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Exploitation of Native Imagery For Profit

Exploitation of Native Imagery For Profit

Cover image from Radical Indigenous Survivance and Empowerment (R.I.S.E.). To honor and respect the tribes mentioned in this article, no visual representation of any sacred items, dances, ceremonies, photographs, etc. will be shown.

History of Native Imagery in Art

                  If you have ever seen historic black and white photographs of Native Americans in documentaries, books, stationary, or even on posters, it is very likely that it is one of the enumerable works of photographer, Edward S. Curtis. Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) was a photographer and ethnologist most known for his multi-volume series, The North American Indian. The photographic images in this series were taken between 1907-1927 and were meant to be a journal, of sorts, that documented “the vanishing race” of Native Americans. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the western U.S. was exploding with colonialist ventures. For the U.S. government, their biggest obstacle was conquering Native Americans and establishing power and control over their land and their resources.

                  By the sixteenth century, Native American communities drastically decreased due to colonization. According to Raphael Lemkin, there are two stages of genocide associated with colonization. The first is the destruction of the Indigenous community’s way of life. The second stage is imposing the colonizer’s way of life on the Indigenous group[1]. Lemkin believed that colonization in of itself was intrinsically genocidal. When settlers brought their hopes and dreams across the Atlantic, they also brought epidemic diseases, slavery, massacring of entire villages, the destroying of food sources, forced relocation, reservations, assimilation, and ethnocide.[2] For centuries, Native Americans had battled against the constant threats that colonization had thrown their way. Edward S. Curtis recognized their struggle, but he believed that extinction was inevitable. This sense of mortality inspired his vision: to photograph the beauty of Native American culture before it faded away.

                  For centuries, European settlers had depicted Native Americans as the “Bloody Savage” or “Bad Indian” – violent, wild, blood-thirsty, and less than human. Over the course of four centuries, that depiction has rarely changed. In addition to Curtis, George Catlin and Frederic Remington shared similar morbid beliefs and sought to redefine long standing negative depictions of Native Americans. Curtis, Catlin, and Remington wanted their documentation to focus on the lesser known “Noble Savage” or “Good Indian.” The “noble savage” was in touch with nature, mystical, beautiful, brave, and dignified. Staying true to this depiction, the artists were able to capture a romanticized “purity” of the “vanishing” Native Americans that seemed to look as if they were completely untouched by colonization.

                  Fans of Edward S. Curtis see him as unassailable because of the content and nature of his work. In contrast, critics of Curtis believe that he peddled a romanticized archetype of “what real Native Americans should look like.” However respectable Curtis’ methods, interactions, and intentions were, it would be irresponsible to disregard valid criticism of how his work continues to affect Native Americans and non-Natives alike. The archetype upheld through his imagery has been transformed into powerful stereotypes that affect modern day Native Americans. In The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions, Christopher M. Lyman writes:

Roughly stated, Curtis‘s generation believed that Indians were only real Indians when they behaved as they were imagined to have behaved prior to contact with Whites. Scientists of his generation therefore studied Indians largely in those terms. These general beliefs led to the creation and perpetuation of stereotypes of “Indianness” still prevalent in American culture.[3]

He also states:

In keeping with traditions in White thought, Curtis was so affected by his perceptions of Indian “otherness” that he often overlooked the extreme diversity of the cultures he confronted and described Indians in terms of an imagined racial unity as the Indian.[4]

Native Activism Portrayed in the Media

                  In the nineteenth century, manifest destiny prevailed throughout the United States. This ideology stemmed from the belief that “…the expansion of the United States was divinely ordained, justifiable, and inevitable.”[5] In turn, this false doctrine is responsible for the removal and genocide of thousands of Native Americans. Edward S. Curtis not only believed in manifest destiny, he perpetuated the idea through his photography. Curtis attempted to remove any sense of colonization that Native Americans had already been adapting to and adopting in their own lives. In lieu of this, Curtis made the artistic choice to “disavow Native agency, neglect colonial violence, and present Native peoples and their cultures as a ‘vanishing race.’”[6] Whether Native Americans were portrayed as bloody savages or as romanticized, peaceful figures, their imagery was utilized to portray the various degrees of colonialism. Native imagery has always been used as tool by non-Natives to push the agenda for colonization.

                  The American Indian Movement (A.I.M.) is a civil rights organization founded in the late 1960’s to uphold and restore Native American autonomy, self-determination, spiritual practice, sovereignty, and treaty rights. During the height of A.I.M. in the 1970’s, national media coverage followed the group of activists intently. However, the media often failed to focus on the issues A.I.M. hoped to highlight. Instead, the media focused their narratives on what their majority white audience would have considered “newsworthy.” Media outlets frequently neglected to investigate historical and contemporary issues that were at the heart of A.I.M. In a Time story in the late 1960s, A.I.M. activists were described as “the new American Indian” who were “no longer content to play the obsequious Tonto to the white man’s Lone Ranger.”[7] In contrast, during and after the Occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, the media simplified the events as dangerous, militant activism. The media framed A.I.M. members as fictional characters battling each other, which played a role in how they were perceived across the nation. This certainly reduced the gravity of Native American issues in the United States.

                  In 2016, construction began on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The initial pipeline route crossed the Missouri River north of Bismarck, ND.[8] The route was later rejected citing concerns over its proximity to water sources for Bismarck and surrounding areas. The finalized route passed through stolen treaty-land and Lake Oahe, the main water source for the Standing Rock Lakota Nation. A leak in the pipeline would cause severe environmental damage and would pose health risks to residents of Standing Rock. Native Americans and other Indigenous people came together in an unprecedented act of solidarity against the DAPL. For over a year, water protectors stood their ground, prayed, and conducted ceremonies in a peaceful protest. In response, the U.S. government sent heavily armed, militarized police from 24 counties, 16 cities, and 9 different states.[9] Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline operator, hired private security guards who used attack dogs and noxious chemical agents on protectors. Throughout the movement, the media coverage constantly portrayed Native American water protectors in pervasive nineteenth century perspectives of the “good Indian.” In a CBC news article, Duncan McCue shared an interesting perspective on the role the media plays in shaping Native American imagery. He states that in order for Native Americans to get [any] media coverage, they have to follow the “WD4 rule” which is that they have to be warriors, drumming, dancing, drunks, and dying.[10]

Native American Mascots in Sports

                  When Native American leaders, movements, and activism are not represented in the media, where do non-Natives see Native Americans represented? Native mascots are a common theme in sports. We see these mascots on clothing, mugs, stickers and even acting as ads promoting products. However, opposition towards these mascots are an unfamiliar subject for most people. The dispute between the NFL team, Washington R*dskins, and Native American people is one of the most well-known and publicized controversies. However, Native Americans have been battling with the Washington team since the late 1960’s. In recent years, the movement has gained fervor and transparency among news corporations, media agencies, and within the general public. The Center for American Progress released a report in response to concerns that Native mascots are not only symbolically ignorant, they are also psychologically and culturally harmful to Native American youth. The study revealed that Native mascots and names contribute to a negative educational environment:

“Research shows that these team Indian-oriented names and mascots can establish an unwelcome and hostile learning environment for AI/AN students. It also reveals that the presence of AI/AN mascots directly results in lower self-esteem and mental health for AI/An adolescents and young adults. And just as importantly, studies show that these mascots undermine the educational experience of all students, particularly those with little or no contact with Indigenous and AI/AN people. In other words, these stereotypical representations are too often understood as factual representations and thus ‘contribute to the development of cultural biases and prejudices.’”[11]

                  However, Native youth are not the only community members being harmed. There has been a surge of racist, anti-Native sentiments, attitudes, and behaviors toward Native mascot opposition since the dispute gained attention. While negative publicity and studies show the detrimental impacts of Native mascots, the team has gone above and beyond to promote the idea that they are unequivocally “honoring” Native Americans, not harming them. Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington team, even established the Washington R*dskins: Original Americans Foundation in 2014 to combat negative media attention. Twenty five tribes were originally part of the foundation, but as of April 2017 that number has dwindled to fourteen. Society is becoming more informed about the harm Native mascots have on real people, and it remains of high importance to question the integrity of Native imagery and its effects.

                  It is important to remember that Native imagery depicted through the lens of settlers have always perpetuated stereotypes. They are ill-conceived perceptions and expectations of romanticized ideas that settlers have maintained for centuries. As Robert F. Berkhofer writes in The White Man’s Indian:

White hopes for the exploitation of Indians and their lands certainly shaped their perceptions of Native Americans from the very beginning of contact...If the primitivistic version of Indian goodness promised easy fulfillment of European desires, the image of the bad Indian proved the absolute necessity, if difficulty, of forcing Native Americans from  ‘savage’ to European ways through the exploitation of their physical bodies, spiritual souls, or tribal lands...In fact, the whole debate...over the nature of the Indian can be viewed as a dispute among colonists, clergy, and crown officials about the proper method of exploiting the native, for the consequences of the arguments benefited some groups at the expense of others.[12]

The Exploitation of Native Imagery for Capitalism

                  Walmart is now selling pillows, blankets, t-shirts, aprons, posters, and a variety of other items printed with Edward S. Curtis photographs. The items retailed for as much as $105.00. My friend, Kayla Begay, is a Hoopa Valley Tribal member and is of Hupa, Yurok, and Karuk descent. Kayla immediately reported the items and demanded that Walmart remove those items from their website. As mentioned, the bulk of Curtis’ photographs were taken between 1907-1927. Since then, over five generations of Native people have thrived on Turtle Island (the original name of the land that is now called “the United States”). Over five generations of Native people have resisted systemic oppression. Over five generations have fought and died for the survival of their culture. Over five generations of Hupa ancestors passed through this world only to have their photographs be printed on items and sold by Walmart.                 

                  The items printed with images of Hupa tribal members were ancestors to living relatives. One relative reported that a man in one of Curtis’ photos was “…an uncle’s father and that he has many grandchildren.” In Hupa tradition, you are not allowed to say deceased people's names without permission or else you are cursing at their relatives. Kayla stated the sale of the items is even more abhorrent. Many Hupa tribal members also stepped forward to voice their frustration at the disrespect being shown to their ancestors:

“This is also why we don’t take pictures of dances and/or post/share on Facebook, or anywhere on the internet.” -Anonymous[13]

“...people need to stop taking pictures of the ceremonies and posting them. Never know who will end up on a bag. People will hate on Indians, but quick to make a buck off of them.” -Anonymous[14]

“This is so wrong on many levels – to gain profit on Our Ceremonial ways and to show no regard to Our Elders We Hold so Dear. Where is the RESPECT from Walmart Corporation?” -Anonymous [15]

                  Walmart quickly responded to Kayla with an apology and assured her they were working on taking down the items with Hupa photographs on them. However, even after Walmart removed those items, hundreds of other items printed with Curtis’ photographs remained on the website. A poster of a famous Curtis photograph, a Navajo Ye’ii Bicheii dancer and mask, retailed for $104.98. Selling the photos of sacred items for hundreds of dollars is despicably offensive.

                  In addition to the Hupa and Navajo, many Native American tribes have strong beliefs that uphold a balance between the physical and spiritual worlds that we inhabit. Respect for the living as well as those who have passed on is critical in maintaining this balance. Native ceremonies, regalia, and sacred objects are used to connect, strengthen, and show appreciation for this balance. Therefore, they are honored as living beings that have souls.

                  Walmart selling Native images on products is only one example of the continued exploitation of Native imagery and culture. As Native people, we see how Native imagery has been co-opted by non-Natives to secure their own agendas – whether it’s pushed by capitalism, being the white savior, cultural appropriation, or even furthering the acceptance of pan-indianism. The dehumanization of Native people runs deep through the veins of this country. Native people are stripped of their autonomy and agency when they are called racial slurs, when non-Natives ban them from practicing their traditional ways of life, when non-Natives wear headdresses at music festivals, when non-Natives appropriate Native ceremonies and traditions, when non-Natives dress up as Pocahontas, when non-Natives further harmful stereotypes, and especially when non-Natives completely neglect to acknowledge the colonial violence embedded within their thoughts, actions, and history.

Imagery is important. Representation is important.

[1] Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government,
Proposals of Redress (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944), 79.


[3] Lyman, The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions, 19-20.

[4] Lyman, The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions, 62.


[6] Smith, “The Gift of the Face: Portraiture and Time in Edward S. Curtis’s “The North American Indian” by Shamoon Zamir (review)”, Native American and Indigenous Studies, Volume 2, Issue 2, 2015, pp. 211-212

[7] Time story quoted in Mary Ann Weston, Native Americans in the News: Images of Indians in the
Twentieth Century Press (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996), 137.




[11] Stegman, Phillips, “Missing the Point: The Real Impact of Native Mascots and Team Names on American Indian and Alaska Native Youth”, 2014, , 1.

[12] Berkhofer, Jr., Robert F. The White Man‟s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1978, pg. 119.




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