Masaryk University Faculty of Arts

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Masaryk University

Faculty of Arts
Department of English
and American Studies

English Language and Literature

Tomáš Lesa

Stereotyped Depictions of Native American Women in Hollywood Film

Bachelor’s Diploma Thesis

Supervisor: Jeffrey Alan Vanderziel, B.A.

I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.


Tomáš Lesa


I would like to thank my research supervisor, Mr. Jeffrey Alan Vanderziel, first for his lectures, which arouse my interest in this topic, and second for his guidance during the process of my writing. I would also like to thank my family and my girlfriend for their patience.

Table of Contents

Introduction 5

The Origin and the Definition of the Stereotype 7

Analysis of the Selected Films 17

The Silent Era 18

The Golden Age of the Western 19

The Revisionist Western 30

The Modern Western 33

Conclusion 41

Appendix 45

Bibliography 58

English Résumé 63

Czech Résumé 64


The first European discoverers of and settlers to America did not understand the cultures of various Native American groups and they thought of themselves as being more civilized than Native Americans (see for example The Journal of Christopher Columbus). Because of this superior position and owing to their ignorance and misunderstanding Europeans made many assumptions about Native Americans. Plenty of these assumptions were wrong or inaccurate and thus various stereotypes developed.

Generally, when we think of the stereotypes in films and television, there has not been much attention given to Native Americans, as it has been, for example, to African Americans (cf. Sambo tu již nebydlí?). Even though some stereotypes connected with Native Americans have been dealt with and there has been an effort not to perpetuate them (as may be seen in some of the films in this thesis), still the stereotypes concerning Native American women are often ignored and not dealt with sufficiently. Not many people have focused on the stereotype of Native American women being sexually available to white men and so I would like to describe how the stereotype was used in various historical periods in Hollywood, compare these usages and show how it is employed now. To show historical context I am going to browse into history and present when the stereotype appeared and then I am going to analyze the nature of this stereotype. I would like to look into this issue from a more topical view.

What I am going to argue is that the situation concerning the stereotype of sexually available Native American women has stayed preserved in many films throughout the history of Hollywood film – from the Silent Era, through the Golden Age of the Western and the Revisionist Western up until the Modern Western. The films I am analyzing in this thesis were chosen to demonstrate the point I am making and they had to meet the condition of having the ability to address masses. This was fulfilled by the fact that overwhelming majority of the films were high-grossing, they were given mass-media attention, some of them became cult films and/or they were directed by star directors such as Cecil B. DeMille, John Ford, Terrence Malick and others. Naturally, they also featured star actors such as Kirk Douglas, Clark Gable, Charlton Heston, John Wayne, Dustin Hoffman, Colin Farell and others. Since film is a visual medium, I decided to demonstrate my statements concerning the analyzed films more visually in the picture appendix.

In general, perpetuating of any stereotypes is at least uncomfortable, but mostly detrimental and dangerous. There may be negative consequences of perpetuating the stereotype in real life, and it is without doubts that it has a very negative impact on the Native American community. It is, therefore, important not to underestimate the role of mass media and it is necessary not to perpetuate the stereotypes in these media, particularly in film and television.

The Origin and the Definition of the Stereotype

The stereotype dealt with in this thesis did not appear in the last century and its origin is not related to the invention of film. This stereotype dates back to the arrival of Columbus in America. Before film, there were other art forms, in which the stereotype was either present or at least some of these art forms negatively contributed to the formation of the stereotype. Most frequently, these were written records such as journals, short stories, novels, and articles, or forms of fine art, for example paintings. These works of art often showed Native American women as inferior in comparison with the whites and presented them as women who are lustful and who cannot help themselves from trying to seduce white men on every occasion. The stereotype developed only because all these above mentioned records were very inaccurate or wrong. With the invention of film the stereotype was heavily used in various Hollywood films; they all shared the same genre – the western. Hollywood created various models of how Native American women behave and what their personalities are like, and started to employ these models in films. The roles of Native American women were structured in the way to fit in Hollywood categories.

The oldest artwork, that we know of, showing the nature of the Native Americans as seen by whites, is a woodcut called The People and Island Which Have Been Discovered (circa 1505) (see Fig. 1), which shows how supposedly savage the Native Americans are. In this woodcut the author depicts cannibalism and “open love making” (Berkhofer Plate 2). Johann Grüninger depicted an event of killing one of the men of Vespucci’s crew in an engraving, which was part of the German edition of The Letters of Amerigo Vespucci to Piero Soderini, called Clubbing Member of Vespucci's Crew (1509) (see Fig. 2). The engraving depicts several naked Native American women around a white man. Three of them are standing in front of the white man and they are touching him. It is apparent that the women are smiling at the white man and are quite pleased by his presence; they don’t have a problem with physical contact. The painting by William Blake Europe Supported by Africa and America (1796) (see Fig. 3) shows a Native American woman supporting a white woman, but at the same time she is held on a rope or a leash and it is clearly understood from the picture that the Native American woman is under control by the white woman. You can see that this picture works as a metaphor for expressing the superiority of Europe over America as well as of the whites over Native Americans.

The most influential medium before film, however, was the literature. When you take into consideration the available sources from the time of the first contact Europeans made with Native Americans, it is clear that Native Americans and more concretely Native American women were depicted inaccurately, uncomprehendingly and subjectively. This depiction was at the root of the emergence of the stereotype dealt with in this thesis. Robert Berkhofer in his well-known book dealing with the stereotypes connected with Native Americans, The White Man’s Indian, cites Vespucci’s Mundus Novus, a journal published circa 1503. Vespucci describes Native American women having “bodies which are tolerably beautiful and cleanly”, but at the same time the women being “very libidinous”. Vespucci also claims about the women that “when they had the opportunity of copulating with Christians, urged by excessive lust, they defiled and prostituted themselves” (Berkhofer 9) thus claiming that Native American women took the first chance they had to have sex with white men and that they couldn’t have helped themselves, because they were so lustful. Vespucci is not the only man who mentions Native American women at that period of time and in that manner. Deborah Small and Maggie Jaffe created a publication, which is skeptic towards the discovery of America by Europeans in 1492, and this skepticism is nicely illustrated and supported by quotes from various sources. According to Small’s and Jaffe’s 1492: What Is It Like to be Discovered? Peter Martyr, Spanish historian of Columbus era, wrote in Decades de Orbe Novo VII (1530) this: “In accordance with the general Nature of women, who prefer the things of others to things of their own, these women love CHRISTIANS most of all” (Small, Jaffe). In another instance “In his official history, Oviedo tells us about the sexual predilections of the native women of Hispaniola: ‘[They] were restrained with the native men, but they gladly gave themselves to the Christians. Anaceona, in particular, was ‘very indecent in the veneral act with the Christians’ and ‘the most dissolute woman of her rank or any other to be found in the island’” (Small, Jaffe). You can see how heavily subjective the sources can be, since Las Casas, one of the few people who probably truly cared for the Native Americans, in his Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies (1542) contradicts Oviedo’s depiction of Anaceona, a Native American ruler, by claiming: “So noble and fine a lady, so gracious to the Christians and long suffering of their insults” (Small, Jaffe).

Mainly at the time of the first contact of Europeans with Native Americans there was little information about various cultures of Native Americans and so people could depend only on the records such as mentioned above. Even in the following centuries Europeans did not show much interest in cultures of Native Americans and if someone was interested in a specific group of Native Americans, they often failed to understand them. Another example of this type of misunderstanding or simplification can be seen in the writings of John Lawson, who wrote in 1709, that “those American Indian girls that have conversed with the English and other Europeans, never care for the conversation of their own Countrymen afterwards” and that white traders “find these American Indian girls very serviceable to them” (Bird 73). Further the stereotype of sexually available Native American women can be found in the journals of The Lewis and Clarke Expedition, which explored the western United States from 1804 to 1806. On one occasion, for example, they write that “The Sioux had offered us squaws, but while we remained there having declined, they followed us with offers of females for two days. The Ricaras had been equally accommodating; we had equally withstood their temptation; but such was their desire to oblige that two very handsome young squaws were sent on board this evening, and persecuted us with civilities” (Lewis, Clarke 105). In their view, the women were so eager to please the men of the expedition that they persisted in offering up themselves for two days.  

Probably the most influential and persistent story concerning this stereotype of Native American women as easily accessible by and lusting for white men is the story of Pocahontas. As the story of Pocahontas is very well-known and the details of it are not strictly relevant to this thesis, it is not necessary for me to write here about the story in much detail. However, what is important is the fact that Pocahontas was a Native American girl who supposedly fell in love with the white soldier of fortune, John Smith. It is not exactly clear what the nature of the relationship between Smith and Pocahontas was, because the only record of this is Smith’s journal. Interestingly, Smith did not write about Pocahontas in 1607 when he arrived in Jamestown and supposedly met Pocahontas. He mentions Pocahontas much later in his life, in his Generall Historie of Virginia, in which he claims that he was supposed to be killed by Pocahontas’ father, the powerful chief Powhatan, but Pocahontas saved him by laying her head on his chest (J. Smith 49). The fact is that most scholars today think “the famous rescue was part of an elaborate adoption ritual that Smith simply misunderstood” (Edwards 150). Later in the Generall Historie of Virginia Smith describes some kind of celebration or entertainment. He declares “Pocahontas and her women” were very compliant and fully sexually available to him (67). According to Smith, at first, about thirty naked women came from a forest to the fire by which Smith resided and they entertained him. Later, he was invited to “to their lodgings, where […] all these Nymphes more tormented him then ever, with crowding, pressing, and hanging about him, most tediously crying, Loue you not me? loue you not me?” (67). Similarly to what John Lawson wrote about Native American women, according to Smith, Pocahontas was not interested in Native American men at all; she fell in love with Smith and after Smith’s departure with another white man, John Rolfe.

The story of Pocahontas has become a ubiquitous theme of hundreds of art pieces, or, for example, advertising, and in most cases these representations have only served to perpetuate the stereotype. Native American scholar, Rayna Green, explores the images of American Indian women in American culture. In her work The Pocahontas Perplex: The Image of Indian Women in American Culture she focuses on the image of Pocahontas and on how and in what art forms the image is employed. Literature pieces like “James Nelson Barber's La Belle Sauvage (1808) and George Washington Custis' The Settlers of Virginia (1827), as well as […] traditional American ballads like ‘Jonathan Smith’ retold the thrilling story; schoolbook histories included it in the first pages of every text; nineteenth century commercial products like cigars, perfume and even flour used Pocahontas's name as come-on“ (Green 700). Betty Louise Bell, a Cherokee scholar, in her article about Pocahontas and about the depiction of Pocahontas over time, asserts, that “Pocahontas, the nude prepubescent Indian girl […] was translated by the colonists as ‘Little Wanton’ or ‘Little Mischief.’ In Powhatan culture children wore no clothing, except during the winter, but Pocahontas's nudity and playfulness was interpreted as frivolous and licentious behavior” (Bell 67). Bell continues by asserting that “From first contact, Pocahontas was an object of the male colonial gaze. […] Just over the age of ten, Pocahontas is identified as the promiscuous female body, as fecund and wild and seductive as the land” (67-68) and Bell characterizes the stereotype by the fact how “her bronze nubile body” yields “to the white settler’s touch” (68). Once again the misinterpretation of the behavior of Pocahontas can be seen in the words: “Her nakedness is seen as wantonness; her playfulness is known as seduction” (68). As was mentioned before, this was the way in which the stereotypes developed. Europeans had no concept of the cultures of Native Americans, and compared them to their own. The problem is that this comparison should not have been made in this way. Anthropologist, Elizabeth Bird, sums up this fact thusly: “The inescapable fact about this dual imagery of American Indian woman Is that it is entirely White defined” (Bird 74).

The “golden era” of the stereotype of easy Native American women in literature came in the nineteenth century when you could choose from hundreds of adventure novels with various plots about detectives, soldiers, agents, cowboys, and Indian fighters. The stereotype was frequently used in these kinds of novels, which were inexpensive and for this reason they were called “dime novels”; they could be bought for few cents. According to Bird, another reason why the stereotype was so living in the nineteenth century was the fact that it was becoming more normal for the society to see, hear and read about sexual references, such as naked breasts at women. There was for example the tradition of half-naked Native American women posing at photographs (72-73). The relationship between a white male and a Native American female was dealt with in numerous dime novels and plays. For instance a play called The Squaw Man (1905) is a story about Native American woman Nat-u-ritch who falls in love with white English man. She saves his life and they have a son, but at the end of the play she kills herself. Ann S. Stephens’ dime novel Malaeska: The American Indian Wife of the White Hunter (1861) is the story of a Native American woman named Malaeska, who marries a White man and gives birth to a son, who later kills himself because of his parents “unnatural marriage” (73). Edward Willett's Silver-spur (1870) tells a story of Dove-Eye, a half-breed Native American woman, who at first attacks the main hero, Fred Wilder, but “this initial misunderstanding is soon overcome and the two are betrothed” (H. Smith 127-28).

With the invention of film these kinds of stories appeared on the silver screen. Films shot at the end of the nineteenth century and at least in the first three decades of the twentieth century almost never employed Native American actors and actresses and “because the Native Americans were the ‘savages’, they have often been portrayed by stars of horror films like Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney” (Vrasidas 66). If Native Americans appeared in a movie they had only minor roles and even casting Native American in a minor role was not usual until the 1930s. Still, even during the Golden Age of the Western movies, from 1930s to 1960s, the leading roles in Hollywood movies were never given to Native Americans.

As was said before, Hollywood created categories in which the roles of Native American women fit. Most of the roles of Native American women in Hollywood cinema could be put into four or rather three main categories, but as we can gather from the history of the stereotype these stereotypical images are much older. The original image is that of the Indian Queen, which inspired many other stereotypical depictions. Then there is the Indian Princess, “the Sexualized Maiden” (Marubbio 7), and, as the Native American scholar Kim Anderson calls her, “the Squaw drudge” (Anderson 231) or simply a Squaw. Despite the fact these stereotypical images differ in their characteristics, all of them, more or less, share the element of Native American woman sexually available to white men.

The Indian Queen image is in most cases a depiction linked to the arrival of Europeans to America. The Indian Queen was frequently depicted as a strong and powerful woman. Rayna Green describes the imagery of The Indian Queen in the centuries following the arrival of Europeans to America thusly: “bare-breasted, […] draped in leaves, feathers, and animal skins, […], she appeared aggressive, militant, and armed with spears and arrows. Often, she rode on an armadillo, and stood with her foot on the slain body of an animal or human enemy. She was the familiar Mother-Goddess figure full-bodied, powerful” (Green 702). Such an image is also depicted on the engraving by Adriaen Collaert America (circa 1589) (see Fig. 4). The stereotypical image of Indian Queen began to fade away during the centuries after the settlement of Americas, because it did not come useful for the Europeans when they were claiming new land. The Indian Queen was too powerful, too aggressive and dangerous to white men, while not so easily subdued by them. At the same time she was promiscuous. The stereotype of the Indian Queen is not used in Hollywood films, because it was replaced by the Sexualized Maiden image.

Out of the Indian Queen image the stereotype of the Sexualized Maiden developed and has been used in many Hollywood films. In films she is often of mixed-blood, thus referred to as a half-breed. Sexualized Maiden is dangerous and often causes troubles to white hero of a movie. She is very skilled at riding a horse; she can throw knives or shoot a rifle expertly; she can take care of her. M. Elise Marubbio, whose field of expertise is Native Americans in film, in her book on the role of Native American women in film, Killing The Indian Maiden: Images Of Native American Women In Film, asserts that Hollywood film heightens the image of the Sexualized Maiden, while the Indian Queen image is suppressed. Hollywood also highlights The Sexualized Maiden’s sexuality and “her potential for physically harming white male characters, using it as evidence of her immorality, innate savagery, and potential to destroy American society. As a result, she becomes the female representation of the ignoble savage” (Marubbio 7). Because of her sexuality the Sexualized Maiden is similar to the Squaw but isn’t so passive.

The Squaw is the most sexualized figure of all the stereotypical depictions of Native American women in film. She offers herself to white men, she is lewd; she has both white and native sexual partners, often she has many children. The squaw is sexually promiscuous and so she does not hold the same position as the Indian Princess, who supposed to be virginal. Kim Anderson, whose writings deal mainly with indigenous feminism, writes about the Squaw figure or the Squaw drudge figure in this manner: “While the princess held erotic appeal for the covetous imperial male wishing to claim the ‘new territory’, the squaw drudge justified the conquest of an uncivilized terrain” (Anderson 231). The Squaw image was useful to the new settlers, because it justified the measurements taken against the Native Americans and as Anderson adds: “She eased the conscience of those who wished to sexually abuse without consequence” (229).

Indian Princess is different from the three images already mentioned regarding the sexual availability, because she is not promiscuous. On the other hand it is a white man she desires and frequently it is her, who expresses her desire to him, not the other way around. She has been depicted as naïve, pure virgin waiting for a white knight in shining armor. The Indian Princess is a representation of noble savage; she “embodies the unspoiled essence of a ‘virgin’ land” and “unlike the Queen, the Princess poses no physical or military threat” (Marubbio 11). Indian Princess is an image that has been used out of the four stereotypical images mentioned above most frequently. Beside the factors aforesaid, Indian Princess is characteristic by her desire to help white man (despite the fact she sometimes has to betray her own people) and by her ability to become adapted to white man’s culture and society. I agree with Marubbio’s other qualifiers that constitute the Princess character; these include “her connection to nature and the American landscape, her innocence and purity, her link to nobility, her exotic culture and beauty, […], and her tragic death. In all the Celluloid Princess films, the maiden’s death frees the hero to fulfill his destiny as the American Adam—the icon of American progress, exceptionalism, and the American nation” (Marubbio 6) and I would also add to this that the Indian Princess character is often the daughter of the chief, that is why the connection to the nobility.

It is not surprising that the stereotype of sexually available women became so deeply rooted in the new medium of film, given that the stereotype was thriving in the nineteenth century. At the time film was invented and Hollywood studios began to produce hundreds of films it was only natural the stereotype would be perpetuated. Film added a new dimension to the dime novels, journals and paintings. Because it was becoming acceptable for the society to perceive various sexual references in art, it was easy for film studios, for the producers, directors and scriptwriters to fully exploit this old stereotype, while at the same time to enrich and diversify it in a bad way. Some of the stereotypical images of Native American women were known before film, but had to be modified in order to suit the new medium, while there were new stereotypical images developing with the new medium.

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