American Indians and the Mass Media


The mass media remains one of the crucial sources of knowledge, and their role in the formation of individual perceptions is essential. The broadcasted cultural information affects the way different social groups understand themselves and each other, and the presence of stereotypes or other cultural biases in the public informational resources contributes to the development of wrong and prejudiced ethnic images.

Historically, the American mass media were Eurocentric due to the domination of the White population in the country. In this way, the perspective on the historical and social events was unilateral and frequently subjective. The articles about the ethnic minorities in the early newspapers usually contained negative connotations and supported stereotyping. As a result, the image of distinct ethnic groups, including the Native Americans, lacked objectivity and was disconnected from reality.

Nowadays, social diversification is expanding, and the mass media recognize the importance of multicultural acceptance and social inclusion. Since the 20th century, the journalists, such as Elmo Scott Watson, attempted to promote the positive Native characters and enhance the distorted image of the American Indians (Brady 18). At that time, objectivity and veracity became a professional credo of many journalists, and they made significant efforts to comply with them in their professional performance.

Although objectivity and multilateral analysis of new events and phenomena is a high professional standard of modern journalism, nowadays, the American mass media continuously fail to represent the Native Americans in a non-historical fashion that would not be based on the fictional and stereotyped images. It is possible to say that the misrepresentation of the Native cultural image is rooted in the US history, and the analysis of the early mass media thus can help to evaluate their impact on the development of cultural stereotypes that are maintained in the modern informational sources.

Early News Media and Their Impact on the Development of Ethnic Stereotypes

The first mention of the Native Americans in the early American press occurred in the 1690’s when the first newspaper, Publick Occurrences, was published (J. Sanchez, “American Indian News Frames” 10). During the colonial period of US history, the European settlers had a large number of conflicts and controversies with the American Indians, and the attitude of the dominant social group to the Natives was inclined to negativity and subjectivity.

The early articles mentioning the Indian Americans are characterized by cultural insensitivity, and the number of the negative news frames and images prevailed over the positive or neutral ones (J. Sanchez, “American Indian News Frames” 12).

The articles published in Publick Occurrences and other early American newspapers were written from the Eurocentric point of view, and the negative images of the indigenous people were often used to blanch over the positive images of the colonists. For example, the writer could use such phrases as “the barbarous Indians” or refer to the Natives as “our Enemies” (J. Sanchez, “American Indian News Frames” 18). In this way, the mass media started the dissemination of the inaccurate and prejudiced images, and, in this way, contributed to the consolidation of ethnic stereotypes in the society.

It is observed that while consuming information broadcasted in the mass media, the readers and viewers may not consider the criteria of its sobriety, accuracy, and objectivity (J. Sanchez, “American Indian News Frames” 12). People tend to regard the informational media or educational materials, especially the national ones, as the authoritative sources and often become influenced by the conveyed statements and claims.

When a person doesn’t have an opportunity to interact with culturally diverse people on an everyday basis, her/his perception of other ethnicities and cultural groups becomes primarily based on the information received through education or media. In this way, broadcasting of the culturally insensitive images has many implications – it leads to the development of unreasonable social expectations, provokes cultural miscommunication, and harms the dignity of the American Indian identity.

Native Images in the Modern Mass Media and Education

It is possible to say that the early publications about the Native Americans, and the character of their representation in the newspapers of the colonial time became widely accepted by the members of the society and may be regarded as a source from where new stereotypes were derived over time. Nowadays, most of the Native characters in entertainment and commercial media are usually depicted as the historical figures from the 18th and 19th centuries (Leavitt et al. 42). Although many of the modern Native images can be perceived by the audience as positive or neutral, they still lack objectivity and do not reflect the contemporary identity of the American Indians.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a prominent American journalist, Elmo Scott Watson, wrote the regular newspaper articles unified under the title “Stories of Great Indians” (Brady 18). Watson usually portrayed the Natives as heroes, noble and courageous people, and the main purpose of his work was the representation of the Native Americans from a positive perspective. In this way, the journalist attempted to shift the public cultural worldview, which, at that time, was mainly focused on the negative historical perceptions. Elmo Scott Watson is considered one of the most influential contributors to the standardization of the Native American discourse in popular literature (Brady 18).

But it is possible to say that his columns were primarily meant to entertain the readers. Although, to some extent, Watson succeeded in the dissemination of the positive American Indian image in the US society, as in any form of the imaginative and entertaining literature, his characters and their qualities were significantly exaggerated and envisioned.

The “noble savage archetype,” created and developed by Watson and his contemporaries, remains one of the dominant Native American stereotypes in the modern media (Brady 23). The images of the Native Americans as savages are frequently used for commercial purposes: in product labeling, advertising, or as the mascots are sports. Although the Native American archetype may be associated with nobility, and the majority of people see such definition as positive, the concept still contains the implicit disrespect towards the cultural identity of the Natives.

As the researchers claim, the concept of the Native people as savages and its implementation in business and commerce creates barriers to the development of the basis for moral respect (Merskin 185). Therefore, although the archetype promoted in the Native American narratives has the positive connotations of nobility and courage, it contributes to the consolidation of social stereotypes and discrimination.

The usage of the Native American images and icons in the US marketplace commenced during the first half of the 20th century. The researchers consider that the implementation of the Native American imagery with the commercial purposes is a form of racism and may be regarded as a climax of the domination of the White culture (V. Sanchez 153). For example, in sports where the suppressive cultural practices are widespread, most of the sports teams lack the presence of Native Americans.

It is observed that the decisions to use the Native imagery in nicknames and logos were made by the non-Native Americans, and the names were attributed to the teams in the time of “a heightened period of White racism” (Williams 37). In this way, the application of Native imagery in sports or advertising promotes the subordinate position of the Native people.

Social Implications

According to J. Sanchez, nowadays, many of the historical inaccuracies found in the American mass media become intensified in many public schools in the country (“How American Public Schools Using Down-Linked News Media Shape American Indian Identity” 39). Both mass media and educational textbooks represent the image of the Native Americans as if it is stuck in a few hundred years in the past. The mass media couldn’t manage to capture the changes in the cultural identity of the American Indian community but, as the rest of the world, it continued to develop and respond to the changes in the society.

The recent research findings demonstrate that the inaccurate and stereotyped representation of the American minor group not merely affects the quality of intercultural communication and understanding of actual cultural identity of the Natives by other ethnical groups, but it also affects self-identity of the Native Americans (Merskin 186). Stereotypes support social inequality and may negatively influence the social and psychological well-being of the members of the Native community.

While the American Indian children are “very much like their non-American Indian counterparts” the inaccurate images and prejudices conveyed to them through the educational practices provoke challenges in the development of their cultural identity and self-esteem (J. Sanchez, “How American Public Schools Using Down-Linked News Media Shape American Indian Identity” 40).


Nowadays, the total population of the Native Americans in the USA constitutes only 1% of the overall population (Merskin 187). And unfortunately the small population size supports the underrepresentation of the Native Americans in the modern mass media or the continuous referral to the centuries-old stereotyped images. Only a small number of people among other 99% of the US population have a chance to interact with the Native Americans live.

But the majority of the individuals can learn about the cultural characteristics of the social group only through available informational sources. Therefore, the mass media in the 21st century need to investigate the contemporary American Indian identity to put an end to the promotion of stereotypes and cultural exploitation. The cultural identity of the American Indians was exposed to the inevitable changes, and it is inadequate to support the old and ossified perceptions of the indigenous people as savages.

As one of the modern Native American artists, Echo-Hawk, said in his interview, “while I believe it is important to create images that are historically, culturally correct and support the preservation of culture, I also believe it is imperative that a modern, contemporary representation of Native culture needs to surface in the mainstream” (Peterson 1). The Native culture is a dynamic phenomenon but until now it remains unexplored by the mainstream informational media.

However, the investigation of the contemporary cultural identity of the American Indians by the journalists and the integration of new images into the American worldview may help to abandon the oppressive practices supported by the commercial media and contribute to the development of the adequate multicultural knowledge in the US society.

Works Cited

Brady, Miranda. “’Stories of Great Indians’ by Elmo Scott Watson: Syndication, Standardization, and the Noble Savage in Feature Writing.” American Indians and the Mass Media. Ed. Meta G. Carstarphen and John P. Sanchez. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 2012. 18-32. Print.

Leavitt, Peter, Rebecca Covarrubias, Yvonne Perez, and Stephanie Fryberg “‘Frozen in Time’: The Impact of Native American Media Representations on Identity and Self-Understanding.” Journal of Social Issues 71.1 (2015): 39-53. Academic Search Complete. Web.

Merskin, D. “How Many More Indians? An Argument for a Representational Ethics of Native Americans.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 38.3 (2014): 184-203. Web.

Peterson, Eric. “American Indian Artist Says Mass Media Sends Wrong Message.” Daily Herald: 1. 2006. ProQuest. Web.

Sanchez, John. “How American Public Schools Using Down-Linked News Media Shape American Indian Identity.” Howard Journal of Communications 14.1 (2003): 39. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web.

Sanchez, John. “American Indian News Frames in America’s First Newspaper, Publick Occurrences Foreign and Domestick.” American Indians and the Mass Media. Ed. Meta G. Carstarphen and John P. Sanchez. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 2012. 9-17. Print.

Sanchez, Victoria. “Buying into Racism: American Indian Product Icons in the American Marketplace.” American Indians and the Mass Media. Ed. Meta G. Carstarphen and John P. Sanchez. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 2012. 153-168. Print.

Williams, Dana. “No past, no respect, and no power: an anarchist evaluation of Native Americans as sports nicknames, logos, and mascots.” Anarchist Studies 15.1 (2007): 31. Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Web.

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