Myths, stereotypes, and the “other”: Documenting the initial construction and evolution of Amerindian stereotypes’ as false truths.


Within this paper I will explore how Europeans created stereotypes of the Indigenous People of the Americas based on myth and speculation and how this Western way of viewing and depicting the “other” evolved during the beginning of the sixteenth century. The essay examines how this became imbedded in visual representation four centuries later and how these stereotypes evolved within European lenses and were/are utilized to visually represent the “other” of the Americas. The essay argues that this was/is prevalent in artistic depictions near the supposed end of the “vanishing race” and persist today. The paper is organized into three sections or tropes. An introduction to the colonial conquest of Mexico by the Spanish mostly through the writings of Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci followed with two tropes of visual and textual comparison: The first trope of the paper will deal with the visual representation of Amerindians; an image rendered possible by descriptive text provided by colonizers in the new world then conflated with European folklore and artists lens from which the initial representation of Amerindian stereotypes emerged. The texts and accompanying images I draw upon are Natives of Africa and India by Hans Burgkmair, Adam and Eve by Albrecht Durer, and South American Indians by Johann Froschauer to help illustrate and support this section. The second trope will discuss the modern and indexical portrayal of Amerindians (in relation to that of photography) in order to try and preserve and document, what Americans thought to be, a “vanishing race” and how the stereotypes initially constructed (and now evolved) in contact still ran rampant within the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as the inescapability of the European descriptive lens. Within this Section I will be referring to the photography of Edward S. Curtis and his work shot and compiled within The North American Indian to help illustrate these ideas. Finally, I will conclude by suggesting it is the power of art in both the construction of stereotypes and the perpetuation of them across time and space that perpetuates a Eurocentric colonized image of First Nations in the Americas.

During the early modern period, that of the European Renaissance between the fifteenth and sixteenth century specifically, there was an innate and rigorous search to discover, document, label, and categorize all that existed (objects, people, and land) outside of the European cultural screen of seeing and understanding. This impulse to ascribe a notion of understanding was driven by a discomfort of living with ambiguity and arguably by the beginning of the age of Enlightenment. Without meaning and understanding to project upon events, objects, foreign land and peoples humanity is presented with the notion of the unknown and unfamiliar—ideas and concepts that instill fear and uncertainty within them. By being presented with these alien and foreign concepts it is easy for humanity to lend a hand to the descriptive impulse to help fabricate and construct stereotypes, tropes, and the “other” in an effort to understand and categorize these unknowns within their taxonomic system. It was this impulse which led to the unintended discovery of Mexico by explorer and colonizer Christopher Columbus in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century and the colonization that was sparked shortly thereafter by the conquistador Hernan Cortes and his mercenaries. Upon these findings Europe was introduced to (utilizing the early modern European taxonomic system) “the wild savages” of the Americas. The taxonomic placement of the new world peoples was one of savagery, cannibalism, lust, and undogmatic tendencies (Vespucci, Colin, Columbus). Upon contact with Amerindians Europeans could not establish if they were truly “human” or not, were revered with spectacle, fear, and labeled other(ly). It was through these initial encounters that Europeans began the construction of stereotypes that would ultimately destroy and oppress Indigenous peoples of America from the early sixteenth century and onwards.

In order to appreciate the initial construction and evolution of Amerindian stereotypes it is important to look at the writings of both Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci. Columbus stumbled upon the Americas in his quest to find a new and more secure trade route to the East— a purely economical and colonial enterprise. Consequently, his writings about the “New World” are framed by the Euro-centric and Christian discourse of the Renaissance Spanish colonizer and provide little objective ethnographic information. Vespucci, whose work is questioned in “truth” (Markham, 1894, p.13), also wrote widely about the “New World” and those who inhabited the landscape. Although both sets of writings were widely distributed it was Vespucci’s writings that captured the imagination of Europeans, and in particular the visual artists of the time.

The letter describing the four voyages was not written for readers acquainted with the history and progress of discovery, not for Spaniards or Portuguese, but the Medicis and the Soderinis, the Waldseemullers and Ringmanns, to whom these tales were new, wonderful, and mysterious. Accuracy and truth were of no consequence so long as they believed in Amerigo Vespucci as the discoverer of the new world and its marvels (Markham, 1894, p. 57).

As Vespucci’s letters increased in popularity and circulation artists began to utilize them as reference and framework to help visually render the Indians of the new world for the European public. Artists ultimately fell back on their known (also culturally constructed) histories, myths, and folklores that shared similar descriptions and attributes to Vespucci’s letters in order to visually reference and help aid in their portrayals of the Indian of the new world. The most dominant myth referenced and utilized to help depict the Amerindian was that of the wild man. The wild man was a traditional mythical motif in European folklore in which “Hairiness, nakedness, and the tree trunk or club are the attributes of the wild man and may serve as a means of iconographic identification, although any of these attributes may be absent”. Furthermore, the wild man is morally attributed with cannibalistic tendencies, an uncontrollable sexual appetite, and a complete neglect of Christian dogma (Colin, 1999, p.3-4). The wild man (and his counter part, the wild woman) strayed away from civilization.

Choosing his abode in the remotest and wildest part of the forest to lead a life as a hunter and gatherer without the knowledge of agriculture and even the crudest form of technology, the wild man stands apart from civilized human society. (Colin, 1999, p. 3)

These characteristics of the wild man were easily projected onto and instilled in the South American Indian by European artists due to the similarity in the texts provided by Vespucci in which he illustrates quite vividly the nakedness, erotic and immoral tendencies, mass consumption of human flesh, and complete lack of social order within Amerindian society, and even goes as far as characteristically labeling them as beasts (Colin 1999, pp. 5-9). In works such as Froschauer’s South American Indians (1505-06, Augsburg) there is an uncanny resemblance to that of a pen and ink drawing titled Wild Family in a cave (1500, France). Froschauer’s woodblock depicts an array of Amerindians in their natural setting—one void of agriculture, technology, and civilization as described by the European— and partaking in their mass consumption and cooking of raw human flesh. The image is identical to that of the ink drawing of the wild family in the cave, except that the wild man father is resting on a large and slender bone rather than a bow. This direct visual reference clearly illustrates the allusion to the wild man myth within Froschauer’s woodblock and, as Susi describes, the “savage family harmony” in which both myths exhibit (Colin, 1999, p.13). This comparison clearly demonstrates the inability to objectively render the South American Indian and helps to illustrate the complete fabrication of stereotypes attributed to a race solely based out of myth and viewing the “other” as nothing but the “other”.

Another popular myth drawn upon to depict the South American Indian (‘Indian’ being all peoples not European) of the fifteenth and sixteenth century was that of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. This visual and conceptual comparison was made possible by Vespucci’s many descriptions of the lands inhabited by the Indians of the New World: “that surely if the terrestrial paradise be in any part of earth, I esteem it is not far distant from these parts”. Such stories fed the idea to associate the “Indian” with Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Eden (Colin, 1999, p. 12-14). This comparison is quite evident in Burgkmair’s Natives of Africa and India (1508-10, Germany) in which one section of the print clearly mimics Durer’s Adam and Eve (1504, Germany). Within Burgkmair’s print the “Indians” are occupying a setting that is heavily inhabited by flora, standing slightly apart from one another, and with arms meeting in the centre of the frame. The two are scarcely clothed, genitals covered by foliage, and accompanied by two children— this being the only drastic visual difference when compared to Durer’s print and also a moral judgment. The comparison to the fall from grace was utilized to depict a race marked by sin, void of Christian worship, and removed from social class and civilization but one that was also free from the restraints and problems of society, thus creating the “noble savage,” a mythical being that lived in harmony with the natural world away from European civilization—one that was in no way similar to paradise—and later utilized to critique the European civilization and social structure (Colin, 1999, p. 14).

This creation of stereotypes based out of myth and false “truth” grew and evolved over several centuries through different visual representations recreating the discourse and arriving at the moment of the late 19th and early 20th century and the supposed vanishing of the American Indian. With the initial western expansion, occupation, domination, and attempted purge of the First Nations culture, societies, languages, religions, education/governing systems, and physical presence within America and Canada roared and gave rise to a new dominant discourse in White society. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a commonly held view within the colonizers’ collective psyche was that the “Indian” was no longer a threatening savage, but a noble savage who occupied a position within a tragic, yet romantic and vanishing race. With this discourse and false truth in mind, with the creation of residential schools and reserves (both far removed from colonized space of inhabitance), and the brutal genocide of the First Nations people, the “Indian” was truly becoming a mythologized part of the American and Canadian history and landscape for the colonial occupants and no longer a threat. With these notions of successfully conquering and nearly eradicating an entire peoples becoming very much a reality (to colonial peoples) many artists strove to represent this vanishing and nostalgic being, through a dominant colonial lens, before it was too late— ultimately constructing a very skewed and romanticized representation of First Nations: only reinforcing their presence and existence as “past”, frozen in time. Colonial artists attempted to rescue (for their own means) a culture through painting, photography, and the displaying of First Nations in shows such as the Wild West Shows. But ultimately misrepresented the First Nations people by portraying them within popular stereotypes of the time (and past) to only further the romanticization of Indigenous peoples within nature, solidify the notions of a dying race, and further ratifying their preconceived and false notions of “truth” attributed to the First Nations (Elston, 2012, pp.181-190).

One such American who fulfilled and exceeded in occupying this colonial narrative was a man by the name of Edward S. Curtis who embarked on a twenty-three year long exploration across America, and even venturing into ‘the wilds’ of Canada, to document, record, and catalogue a people “fading into antiquity”. Curtis’ 23-year supposed ethnographic photography sojourn was purely portraiture and “documentary” in style. He wanted to capture these so-called fading cultural identities of a people before they were absorbed into white society. He strove to document and record every aspect of every First Nations tribe. The outcome was The North American Indian, a series of volumes of photographs that documented the Pacific Northwest, New Southwest, Great Basin, Great Plains, Plateau Region, California, and Alaska tribes, as well as their ceremonies, attire, rituals, arts, games, food, and scenery (Lyman, 1982, pp. 50-60).

Curtis aimed to represent what he viewed as a people slowly slipping into a void and in a deluded (by his own cultural views) sense he accomplished this feat, but by altering all aspects of reality and “truth” to achieve his massive archive of photographs. Curtis bribed First Nations to pose, to perform ceremonial dances out of their proper contexts, utilized false costumes, additions, poses, he removed any item symbolizing modernism or reference of the colonizers, staged, altered, and manipulated his photographs to mirror ethnographic photography (Lyman, 1982, pp. 65-67).

When Curtis paid a subject to pose for his camera, the subject temporarily became his employee, and doubtless felt obliged to pose either in a fashion directed by Curtis or at least in one appealing to his sense of imagery. (Lyman, 1982, p. 65)

Curtis was so blinded by his cultural screen, lens, “and by his perception of the Indian ‘otherness’ that he often overlooked the extreme diversity of the cultures he confronted” (Lyman, 1982, p. 62) only furthering the beliefs that First Nations were a dying race and help project this myth into present day.

Myth is a metalanguage. It turns language into a means to speak about itself. However, it does this in a repressive way, concealing the construction of signs. The system of myths tends to reduce the raw material of signifying objects to similarity. For instance, it uses a photograph and a book in exactly the same way. (Robinson, 2011)

Curtis did not objectively photograph his subjects, he subjectively photographed them through a colonial white lens and the outcome was such that he utilized the photograph and book in the exact same way, presenting a biased and false “truth” about the vast number of tribes he documented within North America. His work is demonstrative of the multiple ways in which the colonial project worked and continues to work for the assimilation and/or elimination of First Nations. This problem of representing “truth” is apparent within Curtis’s photography because of its indexical nature and ability to actually represent a reality. A photograph aims to ratify what it represents so once what is being represented is altered it is believed to be void of any credibility. “Whereas both prose and painting can be interpretive, photography is merely ‘selective,’ suggesting that it gives us a partial “imprint” of reality” (Sontag as cited in Butler, 2009, p. 66). Photography represents what has been, consequently if what has been is altered, so too has the truth. It is in the minds of humans that the problem of truth is so dominant and apparent within photography. The photograph can indeed “capture” some aspects of reality, however, it cannot be “the Truth,” rather it will always and everywhere only create some known human truths. As Curtis demonstrated and many others since: the photograph “can be instrumentalized in radically different directions, depending on how it is discursively framed” (Butler, 2009, p. 92).

However, what is of interest is that the camera was, and to some extent still is, thought to be a truly objective eye that captures reality. But as stated above and shown by Curtis’ work, the reality and story were framed by the photographer who was formed and informed by the continuing discourse of the other. What he did re/capture was the original myth created by the colonizer during first contact. Curtis in effect rediscovered the Indian, the romanticized noble savage frozen in time—who had been created more than four centuries earlier by the first European colonizers and their descendants—and in many ways is still perpetuated and perceived as such today. One need only take note of Curtis’s The Oath (1908, America) in order to draw the parallels with Burgkmair’s Natives of Africa and India (1508-10, Germany). Within The Oath the three subjects are set in a vast and barren land void of any sign of European settlement, genitals covered with animal hide, arms resting on hip, and one man’s arm outstretched with a primitive tool, all quite similar in visual representation to that of Burgkmair’s and Durer’s work – the noble savage, but one that is fading from time and the landscape as the bison (a very integral resource in all aspects of life for First Nations in The Great Plains) skull placed by Curtis so “beautifully” denotes.

In 1893 at the opening of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago historian Frederick Jackson Turner in his speech said, “And now … the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history”. The expansion westward was complete and America was startled by the prospect and part of the response was to capture through art the end of an era. One hundred years after Turner’s remarks and four hundred years after initial contact the art of film continues to entrench this idea; the Indigenous people of the Americas are viewed as gone so they must be recreated in film but frozen in time as imagined toward the close of the 19th century. It is the enactment of colonial Digestion, European dominance is articulated as a result of absorption of ways of knowing and being from elsewhere and reconstituted as decidedly European and then used against the originators (Pratt 2004). Eurocentric art over 500 years played an integral role in the creation and endurance of the colonizers’ stereotype of the Amerindian. The depiction of “the vanishing race” the “noble savage” by Curtis 100 years ago and even by Costner in 1990 in the film Dances with Wolves says the same thing, it is the colonizers penultimate act of destroying indigenous identity; ‘this is who you are, we will show you in our art, you do not exist without us’.



Butler, J. 2009, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? Verso, London.

Colin, S. 1999, The Wild Man and the Indian in Early 16th Century Book Illustration in Indians and Europe. An Interdisciplinary Collection of Essays, ed Christian F. Feest, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, pp. 5-36

Costner, K., et al. (1990). Dances with wolves. Santa Monica, Calif, MGM Home Entertainment.

Elston, M. 2012, ‘Subverting visual discourses of gender and geography: Kent Monkman’s revised iconography of the American west’, The Journal of American Culture, vol. 35, no. 2, pp. 181-190.

Lyman, C. M. 1982, The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions: A New Look at the Work of Edward Curtis. Smithsonian Institution, United States of America.

Pratt, M. L. 2004, The Anticolonial Past, MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly, vol. 65, no. 3, pp. 443-456.

Robinson, A. 2011, ‘an a to z of theory Roland Barthes’s mythologies: A critical theory of myths,’ Ceasefire Magazine,

Vespucci, Amerigo. The letters of Amerigo Vespucci and other documents illustrative of his career. Translated, with notes and an introduction by Clements R. Markham. London: Hakluyt Society, 1894.