Winnetou and the stereotyping of Native Americans

Who was the first people to dwell the continent of North America? Famous Pilgrim Fathers? Not really. The oldest inhabitants are Native Americans who lived peacefully with nature, worshipping Mother Earth and Great Spirit. Children listen to the stories of brave Chiefs and Pocahontas’ love. We seem to forget that they are still normal people, living in today’s world, not only in legends and myths.

The ordinary people’s knowledge about Indigenous people comes from literature and films. They perceive them as all looking the same – black, straight hair, with no facial hair, with the same colour of skin. To a large extent, these stereotypes are based on famous stories by Karl May “Winnetou”, a German teacher who wrote innumerable novels about Native Americans in the 19th century. Interestingly, May had never seen Native Americans with his own eyes. Westerns and documentaries in general have tended to portray Natives in stereotypical terms: the wise elder, the aggressive drunk, the Indian princess, the loyal sidekick, obese and impoverished. These images have become known all across North America. Stereotyped issues include simplistic characterizations, romanticizing of Native culture and stereotyping by omission—showing American Indians in a historical rather than modern context. We still tend to think about them as “Indians” which is  now commonly considered pejorative.

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A series of stories about Wild West by Karl May.

Some of the tribes had very well-developed societies as for example Sioux had. Their government was divided equally – men were chiefs, but they were dependent on women that chose them and stripped of power if needed. It is said that Siox people influenced the first constitution of United States. Besides, it was Native Americans, especially one – named Squanto who taught first white men on the territory how to survive on land where their seeds wouldn’t grow and the land seem hostile. So why they had to be put through so much?

Colonisation always involves killing, territorial expansion and eradication of culture. That’s more of less history of Native Americans. White men wanted the land – more and more of it, moving the boundaries of where red-skinned people lived, killing many in the process.The interesting thing is that contrary to the popular belief,  Indians have not mostly been killed by gunfire, but died of white men’s diseases and alcohol which they were vulnerable to. Another black mark on the history is residential schools in Canada. Created in 1870’s by Catholic church and Canadian government, these places were destined “to kill Indian in the child”. And more than 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were taken from their families and treated them as subhuman. Many reported emotional, physical and sexual abuse. The last school was closed not so many years ago, in 1996.

Moreover, the stereotypes have real impact on Indigenous people’s lives. As for example, Indigenous women are considered to be sexually available and willing to have intercourse with any and every man. Such misconceptions lead to murder, rape and violence of Native women and girls by non-Native men. But the physical violence is not the only damage done to Indigenous people. Stereotypes become discrimination when the assumptions of being more prone to violence and alcoholism limit job opportunities. This leads directly to Indians being viewed less stable economically, making it more difficult for those that have succeeded to fully enjoy the benefits is the same way that non-Indians do, such as obtaining credit. The government also spend statistically less on their kids’ education in comparison to other children. Even though it is commonly said that in return for their land, natives get some benefits that other do not, it is certainly not true.

In the heat of the debate about their rights and its infringements, we seem to forget that they are all people like us. To fight the stereotypes, in the 1980s and 1990s, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation made efforts to improve the portrayals of Aboriginal people in its television dramas. Spirit Bay, The Beachcombers, North of 60 and The Rez used Native actors to portray their own people, living real lives and earning believable livelihoods in identifiable parts of the country. Unfortunately many of accurate portrayals even if critically acclaimed are not widely distributed and existing in mainstream. Although, there are few exceptions, for example one of the most popular song from American rock band, Anthrax named “Indians” that is about injustice in treating Indigenous people.

In the age of globalisation, when no matter which end of the continent you are currently in, you have the same Starbucks and the same menu in the restaurants, preserving your culture and traditions is very rare. Let’s sometimes look up to those who have suffered so much and still want to live in harmony with nature, being grateful for the world.

 

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