Peter Pan, the beloved children’s classic, is sure to stun modern readers with its descriptions of “redskins” carrying “tomahawks and knives,” their naked bodies glistening with oil. “Strung around them are scalps, of boys as well as of pirates,” J.M. Barrie writes. The language, and the characterization, would be read as an offensive stereotype today, hardly helpful in creating realistic or healthy views of Indigenous peoples.
Such characterizations, it turns out, are rife—and not just in older, “classic” works that might be explicable as products of their time. They are evident in television and literature modern enough to have fed the brains of people now parenting children of their own.
As a person of Indigenous heritage, a Native American media scholar, and an avid (almost worryingly avid) fan of all things pop culture, I’ve seen a range of representations of Indigenous people on TV shows and in books. In graduate school, I decided to turn a more academic lens on the situation. I analyzed approximately 60 popular TV shows, films, and books from the early 1990s to 2011—ones that were set in modern times or had contemporary elements, as opposed to works of historical fiction. My goal was to find out what impression the average non-Native consumer would have of today’s Native Americans from the media they grew up with.