AARP Eye Center
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.
A combination of reverence, stereotypes and inaccuracies depict this country's complex relationship with its first peoples in an exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. It's called, simply, "Americans."
AARP Membership — $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal
Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP The Magazine.
The appropriation of Indian culture in America is unlike any other ethnic group and it goes back hundreds of years, says Paul Chaat Smith, a member of the Comanche Nation and cocurator of the exhibit.
"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."
These days, American Indians and Alaska Natives are less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, but their idealized appeal is more outsized.
The expansive exhibit includes more than 300 items, ranging from a sporty yellow Indian 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.
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 says. "The White Mountain Apache are very proud of the Apache helicopters."
However, others believe that the stereotype of Native Americans as "great warriors" bolsters the the United States' systemic decimation of tribal people.
For example, legend has it that Little Bighorn was a catastrophe for Gen. George Custer’s regiment. In reality, it was 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.