Native Americans and Spectral Savagery

The Native American Savage, by Thomas Ford. 1821

The Native American Savage, by Thomas Ford. 1821

Western culture has always been transfixed, both in fear and in awe, by the ethnographic traditions and depictions of Native Americans. In T.V., film, and literature, Native Americans have been depicted as magicians, savages, ghosts, exotic soothe-sayers, and, in recent history, as a dignified race of people. Yet overall, they attract a certain ethnographic monstrosity that originated with the colonization of America by Europeans in the 1700’s. Vast differences in cultural distinctions and code of conduct between the colonizers and the natives created a natural, cultural barrier that manifested itself in racial discretion, mysticism, and, most importantly, fear. From the early 1800’s on, the American West would be ravaged by racial war between the Native Americans and early western settlers, stirring the volatile ethnographic concoction and fueling the indigenous monstrosity. In Western culture, this racial war was represented as a battle of Good vs. Evil instead of the more appropriate designation as a genocide. As we have studied in class, ethnographic monstrosities are born out of their inherent foreignness and our basic fear of the unknown, and they flourish upon the absence of communication and the power of prejudice; the Native American “savage” exemplifies these foundations of monstrosity, embodied in the literature and film of the West.

The Searchers (1956) is touted as one of the greatest and most influential films in the history of cinema (thought at first regarded as a failure), acclaimed for its elegant storytelling, cinematographic genius, and controversial racial characterization. The film’s director, John Ford, was already renowned for his accomplished westerns, but seemed to have stumbled upon unbelievable success with this cowboy vs. indian flick about a man who scours the American West to recover his kidnapped niece from a tribe of Comanches. But what is derived to the film in terms of ethnographic monstrosity are the subliminal ways in which the Native Americans are characterized (or more appropriately un-characterized), using the thematic “unknown” as a cultural barrier to highlight the ethnographic monstrosities, the Evil that i supposed to be conquered by the Good. But in this case, the Good is a psychologically tormented and disturbingly racist John Wayne; the lines of monstrosity become blurred, and we begin to wonder exactly what side of the barrier we are on. This aspect of “who is the monster” is one we have explored extensively in class in an ethnographic sense; for example, is Kong the monster or is modern society the monster? The underlying symbolism of these aspects is embedded within our incessant fear of the unknown or that which is foreign, and our inability or ignorance towards constructing a path of communication through the barrier. We preserve our judgements because we just don’t want to pursue the truth, and through this ignorance is born the ethnographic monstrosity.

Annotated Bibliography

Bright, Brenda Jo. “Ethnographic Film and the Popular Imagination.” American Quarterly Vol. 50 (1998): 183-191. Web.

This critique by Brenda Jo Bright is an analytical piece referring specifically to the article we read for class by Fatimah Tobing Rony. She summarizes the main points from The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle while adding some of her own views and angles on the ethnographic monstrosity, providing more in-depth analysis on the racially defined monstrosity as well as synthesizing her points with other authors’ works, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and the African-American monstrosity.

Deloria Jr., Vine. “Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto.” Ethnographic Fieldwork: an Anthropological Reader. Ed. Antonius C.G.M. Robben and Jeffrey A. Sluka. 2nd ed. West Essex, United Kingdom and Malden, Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Web.

“Custer Died For Your Sins” is a short book written in 1969 that deals with the more current and modern conditions of the Native Americans. It relates, sometimes almost directly, to the ethnographic monstrosity that I am trying to develop for my paragraphs, and even draws certain conclusions regarding film, literature, and modern American culture as a whole. It is severely critical of the U.S. policies regarding Native Americans.

Dimond, Vernon Scott. “Eloquent Representatives”: A study of the Native American Figure in the early landscape of Thomas Cole, 1825-1830. January 1, 1998. Proquest. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

Dimond’s treatise on the paintings of early western settler Thomas Cole ‘paint’ a picture of the type of stereotypes that were associated with Native Americans in the early 1800’s, including such characterizations as the bloodthirsty kidnapper and the noble savage. Besides supplying me with background knowledge on general Native American culture, this source also helped me synthesize this information with the view of Native Americans as monstrosities in the eyes of American whites.

Rony, Fatimah Tobing. The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996.

Rony, in what is probably the baseline text for consulting the ethnographic monstrosity of the horror genre, carefully examines the racial significations and exotic, curious spectacle that  seem to be embedded in traditional horror literature and cinema, both implicitly and explicitly. She explores the central idealogical themes of how the audience or reader is ‘gazing’ upon the spectacle of exotic horror, and how this gaze may have specific racial foundations rooted to its definition. I used this source more to educate myself on the topic of the ethnographic monstrosity in general.

The Searchers. Dir. John Ford. Warner Bros., 1956. Film.

John Ford’s film gives us a very distinct characterization of the Native American as an ethnographic monstrosity, using specific cinematic techniques to highlight foreignness, culture differences, and the fear of the unknown.


One response to “Native Americans and Spectral Savagery

  1. I find it provocative that Native Americans are consistently being referred to subliminally. As my own research notes, it seems that there is a parceling out of space for peoples that Americans have subjugated. Perhaps this is in an effort, as you note, to maintaining judgement in lieu of self criticism or self revelation. Or, perhaps it is because something that exists mostly in the fringes of our collective memory is best represented slightly below the threshold for consciousness.

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