Evaluating Stereotypes

As a brief primer on evaluating Native American stereotypes in comic books, let's run through the criteria I adopted from Raymond Stedman's book, Shadows of the Indian: Stereotypes in American Culture.

You can, of course, find a more detailed examination and discussion of Stedman's list, see my book, Native Americans in Comic Books.
Stedman's book
  • Is the vocabulary demeaning?
  • Do the Indians Talk Like Tonto?
  • Do the Indians Belong to the Feather-Bonnet Tribe?
  • Are Comic Interludes Built Upon Firewater and Stupidity?
  • Are the Indians Portrayed as an Extinct Species?
  • Are the Indians either Noble or Savage?
  • Is the Tone Patronizing?
  • Is Indian Humanness Recognized?
Let's expand ever-so-briefly on each of these items, so that we understand them in everyday terms.

Is the vocabulary demeaning?

Easy enough - do the words used in the comic to describe Indigenous people suggest a loss of dignity or respect for those (Indigenous) characters? In other words, are Native people well-spoken or do the words make them 'less' somehow? If the descriptions follow along the lines of, "wagon-burner", "savage", "half-breed", or other numerous slurs, then answer a resounding, 'yes' to this criterion.

Do the Indians Talk Like Tonto?

For many years - especially in those early years of comic book history - Native American characters seldom spoke in comics. When they did, it was usually a war-cry or some other primal sound just before they attacked the main (and usually white, male) character / protagonist. While Indigenous characters were given a voice in later comics, more often than not they spoke [English] in broken sentences, offering more 'grunts' than words, and generally simply butchering the language.

The pen-ultimate example of this is the Tonto character from The Lone Ranger radio and television serials. While seemingly innocent, characters that use such limited means of communication are seen as dull, dim-witted, or even outright stupid. If Indigenous characters use more, "get-um up, horse" than "giddy-up", then answer 'yes' to this one.

Do the Indians Belong to the Feather-Bonnet Tribe?

Not every comic book cowboy character wears chaps and spurs (...though they do wear cowboy hats more often than not...), so why then do all Indigenous characters have to be seen in feathered headdresses and fringed leather to be recognized as "Indians"?

In modern times, there are 500+ federally recognized tribal entities and many more that aren't federally recognized. [Editorial note: no hipsters with headdresses were counted in this discussion.] Of these groups, only a scant handful - usually those commonly referred to as 'plains Indian' tribes - wear the 'feather bonnet', that is so common place in the pages of comics. Unless the Native characters in the comic book are one of these 'plains tribes', then answer 'yes' to this item.

Are Comic Interludes Built Upon Firewater and Stupidity?

Does the character contribute to the story, somehow? Or do they and their actions exist simply to illustrate a generalization about an entire group of human beings? In comics or other media, depicting Native characters consuming and becoming intoxicated by firewater (alcoholic drink) suggests that [potentially] all Indigenous people become mindless and wanton barbarians by being the mere physical presence of such chemicals (alcohol). This is a very narrow view of a quite large group of people that differ from tribe to tribe, community to community.

The same holds true for comics that depend on a Native American character's low intelligence as the keystone of the story. Not all Indigenous people are stupid; yet, comics that depict only this view suggest just that. Any comics that use alcohol or limited intelligence as the central focus of the character can check this criterion a resounding, 'yes'.

Are the Indians Portrayed as an Extinct Species?

This particular stereotype seems inescapable, it seems. As if some unspoken, unwritten rule obliges every comic, film, or other genre to portray Native Americans as relics of the Old West (pre-1870s or so)...or even earlier. Of course, celebrating history and those heroes of the time is important; but do not leave us as a people behind in the pages of history.

We exist. We survived. We continue. A comic that only portrays us in the past does not support this idea of Indigenous continuance fulfills this criterion of 'extent species'.

Are the Indians either Noble or Savage?

Are Indigenous people inexplicably bound to only be either bloodthirsty primitives or regally benevolent aristocracy of the nature? Are there only two choices for us, as a people? Or for any people. for that matter?...must a character be purely bad or purely good? Of course not. Yet, comics and many other genre portray us in this either/or dichotomy, rather than allowing for a nuanced and complex character - a mix of good and bad; of noble and savage. Any comics that provide only these two types of Native characters get a 'yes' on this criterion.

Is the Tone Patronizing?

This particular criterion can be harder to filter for into modern comics filled with snark, inside jokes, and antiheroes. However, as a general rule, you can boil it down to a single question: Does this comic portray Native Americans as inferior to other groups just for being Indigenous? If so, then it's a 'yes' for this one, too.

Is Indian Humanness Recognized?

Finally, we come to the most important checkpoint: does the comic offer an Indigenous character with true humanity? Or is this character just a two-dimensional generalization of a Native American? Among the other criteria, this one holds the most value; if cannot answer 'yes' to this one (meaning, the comic does not show Indian Humanness), then all the other answers/criterion matter very little.

If the Indigenous character is not depicted as a real human being, then the comic is most likely upholding, supporting, and/or propagating stereotypes of its Native American characters.

Of course, like any list, this one is subject to interpretation and not universal. There are always exceptions to any rule.

What Stedman's criteria does, though, is provide us - the audience, readers, and (sometimes) creators of comic books - a starting point by which to begin dissecting and examining any/all comic books with Indigenous people in their pages. Additionally, this list is a 'what not to do', when creating, authoring, or advising others of how we Native American people should be portrayed - in comics any media.

Great power; great responsibility...and all that stuff. So, use it wisely! :) 


Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
JaedenByerly said...

Hello Mr. Sheyahshe. I recently read and enjoyed "Native Americans in Comics: A Critical Study" both for a college project and research for a comic I (a non-indigenous writer) want to write with Indigenous people in it.

I have to ask though, since "Shadows of the Indian" came out forty years ago, do you think "Stedman's Instrument" needs any amendments or changes? Personally I feel like the presence of "firewater" for comedy has been massively reduced since then as people have become more aware of both Indigenous people and substance abuse in general.