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Progress had made them outcasts in their own land. As for the contrasting images of noble and ignoble savage, expansion rendered the former something of an Eastern monopoly, the latter a Western one, while the Vanishing American subsumed both. Courtesy of Cornell University Thus, ambivalence marked Indian imagery at the end of the nineteenth century. In the long struggle for mastery of the continent, the image of the bloody savage had always qualified any regret occasioned by the passing of the noble savage. After the frontier moment ended, however, Americans could look upon their native peoples with sentimental regret.
James Earle Fraser in translated popular sentiment into a sculpture of lasting appeal. End of the Trail shows a mounted Plains Indian, head bowed, shoulders slumped, his spear pointing at the ground, resigned to his fate, which was that of his race. Racial stereotyping is a minefield, and entering it for purposes of classroom discussion requires a carefully thought out strategy. The truth is that students are often impatient with the past. In order to discuss historical stereotypes, you have to introduce students to them.
This runs the risk of coming across as advocacy. Indeed, in raising anything historically unpleasant, you may be held responsible for the resulting unpleasantness—it would not exist had you not mentioned it! Having introduced stereotypes, you are left to deal with them. Outright condemnation is easy, since it conforms to what students already think. Anything more challenging runs even greater risks. Let me literally! You want to talk about stereotypes of African Americans and American Indians, so you show your class a cartoon of an African American eating watermelon and a photograph of a cigar store Indian.
If your point is simply that these images prove the ignorance of EuroAmericans in the past, then you will have no controversy. If you introduce the same images to probe the underlying values of a society that considered them acceptable, then you invite controversy. And to what ends?
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What use did the EuroAmerican majority have for each race? The labor of one, of course, and the land of the other. How would those different uses shape stereotypes? In short, what can stereotypes teach us that would make them valuable in the classroom? What can they tell us beyond the obvious?
Students may remain un-persuaded. What else is there to say? Why study the attitudes of another age if, by our standards today, they were deplorable? Moral certainty underlay their actions, too. Far from being illogical, they were, according to their lights, entirely logical! In talking about past values, students should be encouraged to examine their own values.
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How are attitudes formed? How do we know what we know? How does experience shape our views? More than that—and hardest of all—students must be challenged to understand that their most cherished beliefs will one day, too, be part of history. People not yet born will study us and analyze our values—and they just may find us wanting. Far from making us feel superior, then, history should chasten us. The past has been described as a foreign country.
We must visit it with open minds and all due respect for its customs, eager to learn, not simply to judge. Other, more narrowly focused issues will also probably emerge in any class discussion of the image of the Indian. Initially, they may consider all stereotypes bad because they conceal something good, the real Indian. Two lines of questioning suggest themselves:.
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Or by an allegiance to traditional culture? Second, are some stereotypes more acceptable than others? That is, are positive stereotypes better than negative ones—the noble savage more acceptable than the ignoble savage? Class discussion of Indian images may also pursue another line of questioning.
Granted stereotypes like the noble and ignoble savage and the Vanishing American, who, in particular, believed them—and how do you show that they believed them? Citing a few heavyweight thinkers proves little, and smacks of elitism. How about ordinary people? What did they think—and how do we know?
Here the popular culture of any given period is relevant. Today we would look at the electronic media, films, music, etc. At the very least, the sheer pervasiveness of the major Indian stereotypes in popular culture will be a revelation to most students. Given that people held certain views about Indians, So what?
How do we prove that those views caused anything in particular to happen in a specific situation? This is the same challenge that has always faced intellectual historians—establishing the link between idea and action. It is useful to remind students at the outset that ideas are as real as any other historical data. Since history itself is a mental exercise, the historian can hardly deny people in the past a fully active mental life of their own. As a general proposition, what people believe explains what they do.
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When, for example, Congressmen in the nineteenth century debated Indian affairs and referred to the bloody savage to promote an aggressive policy, or talked about a noble race that had been dispossessed to advocate a humanitarian policy, we can see a belief system at work with direct, practical consequences. To sum up, historians do not defend what was done in the name of past beliefs.
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They are not apologists or advocates. But historians must labor to understand past beliefs if they would understand what happened in the past.
Ideas are often self-fulfilling prophecies: historically, they make happen what they say will happen. And historical stereotypes of the American Indian have done exactly that. Bird, ed. Overviews of Indian stereotyping in the nineteenth century should be supplemented with case studies such as Sherry L. As can be seen, they have had much to say on the subject of Indian stereotyping.