Stereotypes about American Indians

HUman races 1842

Poster of the human races from F.E. Wachsmuth, Leipzig, 1892

The More the Buckshot, the More the Brains

[Today I’m sharing with you notes from a talk I gave this week at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia. My notes serve as a foundation for the talk, which was less scripted and more extemporaneous—sometimes even impromptu.]

In the 1800s, European and American scientists studied the human mind by examining its container: the skull.

The skull yielded rich data for phrenologists, who argued that personality is housed within pockets of the brain.

The contours of the pockets—the depth and width and lumps and bumps—can be identified by close examination of the skull.

Phrenologists like Samuel George Morton collected skulls from around the world (Morton acquired more than 800, now on display in Philadelphia) and agreed with the sentiment that five races of humans existed.

For phrenologists, the skull determined the race:






The contours of the skull indicates racial type, based on shape, size and proportion: including the individual’s personality and intelligence.

So-called “white” skulls were judged as the most symmetrical and beautiful, and hence, Caucasians were positioned highest on the human ladder.

What You See is What You Get


Image of Franz Joseph Gall, from the website Pixels

Morton took his lead from Franz Gall, a German scientist who studied the personalities of residents of an asylum for the insane in the 1700s.

Gall, who would become the Father of Phrenology, noticed that one resident of the asylum who was considered “combative” also had a thickening behind his ear.

So Gall began to look at other combative tenants of the asylum and found they, too, had more pronounced bumps behind their ears.

Gall created a list of personality characteristics, ranging from combativeness to kindness, and identified more than two dozen features that comprised personality.

He then mapped the features on a rendering of the skull, according to his observations at the asylum.

A thickening of the skull would indicate more of the personality feature, while a crevice would show less.

Morton Boosts Beliefs with Empirical Evidence

Samuel Morton took phrenology to the next level by elevating its gravitas through his measurements of hundreds of skulls representing individuals from across the globe.

One noteworthy method he developed involved measuring the mass of the brain.

Morton would boil a human head and scoop out the interior.

Once the skull was clean and dry, Morton turned the head upside down, poured lead-shot into the cavity, up to the rim, and then dumped the shot onto a scale.

The heavier the scale, the heavier the brain.

Hence: the more the buckshot, the more the brain.

Philadelphia, where Morton made his home, was a bustling port and harbor in the 1830s.

Discovery of coal deposits throughout the state of Pennsylvania enabled entrepreneurs to harness energy to create steam engines, which, in turn, fuelled growth of industry of the time, particularly the building of locomotives, boats, and heavy-industry factories.

Philadelphia became a mecca for entrepreneurs, including two brothers: Orson and Lorenzo Fowler.


A Fowler phrenological head

The Fowler brothers were drawn to phrenology—quite popular at the time—and became true acolytes.

While Morton perfected techniques for measuring intelligence, the Fowlers brought a material level to the science: they took the show on the road.

A few blocks from where Morton lived with his family, the Fowler Brothers—along with their sister and brother-in-law—opened a shop called The Phrenological Cabinet on Chestnut Street.

Here you could find a pamphlet or book about phrenology, buy a ceramic bust labelled with human traits, or you could have your head examined.

For $1, the Fowlers would trace the lumps on your head and determine your personality.

Black Hawk’s Skull

The Fowlers expanded their operation and opened up offices in London and New York, and began a thriving publishing house (where Walt Whitman, another acolyte, published Leaves of Grass).

They began publishing a journal dedicated to phrenology: The Phrenological Journal and Miscellany.

The journal described phrenology as a “bona fide science” replete with facts, truths and evidence, and is considered today the most long-lived phrenological document, published (with various titles) from 1838 to 1911.

The Fowlers wrote:

The object of this work [the journal] will be to preserve from oblivion the most interesting of  the very numerous facts, confirmatory and illustrative of the truth of phrenology; to show the true bearings of this science on education, (physical, intellectual, and moral), on theology, and on mental and moral philosophy … Our facts we pledge ourselves shall be bona fide.

One noteworthy contribution to the journal was an analysis of the head of Black Hawk, a Sac warrior and headman who had been captured by the U.S. military and kept prisoner in the 1830s.

The Fowlers visited Black Hawk in New York, where they created a plaster cast of his head.

Armed with the tools of their trade—calipers, rulers and Gall’s map of personality etched on a skull—the Fowlers investigated Black Hawk’s plaster head and confirmed Morton’s analysis that Indigenous Americans are savage, war-like and unwise.


The Fowler brothers made a plaster bust of Black Hawk’s head and studied it prodigiously

Morton wrote that the American Indian is:

Marked by a brown complexion; long, black, lank hair, and deficient beard. Americans have black and deep set eyes, the brow low, the cheek-bones high, the nose large and aquiline, the mouth large, and the lips tumid and compressed. The skull is small, wide between the parietal protuberances, prominent at the vertex, and flat on the occiput. In their mental character the Americans are averse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge; restless, revengeful, and fond of war.

When assessing Black Hawk’s skull, the Fowlers noted his “animal qualities,” and added:

His temperament is bilious-nervous, combining great strength with great mental and physical activity, and power of endurance. The great size of Combativeness, and the domestic organs, is indicated by the immense breadth of the head.

[The area] behind the ears give the head a full, spherical, bulging appearance [from] the organs of Combativeness, Destructiveness, Secretiveness, Cautiousness, and Acquisitiveness.

These organs, when large, or very large, always give great energy and force of character, and, in a savage state, would give cruelty, cunning, and revenge [and] would make an Indian the bold and desperate warrior.

Does Modern Discourse Reflect Phrenology?

Researchers who study discourse—information in books, news, advertising and other media—agree the fabric of racism and prejudice continues today, but in more subtle ways than in the 1800s.

I wondered if modern news media invoke phrenology when the issue of science is raised, particularly concerning American Indians.

I found that, although phrenology is referred to as a “pseudo” science today—replaced by the fields of neurology and neuroscience—the idea of racial types continues in discourse.

And discourse about Indigenous peoples continues to invoke stereotypes about personality and intelligence.

The reason I investigate issues about science (and health, risk and the environment) is because discourse traditionally places Western, empirical science above other knowledge systems.

And I’m interested in how this comparison plays out.

When indigenous knowledge systems butt heads with Western science, some of the underpinnings of phrenology seem to surface to the top layers of discourse.

Take, for example, news coverage that followed the unearthing of a 9000-year-old skeleton in 1996.

The case of the ancient skeleton—called Kennewick Man by reporters—continued until 2017, when the bones were finally returned to Native tribes.

When the skeleton was pulled from the river, local Indigenous communities expected the remains would be given to them, according to a Federal law that protects Native graves, peoples and belongings.

But scientists sued to study the remains, arguing that re-burying the bones would “harm science.”

The legal case lasted nearly 10 years, and the battle to return the bones lasted more than 20.

News Coverage of Kennewick Man

Reporters were intrigued when the skeleton was unearthed because it is among the oldest, intact remains ever found in North America.

But the story took a swift turn a few weeks after the discovery when an anthropologist told reporters the skull looked Caucasian.

Without presenting evidence or data to back his case, the expert—James Chatters—told reporters the skull “looked” Caucasoid—not like any Native American skull he had ever seen.

That is, like the phrenologists of the 1800s, Chatters found the shape, size and girth of the skull revealed its origins.

Chatters told the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“He’s got a narrow face and a long, narrow braincase, and the cheekbones aren’t really broad,” Chatters said. By contrast, he said, American Indian cheekbones “are tremendously wide. They have wide, round faces and rounded skulls.”

Another reporter interviewed Chatters for an Australian magazine and wrote:

Modern day Indians, who typically have prominent cheekbones and flat, roundish faces, stem from Mongolian stock. The narrow Caucasoid features of Kennewick Man suggest a possible connection to Japan’s aboriginal people, the Ainu. Did early Caucasoids from Asia travel by boat around the Pacific rim? Kennewick Man may even indicate migration from Europe, via boat along the Arctic ice cap, a theory backed by similarities between stone tools from the eastern US and the Solutrean culture of France and Spain.

Reporters seized on the notion that the Kennewick Man skull looked more Caucasoid than Mongoloid, echoing language used by phrenologists decades earlier.

But the connection of the skull to “white” individuals wasn’t made clearly until Chatters announced that Kennewick Man looked like the actor Patrick Stewart: a non-indigenous denizen of the British Isles.

According to the Washington Post:

Jim Chatters was watching Star Trek: The Next Generation on television when it came to him. For months he had been walking streets and staring at strangers, looking for a face and head shape that matched what he saw in Kennewick Man’s skull. To him, the skull had contours that “you typically find in Europeans,” as he recalls. “I was looking hard” … then onto the TV screen strode Captain Jean Luc-Picard, the British actor Patrick Stewart. Eureka! “I said, ‘Whoa, that’s the closest I’ve seen’.”

Media outlets carried an image of the Kennewick Man clay model next to a photo of Patrick Stewart, visually cementing the hypothesis that the 9000-year-old skeleton was Caucasian.

stewart kenny

Actor Patrick Stewart was presented as Kennewick Man’s twin in news coverage of the case

So: questioning the idea the ancient remains were native to the Pacific Northwest sowed enough doubt that the judge ruled the scientists could study the bones, rather than repatriate them to tribes, as required by law.

The 2014 book, based on the scientists’ findings, claims the skeleton looks Polynesian.

Authors Douglas Owsley and Richard Jantz write that although Kennewick Man’s skull closely resembles Polynesians, his relatives “are like those of the Moriori of Chatham Islands.”

Reason versus Religion

News coverage also echoed phrenological views that the larger and bigger Caucasian skulls endowed their holders with greater reasoning power.

In contrast, Native Americans were described as ill-equipped for rational and abstract thinking.

Reporters characterized arguments in binary terms–as reason versus faith:

To the scientists, the chance to examine the remains was self-evidently a triumph for reason. “It comes down,” says Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian, “to the right to ask questions of the past.” –Newsweek magazine

“The saddest aspect of the threat to scientific study of Kennewick Man is the risk of forfeiting conclusions based on rational deduction,” Chatters said. –The Guardian newspaper

Faith, reason clash over remains. –The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec)

 The Indian as Object

 Another way contemporary coverage reflects phrenological attitudes about Indigenous peoples was the depiction of Kennewick Man as a “treasure” and a “gift.”

While local tribes described the skeleton as an ancestor, some

scientists objectified the remains.

James Chatters, for example, told a national news program:

From a scientific point of view alone, he’s just an absolute treasure.

Later, Chatters wrote in his book about Kennewick Man:

I was given a gift from the past.

Kennewick Man Returned: Finally

While scientists in the United States were gathering material for their 2014 coffee table-sized tome on Kennewick Man, a group of researchers in Denmark was hoping to quantify the DNA they had extracted from a piece of the ancient skeleton.

With help from members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation—who gave the Danish team samples of their DNA—the geneticists eventually found a connection between the 9000-year-old skeleton and modern tribal members.

In 2015, the team announced in the journal Nature that Kennewick Man was assuredly Native American and not Caucasian.

With the new information in hand, tribal members worked with state leaders to have the skeleton repatriated, and, in February 2017, Kennewick Man was laid to rest in an undisclosed location in the Pacific Northwest. ###

6 December 2019

 With gratitude to the Snuneynmuxw First Nation, keepers of the land on which I write this story.

 And with thanks to the students, staff and faculty at Vancouver Island University for hosting my fellowship at their remarkable place of learning.
























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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1 Response to Stereotypes about American Indians

  1. Cynthia,
    I can remember vestiges of the phrenological from college biology and sociology classes. I was confused as to why anyone would even go there and decided that science is profoundly ideological.


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