Indian princess or Indian squaw: The stereotype lives on

Date

1986-12-30

Authors

Galloway, Margaret E.

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Abstract

A casual review of the literature portraying Native American women reveals characters which fall into one of two stereotypical guises: Indian princess, or Indian squaw. Both Byler and Mickinock point out that biased portraits may not appear to be calculated, but Native American women feel that these stereotypes have undermined their tribal roles and demeaned them in the eyes of the dominant Western European culture. The stereotype of the Indian princess portrays a young, beautiful virgin who willingly endorses the European ways as superior to her own religion, culture, and society. She frequently saves the life or lives of European interlopers and may offer herself in marriage to the European leader. The stereotypical Indian princess converts to the Christian faith with considerable fervor, and she nearly always expresses shame or guilt for the barbaric customs of her own faith. Literature shows that after she has sacrificed her customs, her people, and her culture to the aliens, the Indian princess almost always loses her life as well. The literary reward of an Indian princess is portrayal as a young, beautiful, intelligent, and possibly mythical figure. 1 2 The final actuality is nearly always disease, abandonment, and death. The Indian squaw, on the other hand, is the picture of an ignorant savage blindly following the leadership and customs of whatever male she serves. The subtlety in distinction of roles appears to lie in the fervor of endorsement for the "obviously superior" European culture. Indian squaws never really abandon their own culture; they just adapt their culture to the demands of the dominant European culture. youth and beauty. Few authors reward the Indian squaw with The stereotypical portrayal usually runs to cunning, poverty, and subjugation. The final outcome for the Indian squaw is alcoholism, beatings, and disease. Neither stereotype presents an accurate image; but whether one reads ethnographic studies compiled by anthropologists, eyewitness accounts by traders and missionaries, or literature written by the dominant Europeans, the Native American woman appears destined to fall into one of the two categories (Wittstock 208-210). Since the mid-1950s, Native American women have challenged these portrayals and have attempted to present new characters for appraisal. But while the cosmopolitan reader may intellectually reject the stereotype of princess or squaw, a disturbing lingering hint of both remains in the current writings. Frequently the insight supposedly provided into the true character of the American Indian 3 woman has done little more than portray her as culturally bereft, intellectually frustrated, and socially outcast in the eyes of the dominant culture. If this portrayal of the American Indian woman becomes the final one, then she will suffer her third stereotype at the hands of her own culture. The purpose of this study is to examine three of the best-known examples of American Indian women who have been cast in one or both stereotypical roles. The three women selected are Pocahontas, Nancy Ward, and Sacajawea. These individuals have had their identities transformed into fictional characters ranging from princess to squaw to suit the needs of a given time period. Ironically, all three women were considered both princess and squaw during life and on into death. A variety of literary formats--novels, historical biographies, historical romances, plays, poems, and short stories--has served as the vehicles for the introduction and perpetuation of the stereotypes. Since these stereotypical roles in literature and research were evolved by the dominant European cultures, an advantage must have been gained through such depictions. This study will attempt to define what the advantages were, who benefited from the stereotypes, and why the Native American women did so little to dispel the stereotypes until the mid-twentieth century. A brief review of the roles and the status of Native American women will attempt to define who and what they are within their own social systems as 4 portrayed in the literature. While the "women's movement" within the United States first served to help clarify the roles and the status of Native American women, it later served to separate Native American women from their other American sisters because of the differing social value structures (Wolfe 161-163). In summation, the study will analyze Silko's Ceremony, Allen's The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, and Erdrich's Love Medicine, which have attempted to articulate the status of current Native American women. The struggle to find a satisfactory cultural portrayal is frustrated by the writers' reluctance to reveal dimensions of their personal, religious, and cultural lives which have heretofore remained a part of the cultural secret (Fisher 231). Such constraints are further heightened by the simple fact that Native Americans do not share a common cultural or tribal heritage.

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Keywords

Language, literature, and linguistics, American literature, Native American women, Native American literature

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