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Native Americans in Pop Culture

A new Smithsonian exhibition delves into stereotypes and myths

Indian Motorcycle

National Museum of the American Indian

The 1948 Indian Chief motorcycle is considered the most stylish mass-produced model and features an Indian figure with headdress on its fender.

From helicopters to food packaging, movies, sports teams and even a U.S. missile, Native American imagery and mythology have been used to brand and sell merchandise throughout U.S. pop culture for decades. The combination of reverence, stereotypes and inaccuracies depicted highlight this country's complex relationship with its first peoples. Now the new "Americans" exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C., explores this unique phenomenon. 

The appropriation of Indian culture in America is unlike any other ethnic group and it goes back hundreds of years, cocurator of the exhibit Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche) told AARP. "One of the curious things [about the depiction] of American Indians in entertainment is that they are always set in the past, in the 19th Century. ...  If you are a modern-day Indian you are not authentic."

Native American Imagery Exhibit

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The "Americans" exhibit includes many items from 20th century pop culture, which should be appealing to those 50 and older.

The expansive exhibit includes more than 300 items, ranging from a sporty yellow Indian-make motorcycle, a bullet box from the Savage Arms gun company, ads for movies, and scale models of the U.S. military’s Chinook, Kiowa and Apache Longbow helicopters, according to the Smithsonian.

Because the helicopter was a game changer for the military, it was actually a U.S. policy to name helicopters after tribes as a tribute to Native American warfare techniques.  "Opinions in the Indian community are divided on this," Smith said. "The White Mountain Apache are very proud of the Apache helicopters."

apache helicopter

Andreas Zeitler/Alamy

Helicopters are often named after Native American tribes and individuals, including the Apache helicopter.

However, others feel that the stereotype of Native Americans as "great warriors" undermines the systemic decimation of tribal people by the United States. For example, legend has it that Little Bighorn was a catastrophe for General Custer’s Regiment. In reality it was just one Native American victory in a series of defeats that resulted in the confinement of Sioux Indians to reservations and the annexation of their land for U.S. development, according to the Smithsonian. The well-known Trail of Tears is also often oversimplified as an isolated event spearheaded by Andrew Jackson. But the exhibition explores how the Indian Removal Act of 1830 began a campaign of forced displacement that impacted 67,000 Indians from numerous tribes and spanned the terms of nine separate presidents. 

Families exploring the exhibit often find that, depending on in which era they grew up, they learned different things. "My parents didn’t learn about the Trail of Tears in school," Smith said. "Thanksgiving is also taught very differently now than it used to be." For current college students the movie Dances with Wolves "was made long before they were born, and they don’t have a concept of a wide western epic. So depending on your age ... the things you think you know about [Native Americans] does change."

A walk through boomer history

In the "Indians Are Everywhere" portion of the exhibit it is clear to see that American Indians often added meaning or value to advertised products, but the references often paint Native Americans as one-note caricatures. When viewing the exhibit, patrons may realize how some of these portrayals have unconsciously invaded their own perceptions of Native Americans over the years. 

For viewers 50 and older it is also a walk through their own history — with much of the content coming from the 20th century pop culture, which was the "high" point of Indian imagery being used in advertising, Smith said.

"The exhibit is designed so that all of our visitors resonate immediately with images from their own lives," Smith told AARP. For example, "... There are well-known Americans who have portrayed Indians in movies or wore headdress, including Elvis Presley, Jimmy Hoffa, Ted Turner and others." 

The problem becomes that for many Americans this is their only exposure to Native American culture. "There are 330 million people in this country and the vast majority live in places where there are not many Indians. They only experience Indians through this type of thing, sports teams, place names, false stereotypes," Smith said.

The exhibit, which opened Jan. 18, offers families a chance to discuss their interpretations of Native Americans in pop culture and how it has changed. "I think what [visitors] are surprised by is how many things connect to their own lives. There's lots of pointing, discussion and excitement," Smith said. 

seahawks helmet

Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks fashioned their logo around Native American art to represent the Pacific Northwest.

Sometimes pop culture gets it right

A more encouraging example of incorporating Native culture into pop culture is the NFL team the Seattle Seahawks, Smith said, which is very popular among Native people. Their logo was inspired by Native American art and the franchise made an effort to introduce imagery that reflected the region but was also respectful.

Although tackling tough topics, the "Americans" exhibit feels very positive, Smith said. It reflects that Americans have a deep interest in Indian history, he said, even though as a culture we still are trying to reconcile that interest with the fact that the country’s creation came at a great cost to Native Americans.

The “Americans” exhibition will be on view at NMAI through 2022.

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