlers from the 19th century who were still alive in order to document Hualapai land use. Because he understood this was the key to the case.

Cohen, because of his role in the federal government, his expertise in federal Indian law, began to see that the evidence that someone like Mahone had collected could be used to revive these older ideas of Indian title that had not been applied in the 20th century. What began to happen by the end of the 1930s is the other tribes similarly situated to the Hualapai were also beginning to bring their cases through the courts. And by 1940 or so, there were about 100 cases making their way through the Court of Claims and the Appellate Courts.

BRIAN: So the decision comes down when?

CHRISTIAN MCMILLAN: December, early December 1941, I think three days after Pearl Harbor. And the essential ruling is that if an Indian tribe can prove that they’ve lived on a piece of land and used it since what the court called time immemorial, then they have an aboriginal claim, aboriginal title claim, to that land.

BRIAN: So what did that decision do for the broader image of Indians, and frankly, their right to use the land in any way they wanted to?

CHRISTIAN MCMILLAN: The most tangible way it changed Indian, images of the Indian in my mind, was allow Indians to claim historical ties to land and begin to erase this idea that Indians disappeared from the landscape, to erase this idea that Indians like the Hualapai have no discernible property rights.

And Indian history, which up until that point, had no professional basis. There was no scholarship on Indian history, for the most part. Anthropology and Indians had had a long relationship.

BRIAN: And difficult one.

CHRISTIAN MCMILLAN: Long and typical relationship, focused on other things. And you know, some anthropologists famously thought that Indians had no history, that they lived in the present moment. And what they were doing in the 1920s and 1930s was what they called salvage anthropology, trying to create texts that would represent aboriginal worlds that were quickly, rapidly disappearing, and that history didn’t exist.

And what Mahone did, and then what Cohen solidified, along with the help of many others, of course, was to say that no, no, no. Indians have an actual material history in a place that needs to be legally recognized. And the only way to prove that is through historical research. But no one was really doing that until this case made it an imperative.

BRIAN: Christian McMillan is a professor of history at the University of Virginia and the author of Making Indian Law, the Hualapai Land Case and the Birth of Ethnohistory.


PETER: That’s going to do it for us today. But we hope we can continue the conversation online. Visit us at And let us know what impact images of American Indians have made in your life.

BRIAN: And while you’re there, take a moment to help us shape our next few episodes. Currently in the works are shows about presidential overreach, the history of shopping, and American fantasies about the future. We’d love to hear your questions and stories. You can leave a comment or send an email to

PETER: We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter at BackStory Radio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.


BRIAN: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, Emily Gadek, and Robert Armengol. Jamal Millner is our engineer. We had help from [? Coley ?] [? Elhigh. ?] Special thanks this week to the Hualapai Tribal Council and Cultural Center, and to [? Francine ?] [? Deep. ?] BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.


PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding is provided by Weinstein Properties, by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment, and by History Channel, history made every day.

KELLY JONES: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA and Senior Research Fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is President and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.


MALE SPEAKER 3: BackStory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.