Marketing the Exotic: Creating the Image of the “Real” Indian
Antonia Valdes-Dapena

The commercialization and commodification of a race emerges after there has been a power struggle and one culture has been clearly marked as dominant.1 In nineteenth-century America, a battle over land, but more importantly over power, took place between the increasing white population and the Native Americans.2 With the conclusion of the Indian Wars in 1881, whites occupied a position of uncontested authority. Once the Native Americans were “powerless or safely dead,” they became the subject of gross commercialization and commodification.3 Defenseless to the marketing of their race, Native Americans became “other” to the white man; their exotic qualities were now a sellable commodity. The commercialization of their “other-ness” resulted in pecuniary gain for whites, but more importantly it reinforced white identity, views, and truths.4 Whether these truths were inaccurate, fabricated, or overly simplistic mattered little; they became the established “truth” as the Anglo culture constructed a history of the Native Americans. As a consequence, the history of the Native Americans, as portrayed by whites, becomes a reflection of white superiority, justifying their role in the devastation of a culture.

The first large-scale marketing of the Native Americans began with the surrender of Sitting Bull on July 19, 1881. Regarded by whites as the last great warrior, Sitting Bull’s defeat marked the end of the native population as a threat. The introduction of the reservation system afforded whites the opportunity to view the Native Americans with a sense of nostalgia rather than fearing for their lands and lifestyle. It was this nostalgia that surrounded Sitting Bull and transformed him into a celebrity.5 White Americans eagerly sought the opportunity to pay for his autograph, photographs at his side, and personal trinkets. It was recorded in the Chicago Tribune that one tourist was willing to pay the substantial sum of one-hundred dollars to buy Sitting Bull’s pipe.6

George Dix and his business partners Bailey and Meade commissioned photographer William R. Cross to create a photographic series of Sitting Bull, capitalizing on his popularity.7 Cross’s photographic series began with an autographed cabinet card of Sitting Bull. On the back of the card, the curious buyer could read Sitting Bull’s height, weight, and number of wives.8 The Sitting Bull card was part of a larger trend in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century card production and collecting. Native American trading cards were widely produced for the consumers to collect and trade.9 During the 1880s the largest producers of these cards were the tobacco companies which, simultaneously, were beginning to produce the first baseball cards. Both the baseball cards and Native American trading cards were used to advertise various tobacco products.10 Through advertisements, the image of the Native American was transformed into the exotic, and marketed to consumers. Trading cards were produced by the thousands and packaged inside products, quickly becoming one of the most important forms of mass marketing at the turn of the century.11 The wide circulation of Native American trading cards helped to construct a stereotypical image of the Indian. This image of the Native American fulfilled what the white consumer came to expect and desire.

The tradition of stereotyping the Native American through visual imagery has a long tradition dating back to the painted ethnographic portraits of the 1600s, which typically show fanciful images of so-called primitives with seemingly realistic or authentic details and props.12 Often these props were randomly chosen native artifacts from different tribes and even different parts of the world. This practice expanded dramatically in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century when the invention of the camera made such imagery commonplace.

An example that marks the transition from painted image to photograph is a cabinet card by J. N. Choate, a photographer who worked closely with the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. The portrait, bordering on caricature, is captioned on the back of the card as The first Indian boy who applied to Capt. Pratt—Ft. Berthold, D.T., Sept. 19, 1878—for education at Hampton, Va. (fig. 23; cat. 34). Although the image appears to be a photograph that documents the figure as captioned, it is known that it reproduces a Mandan ritual representing the forces of evil. By translating the illustration into a photograph and applying a misleading caption, this image of the Native American takes on a new meaning and power.13 The nineteenth-century consumer, having little direct contact with Native Americans, would have no way to differentiate between an accurate portrayal of a Native American and this misleading illustration.

Because of their apparent objectivity and fidelity, photographs were held as truth or historic evidence. However, seemingly authentic portrayals were often shaped with the audience in mind. One nineteenth-century photographer, Edward S. Curtis, known for his photographs of the Native Americans, actually carried wigs for his subjects to wear so that their appearance would satisfy and confirm the viewer’s preconceived notions of how an Indian ought to appear. Frequently the photographers used the camera to portray a story of dominance. They depicted heroic images of the white men fighting to remove the savage natives from their lands. This theme was the basis for the ever popular Wild West shows, which appealed to the Victorian spectators because they always ended with the inevitable conquering and submission of the Indians. Viewers could enjoy the display of the savage, secure that their home, hearth, and culture were never in threat.

At the Carlisle Indian School, the notion of white and Indian warfare was transferred from the Plains to the arena of competitive sports. Through the ritual of sport, warfare becomes a ceremony, and the white’s greatest fears play out within the rigid structure of athletic rules and regulations. Order is scrupulously maintained throughout the game, and the dominant culture’s position is never truly threatened. At the Carlisle Indian School’s football games, the spectators saw the Indians battle the whites on the playing field. One student athlete, Jim Thorpe, became a national sports hero. A member of the Sac and Fox tribe, Thorpe was an all-American halfback (1911-1912) on the Carlisle team; however, he was marketed as more than an athlete.14 For many, he embodied the racial stereotype of Native Americans as fierce savage fighters. The Carlisle Indian School publicity contributed to this stereotype, often categorizing the sporting competitions as conflicts between Indians and whites. Newspaper headings such as “Indians Scalp Army 27-6” or “Jim Thorpe on Rampage” characterized the Indian-ness of the students on the Carlisle team.15 A photograph of Jim Thorpe and the 1911 football team (fig. 24; cat. 42) emphasizes the purposeful racial split between the competing athletes. The inscription on the football reads, “1911, Indians 18, Harvard 15.” By characterizing the match as a battle between races, the game attracts greater attention. An alternate wording, “1911, Carlisle 18, Harvard 15,” would therefore receive less interest, not drawing attention to the team’s Indian-ness. The Carlisle team was not seen as a team of football players, but rather as a group of Indians.16

Press accounts covering the games, like the Carlisle Indian School’s publications, described the events in the language of white/native conflict. When the white team won the game, the victory was portrayed as a conquest for civilization. A vivid account from the Philadelphia Press described the sport event as a brawl between races where the future of white civilization was at stake. Nevertheless, the article depicted the white athletes as fated to win, using language similar to that of manifest destiny.17 For the white audience, such sporting events provided an experience similar to that of the Wild West shows. The image of the Native American as athlete complemented and reasserted the stereotype of what audiences expected an Indian to be. Jim Thorpe was visualized as the leader of the barbarous Indian athletes, leading them into battle on the football field. In this way, many of the Jim Thorpe images resembled those of Sitting Bull. They represented him as a “real” Indian.

Chiefs, regarded by the whites as being a rare breed of Indians, were highly marketable. Chiefs visiting their children at the Carlisle Indian School became a common subject for the Carlisle school’s photographers.18 One photograph titled Noted Indian Chiefs (fig. 25; cat. 26), combines images of nineteen Native American chiefs who visited the school, all listed with respective tribe on the reverse. The individual chief’s images depicted on the front of the card were drawn from independent cabinet cards and assembled to make this new composite. In some instances, the independent cards have survived and illustrate how the full-sized portraits were cropped and inserted into the finished composite card. Toward the center-right of the Noted Indian Chiefs card, one can find the image of Son of the Star (no. 8) taken from a full-sized portrait of the chief (cat. 24). However, note how the feathers were retouched in the final composite card to make room for the chief above. While the portraits of each chief are from actual photographs, many of the torsos were retouched or drawn in later. Chief Ouray is also featured on the card, located on the center-right side (no. 19). Likewise, the source of his image is taken from a full-sized portrait (fig. 7; cat. 25). The reverse of Ouray’s card catalogs other chiefs in the series. The list enables the consumer to keep track of which chiefs he has yet to collect, the aim being to own all the chiefs listed. The back of the Ouray card documents the marketability of the chief image, while Noted Indian Chiefs promotes the sale of these individual cards. The Indian chief cabinet cards were created to satisfy the growing interest in collecting Native American images.

Like the cabinet cards, the invention of the stereograph further fueled the commodification of the Native Americans. Mass production of stereographs was made possible in the 1870s with companies producing over 3,000 views each day.19 There were over 6,000 stereographs in homes around the United States at this time.20 Stereographs were taken of the Carlisle Indian School further demonstrating the marketability of the Native American images. One example, Miss Sarah Mather and Indian Girls Upon Their Arrival at Carlisle, 1879 (fig. 26; cat. 12), shows the group in native clothes. By producing this image as a stereograph, the native girls are likened to other unusual and exotic stereographic images from the time: the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite National Park. The Native American girls become a tourist attraction to be acquired, viewed, and consumed without leaving the comforts of one’s drawing room or parlor. Under these circumstances, Michel Foucault’s theory of visibility is particularly relevant. Foucault argues that the phenomenon of “being seen” is an unnatural process, directly linked with a power struggle. In other words, a photograph enables the spectator to view, and by extension to control, the individual depicted in the image without his or her consent.21 The native girl students of the Carlisle Indian School were captured on film and their images were sold to Victorian audiences who viewed them at their every whim, thus placing the power/control in the hands of the white consumers. By virtue of being viewed, these students became “other” to the spectator.

The concept of “other” has been intensely debated. Toni Morrison has argued that the white self and white identity depends upon the marginalization of the other races, or the “other.” She believes it is impossible to have freedom without repression. It is impossible to have white without black.22 In this case, the white man gains definition through contrast with the red man. This is perhaps best expressed by an Iroquois phrase, “Indians and whites are false faces peering into a mirror, each reflecting the other.”23 In other words, the Native Americans become more “other” when confronted with an equally false “white” face. As “other” it was believed that the native culture was the exact opposite of the white culture. This concept was extended beyond culture to biology.

According to some nineteenth-century scientific theories, the Native Americans were not of the same species as the white man. They were categorized as a less developed form of man, Homo sapiens Americanus.24 Scientists supported this theory with what they viewed to be objective facts. Combining Darwin’s thoughts on evolution with craniology, studying the size and shape of the skull, they believed they had scientifically proven white man’s superiority to the Native American. They saw any physical difference between the whites and the Native Americans to be proof of the biological dominance of the white race. This scientific racism supported the Vanishing Red Man Theory, which argued that because the Native Americans were biologically inferior, they were doomed to extinction.25 It was believed that the Indians did not develop or change unless it was towards their own termination as a people.26 Lewis Henry Morgan theorized that men had evolved from the primitive to the civilized. He ranked all men into one of three categories, each with three subsets: lower, middle, upper savagery; lower, middle, upper barbarism; and lower, middle, upper civilization. Morgan categorized the Indians as savage.27 Considering the potential for assimilation through educational programs like the Carlisle Indian School, Morgan thought it might be possible for the Native Americans to change, but that this change was not to happen quickly as “Indians still had the skulls and brains of barbarians, and must grow slowly toward civilization as all mankind have done who attained it by progressive experience.”28 Believing the possibility of actual assimilation to be slim, Morgan pleaded with the public to save the Native Americans as if they were a priceless artifact for future generations and science. Particularly, he preached to the museums and to the newly forming universities to begin collecting Indian artifacts to educate the public on this disappearing species of man.29

The Vanishing Red Man Theory spurred scientists, museums, universities, and collectors to acquire Native American art and artifacts. The large scale collecting of Indian art and artifacts was from 1880 to 1940.30 Just as with the photographic marketing and advertising, now that the Native Americans were safely removed from white culture, the commercialization through collecting could begin. As the native culture was presumed to be vanishing, these artifacts were becoming rare and thus more collectable.

Like the photographs, many of the objects collected and held to be traditional Indian pieces were created explicitly for the white consumer. Thomas Keam, a merchant in the 1890s, was responsible for the Hopi mass production of goods, the introduction of new styles of ceramics, and the use of Kachina figures on ceramic goods. He also requested that the Hopi attempt to reproduce the appearance of ancient techniques on new products. In other words, he asked the Hopi to make their goods look old and authentic.31 Similarly, traders C. N. Cotton and J. B. Moore altered the design of Navajo blankets to make them more appealing to their buyers on the East coast, asking the Navajo to use Turkish carpet patterns and commercial dyes. In this way, they redefined “traditional” arts and consequently had a hand in the defining of a culture.32

Thomas Keam and other such traders sold these “traditional” items to museums. In one sale, Keam sold 2,400 examples of Hopi artwork to the Hemmenway Exhibition for $10,000.33 It was not just merchants and traders who commissioned artifacts to sell to the museums. R. Steward Culin, the first curator of the Brooklyn Museum, frequently commissioned works from the different Native American tribes. Culin would often provide the “correct authentic” materials to aid the Indians. It was understood that the Indians themselves had forgotten their history and had to have it recreated for them. Through nineteenth-century eyes, he was helping the Native Americans to learn about their past and educating the white population about this history at the same time.34 Today, this method of collection would be viewed differently, as the shaping of a culture, the creation of a singularly white view of history.35

Dickinson College, while not actively seeking to collect Native American artifacts, became a repository for materials associated with the neighboring Indian boarding school. Surviving documentation regarding the Carlisle Indian School artifacts now located at Dickinson College fails to shed light on the precise nature of their origins or their means of acquisition. While many of the photographs in the college’s collection are certainly connected to the Carlisle Indian School, other artifacts are more difficult to directly associate to the school. As with all collections, there is the compulsion to create a story around these objects, encoding them with meaning. As history has shown, the stories behind the objects and their meaning evolve in tandem with the changing attitudes towards the Indian boarding schools and Native Americans in general.

Because these artifacts were placed in museums, buildings perceived to be the conveyers of truth, the idea of constructing the Native Americans’ image is more problematic here than in the photographs or advertising campaigns mentioned earlier. Upon their acceptance into the museum, these artifacts become authentic examples of traditional Native American art.36 They enter the realm of truth and historic fact. Unfortunately, few museum installations address the precise nature of these artifacts, the complex conditions of their production, and their means of acquisition.

In the United States, the practice of collecting and displaying Native American artifacts has undergone a dramatic change, particularly in the presentation of human remains, which were once exhibited to support claims that the Native Americans were less developed as a species. On November 23, 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was signed into law.37 This legislation requires museums to reassess their collections and repatriate human remains of Native Americans and any objects of ceremonial importance.38 This act reverses the centuries-old pattern that has defined Indian-white relations in the United States as a one-way transfer of Native American property to white ownership.39 The legislation seeks to address this imbalance. In this way, NAGPRA is a historic landmark for the Native American fight to regain control over themselves and be seen as human rather than “other.” It represents a change in basic social attitudes toward Native Americans by the museum and scientific communities.

After the Sioux and Sitting Bull surrendered, and the last of the Native Americans were placed safely away on reservations, whites began fervently to create their version of the Native American history and image. They grouped them into one all-encompassing category, that of Indian, and told them how to make themselves and their art look authentic. White society constructed and sold the image of an unchanging but rapidly vanishing Indian of the past. Through legislation like NAGPRA, the Native Americans have managed to regain some power; however, the “real” Indian, as a stereotype, persists in movies, sports teams, and product packaging. Through the marketing of the Indian, the idea of the “real” Indian has become commonplace. Although the image of the Indian today is not as blatantly barbaric as that of the nineteenth century, the image retains its “other-ness.” “Like a cosmetic, the exotic comes in a variety of thicknesses.”40 The exotic cosmetic of today is more subtly applied, but it cannot be mistaken for natural.



1 Frank Goodyear, “The Narratives of Sitting Bull’s Surrender: Bailey, Dix & Mead’s Photographic Western,” in Dressing in Feathers, Elizabeth S. Bird, ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), 31.

2 David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience 1875-1928 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995), 25.

3 Elizabeth S. Bird, “Introduction: Constructing the Indian,” in Dressing in Feathers, Elizabeth S. Bird, ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), 4.

4 Stuart Hall, “The Spectacle of the ‘Other,’” in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, Stuart Hall, ed. (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Open University Press, 1997), 240.

5 Bird, “Introduction,” 7, notes that while the marketing of the Native American began in the nineteenth century, it has continued into the present. Henry Lambert, a modern Cherokee, dresses in feathers and poses for souvenir photographs. This self-exhibition as exotic has become his main source of income and economic improvement. By posing as what tourists view to be a real Indian, just as Sitting Bull did for his photographs more than a century before, Lambert has fully paid for his son to go to law school.

6 Goodyear, “Narratives,” 32-33.

7 After having made a substantial profit, they never again published another photograph.

8 Goodyear, “Narratives,” 33.

9 These cards can be bought today for prices ranging from thirty to eighty dollars.

10 John Bloom, A House of Cards (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 3.

11 Jeffery Steele, “Reduced to Images: American Indians in Nineteenth-Century Advertising,” in Dressing in Feathers, Elizabeth S. Bird, ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), 46.

12 Peter Mason, Infelicities: Representations of the Exotic (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 88.

13 Lonna M. Malmsheimer, “‘Imitation White Man’: Images of Transformation at the Carlisle Indian School,” Studies in Visual Communication 11, no. 4 (Fall 1985): 68-69.

14 On Jim Thorpe, see Rosemary K. Updyke, Jim Thorpe, the Legend Remembered (Gretna: Pelican Publishers, 1997); Jack Newcombe, The Best of the Athletic Boys: The White Man’s Impact on Jim Thorpe (Garden City, NY: Double Day, 1975).

15 John Bloom, “There is a Madness in the Air: The 1926 Haskell Homecoming and Popular Representations of Sports in Federal and Indian Boarding Schools,” in Dressing in Feathers, Elizabeth S. Bird, ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), 97.

16 The term “Indian” is in itself a white constructed term, grouping together all the different native cultures into one ambiguous category. When the different tribe members reached the Carlisle Indian School, only then did they become “Indian.” The process started upon their entrance to the school with the stripping of their traditions, clothes, and languages, but the football team reinforced a sense of a collective “Indian,” as opposed to separate tribes. The different Native Americans, visibly united in opposition to the white athletes, would begin to see themselves as the “other.”

17 Adams, Education for Extinction, 187.

18 Pratt appears to have helped shape the photographs produced at the school. See Molly Fraust, “Propaganda at the Carlisle Indian School,” in this volume: 19-23; Noted Indian Chiefs (cat. 26), however, would not have furthered Pratt’s mission; photographers at the school would have had a different use for such images.

19 Goodyear, “Narratives,” 33.

20 Goodyear, “Narratives,” 33.

21 Stuart Hall, “Introduction,” in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, Stuart Hall, ed. (Thousands Oaks, Calif: Open House University Press, 1997), 10.

22 Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 44.

23 Jean-Jaques Simard, “White Ghosts, Red Shadows: The Reduction of North American Natives,” in The Invented Indian: Cultural Fictions and Government Policy, James A. Clifton, ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Transactions Publishers, 1990), 333.

24 Berkhofer, The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (New York: Knopff, 1978), 40.

25 Mason, Infelicitie, 32.

26 Berkhofer, The White Man’s Indian, 47.

27 Berkhofer, The White Man’s Indian, 53.

28 Robert E. Bieder, “The Representations of Indian Bodies in Nineteenth-Century American Anthropology,” in Repatriation Reader: Who Owns American Indian Remains? Devon A. Mihesuah, ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 34.

29 Berkhofer, The White Man’s Indian, 54.

30 Steel, “Reduced to Images,” 51.

31 Janet Catherine Berlo, The Early Years of Native American Art History: The Politics of Scholarship and Collecting (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992), 7.

32 Berlo, The Early Years, 8.

33 Berlo, The Early Years, 8.

34 Kathryn M. Moyer, “‘Going Back to the Blanket:’ New Outlooks on Art Instruction at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School,” in this volume: 30-34, argues that after Pratt’s dismissal from the Carlisle Indian School, art instruction under Angel De Cora helped the Native American students to regain some of their lost artistic traditions. She sees such instruction, however, as being altruistic, rather than intrusive.

35 Berlo, The Early Years, 74.

36 Since most of the surviving Native American artifacts post-date white contact, the quest for unadulterated native art is a fabled search at best.

37 Jack F. Trope and Walter R. Echo-Hawk, “The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Background and Legislation History,” in Repatriation Reader: Who Owns American Indian Remains? Devon A. Mihesuah, ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 200.

38 Relevant artifacts in The Trout Gallery have been reported according to NAGPRA requirements.

39 Trope, “Native American Graves,” 205.

40 Mason, Infelicities, 131.