How many of us remember playing cops and robbers when we were kids? How about power rangers? What about playing cowboys and Indians? Did you ever pretend to be a brave Indian warrior or an Indian princess like Pocahontas? If you’re familiar with the concept of “playing Indian” as a child and even remember whooping and howling or sneaking up on cowboys yourself, you are not alone. Today children in America and Europe still practice or at least are exposed to some form of ‘performance’ of Indian culture. From the perspective of American Indian scholar Rayna Green, “playing Indian” connects the performers to specific narratives so deeply imbedded in American persona that “to challenge its continuing reiteration creates a kind of cultural identity crisis” (30). Sometimes these practices manifest themselves only briefly in our childhood imaginations, but more often today they establish themselves within an institutional framework and continue to affect society as a whole, which is particularly damaging to the people so falsely represented.
The practice of non-Indians ‘playing Indian’ stems from Europeans first arrivals in the Americas, upon which time the Europeans “began to ‘play Indian’ in America, demand that tribal peoples ‘play Indian,’ and to export the performances back to Europe” (30). Green has extensively written about the iconography of the early Americas as distinctly tied to Indians through the symbol of the Indian Queen, who primarily related to Latin American indigenous people. Upon colonization, the Indian Queen morphs into the Indian Princess of North American, who is remembered as abandoning her Indian-ness to assimilate into European culture, ultimately conforming to the “majority population’s notions of itself” as well as Indian femininity (31). Pocahontas herself was likely encouraged to ‘play Indian’ when she was brought back to England by her new husband John Rolfe on what essentially amounted to a publicity tour for colonization and Rolfe’s tobacco company. Paraded around England in front of royalty and public alike, Pocahontas was presented in order to satisfy Europeans’ curiosity and more importantly their expectations about exotic Indian clothing, decoration, food, and even sexuality (Green 33). The character of the Indian princess fulfills her role by “playing Indian” as long as her performance lines up with the Anglo-centric imagining of native culture.
The mandates for Indians to ‘play Indian,’ as well as the impulse for colonizers to ‘play Indian’ better than Indians themselves, directly contrast the demand that actual American Indians in America stop being Indian. Instead, they must become “‘civilized’ and Christian” in order to assimilate to white society. This perspective that both “hates and loves Indians, and enjoys them in their primitive role,” suggests that is “the role, not the real, which is to be enjoyed, and thus perhaps it is better for non-Indians to play it” (Green 34). So ‘playing Indian’ came to be formalized in colonists’ drama, literature, and even sociopolitical events, such as the Boston Tea Party in 1775 when colonists dressed as Mohawks to dump the King’s tea into the harbor (Green 34). This institutionalized essentialism of a fabricated native character in the non-Indian national consciousness denies real Indians any influence in the creation of their identities in the public eye.
Additionally, the assumption that non-Indians are to take over the roles of the Indians subsumes the place of Indians as conquered, vanishing, unchanging relics of the past. The idea that performance of “playing Indian” by non-Indians “depends upon the physical and psychological removal, even the death, of real Indians” is particularly damaging to Native American identities and modern presence. To make room for the constructed image of Native identity so important to the cultural practices of non-Indians, the performers have to believe the Indians dead, kill them off, or at the very least “actively despise them” by imagining whoever may remain of them to be “drunken, welfare-dependent savages” (49).
As we’ve seen, modern American-nation building films, books, and cartoons contain many instances of non-Indians (and Indians) playing Indian, performing Indian-ness not only in dress but also notably in speech. This speech, characterized as “Hollywood Injun English (HIE),” contributes to and strengthens imagined and romantic Indian images. Additionally, this linguistic practice of playing Indian reinforces the stereotype of the “vanishing Indian,” as often the Native American characters “have a voice only when they are either from the past, remembering the past, or situated in the past” (Meek 120). In speaking HIE, which by example includes the ubiquitous Indian greeting “how” often accompanied by the distinct open palm hand raising gesture, the performer also “imbues his Indian character with a weak mind a childlike persona” (Meek 120). This linguistic “covert conceptual subordination” represents the Indian character as a foreigner, distinctly not native and possessing a substandard linguistic skill. Ultimately, such generic mockery of any specific Indian languages places the Native character speaking HIE as subordinate to a dominant white public (Meek 120).
It may be somehow encouraging to note that because practices of “playing Indian” have so ingrained themselves in American culture, Indians and non-Indians alike are very aware of the various form of performance and have developed a kind of “meta-folklore” which enables them to appropriate or mock the stereotypes. By example, Indians have a name for those who play Indian, deeming them a part of the tribe “Wannabee,” which is itself a reversal of the linguistic whitewashing of Native American languages and tribal names (Green 48).
To get a sense of the persistence of the practice of “playing Indian” through American history, “Wild West Shows,” vaudeville performances that capitalized on stereotypical Native American character, emerge in the late 19th century. Another central feature of the Wild West shows were “white Indians” like Buffalo Bill, which were non-Indian characters who were seduced by and subsequently mastered Native American skills and culture. Medicine shows, which depicted Indians as healers and often depicted a generic fantastical Indian spirituality also gained prevalence (Green 37). Eventually the Western film genre further solidified the brave savage warrior and naïve princess roles as well as their essential nemesis, the cowboy (Green 37).
As more recent departures from theatrical or literary manifestations of constructed native character, the Boy Scouts and their derivative Girl Scouts and eventually Indian Guides round out the “the growing repertoire of ways of play Indian” (Green 40). In Boy Scouts, young men learn to be natural men in the reflection of the Indian, which comes to embody the Scout ideals of manly independence. “Learning to walk, stalk, hunt, survive like an ‘Indian,’ to produce beaded and feathered authentic outfits, to dance and sing authentic music, to produce tools and weapons” are all skills associated with Scouting’s highest achievement (Green 40). For Girl Scouts, their ‘playing Indian’ takes less of a para-military form and focuses more on crafts and nature-worship. Indian Guides further establishes the “Indian dramatic metaphor” by paralleling the father-daughter relationship with the relationship of Indian braves/chiefs/warriors to their mythical princesses (Green 41).
Additionally, Green notes an even more subtle recent form of “playing Indian” in the trend of white claiming to be of Indian heritage. In her observation, ignoring the questions of authenticity, the claim is sometimes made “as a form of affiliating…with the Indians” but more often is used to create “interest in them as an individual, an individual with an admirable heritage” (46). Perhaps such modern practices of playing Indian stem from an attempt to ignore the presence and circumstances of the real Indians existing today. Perhaps we ‘play Indian’ to try to relieve some of the ‘white-guilt’ when faced with the consequences of European colonization on the Indian people. Green argues that the most important function of ‘playing Indian’ roles is “cultural validation” of the American identity. We’d like to believe we were the first founders and shapers of the American continent, and so we reclaim the identities of the people who were here before us in order to define and understand them on our own terms. Regardless of the underlying pseudo-rationale, “playing Indian” in its many forms ultimately constitutes racist stereotyping. Denying Native American autonomy in the imagining of Native American identity ignores and suffocates the true diverse traditional and tribal roles. So the next time you encounter instances of ‘playing Indian,’ in your own life, remember that such practices endanger the rightful place of the Indian people both in history and perhaps more importantly in the future.
“An Indian walks into a restaurant. The waitress sees him, and immediately raises her arm in the traditional ‘play Indian’ greeting. ‘How,’ she says. ‘Black,’ he replies, pointing to the coffeepot. (Or in another variant, ‘Scrambled,’ pointing to eggs frying in the pan)” (Green 48).
Green, Rayna. “The Tribe Called Wannabee: Playing Indian in America and Europe.” Folklore , Vol. 99, No. 1 (1988), pp. 30-55
Meek, Barbra A. “And the Injun Goes “How!”: Representations of American Indian English in White Public Space.” Language in Society , Vol. 35, No. 1 (Feb., 2006), pp. 93-128