Museum Blog

Unsmiling Indians

Posted 4/15/2011 12:04 AM by Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh | Comments

Is there anything Google can't teach us? Even about stereotypes, for example.

A casual Culture Lab experiment began a few days ago, after I heard about a YouTube video called "Smiling Indians." The idea behind this short film is that Native Americans are almost always shown in historic photos as perpetually, eternally solemn. The film is dedicated to Edward Curtis, who, perhaps more than any other artist, helped imprint in the American collective imagination what it means to be Native American. Feathers are almost a prerequisite. Forlornly riding a lone horse into the sunset is the ideal.

In an interview with the filmmaker, Ryan Red Corn, he talks about the lingering stereotyping of Native Americans in American contemporary culture. Think about the Washington Redskins, or even the military's use of the code name "Geronimo" for Osama bin Laden. Red Corn claims that even a cursory search on Google would prove his case.

This passing comment led to Culture Lab's little experiment. A Google image search for different terms of American ethnicity-African American, Asian American, White American, Hispanic, and Native American-proved Red Corn's statement with astonishing precision.

The image search results showed that only after some 200 photos can you find a Native Americans represented by a single contemporary, living person. The first eight pages of images are filled with feathered traditionalists, new age fantasies, and old black and white photos of stoic (that is, unsmiling) Indians.

Today, more than ever, it is time we move beyond the tired stereotyping of Native Americans. It is time to see Native Americans as real people, living modern lives, smiling and often even without wearing feathers.


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