Indian as Suitcase

As I was preparing for this week’s campus-wide lecture, I realized the histories and narratives of Indians in North America are like the content s of a suitcase.

We carry around the suitcase to complete the metaphor of lugging around baggage, in this case, cultural baggage about what we think we know about Indians.

Inside the suitcase are well-worn tropes: the half-breed who lives with one moccasin in both cultures (Jeff Hunter’s character in John Ford’s The Searchers), the bloodthirsty savage (Magua in The Last of the Mohicans), and the white woman adopted into the tribe by the chief’s son (any bodice-ripper from Wal-Mart’s collection of paperbacks in the American Indian Romance novel genre).

Stories that Indians had no government, no schools, no written language and no science abound in books, films and cartoons.

Even though thoughtful and earnest folks know many of the stories are bunk, it’s hard to separate fiction from fact when the fiction abounds. The Land O’Lakes butter in the supermarket still carries the image of the Indian maiden. She’s on her knees, adorned in deer skin, sporting a single feather in her headband. I argue it’s against this type of trope that we compare contemporary Indians.

We’re human: our brains understand new information by comparing it to what we already know, a comparison and familiarity heuristic.

So it makes sense that when we think of current issues, some part of our brain rummages through the baggage and pulls out Pocahontas and Geronimo. Maybe we’re informed by real Indians–Sherman Alexie or Leslie Marmon Silko–but we’re also schooled by Bonanza and butter.

Reporters can’t resist layering the tropes.

Serious issues like the repatriation of Kennewick Man reported on 60 Minutes carries clips of a powwow, so even in a modern tale viewers see pictures of feathers and beads.

When I was studying news framing of mining in Indian Country, one news report said Indians had traded in their feathers for legal pads to fight the mine.

And one scientist talked about the discovery of Kennewick Man in this way: “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. Can we resurrect and make history right? I don’t think so…I mean, hey, life goes on.”


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.
This entry was posted in authenticity, cinema, film, framing, Indian, journalism, Kennewick Man, NAGPRA, Native Science, news bias, repatriation, science and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Indian as Suitcase

  1. Stephen B. says:

    I appreciate all your fine work on this blog. In particular, I appreciate your suitcase analogy. The problem with talking about cultural baggage is that too many people are unwilling to admit that they too are affected by the legions of cultural stereotypes and cliches out there. Changing this perspective takes many voices working together and I’m glad you’re among them.


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