Earlier today I visited my local barbershop in suburban Dallas. It’s literally the quintessential small-town barbershop with a candy-stripe barber’s pole out front and an ancient Coca Cola vending machine inside. The two full-time barbers are as folksy as they are friendly; subdued and quietly professional. But, I prefer it to an overpriced salon any day. A television sits atop the vending machine, and the barbers frequently have it turned on to old programs. I often wonder if they can’t get anything except TV Land. Today I saw the end of a “Have Gun, Will Travel” episode. That was even before my time! I busied myself with a magazine, however, and didn’t pay attention to it. I forgot the title of the next show that came on – although it may have been another episode of the same series – but I distinctly remember a line from one of the characters; a blonde Caucasian woman screaming something about “all Indians are savages.” I could forgive the label, considering the time in which that show was produced; just like I could forgive Theodore Roosevelt (one of my favorite presidents) for his Eurocentric views. He was a product of his time. We all are.
Yesterday, however, I was cruising through my slew of emails and noticed one with the word “Comanche” in the title; a post someone had made on one of the many Linked In groups to which I belong. He was publicizing his recently-published book about a Civil War veteran returning home in the immediate aftermath of the conflict. What does the Comanche Indian nation have to do with that? I have no idea. But, the blurb stated upfront that the Comanches were “fierce and savage fighters.” There’s that word again – “savage.” Savage as in “noble savage,” as in A Man Called Horse savage, but not Dances with Wolves savage. I had to look at the email date again – July 9, 2012. If I could somehow earn a dollar every time I read about Indians who were “fierce” and “savage,” I could pay off my student loans.
“Savage,” along with “fierce,” always finds its way into characterizations of Indigenous Americans. It’s like you can’t describe the Pacific Ocean without using the word “deep” at some point in the verbiage. Rarely, I’ve noticed, do I see such terms as “advanced,” “agrarian,” or “intellectual” in conjunction with Native Americans. They’re always “fierce,” “wild” and, of course, “savage.” Even contemporary writers can’t seem to get away from those words. It’s part of the vernacular; like a separate dictionary was composed by the Euro-Christian scribes a century ago to describe Indians when writing about them. I reach for a 30-something-year-old thesaurus when I want to find different adjectives. Some writers of the western genre clearly reach for that stock encyclopedia of stereotypical definitions.
In the “Old West,” Native Americans are never “people;” they’re “Indians,” or “natives.” They’re grouped into “tribes,” instead of “nations,” or “communities.” They still live in “tipis,” not “houses,” or any kind of stable structures. They wear “animals skins,” not “clothes.” They have “medicine men,” not “doctors,” or “physicians.” They tell “stories,” but they don’t relay facts. They worship the sun and the moon, but they don’t seem to understand their machinations. The older ones can offer sage advice about life’s little mysteries, but overall, none of them comprehend the greater purpose of humanity.
I shouldn’t be surprised. What can we expect from non-Indian writers? I posted a comment to that one writer’s statement, remarking about such stereotypes. He came back saying his book had nothing to do with Native Americans. Huh? Then, why the Comanche Indian correlation? Oh, I get it! The White Civil War soldier returning home had become as “fierce” and “savage” as an Indian because the Negro people were now free. I guess. It still doesn’t make sense. It’s almost not worth the trouble even to discuss it – almost.
Believe me when I say I can forgive the stereotypes of 1950’s era television. They didn’t know better back then. But now? We still have that now? In the 21st century? That only makes me savagely and fiercely angry! Oh, God! Now, I owe myself two dollars.