Indians, as most non-Aboriginal people think they know them, do not exist. Historian Daniel Francis states that “The Indian began as a White man’s mistake, and became a White man’s fantasy. Through the prism of White hopes, fears and prejudices, indigenous Americans would be seen to have lost contact with reality and to have become ‘Indians’; that is, anything non-Natives wanted them to be.”3 Through non-Aboriginal writing, theatre, film, television, comic books, and advertising, Indians have existed as the invention of the European. As such, the popular conception of the Indian has resulted not in accurate representation, but rather an often insulting and misinformed caricature. Teepees, headdresses, totem poles, birch bark canoes, face paint, fringes, buckskin, and tomahawks have thus become the universal symbols of “Indianness,” and such monikers as “Injun,” “redskin,” “squaw,” “savage,” and “warrior,” have too often been used to label Aboriginal characters.4 As the curators of the 1992 touring museum exhibit, “Fluffs and Feathers” noted, these “are the symbols that the public uses in its definition of what an Indian is. To the average person, Indians, real Indians, in their purest form of ‘Indianness,’ live in a world of long ago where there are no high-rises, no snowmobiles, no colour television. They live in the woods or in mysterious places called ‘Indian Reserves.’”5 These Indians are the Indians of storybooks, novels, films, that most non-Aboriginal North Americans were exposed to as children and in school. To many contemporary non-Aboriginal people, Indians are no more real than characters of fantasy; they are characters of the imagination, role-played by countless non-Aboriginal children (and adults) in school playgrounds, as Boy Scouts and Girl Guides.
The Indian of imagination and ideology has been as real, perhaps more real, than the Native American of actual existence and contact. As preconception became conception and conception became fact, the Indian was used for the ends of argument, art, and entertainment by White painters, philosophers, poets, novelists, and movie makers among many.1Robert F. Berkhofer, The White Man’s Indian (1978)Books have been written of the native American, so distorting his true nature that he scarcely resembles the real man….So, through the very agencies that reach the mass of people, that purport to instruct, educate, and perpetuate true history – books, schools, and libraries all over the land – there have been graven false ideas in the hearts and minds of the people.2Luther Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle (1933)