On the Origins of American Indian Sartorial Stereotypes

In Hampton Sides’ foreword to the 2007 reprint of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, he recounts Dee Brown’s experience at a local silent movie theater one evening in the 1920s when the future author was still just a child making use of one of the few entertainments available in rural Arkansas. In the middle of a shoot-out between pioneers and Native Americans in a Western film, one of Brown’s Indian friends sat down beside him and said, “You know, those aren’t real Indians”.[1] This statement was echoed two weeks ago by Kevin Gover, the Director for the National Museum of the American Indian, during an interview with MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry regarding the video of Senator Scott Brown’s supporters and aides making “tomahawk chops” and doing “war cries” to mock Brown’s opponent, Professor Elizabeth Warren, who is of Cherokee and Delaware heritage.

William S. Hart and Enid Markey in ‘The Captive God’, ca 1916

Gover pointed out that the “Indians” these individuals were supposedly imitating not only do not exist, they never have. He added that he felt it was a fault of our education system that these misperceptions exist. These individuals probably don’t even realize that what they are doing is racist which shows how embedded the stereotypes are in our society. What is startling to me is that in the approximately ninety-two years between Brown’s revelation in a silent movie theatre and Gover’s televised interview, and in spite of the civil rights movement, the AIM, and Brown’s Bury My Heart being a New York Times bestseller for over a year in 1971, the stereotype has not changed. In looking at these stereotypes I came to the conclusion that more often than not they are identified through dress. We see them on the numerous (offensive) foodstuffs that take these stereotypes as their logos, as revealed by Adrienne K. over at Native Appropriations in July. We can see them in the team mascots for both professional and college sports. “Chief Wahoo” of the Cleveland Indians would simply be a bizarre caricature without his headband and feathers. With them, we know immediately he is meant to be a “representation” of Native Americans.

Chief Wahoo

There are, of course, other negative ways in which American Indians are referred to or depicted: imitating their supposed historical speech patterns (“big heap”, etc.); talking about wearing war paint, or going on the war path. None of which accurately reflects historical or contemporary Indians. The mainstream seems to know very little about real Indians, so it falls back on the most obvious historical differences: their clothes. As far as I can tell there are essentially two variations on the same theme. All indigenous people are depicted as wearing buckskin, then they branch out into those that wear war bonnets (even though that was exclusive to a few Plains Indians), while others (and all women and children, it seems) wear a feathered headband.

Since Californians are notoriously unlike New Yorkers — (Los) Angelenos are even different from San Franciscans — why do we assume that the vast numbers of peoples, tribes, and cultures that once stretched not just from sea to shining sea, but across what are now Canada and Mexico all dressed exactly the same?  Do these garments have any basis in reality? Where did these misconceptions originate? And why do we still perpetuate them?

I cannot answer the questions about why this sartorial depiction is still so popular, but I have made some progress in learning about its origins. There are many aspects of this image to deal with. I have set the subject of war bonnets (the most popular appropriation) aside for now, because being the most popular appropriation, much has been written about it already. I chose, instead to focus on the feathered headband. It can be seen on Chief Wahoo above, or on the Land o’ Lakes butter girl.

It can also be seen in the headgear for the Halloween costumes that I have heard referred to as the “Pocahottie”; or you could at one point buy felt versions for your children at Ikea.

Ikea headband

I come from an area where the People are Yokut, and when vacationing in Arizona and New Mexico I had the opportunity to meet Dineh (Navajo) and Zuni craftsmen. None of these cultures use feathers, or at least not in any way similar to these representations, so my only exposure to the headband has been through the caricatures and logos, or through illustrations of Indian children in picture books that were popular at my elementary school’s library. As a result I started my research thinking that the headbands were complete fabrications. I thought perhaps it was a misrepresentation of feathers worn in the hair by various Plains tribes, due to a failure by whites to understand how the feathers were attached. But in re-reading Wounded Knee, I encountered an 1864 photograph of Big Eagle of the Mdewakanton Dakota wearing a headband with feathers at the back.[2]

In other chapters there are descriptions of Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota wearing feathers – as well as war bonnets – into battle.[3] But details as to how the feathers were affixed or whether they are worn as part of or with a headband are not included. However, further investigations informed me that nineteenth-century photographs of American Indians can not necessarily be trusted as sartorial documentation. Often, the photographers would stage the photos, or give the Indians costumes to wear so that they would look like “real” Indians. This seems to be borne out by a candid image (Big Eagle’s photo is a professional portrait) of Cheyenne and Arapaho Chiefs meeting the Camp Weld Council in 1864.

Not one of the Indians is wearing feathers of any kind, or a headband or headdress. But, this is not conclusive. As with any culture, there might be rules about when particular items can or cannot be worn. There is also the fact that the Mdewakanton Dakota are a Woodlands tribe, while the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota are Plains. The only other information I have been able to track down so far is that the feathered headband was actually worn by a relatively few Woodlands tribes in the northeast: the first point of contact for the English with Indians in North America. There are accounts of the Powhatan – both men and women – wearing beaded headbands with perhaps a feather or two, though I am still trying to find a confirmed source for this information.

The Mdewakanton Dakota are historically located in Minnesota, not the northeast. This doesn’t mean the two people could not have communicated, or that they may not have had an alliance. The Powhatan had learned of Cortez, after all. It should hardly be a revelation that these cultures and their intercommunications and structures were more complex than the initial colonizers realized. But at present, it seems likely that with the Powhatan being among the first Indians the English encountered, it is possible that these images are direct descendents of a four-hundred-year old stereotype. One which might have been “confirmed” by the Dakota or others wearing something that to the Europeans seemed similar.

The war bonnet was no doubt added to the stereotype because of its magnificence. They are arrestingly beautiful. And we tend to remember what is most striking and/or strange to us. According to Victoria Finlay, in her book, Color: The Natural History of the Palette, the early settlers referred to some of the Native Americans as “Red Indians” not because of their skin colour, but because of their practice of painting themselves with red ochre, as a protection against evil, as well as a way to keep away insects in summer and keep warm in the winter.[4] This seemed strange to the English who knew nothing about the land or its climate, so it is remembered. But I still think it is bizarre that we are carrying on stereotypes from the seventeenth century.

Stereotypes are normal and even expected, whether we like it or not. According to some anthropologists they are a way for us to try to make sense of a world that is beyond our comprehension. When Commodore Perry forced Japan open to trade in 1864, the Japanese drew some rather grotesque caricatures of the Americans they met. These caricatures help us to see what we looked like to the Japanese; there is no denying from the perspective of kimono and hakama that crinolines and corsets, military uniforms and mutton chop sideburns must have looked otherworldly.

American Chief of the Artillery Men, ca 1865

But what is important is that the stereotypes of Americans in Japan have changed as our countries have changed. When I was living there in the summer of 2003, no one expected my photographs of my father and brother to look like the woodcut above, I faced a twenty-first century set of racial expectations. America no longer tolerates golliwog dolls or black face, or white actors playing Chinese or Japanese roles, or even Speedy Gonzalez. Culture is in constant motion, even its sordid bits. But our representations of America’s indigenous peoples have not been updated since the nineteenth century.


I think I am close to learning the origins of this headband, which I originally thought was a an invention by outsiders. But as with any research, I find I have far more questions than when I started out.

Why do the majority of Americans think all Native Americans wear buckskin and feathered headdresses or headbands? Is it because, having been founded on enlightenment ideals, we are reluctant to give up Rousseau’s ideas of the “Noble Savage”, even if we’ve never heard of Rousseau? Is it because our education system has failed to include Native American history and civil rights in our curriculum? Is it guilt?

I genuinely don’t know. But I can learn all I can about the stereotype, and attempt to counter it with facts. I have contacted many of the tribes I mentioned in this post to learn directly from them (rather than from a second-hand source, even a good one like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee) about their traditional and historical dress. I am waiting to learn if they will consider my interview and education requests. As Kevin Gover stated on September 30, you cannot have accurate depictions of native peoples without involving native people.

I have also been asked why I would research such a topic. For the same reason Ferris State University created the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, and countless cities have Holocaust memorial museums: to make people think, perhaps even to realize that these are people, not stereotypes. This is traditional dress – craftsmanship, artwork, and centuries of history translated into garments and textiles – not a caricature. And because sometimes it is through acknowledging our worst actions that we can learn tolerance and change society for the better.

America is not the only country with indigenous peoples. But I wonder if it is the only one with such outdated sartorial depictions. How are the Maori depicted in New Zealand? The Indigenous Australians in Australia? The First Nations in Canada? The Sami in Norway? Or the Ainu and Okinawans in Japan? Is America alone in a stagnant stereotype of its indigenous people, or is this a widespread tendency? How can we fix it? And is open discussion on national television and across the internet a sign we are at last moving in the right direction?

Any answers, comments, or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

[1] Sides, Hampton in Brown, Dee. 2007: xxv.

[2] Brown, Dee. 2007: 48 – 49.

[3] Ibid: 96 -97.

[4] Finlay, Victoria. 2002: 26.

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