Last Thursday, Communication Professor John Coward gave a lecture, a word he admitted incites “fear and perhaps drowsiness,” on his newest book, “Indians Illustrated.” The book falls in line with his primary topic of research, the 19th century depiction of Native Americans. In particular, “Indians Illustrated” is focused on the portrayal of Native Americans in images, not just stories.
As an institution, the American pictorial press had a brief existence. Existing between the rise in demand for images in print media and the ability to easily mass-print actual photographs, the pictorial press was at its peak in the late 19th century. As the interest of its readers shifted, so too did the press’ focus. This meant that when Americans were embracing the notion of manifest destiny, publications began running illustrations on the frontier, Native Americans included.
These illustrations subscribed to one of two Native American stereotypes of the time: the noble savage or the demonic, animalistic Indian. Professor Coward exemplified the “Noble Savage” in an illustration depicting a Native American man grappling with a falcon for its feathers. The feathers, according to the illustration’s caption, were intended to draw the “admiration of some dusky coquette of the forest.”
Native American women, meanwhile, fell into the categories of the “princess” or the squaw. Prof. Coward gave Pocahontas as the perfect example of the princess, innocent and mysterious. The squaw, on the other hand, was exemplified in an illustration of an old, crippled woman. She, according to the illustration’s description, had been made a beggar because her tribe had abandoned her when they’d gone on the warpath. While this was known to occur, it was a rare event, and the lack of specificity in its recount made it seem a common occurrence. It was one of many ways to paint Native Americans with a broad, excusatory brush.
Variations in the tribes were erased by print media until the Indians as a whole were made more alike than different. One such image claimed to “illustrate scenes which occur in the life of every red man.” Illustrations based off of photographs should have been able to accurately capture Native Americans, but editors and illustrators took liberties in their portraits. Edits included settings being switched from interior, “civilized” areas to wild, “savage” settings. Headdresses would be larger, and more comical. Advanced items or objects indicating some integration into colonial society would be removed from the image entirely. Often the only thing left wholly untouched was the Indians’ hardened expressions, a product of the time’s photographic methods, which inadvertently helped to reinforce the stereotype of the “stoic indian.”
Coward ended his lecture with a look at more ambiguous examples of Native American illustrations. Some publications, for example, might provide a menacing, sensational picture to draw the reader in, but counter it with written text that offered a more sympathetic narrative. Another, more specific example was a drawing of two Native American men racing canoes down a river. It was strange to see Native Americans performing normal, everyday tasks; it was even stranger to see them at play. The image was accompanied by a caption crediting the racers with “marvelous dexterity few white men would ever attain.” It was not a perfect depiction, or even a fully accurate one, Coward pointed out. But it was nevertheless harmless.
According to the professor, if the media’s depiction of Native Americans had been taken on with a “fair, balanced, and nuanced” approach, there might exist today an entirely different history of Native American populations.