The racist ideology directed towards minorities in America is not a new phenomenon. Prejudiced attitudes towards American Indians in particular date back at least to colonial times. In this article, I’ll explore this phenomenon through a group of advertisements that were produced from the 1880s until around 1920. As diverse as the ads are, many are guilty of using culturally appropriated themes to sell their products. Defined as the adoption of specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group, cultural appropriation embodies the use of ideas, symbols, artifacts, images, objects, etc. derived from contact between different cultures. It often implies a negative view towards the minority culture by the dominant one and is often culturally insensitive. The examples presented below are a reflection of the biases and prejudices of the day.
Negative attitudes towards American Indians continue to be perpetuated in the mass media evidenced recently by the sexy fashion events produced by Victoria’s Secret where their models disrespectfully dressed in pseudo American Indian attire that contained appropriated symbols that are viewed as sacred to many Native people; and repeated calls to eliminate racist Indian mascots in sports continues to fall on deaf ears.So why are advertisers so intent on associating their products with American Indians? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to that question. Since the time of first contact, First Nations people have been under intense pressure to assimilate into mainstream society. By the turn of the twentieth century, the Indian wars had come to an end and many Native people were struggling to adapt to a new way of life. Although the military campaigns were over, a more subtle war over cultural identity was underway. Evidence of this is reflected in newspaper and magazine advertisements, as well as in journalistic articles and state reports where Native people were often referred to in condescending and disparaging terms (figure 1).
Figure 1 – A 1908 advertisement in Munsey’s Magazine for O’Sullivan heels. The ad juxtaposes an “uncivilized” Native (who is referred to as a savage) kneeling before the onslaught of civilization.
A case in point is the January 27, 1888 edition of the Cattaraugus Republican, a newspaper from Salamanca, New York. It ran an extract from the Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of New York by Andrew S. Draper and in his concluding remarks, Draper’s prejudice toward the Indians is shamelessly apparent. He wrote that “there are eight reservations [in New York], covering more than 125,000 acres of land, as tillable and beautiful as any in the state. Not an acre in a hundred is cultivated. Upon each reservation there is a tribal organization which assumes to allot lands and to remove settlers at will, so that no permanent improvements are possible. In numbers they are increasing rather than dwindling away. The reservations are nests of uncontrolled vice, where wedlock is commonly treated with indifference, where superstition reigns supreme, and where impure ceremonies are practiced by pagans with an attendance of both sexes and all ages, where there is no law to protect one or punish another: where the prevailing social and industrial state is one of chronic barbarism, and which the English language is not known or spoken by the women and children, and by only part of the men. All this is in the heart of our orderly Christian state.
In many cases, this practice was used simply for the benefit of the advertiser and in some cases to lampoon Native people (figure 3).
This state of things cannot go on indefinitely… The state is undoubtedly bound by treaties formally entered into, but when treaties perpetuate barbarism and protect vice, they should be broken. These people are not to be considered as equals; they are unfortunates; they do not know what is best for themselves; they are the children of the state… treaty obligations should not forever protect Paganism in saying to Christian civilization, ‘Thus far only shalt thou go, and no farther.’”
Andre Lopez has demonstrated that In the United States, “the press has been fortunate enough to be able to obscure its most blatantly racist opinions beneath the cloud of public ignorance on this subject. In the area of Native sensitivities, it has only been during the past several decades, and even then only in the more liberal communities, that blatant racism toward Native people has simply become less popular, less vogue. Prior to this… the press dispatched attitudes in its reporting style which reflected the true attitudes and popular beliefs of the American public. Among those beliefs was… that Native peoples were ‘savages,’ that they were unclean, somehow biologically and socially lacking in graces and manners, an inferior people” (Lopez 1980: xi).
A short yet condescending newspaper article in the August, 1894 issue of the Syracuse (New York) Standard, titled: A LOT OF NONESENSE reported that “A great many people drove out to the Onondaga reservation yesterday afternoon to see the Pagan Indians in council. There was a pow-wow in the afternoon. The Indians rigged themselves up in all sorts of grotesque outfits and capered around the Council house for the benefit of the whites. It was called a religious ceremony.
Missionary Scott of the Episcopal Church doubts whether the Indians have come together for anything more than a good time. He doesn’t believe that the chiefs know anything about the doctrines of Handsome Lake. He himself has never been able to get two similar accounts of the so-called prophet-teachings. In his opinion, there is more politics than religion in this council.”
It’s not hard to imagine how Native people felt and reacted to these characterizations. In writing about the Iroquois in particular, Lopez says that there were “Indian people who would react so strongly to the stereotypes that they would become, in culture and behavior, more like white people than the white people were. It was a case of the oppressed imitating their oppressors in the (unconscious) hopes of escaping their oppression” (Lopez 1980: xvii).
Beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing throughout the 20th century, American Indian themes were regularly used in print advertising. From about 1890 until World War 1, a fashionable home-decorating trend was under way that Elizabeth Hutchinson describes as “the Indian Craze” (Hutchinson 2009). During this period, mainstream society developed a passion for collecting American Indian art objects and this might account, in part, why advertisers often used Indian themes to sell their products. A diverse range of products were promoted that, for the most part, had no connection at all to American Indians. Indian themed advertisements for toys, tools, clothing, alcoholic beverages, food products, toothpaste, bicycles, cameras, automobiles, tobacco, even vacation trips were used to sell these and a host of other products; virtually no segment of the commercial marketplace was exempt (figure 2.)
It’s been argued that such representations are actually “a continuing form of colonialism and oppression.” That is, they effectively “shrink an extremely diverse community of over 565 tribes in the United States alone down into one stereotypical image of the plains Indian” (Adrienne Keene, from an online interview in Al Jazeera’s The Stream. Adrienne is a Cherokee from Oklahoma and the author of the Native Appropriations blog). In many instances, the Indian themed advertisements are nothing short of cultural appropriation and additionally, some were unabashedly racist (figure 4).
Figure 4 – A Ladies Home Companion Magazine ad from 1896 for Sapolio, a company that produced soaps and other cleaning products.
Victorians had a sentimentalized view of Indian life derived from prints and magazine articles in which Native people were often inaccurately depicted as still living in quintessential harmony with nature. Indian encampment life was romanticized by some writers, such as a Mademoiselle Rouche, whose account appeared in an 1859 edition of the Lady’s Newspaper (see: Phillips 1998:218–221). Although the camp in her narration was apocryphal, it provided a romantic attachment to an idealized life and advanced the exotic illusion that Native people and their creations were the end product of this pastoral and bucolic existence. Some of the Native attributes that advertisers hoped to associate with their merchandise were naturalness, strength, purity, and that their products were authentically American (figure 5.)
A 1918 advertisement for the United States Tire Company from Seattle, Washington, has an agile and fit looking Indian jumping across a fast moving stream towards a tire on the other side. In bold letters, the ad reads: LITHE, SINEWY, ENDURING. UNITED STATES “ROYAL CORD” TIRES. Advertisers weren’t shy about appropriating Native themes to bolster their ad campaigns.
Until about the middle of the nineteenth century, America was still a rural, agricultural society but with the advent of the industrial age, people began moving to cities. Life there offered advantages such as better and higher paying jobs and access to services not available in rural areas but there were also serious disadvantages. Sanitary conditions in most cities were miserable to nonexistent and they became unhealthy places to live; many were ravaged by epidemics such as cholera, influenza and typhoid.
By this time, the character of children, especially boys, was perceived by many to be imperiled by an effeminate, post frontier urbanism (Deloria 1998:96). Daniel Carter Beard, a cofounder of the Boy Scouts, believed that Indians offered patriotic role models for American youth and some businesses echoed these sentiments in their advertisements. In a 1920 promotion for Indian bicycles from the Hendee Manufacturing Company, the same company that produced the Indian motorcycle, the design depicts a boy and his father admiring a bicycle in a showroom window. The advertising text reads in part; “The Indian most certainly is the bicycle for every healthy, manly American boy,” and that it “reminds one of the true-blooded race horse.” It suggests that the use of their product would ultimately turn a soft and tender child into a real man.
Beginning in the late nineteenth century and until the 1980s, thousands of magazine advertisements displayed images of Native people or themes on their pages. These advertisements flourished during the period that Elizabeth Hutchinson refers to as the “Indian Craze” – 1890 through 1915 (Hutchinson 2009). She describes how American Indian blankets, baskets, rugs, etc. could be purchased directly from east cost department stores, from Native people themselves, from agents and a host of other outlets. “Native American art was seen as a distinctly superior form of decoration, in keeping with the increasing nationalism and protectionism of the nation at the time. Native American art allowed people of the United States to combine these nationalist and colonialist interest, by appropriating the material culture of subjugated indigenous people as an expression of national aesthetics. They embraced the fact that Indian art was made out of local material and described its various forms as a reaction to the national landscape. Most important, critics urged collectors to buy Native products instead of sending money overseas. As one writer put it (in 1901), ‘Americans send hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to Germany and Japan for hampers, scrap baskets, clothes baskets, market baskets, work baskets, fruit, flower, lunch and candy baskets, - money which, by every right, should be earned by our needy, capable Indians’” (Hutchinson 2009:26).
A March 28, 1901 advertisement in the New York Daily Tribune, for the Wanamaker’s Department Store, informed the public that an Abenaki basket maker and her daughter would be demonstrating their skills on their premises. There would be a selection of their baskets and other crafts for sale. Below is the full text of the ad as it ran on that day.
Indian Baskets and Their Makers.
We have an interesting exhibit of these pretty baskets in our basement store. They have all been made by hand by the Abanaquis Indians of Maine and Canada. A native Indian woman who speaks such excellent English that we hesitate to call her a squaw is here making baskets and other fancy articles. She has her little daughter with her, who is also quite expert; and has made some baskets which she will show you.
The wigwam is here, and is decorated in savage style. Interesting to curiosity seekers; and yet the baskets and other decorative things are very pretty and quite practical. This hint of some of the articles:
Baskets are made of swamp ash and sweetgrass.
Price of Baskets, 10c to $1.75
Birch Wood Canoes, 30c to $2.50
Bows and Arrows, 20c to $1.50
Doll Moccasins, 25c and 50c
Large Moccasins, $1.50 to $2.50
Indian Dolls, 40c to $2.25
John Wanakaker – Formally A.T. Stewart & Co.,
Broadway, Fourth Avenue, Ninth and Tenth Streets
In her thesis, Hutchinson argues that policy makers were influenced by the “Indian Craze” and came to understand that “traditional” American Indian art was worth preserving.
During this period, there were numerous, well executed advertisements for the Santa Fe Railroad. Their service covered the West, from Chicago to California and their advertisements advanced the idea that the Native inhabitants of the southwest lived an idealized and romantic life. A trip through Indian Country was publicized as a pleasurable experience into a quaint and mystical world. Indian guides were hired by the railroad and one ad in particular noted that “As the train glides across New Mexico, your Zuni guide tells you about the legends of this romantic land.”
Visitors to the American Southwest were intrigued with the seemingly less hectic lifestyle of Native people and many were intrigued by the complex religious beliefs, ceremonies, and especially the crafts of their skilled artisans. This interest led to opportunities for Native artisans to sell their creations and for tourists to acquire them (figure 6).
Figure 6 – Two well executed advertisements from 1902 for the Santa Fe Railroad.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Indian traders and dealers were sending mail-order catalogs to prospective clients advertising the availability of the genuine, hand-made Indian goods they had for sale. Anglo-Americans could also special order Native made items designed to their liking and to be more harmonious with their home décor. So there was a transcultural exchange taking place.
Not only had the public at large developed a passion for collecting American Indian art, but both children and adults engaged in Indian play of some sort. Images from this period of non-Natives dressed as Indians and participating in plays, pageants, etc. are common. Advertisements also offered Indian play outfits for both children and adults (figure 7).
Figure 7 – A page from a circa 1920 DeMoulin Brothers fraternal outfit catalog and a 1911 advertisement for Indian play suits from a company called “Little Folks.”
Hutchinson identifies this collecting fever as part of something larger that included the addition of American Indian objects in museum exhibits, World’s Fairs, and the use of “indigenous handcrafts as models for non-Native artists exploring formal abstraction and emerging notions of artistic subjectivity” (Hutchinson 2009). A cross-cultural interest developed during this period and many advertisements portrayed Native people in a positive light. Some of the Santa Fe railroad ads in particular were visually appealing, often showing the local Natives either working on their craft or displayed with it (figure 8).
Figure 8 – This Travel Magazine advertisement from 1916 was for the Santa Fe Railroad.
Not all ads from this period depicted Native people in a positive light. An 1899 advertisement for the Savage Arms Company of Utica, New York boldly stated that their rifles “Make Bad Indians Good” (figure 9).
Figure 9 – A blatantly racist ad from the May 1899 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine playing on the sentiment that the only good Indian was a dead Indian.
Drawing on a theme that was prevalent in the late nineteenth century that “the only good Indian was a dead Indian,” this sentiment is usually attributed to General Phil Sheridan. He was a career Army officer and Union army general during the Civil War. In 1869, Comanche Chief Tosawi reputedly told Sheridan that he (Tosawi) was a good Indian, to which Sheridan replied, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” His sentiment became popular with the general public, and “Indian policy” for the military. Even Teddy Roosevelt weighed in on the matter in an 1886 speech: "I suppose I should be ashamed to say that I take the Western view of the Indian. I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth." The advertisement in figure 9 is certainly echoing the sentiment of the time.
Some of the most remarkable and memorable art of the last 100 years was created by talented Illustrators who produced work for magazine print advertisements, i.e. Norman Rockwell, J.C Leyendecker, and Harrison Fisher, the creator of the Gibson Girl. The birth of modern advertising began in mid-nineteenth century Philadelphia when Volney B. Palmer created the first advertising agency. He understood that promoting and selling a product worked best on a regimen of emotion, persuasion and good sense. Advertising agencies emerged around the time of the industrial revolution where they were used to help sell products and services. The reason for advertising, after all, was to make the consumer connect with the brand and become a loyal customer. If there was a developing “Indian Craze,” advertisers were going to capitalize on it. What follows is a gallery of advertisements that were produced during this period. They’re not in any particular order but were selected to explore the range of product advertised and how Native people were represented in those ads. Bear in mind that this is just a small sampling of the thousands of products that were promoted using Indian themes.
Figure 10 – A Scribner’s Magazine advertisement from May, 1910 for the Northern Pacific railroad.
Figure 11 – Two advertisements for the Angelus Player-Piano by Wilcox and White Company of Meriden, Connecticut; one from 1913 and the other from 1915.
Figure 12 – An American Cooking Magazine advertisement from 1915 for Red Wing grape juice. Here the advertisers are using and Indian image to suggest the purity of their product.
Figure 13 – Another flagrantly racist ad for Ivory Soap that ran in the Youth’s Companion Magazine on March 27, 1884 suggesting that their product helped civilize Native people.
Figure 14 – An 1897 advertisement for Pabst Milwaukee Beer that is touted as a healthful tonic.
Figure 15 – This Wabash Railroad advertisement ran in the July, 1900 issue of Scribner’s Magazine. The text informs the reader that shooting the rapids of the St. Lawrence “made even the wild heart of an Indian leap with excitement.”
Figure 16 – Another railroad advertisement from the May, 1904 issue of Booklovers Magazine.
Figure 17 – Tobacco ads that featured American Indians were common. The ad on the left is from a January, 1914 issue of the World’s Work Magazine. The other is from the October, 1913 issue of Popular Mechanics Magazine.
Figure 20 – This curious June, 1900 advertisement from Scribner’s Magazine suggested their product would prevent premature baldness.
Figure 21 – This 1901 ad in Harpers Magazine for the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad used a play on words in featuring an Indian in a frying pan.
Figure 22 – A caricature of an Indian is used in this Inland Printers magazine advertisement from 1917. It advertised Indian Brand gummed papers.
Figure 23 – A Northern Steamship Co. advertisement that was featured in a 1904 Outlook Magazine advertisement.
Figure 24 – This November, 1915 advertisement ran in American Carpenter & Builder Magazine. It featured a table saw from the Oshkosh Manufacturing Company.
Figure 25 – Another Savage Arms Company advertisement, this one from June, 1901, employs a double entendre as the Maine guides depicted in the ad were certainly Wabanaki Natives.
Figure 26 – There were a number of ads from this company that featured an Indian child wearing the company’s shirt collars and cuffs. This ad is from an October, 1901 issue of Century Magazine.
Figure 27 – A 1905 advertisement in Country Life in America Magazine for Victor Talking Machines, the forerunner to RCA.
Figure 29 – Cereal ads for corn products often featured American Indians themes like this ad from the March, 1908 edition of Century Magazine.
Figure 30 – This ad featured what was called “the latest society fad;” making Indian style baskets. Directed towards well-to-do Euro-American women, it ran in the December 6, 1902 edition of Outlook Magazine.
Figure 31 – Another ad from the April, 1917 issue of The Ladies’ Home Journal also offered non-Native women instructions in making Indian style baskets.
Figure 33 – This 1901 McClure’s Magazine advertisement for the Lozier gas engine compares their motorized product to an Indian canoe.
Deloria, Philip J. Playing Indian. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. 1998.
Hutchinson, Elizabeth. The Indian Craze. Durham and London: Duke University Press. 2009.
Keene, Adrienne. From an online interview in Al Jazeera’s The Stream
Lopez, Andre. Pagans in Our Midst. Akwesasne Notes, Mohawk Nation, Rooseveltown, New York. 1980.
Phillips, Ruth B. Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700-1900. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 1999.