Framing the Indian

The same old frame

What frames commonly describe American Indian perspectives? In the context of issues about science, health, risk and the environment, Indigenous views are typically relegated to the realm of religion and superstition.

For example, the news coverage about the Kennewick Man discovery and lawsuits positioned scientific interests in the “rare treasure” against Indian demands to have the skeleton repatriated. Kennewick Man was framed as a scientific discovery, rich with vital information that would be “lost forever” if returned to the Indians, resulting in a “loss of information to the future,” according to one report.

Science is positioned as sacrosanct, with its values to progress and Western epistemology unquestioned. Anthropologists argued that studying the bones would reveal “our history,” and the legal decision to allow scientists to study Kennewick Man was framed as “a win for science.”

At the core of the argument is a clash over values, demonstrating that little has changed in the nature of denizen and settler conflicts. Modern discourse echoes the discourse of the past, when Indians were considered a vanishing race. In the Kennewick Man dispute, one archeologist told the Washington Post: “The world has had a lot of these issues of conquered peoples, and you know, one doesn’t like that sort of thing, but that’s the reality. It happened … Can we resurrect and make history right? I don’t think so … I mean, hey, life goes on.”

The Times of London went further, suggesting that the “Bones put Indians on the warpath.” With respect to such coverage, Suzan Shown Harjo, a noted Native activist and writer, said such stories frame the issues as a “modern day metaphor for cowboys and Indians.” See

In other words, contemporary conflicts are infused with old tropes, metaphors and memories of denizen-settler disputes. Conflicts in the press are framed as “battles” with Indians on the warpath, “trading feathers for legal pads.”

Indian interests are commonly framed as anti-progressive, particularly when scientific disputes punctuate the landscape. I’ve had the opportunity to study such disputes, ranging from construction of a copper mine on Indian territory to fishing practices on the Columbia River, and I’ve found that Indian viewpoints are framed as “the other”—outsiders who fail to chip away at the edifice of “progress.”


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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2 Responses to Framing the Indian

  1. Michael Mack says:

    on “Framing the Indian” please explain the last line “outsiders who…” I can see Indians framed and as outsiders who chip away at progress, but I don’t understand “fail to…”



    • In this regard, I’m suggesting that Indians are viewed as the outsiders and that their views are framed as “the other” or the outsider, taking my lead from Edward Said’s perspectives on “the other.” In the same vein, Indians are often portrayed as anti-progressive in news coverage, meaning that regardless of their views, Indians may hope to have their accounts articulated, but are unable to chip away at mainstream ideological foundations which, in this case, embody a progressive stance.


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