Vanishing Images?: Mediations of Native Americans in the Tradition of the Western

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This dissertation investigates the legacy of the Western, one of the most prolific genres in American popular culture. With its focus on the central conflict between Native Americans and white settlers, the Western has shaped Indian stereotypes that continue to influence how Americans look at Native Americans today. This dissertation interrogates how Western visual and narrative conventions continue to influence Indian images in current US public discourse, and how these conventions are renegotiated or replaced in contemporary texts.

It concludes that, in both texts that seek to dismantle stereotypes and in texts that could be considered self-representation, dominant frameworks, such as the visual conventions of the National Geographic, media frames concerning Indianness, and national museums, nonetheless recirculate (revisionist) Western conventions. Therefore, visual tropes, such as the Noble and Ignoble Indian as well as the Indian Warrior, and narrative tropes, such as the Cowboy/Indian dichotomy, exist in non-Western popular texts in updated forms, as three case studies demonstrate.

First, Aaron Huey’s National Geographic photos reflect Western conventions by depicting Native Americans in the duality of the traditional and spiritually-minded Noble Indian on the one hand, and the modern, poor, and decrepit Ignoble Indian on the other. Second, the press coverage of the Cowboy and Indian Alliance insisted on the narrative of the “unlikely alliance” between Native and non-Native activists. Third, the National Museum of the American Indian exhibit, Americans, reaffirms the visual of the Indian Warrior over other iterations.

Two dynamics seem to effectively challenge Western conventions, as demonstrated in the Native criticism of Huey’s project, the Native self-representation in the CIA protest, and the NMAI. First, articulating modern Native American identities negates the Western’s generic Indianness and rejects a cultural conceptualization of Indianness. Emphasizing Native American sovereignty affirms Native political agency and rejects stereotypes such as the Ecological/Spiritual Indian. Second, embedding public constructions of Indianness in historical and social context challenges American master narratives of benign expansion.