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Complexities in Curation

Often Imagined, Frequently Misunderstood: The complexities of curating an exhibit around Indigenous communities

Throughout American history, representations of Native Americans in historical accounts and mass media have been tied to European Americans’ national identity. This stems from the moment outsiders came to this land where Natives had lived for thousands of years, and continues today through the omission of contemporary Indigenous ideas and representations. Social change requires infusing the broader cultural context with contemporary Indigenous people to express themselves and elaborate on issues they prioritize. In this section, we discuss WVU Libraries’ Native American-related archival holdings.

Non-Indigenous Viewers: when you think of Native Americans, what images come to mind?

The traditional Eurocentric narrative begins in 1493 when the Catholic pope issued a Papal Bull  sanctioning the invasion of the western hemisphere and subjugation of anyone Pagan (non-Catholic) through what’s known as the Doctrine of Discovery. The Eurocentric-imagined narrative of Native Americans began with the label “savage,” and evolved through government and religious documents, mass media, educational textbooks, and popular reading.

The US Declaration of Independence, signed in 1776, regarded as an aspirational document, begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” and goes on to refer to: “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

This description is by the typically esteemed “forefathers” of the United States, (who utilized tactics against the Haudenosaunee during the Revolution (some Native warriors fought for the British and others for the Americans). Though the democratic, representational model of American government was inspired by and informed through consultation with Haudenosaunee leaders, the Declaration served to solidify and institutionalize the marginalization and disregard for Native Americans.

Within the WVU Libraries’ West Virginia and Regional History Center Collections are a number of the popular “local color literature” books of the 19th and 20th century which played  major intentional and unintentional roles as purveyors of stereotypes, notably that of Native Americans.. Designed as marketing tools, the book cover designs were just as influential as the interior text and imagery. These artistic depictions of Native Americans were widely dispersed and had a lasting impact on perpetuating stereotypes about Native Americans. 

Book cover with stereotype caricature of native american

Cover of Wills De Hass’s 1851 History of the Early Settlement and Indian Wars of Western Virginia

The stamped cover of Wills De Hass’s 1851 History of the Early Settlement and Indian Wars of Western Virginia exudes the stereotypical savage image. The Indigenous man, long knife still in his hand, is depicted holding aloft the scalp of the slain settler at h is feet. A whole narrative can be read into this one image: the downtrodden settler, having tripped on a log, has lost this battle; the visually exhausted Indigenous man, in reality, the eventual final victim of colonization.  

Around the time DeHass published his book, settlers continued to migrate  westward. Chief Sitting Bull (1831-1890), a leader of the Hunkpapa (Standing Rock) Lakota, tried to unite the Sioux Tribes of the Plains to resist government and settler encroachment. Becoming a nationally known figure of the West, he traveled for some time as a performer in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.

As Indigenous communities continued to be pushed out of their homelands popularized images and stories of Sitting Bull and his contemporaries became the favored icons of romanticized Native American culture and identity, finding their way into educational and mass media, and continue to this day in commercial product naming and labeling, as well as sports mascot imagery.

The “noble savage” trope, depicting Indigenous people as nature’s uncorrupted, simple beings, also persists in modern literature. Often, this depiction is misconstrued as a Plains tribe Indian, with a feathered headdress, living in a teepee. These simplified, inaccurate depictions come from the European settler perspective, situating the subjects as a historical “other” and dismissing the many complex cultures, identities, and living situations of Indigenous peoples then and today.

Another example resides in our archives: The Story of Old Fort Loudon, from the 19th-century. The occurrence at Fort Loudon during the French and Indian Wars took place circa 1760 in Tennessee when the British enticed Cherokees to ally against the French, only to turn against them thereafter. This provoked the Anglo-Cherokee war wherein many Cherokee villages were destroyed. The Cherokee people never re-occupied those villages and many chose to or were forced to migrate West. One of many devastating stories of Indigenous Americans, this event did not define the Cherokee. Today there are three federally-recognized Cherokee tribes; the Cherokee Nation and Navajo Nation are the two most populous Native Nations in the continent of Native North America with nearly one million citizens combined (many reside in Oklahoma and North Carolina…as well as across the country), more than each of the five least populated states).  The Story of Old Fort Loudon, however, depicts a barely-clad male in a feathered headdress, with a strong stature and an arm raised as if leading, amongst a mountainous landscape. The garb is incorrect; Cherokee of that era often wore adorned long deer hide leggings or pants, hunting shirts, and moccasins. 

Indigenous cultures were further obscured, misrepresented, and marginalized in educational textbooks as evidenced in Principles of Geography in North America (Richard Elwood Dodge, 1906). This text defined the “People of the World” by skin color and physical attributes, and assigned a level of savagery based on how strongly the peoples relied on the land. This book was heavily used for elementary grades one through four.  These overtly racist opinions taught as fact ignored the agricultural, engineering, environmental, and governmental contributions that Native cultures have achieved for centuries.

Black and white photo of children in classroom portraying native american stereotype

Such disparaging efforts continued throughout the 20th century as the U.S. government tried to eradicate Indigenous cultures via politics and assimilation. Among these efforts was brutally forcing young Indigenous children into Euro-American boarding schools, where they were punished for expressing their Native culture. These boarding schools used the same textbooks decrying Native cultures. Not only did millions of non-Native people hear, believe, and pass on such messages to each other, the educational codifying of racism has had long-term, devastating consequences for Indigenous communities themselves.

Even today, the history of Indigenous Americans is misrepresented. A study by the National Museum of the American Indian in 2015 surveyed 28 commonly-used U.S. K-12 textbooks. The most common terms related to Indigenous communities suggested that the Native American story is in the past and about the Indigenous people that Euro-Americans typically review. Moreover, in state academic standards for U.S. History, 87% of Native American references are pre-1900 and often blended into discussions about Euro-American Destiny.  Thus, Indigenous people are relegated as outsiders as they relate to settler history.

These institutionalized, misinformed stories (still told as fact), contribute to assumptions and beliefs that Indigenous people no longer exist.  Likewise, portrayals appearing in popular media mostly perpetuate stereotypes or are not contemporary. Though there have been some recent strides, still, 95% of the first 100 images on a Google search for Native American are antiquated portraits.

When you think of “Native Americans,” what images come to mind?

Native American imagery reaches every demographic, even as it is imagined and is often at their expense. The mass of media portrayals as mascots, costumes through appropriated and romanticized imagery throughout our contemporary culture is misinformed and problematic in many ways. Representation matters as it is harmful to Indigenous youth well-being, continues the process of colonization, and subconsciously impacts mainstream support for Indigenous sovereignty, nation-building, self-determination and more.

How do we reconcile these contradictions? Recognizing and discussing the contradictions and atrocities that coincided with these stories may be a first step, as well as focusing on the many achievements throughout and contemporary communities’ issues and cultures that continue today. Here are just a few Indigenous creatives that made – and are making – strides today - see Contemporary Perspectives section for more!