The Indian of popular culture has never existed anywhere—except in imagination. Yet these illusory Indians are so authentic to most Americans that no alternate images are acceptable. Even in recent decades, when increased awareness of the sensitivities of minority groups has become more prevalent, American Indians are seen as almost mythic figures.
Raymond William Stedman examines images of American Indians from the first contact with whites, who viewed them as a “curiosity,” through incarnations including the Noble Savage and, to the Puritans, an almost Satanic presence lurking in the woods. Since the time of Pocahontas, the “Indian maiden” has been idealized as lovely, compassionate—and ready to sacrifice her feelings.
The stereotype of the “savage Indian” with a raised hatchet or flaming arrow was never forgotten. But the commercially minded soon realized that Indian images could sell merchandise. American medicine shows featured feathered “chiefs,” there in person to do the selling. And Indian images are still used to hawk products and sports teams today.
Drawing on literature, art, and popular culture, Stedman isolates counterfeit images of American Indians. He contends that American culture rarely portrays Indians as they really are, presenting them instead as distorted, false shadows.