Throughout his career, TU Communications professor John Coward has devoted much of his researching efforts to the topic of Native American representations in media. His newest book, “Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press” follows this trend faithfully.
If the book’s title isn’t explanation enough, its intent is to chart “a social and cultural history of Native American illustrations — romantic, violent, racist, peaceful and otherwise — in the heyday of the American pictorial press.” Dr. Coward answered a few questions regarding his interest in Native American images, his research process, and cultural stereotypes in general.
Professor Coward’s interest in Native American images stemmed from his interest in nineteenth century American journalism, “a time when a lot of innovations changed the nature of journalism — the telegraph, faster steam presses, the invention of photography, the founding of the Associated Press and more.”
This age of innovation’s historical overlap with Manifest Destiny and the Indian wars led Coward to wonder how Indians were represented in the nineteenth century press.
“The Newspaper Indian,” his first book, focused on news stories and editorials. The research for that book was, as Coward puts it, tedious: “hours and hours reading microfilm in the basement of the library at the University of Texas.” “Indians Illustrated” has been much simpler by comparison. This time around, Professor Coward had access to digital collections and archives, and could do keyword searches to find particular articles and topics in illustrated papers.
When asked if, in his research, he’d found any sincere efforts to portray Native American culture accurately, Professor Coward’s response was “Yes, but it’s complicated.” Among those sympathetic to Indians were missionaries and religious writers, not journalists themselves. “Indian-white violence often brought out the worst instincts of writers and illustrators.”
One example of this, according to Coward, was the Indian victory over Custer’s cavalry in 1876. This crushing defeat inspired hostile, racist articles and anti-Indian cartoons, “including calls for the extermination of the hostile tribes.” While some papers along the East Coast avoided these extremist views, Western papers maintained the anti-Indian rhetoric, especially because the Indians still seemed to be a threat to many of their communities.
Some reviews of “Indians Illustrated” praised it for covering an “overlooked chapter in media and cultural history.” Professor Coward was quick to agree, saying that “the study of Indians in the press has been largely overlooked,” but that he was “doing his part to fill the gap.”
He credits this journalistic neglect to numbers, as Native Americans are a miniscule percentage of the United States’ current population, and there are a wealth of other research topics in media for scholars to study. Professor Coward has tried to shift the focus of his work from the usual focus on the Indian wars to other areas, among them “Indian portraits, depictions of women, and Indian domestic and cultural life.” He said that the lack of work that has been done on these areas gave him the opportunity to do new research.
In discussing the purpose of establishing certain groups as ‘others’, as societies have done all throughout history, Coward said that he argues Indians were “created by the dominant society. Real people — Native Americans — were first imagined and then constructed as people different from and inferior to the dominant social and cultural group, which in the United States was largely Anglo-American.”
This appears in the media through the press’s diminishing of Native Americans to a narrow set of stereotypes and visual cliches. The wide variety of Native American tribes were reduced to a singular image, that of “an armed plains Indian warrior astride his war pony.”
Concerning the response to his book, Dr. Coward related a quote most often used by poets; Publishing a book of research and expecting an immediate response, he said, is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and expecting an echo.