MEDIA AND THE ARTS
NATIVE REPRESENTATIONS: MEDIA AND THE ARTS
n academics, the term representations refers to how meaning is constructed in our minds through language; be it words (e.g., writing, poetry), music (e.g., traditional, modern, or rap lyrics), storytelling (e.g., spoken words, traditional languages), or visual language (all forms of art, filmmaking, and performance). How Native Americans represent themselves or make meaning of their lives and cultures as Native peoples is very different from how the dominant culture has represented (mis-represented) them as “Indians” throughout history.
As we have seen in previous parts of this text, Native history is different from American history. However, with the development of the field of American Indian Studies/Native American Studies, history is being revised to include Native voices; this book is a prime example of that process. But, in this day and age, the story is not told only in textbooks. History is conveyed through popular culture in the media—through movies, music, and other arts—where Native stories are being rewritten in Native voices.
Today many people learn about American Indians through school or museums. However, even more people learn about Natives in the media. Historically, people learned about Indians less from school than from folklore, newspapers, novels, images, and serialized stories. In fact, the earliest images and stories of Indians came from the explorers and later the colonists. Columbus was one of the first to write about Indians, and ever since, there have been stories and images of Native Americans permeating the consciousness of American popular culture.
Indian history is the history of America, and it is a part of national folklore in the winning of the West. In fact, by the 1830s most Americans had never seen an Indian. Yet, the image of the Indian fascinated Americans. The “Indian” represented the wild and untamed West, and there were many books about Indians. One example, The Last of the Mohicans, is a novel by James Fenimore Cooper from 1826. It was serialized in the mid1800s, and by the 1900s was made into a movie. In fact, The Last of the Mohicans has been made into a movie five times in 80 years! Yet, the author had never seen an Indian! Cooper’s romantic portrayal of the “last of his kind” perpetuated the idea that Indians were a dying race, an idea that continued into the mid-twentieth century. There were other writers in the 1800s who wrote about the “noble savage,” and the cannon of work they created became a genre in literature, marking their difference from their literary counterparts in Europe. Their literary territory was the West and the imaginary line between savagery and civilization—that point where white civilization meets the savage West—the perfect ideological location for a literary tragedy. By the 1860s, this literary genre became a full-born Western formula, a formula with which the reader is no doubt familiar—with the outlaw, the Indian, and the hero set in the mythic Old West.
This formula was well honed in graphic novels of the time, called dime novels, and in serialized periodicals or stories in magazines. Also, the Western formula was used in traveling theatrical productions called Wild West shows, modeled after circuses but with a Western theme. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and Congress of Rough Riders is among the most famous of these traveling shows, even visiting Europe and playing for the Queen Mother of England in the 1880s. Interestingly, Buffalo Bill saw the new technology of filmmaking as a way to market his Wild West Show, and he made the first movie Western. Even more fascinating, Euro-Disneyland in Paris still presents a live version of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. And, as we know, the Western is still a popular...
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