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The Dilemma of Social Representation for American Indian People

Written by Christina Rencontre: July 2010

On April 20, 2010 the Wisconsin legislature passed SB25: the race based mascot, logo and nickname bill. Six days later, Governor Doyle signed the bill into law.  Supporters of the bill say it is the first bill in the nation that bars race-based team names and mascots in public schools (Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice 2010). But, the passage of this bill does more then require schools to remove race-based mascots, logos or nicknames—which are widely represented in the media– the bill also highlights the continued tension in Wisconsin and across the country in terms of how non-Indian citizens view American Indians and how American Indians view themselves. Ultimately, the issue of how American Indian groups see themselves in society has implications for how they represent themselves in the media.

The implications of American Indian organizations using existing stereotypes on websites and other media are especially complex.  Sergei Moscovici (1998) describes social representations as the images, assumptions and public meanings that are accepted, or rather taken for granted, and widely distributed.  These public meanings, according to Moscovici, help individuals make sense of their past, their present and their future and serve as a means to make sense of the unknown (Moscovici 1998).

In most cases stereotypes, which are a form of social representation, may operate as a way of imposing a sense of order on the social world, much the same as categories.  The central difference is that stereotyping attempts to deny any flexibility to categories.  This inflexibility of stereotypes reinforces the conviction that existing relations of power are necessary and fixed. As such, stereotypes operate within definite needs and social conditions. While these conditions may change over time, they typically operate through myths, because both involve the combined repressions of politics and history, which perpetuates social exclusion and economic inequalities and can serve to rationalize bigotry, hostility and aggression (Pickering, 2001).

The mainstream media has long participated in the mythmaking of American Indians by portraying them as frozen in time i.e. savages who cannot be civilized and therefore are not suited for modern civilization. According to Bataille and Silet (1980),

By the mid-nineteenth century the bloodthirsty savage had become a staple of the popular dime novel and pulp weekly.  Such thrillers as Massacre! and The Fighting Trapper became favorites during the same time that the enormously popular Wild West shows were playing cross the country and were being exported to France and England, (p. 39)

In short, the dominant Anglo culture has a long history of representing American Indian identity through the politics of difference, defining Indians as non-human, as the noble or ignoble savage (Bataille & Silet, 1980).

In addition to the stereotyped representations of American Indians in television and movies in the mid-nineteenth century American Indians were in a sense typecast in their roles by marketing ploys including sports team mascots and logos.  According to Tan, Fujoika and Lucht (1997), American Indian product labels

… include the Land O’ Lakes butter maiden, Mazola margarine, Kickapoo Joy Juice and Crazy Horse Malt Liquor. Sports teams and their mascots are [also] offensive to some members of the Native American Community…the “Washington Redskins,” the “Atlanta Braves,” and the “Kansas City Chiefs” only help promote current and past stereotypes (Tan, Fujoika and Lucht 1997).

According to Dr. Cornel Pewewardy, associate professor of American Indian Studies at Portland State University, the social representations of American Indians tend toward stereotypes, due in part because, “…most Americans have no direct, personal experience with American Indians,” (Pewewardy, 1995).  Due to this relative invisibility of American Indians, Fryberg et al (2008) argues that, “media representations play a powerful role in defining how people see American Indians, and also in the number of ways American Indians see themselves (Fryberg et al 2008).

If we consider the framing of American Indians by way of stereotypes, Robert Entman probably describes it best when he writes that framing,

“…is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem, definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described,” (Entman, 1993).

Other researchers have characterized the practice of framing as a persuasive invitation, a stimulus to read a news story in a particular way, (Van Gorp, 2007), a construction of social reality, (Scheufele, 1999) bridging a concept between cognition and culture, (Gamson et al., 1992), and an organizing principal that is socially shared and persistent over time, that works symbolically to meaningfully structure the social world, (Reese, 2007).

Some social scientists use a constructionist approach,(Gamson et al., 1992; Van Gorp, 2007; Zhongdang Pan & Kosicki, 1993), which highlights the interaction between the interpreting activities of an audience and the power of the frame that is presented in a number of elements in media content (Van Gorp, 2007), which increasingly may include websites, YouTube, Facebook and other new media.

Although it is tempting to believe that American Indian stereotypes and frames have changed since the mid-nineteenth century, many researchers indicate that stereotyped images of American Indians in contemporary media are often represented in an historical context of inaccuracies and biases, which does nothing to represent American Indians as a contemporary people living in the present (Merskin, 1998, Allen, 2000, Perley, 2008, Cuillier & Ross 2007).

Joseph Allen, writer and publisher of The Circle, a monthly native newspaper in Minneapolis, MN says, “I have come to the conclusion that news stories about Indians fall into one of four categories: Indians on the war path; pretty pow wow pictures; from reservation rags to riches; and the little Indian who could. Although Allen (2000) concedes that there may be no way to avoid doing a story that will fall into one of these categories, he argues that reporters can [and should] avoid using the same myths and misperceptions that have been used by media for years (Allen 2000).

Academic research on American Indians is limited (Merskin 1998), which limits any review of  empirical studies focused on American Indian issues.  Fortunately there have been several studies in recent years on the subject of American Indian self-representation in the media. Debra Merskin’s (1998) exploratory study could well be described as one of the earliest studies on American Indian representation, which sprang from Merskin’s own desire to shift the focus of communication scholars’ agendas for all minority groups, but particularly for American Indians.  For Merskin, this shift would change the focus for researchers from problems associated with the past to a focus on contemporary American Indian life (Merskin 1998).

In her study, Merskin (1998) sent out surveys to 190 self-identified American Indian students attending a U.S. university.  The author found that 31% of the respondents believed that t.v. Portrayals of American Indians were inaccurate while 29% indicated that American Indian portrayals in the movies appeared to be accurate (Merskin 1998).

Merskin noted several limitations in her study, i.e. the fact that she used American Indian college students rather than American Indians residing on a reservation and the fact that American Indians as a population are very difficult to reach. Merskin also highlighted two important issues for future researchers to consider.  First, many respondents pointed out that American Indians are typically studied as objects rather than active participants, and second; that it would be important for American Indians to participate in future production of their own media and thus have control of their own media representations (Merskin 1998).

In a 2000 study Rhonda Fair examined 92 websites that were produced by American Indian tribes. The author’s research focused on the intended audience and content of each website.  Fair (2000) analyzed each of the 92 websites for what she described as “stereotypical Indian imagery,” which for the purposes of the study was described as the presence of tipis, plains Indian costumes and other representations of pre-modern plains Indian culture (Fair 2000).

In an interesting conclusion, Fair (2000) found there was a difference in the representation of “tribe” in websites created for outsiders i.e. tourists or others unrelated to the tribe and those created for insiders i.e. tribal members. The author also indicated that in websites created for insiders, the tribal chair [or chief] was typically pictured in a suit. Conversely, websites created for outsiders tended to post pictures of the tribal chair dressed in what Fair termed “authentic dress,” (Fair 2000).

In the same study, Fair (2000) also noted that historic photos were presented differently in websites catering to insider and outsider audiences. Fair (2000) notes that historic photos present in American Indian websites for insiders typically indicated whom the individuals were in the pictures and who was related to them. This contextual setting provided by the tribe connected the photographs to living members of the tribe making the connection between the past and present.  In websites catering to outsiders, Fair (2000) observed historic photos that were not contextualized, which thus lent an air of exoticism to the website fixing the tribe in the past rather than the present (Fair 2000).

In a 2003 study by Cokie G. Anderson (2003) the author also looked at the similarities and differences between American Indian websites. Anderson (2003) reviewed 139 tribal websites, which represented about 25% of American Indian tribes at the time. In the end, Anderson (2003) noted that websites could be a very valuable tool for tribes in terms of helping the world to gain knowledge and understanding about American Indians and American Indian issues, but there were barriers to many tribes being able to realize the use of the internet (Anderson 2003).

In the conclusion of her study, Anderson (2003) describes two issues, which she believes will continue to be problematic for internet use in Indian country; first, money has proven to be a great barrier for tribes in terms of gaining access to the internet and being able to develop websites (Anderson 2003).  In fact, tribes are most often located in very rural areas and as such are the last citizens to gain access to the web, with broadband being overly expensive in Native communities (Morris & Meinrath 2010). The second issue Anderson (2003) describes is authenticity, i.e. can web users be sure that a specific website is authentic and providing authentic information (Anderson 2003).

In a follow-up to Fair’s 2000 study Cuillier and Ross (2007) reviewed 224 American Indian websites. The authors describe tribal websites as one of the few places that American Indian tribes can represent themselves to the world without interference from either the U.S. government or the mainstream media (Cuillier & Ross 2007). Having the freedom to self-represent offers a host of possibilities for tribes, but the question that remained for these authors was whether or not tribes were continuing the pattern of using stereotypes that Fair recorded in 2000 (Cuillier& Ross 2007).

Cuillier and Ross (2007) took Fair’s 2000 lead and focused on three different frames: the ancient relic, which glorifies the noble savage and keeps American Indians frozen in the past; the voiced participant, which portrays contemporary American Indians living and interacting in the present; and the informational-neutral, which provided information in the form of neutral text or graphics that did not support either the ancient relic or the voiced participant frames (Cuillier and Ross 2007).

Cuillier and Ross’ (2007) analysis supports Fair’s (2000) study, which found that some tribes—typically those with casinos or other tourist enterprises–adopted the White Man’s Indian, i.e. the ancient relic, to strategically frame them selves to appeal to tourists. The White Man’s Indian frame essentially gives the tourist what he/she is looking for: Indians living in the romanticized past. The authors suggest that using the White Man’s Indian frame has important implications for American Indian identity as well as for their position and relationship within the larger Euro-American culture. Websites using the White Man’s Indian frame may well reinforce existing power inequalities for American Indians (Cuillier& Ross 2007).

The studies by Fair (2000), Anderson (2003) and Cuillier and Ross (2007) reflect a continuing tradition of tribal people, which is to adopt and adapt new technology to meet their own needs (Roy and Raitt 2003). According to Mitten (2003) American Indians have always been great communicators and as such have flooded the market in recent decades with media produced and published by American Indians (Mitten 2003). But, as Roy and Raitt (2003) characterize the internet as a means to provide ammunition for American Indians to express themselves, Howe (1998) warns that we must never forget that cyberspace is founded on the ideals of western civilization (Howe 1998).

Further, Howe (1998) contends that cyberspace should not be viewed as the latest “foreign good” for American Indians, such as cooking pots, firearms and cars (Howe 1998). And while cyberspace is a phenomenal achievement in general, Howe (1998) argues that the universality and individualism of the web may be antithetical to the aspects of tribalism i.e. spirituality, ties to the land, traditional story telling and the unique relationship each tribe has to the physical landscape that is their home (Howe 1998).

And so it goes. It is difficult to say whether stereotypes and frames that are so embedded into a society can be changed. Can American Indians make their own social representations and show themselves for the contemporary people that they are?  Nygren (1998) sums up the complex struggle for indigenous peoples in terms of their social representation in a hegemonic society.

She writes,

We discover continuity in change, tradition in modernity, and locality in globality. It is only when we examine indigenous imagery of representation and otherness within the historically changing forces of domination that the profound significance involved in the reconstruction of indigenous identity is revealed (Nygren 1998).


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