Identity and Assimilation
LeAnne Howe talks with “Chief Henry” Lambert.LeAnne Howe talks with “Chief Henry” Lambert.


Stereotypes are oversimplified conceptions or beliefs about groups of people. Since their first contact with Native Americans, Europeans sent back literary depictions of the inhabitants of the "New World."

What these writers encountered were a few of the over 2,000 indigenous cultures that existed on the North American continent. The writers couldn't and didn't take the time to get to know all of those cultures, but lumped them into one classification — "Indians." Then they wrote about what they had expected to find in the New World — "savages." Heathen and barbarian were other words often used in these narratives. The stereotype die had been cast.

Individual Indians could be good, but the group had to be bad to justify the superiority of European civilization and the legal and moral rationale to take the land of the indigenous inhabitants.

Henry Lambert dresses up in the regalia of a plains Indian because that’s what the tourists expect to see.

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Over the years, one media succeeded another. Newspapers, books, dime novels, photographs, recordings, film, radio and television have all used Indians, usually as foils for the heroic settlers in search of their manifest destiny. Over hundreds of years and thousands of works, very few depictions have come close to reality.

In general, the stereotypes can be divided into three broad categories:

  • Mental. Native peoples have been firmly placed in the lower echelons of intelligence. One meaning of the word "dirty" implies stupidity, and we are all familiar with the terms "dirty redskin, filthy heathen."

  • Sexual. A Native American is often portrayed as a bestial creature, rather than a human being. They are elements of nature. A common narrative involves lustful savages attacking white women, only to be killed by heroic white men.

  • The Nobel Redman. These are the few "good" Indians written into the plot to heighten the drama. In recent years, a variation on the theme involves the "Noble Ecologist" living in sustainable harmony with the Earth.

Film and television are visual media that can evoke huge emotional power. So, it's not surprising that the most long-lasting stereotypes have come from Hollywood. There is also the sheer volume of depictions of Indians. Since movies were invented, there have been something like 2,000 theatrical films produced dealing with "Indian themes." Another 2,500 or so TV Indian program segments were made between 1950 and 1970.

There is a direct line between the early American novels and the films. James Fennimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans has been made into a Hollywood movie five times.

Between roughly 1920 and 1970, there were more than 350 Euro-American actors who portrayed Native Americans — including Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Debra Paget, Donna Reed, Jennifer Jones, Julie Newmar, Jeff Chandler, Rock Hudson, Delores Del Rio, Linda Darnel, Sal Mineo, Anthony Quinn, Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Chuck Connors and Ricardo Montalban.

But it was not until 1970 that the first actual Indian tribal member appeared in a lead role in a motion picture. That actor was Chief Dan George cast as Old Lodge Skins in "Little Big Man."

Since 1970, there have been a few attempts at a more nuanced and realistic portrait of Native American lives and history. But the stereotypes persist, and Indians themselves are well aware of their power.

In Spiral of Fire, LeAnne Howe was "not prepared for the tourist spectacle I find. The stoic wooden Indians, cheesy dream catchers on sale in every store, Pocahontas dolls, the worst Hollywood stereotypes, all marketed by the Cherokees themselves."

Henry Lambert may be "chiefing," dressed up as a Plains Indian 1,500 miles from the Great Plains — but he has no doubts about what the tourists expect, and he has no doubts about his own identity. "I didn't have to play the part of being an Indian," he says. "I just dress the way people wanted me to dress so to capitalize on what they were showing American people on the movies."

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