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Stereotypes on Indigenous People in the United States

Several Indigenous people accept stereotypical roles in Hollywood since there are very few roles for Indigenous people. The roles available are dehumanizing, inaccurate, harmful, and often stereotypical and there is not enough representation of the roles. Other Indigenous people turn down a large budget or sufficient budget role for these stereotypical roles. The ability to portray Indigenous people negatively and mock their culture is a primary example of white privilege and the self-entitlement white people feel towards Indigenous people. These stereotypes often hid the reality of tribal nations’’ struggles, taking the importance away from important issues happening in Indigenous communities.

Growing up, media shows young children images of Indigenous people through cartoons, books, and movies, often negatively. For example, many teachers and media would tell children about the interaction between the pilgrims and indigenous people during Thanksgiving. The depiction often left out various essential details, often deemed as too dark for children to know. Children grow up not knowing the true and full history of Indigenous people in the United States, leading to misconceptions and untrue beliefs about Indigenous people.


Pocahontas untruthfully romanticizes the relationship between the Powhatan tribe and early English settlers. In the film made by Disney, the company depicts Pocahontas as a woman committed to a white man, when in real life she never had a romantic connection with John Smith. She was too young to play a dominant role in helping with English relations or to become an interpreter and ambassador of her tribe. The “Indian Princess” stereotype, designed by white imperialist and non-Indigenous societies, also viewed Disney’s Pocahontas in this way. This stereotype, dominant throughout the 1920s, commonly showed through characters who are maidenly, demure, and committed to a white man. However, the specific facts of Pochahontas are controversial and there are several debates about her age, relations with John Smith, her loyalty to her tribe and the Englishmen, and the conditions of marriage to John Rolfe. The thing historians do agree with is that Disney portrayed in inaccurate illustration of Pocahontas, also with the “grandmother-spirit willow tree”, which was shaped by a romanticized image most Americans have of early white and Indigenous relations. Grandmother Willow tells Pocahontas to pursue the dashing Englishman rather than the man her father chose for her. In the movie, she disobeys her father and goes out to meet John Smith, which most likely would not have happened during the time portrayed in the movie since it was the cultural norm for tribe members to obey orders from their leaders, especially while there was war. The film also uses terms like “savages”, “heathens”, “pagans”, “devils”, and “primitive” to describe the indigenous people. The extremely harmful song “Savages-Savages” even considering the context of the song, has extremely harmful and racist lyrics. For Indigenous kids, watching this would violate Indigenous knowledge and wisdom and undermine Indigenous cultural customs. The movie would also produce another animated film, spin-off books, toys, dolls, kid’s clothes to contribute to the widespread effect of the film, continuing the spread of its harmful effects.

Peter Pan

Around this time, the Victorian age, British people were prideful concerning the success o the British empire making the trope popular. In Peter Pan the play, Peter calls the tribe “piccaninny warriors”. The term was used as a replacement for “others” of all stripes from aboriginal populations in Australia, descendants of slaves in the United States. One of the most popular cartoon adaptations is the 1953 Disney interpretation of Peter Pan. Disney reinforced racial stereotypes. One song in the film is “What Made the Red Man Red”, which had tribes running around saying “Ugga-wugga-wigwam”. Besides that harmful language, two of the white characters also used racial slurs like “Redskins” and “Injuns”. Besides those harmful words, the movie refers to the Indigenous people as “quite savage”. The dehumanization of Indigenous people and these descriptions, of trying to associate the Indigenous people as less cunning and smart, are still assumptions society thinks about Indigenous people today. The film also depicts the tribe as less pretty in society’s standards compared to the white people in the film. Stereotypical behaviors like drumming, chanting, living in Tee Pees, saying “how” as greetings, and using the “Indian call” are all examples of some ways the movie contributes to harmful stereotypes of indigenous people. While some of these practices are present in some Indigenous cultures, the film portrays them in either an incorrect or harmful manner. More recent interpretations of Peter Pan altered their story to take away the controversial elements in previous versions.

Wild West Film and Other Films in Hollywood

Stereotypical jokes about indigenous people stem from late-nineteenth-century Wild West Shows. These productions started in 1883, with Buffalo Bill. Those performances toured across the United States, showing their tamed wild ‘Indians’ in rodeo shows. Wild West shows often performed with Indigenous people and Europeans from the late 1800s and into the 20th century dramatized Indigenous attacks on stagecoaches ad cabins and mocked battles between cavalry and indigenous people. These minstrels’ shows are racist, and American children become socialized into playing the stereotypical version of an Indigenous person. These stereotypes and cultural caricatures are inaccurate. A lot of the stereotypes connected to indigenous people today, like living in teepees, hunting for buffalo, and carrying violent acts and demeanor, are all seen in entertainment shows in the past. Wild West shows commonly reenacted crushing defeats and triumphs of the defeat of Indigenous populations. This trend of violent portrayals of indigenous people spread to the rest of Hollywood and became very popular. These shows inspired Western filmmakers to depict Indigenous tribes in ways like attacking European-American colonists, threatening indigenous peoples, resisting to defend their families and homelands. Certain films characterized cowboys in bright shining light while featuring the Indigenous people as something of the past. During this era, making enough money to live was difficult for Indigenous actors. A lot of them left their reservations after World War II to work in Los Angeles. higher-paying roles like the chief went to non-Indigenous actors, while Indigenous people stayed in the background and getting paid at a lower rate. Around the same time, stereotypes against Indigenous people changed from extremely violent to viewing Indigenous people in a romanticized format, with the narrative changing to valiant fighters who protect their tribe. At first, the media portrayed indigenous people as bad people who resited the Europeans and later switched to those good people who helped the Europeans. Through some shows portray Indigenous people through nostalgic vanishings, brave warriors, princesses, and noble images of brutality and degradation. Eventually, Indigenous actors had more roles, though most, if not all, were one-noted. Indigenous produced their own Hollywood productions like Smoke Signals in 1998 and Antanarjuat: The Fast Runner in 2001. Even today, the stereotypes made in 1883 are still present, as more recent films like Cowboys and Aliens in 2011, The Lone Ranger in 2013, and The Ridiculous Six in 2015 showcase either offensive representations and/or jokes regarding Indigenous people, or inadequate representation of Indigenous people, with Indigenous people only taking background roles. Some shows also use compounding slurs and inaccurate representation of the language of Indigenous people to contribute to the idea that Indigenous people speak a fictional version of English, and uncivilized people are incapable of speaking English.


In 2005, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), banned teams from using harsh and abusive racial, ethnic, and/or national origin mascots, nicknames, or imagery at post-season tournaments. This caused various universities to change their mascots. In some of these schools, the old mascots change, but in others, the mascot continues to have a powerful presence. Even if the mascot is no longer used for a team, if the usage of the mascot is present, the image will continue to persist in the community. Some members in the community may still wear clothing with the mascot, or the school may invite the mascot to perform in halftime activities during the game. However, many sports teams from high school and in professional sports still use offensive Native American stereotypes as mascots and team names, even when many Native Americans and their supporters mention how offensive their actions are and despite the NCAA’s decision. These mascots are the imagery of an inaccurate presentation of Native Americans and confine them as a group of people from the past when they are alive and active today. Keeping mascots, symbols, images, and personalities hurt Indigenous students. Non-Indigenous people disregard the educational experience of Indigenous people, especially those with minimal contact with Indigenous people. These mascots, symbols, images, and personalities teach non-Indigenous children it is okay to be culturally abusive and to maintain inaccurate misconceptions about Indigenous people.

Effects of Negative Stereotyping

The exposure of negative stereotypes used in mascots can lessen self-worth and community-worth in Native American students. The false perception of Native Americans shown in mascots can increase stereotyping of Native Americans by other racial groups, as well as increase stereotyping of other racial groups. Some non-Indigenous people may view the use of these mascots as positive, or maybe they think that the mascot itself is not offensive. Even with that considered, the stereotypes are still confining Indigenous people into what it means to be Indigenous, which makes the effects of the negative stereotyping even worse. Harmful jokes about Indigenous people may seem careless to the people making them, but the jokes from misperceptions are harmful to Indigenous people. For example, sexist jokes against Indigenous women undermine the crucial situations of Indigenous women affected by high levels of sexual assault and violence. The mascot influences the ways non-Indigenous people see indigenous people and restricts the many ways indigenous people view themselves. Negative and inaccurate representation of Indigenous people disregards the Indigenous tribes’ ability to showcase accurate and respectful images of their own. A lot of Indigenous people find the portrayal of their people to be disrespectful and offensive to their spiritual beliefs. Racism and oppression can create terrible consequences for the mental health of indigenous people. This ongoing perception of indigenous people contributes to negative expectations, interactions, and consequences. These fake portrayals of Indigenous culture mask the genuine problems and issues that Indigenous people face, preventing non-Indigenous people from learning the truth about Indigenous people. Poor representation and encounters with that representation create false images which result in Indigenous kids internalizing these stereotypes that interfere with their development of self-image and racial identities, which are important for the development of all social attitudes. Indigenous kids may see themselves as poor, drunk, living on reservations as an invisible race”. Indigenous youth worry about their portrayals or their race in media.

What we Can do?

  • Some Indigenous People Organizations to Support:

  • American Indian Community House

  • California Heritage Indigenous Research Project

  • Community Outreach and Patient Empowerment (COPE)

  • Dine Citizens Against Ruining our Environment (C.A.R.E.)

  • Hopa Mountain

  • Hopi Relief Fund

  • Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance

  • Indigenous Roots

  • Indigenous Values Initiative

  • Intertribal Friend House

  • National Urban Indian Family Coalition (NUIFC)

  • Native American Disability Law Center

  • Peacekeeper Society

  • People’s Partner for Community Development

  • Restoring Justice for Indigenous People

  • Sogorea Te’ Land Trust

  • Spirit of the Sun

  • Wings of America











Research Coordinator - Jezreel Gaad


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