The Mythological Indian

The mythological Indian – also known as the “white man’s Indian” – is a construction of the dominant society consisting of artificially constructed images and ideas that are used by non-Aboriginal peoples to serve specific purposes in both historical and contemporary contexts. These purposes include:

  • to dehumanize Aboriginal peoples and make it easier for citizens to support colonization and the acquisition of Indigenous lands;
  • to frame the colonizer’s debate and “prove” that Indigenous peoples (a) should be removed from traditional territories so that the land can be opened for settlement, and (b) are in need of guidance and direction from the colonizing force in the form of laws and policies that deny Aboriginal peoples their autonomy but make them easier to govern;
  • to support stereotypical, inaccurate, and/or racist ideas that feed citizen anger toward Indigenous peoples so that the blame is shifted from the colonizer’s actions to the behaviours of the marginalized population (blaming the victim);
  • to assist in the assimilation or cultural dispossession of Indigenous peoples by surrounding them with an inaccurate identity that they internalize; and
  • to assist in the appropriation of cultural practices, images, and concepts by promoting the idea that Indigenous cultural practices are backward (and therefore not worthy of respect) or dying (and therefore in need of rescue by non-Aboriginal peoples).

Indian On Bank by Jeff Thomas

The mythological Indian is recognizable by certain symbols of Indianness: beads, feathers, tipis, headdresses, totem poles, birchbark canoes, face paint, fringe, buckskin, and tomahawks. The mythological Indian is also recognizable by certain stereotypical markers of Aboriginal identity (wise environmentalists, hunters, drunkards, welfare cases, or coddled people who feed off the government trough) and culture (primitive, innocent, uncivilized, savage, undeveloped, or dying). These stereotypes are replayed daily in dominant society media, entertainment, academia, and government discourse. They do not represent Aboriginal histories, perspectives, or realities and they undermine the agency of Aboriginal peoples.

The white man’s Indian was manufactured in order to allow romanticized, idealized, and distorted images of Canadian identity to take root. The idea that Aboriginal people come from primitive and undeveloped cultures makes it easier for Canadians to talk about the brave explorers, noble pioneers, and intrepid settlers who drained the swamps, cleared the forests, and “tamed” the West.

The mythological Indian is also constructed from positive stereotypes, which are just as damaging as negative stereotypes. The Indian princesses, brave warriors, all-knowing elders, and wise environmentalists who populate literature, media, and entertainment are just as dehumanizing as the drunken, violent, or dirty Indians that often make up the colonizer’s portrait of Aboriginal identity.

Because the mythological Indian frequently appears in literature, media, and entertainment – and more than a few textbooks – teachers must be especially vigilant in deconstructing the images and identities that are presented in any resource intended for classroom use. This is a difficult task in that these images are ingrained in the Canadian psyche. They surround the lives of students and teachers.

Understanding the diverse lives of contemporary Aboriginal peoples means understanding the roots of today’s social, political, and economic realities, which means understanding the complex nature of Aboriginal cultures and societies and the devastating impact of colonialism. A superficial understanding or inclusion of Aboriginal perspectives keeps the Mythological Indian alive and well.

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