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The Noble Savage: The Brave

The Noble Savage: The Brave

The male version of the noble savage is The Brave. He is peaceful, kills only to eat or to defend his family, and is not wasteful. The Brave is a spiritual, mystic guardian of the land who exists in harmony with, and as icon of America's wilderness past, as if he were an eagle or a buffalo rather than human. He is often represented in picturesque nature, showcasing some “natural” skill admired for its primitive purity, like hunting buffalo or riding a horse. The Brave imagery usually includes excessive traditional dress (especially a splendid headdress), thereby reinforcing his flawless naturalness. As a mythic icon of the past, the Brave lacks humanity. Consequentially, the Brave is always shown as stoic, lacking any real emotion, especially humor. This section also includes imagery that romanticizes the traditional Native lifestyle since it is often a key part of Brave depictions.

Imagery of Native American has for hundreds of years been controlled by non-Natives. Historical events resulted in the creation by non-natives in two distinct, contradictory Indian stereotypes, the noble and ignoble savage. Neither of them are real. This fabrication of the American Indian by White American culture began around the 1820s, driven by the desire to create a mythic American past. Other heroic mythologies created around this time include imagery about Christopher Columbus, the Pilgrims and their first Thanksgiving, and the casting of the Founding Fathers as demigods.

With the Indians East of Appalachia subdued (and ultimately removed by the 1830s), anxiety about them subsided temporarily, allowing for national feelings about Indians to develop into a kind of schizophrenic depiction of them. There were still plenty of “bad” Indians in the American consciousness, but now there was room for re-invention, and the noble savage was created. Perhaps the single largest contribution to the creation of the Noble Savage was the publication of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha in 1855. Longfellow's Hiawatha was an Indian with magic powers from the Lake Superior region who became a prophet and a guide. From the body of a stranger he conquered, Hiawatha got corn. He defeated disease-bearing Pearl-Feather with the help of a woodpecker, whose feather tuft he streaked with red. He invented picture writing. Following the death of his beloved Minnehaha and the coming of the white man, Hiawatha left his tribe to travel through the Portals of the Sunset to the Land of the Hereafter. The poem was enormously successful and, when taught in the elementary classroom, fully romanticized the Indian in the minds of numerous American generations.

Westward expansion soon brought “civilization” across the Appalachians in large numbers, and into conflict with Plains Indians, especially after the Civil War and the building of the transcontinental railroads, and once again negative images of Indians took center stage. By 1890, following the destruction of the buffalo, the surrender of Sitting Bull, and the tragedy at Wounded Knee, the “Indian threat” had been permanently extinguished. This again allowed for the re-emergence of the Noble Savage. Wild West shows run by Buffalo Bill and others perpetuated both the noble and ignoble savage stereotypes, and even featured real Indians in the show, including Sitting Bull, and Geronimo.

One key to understanding the imagery presented below is to understand that the re-imagining of the American Indian was intimately connected with a re-imagining of nature. The raw and expansive American wilderness was central to the development of the American identity and character, and this imagery too was being re-invented, mythologized. Early on, the wilderness (which contained Indians) was conceived as a negative. William Bradford, upon landing at Plymouth in 1620, expressed real fear, describing the wilderness as “hideous and desolate, full of wild beasts and wild men.” In subsequent times, the wilderness was seen sometimes as an impediment to progress, or at best, as a cornucopia of God-given resources to be consumed by civilization (with little to no thought about conservation). In short, it was the natural order of things for civilization to conquer nature. By the 1890s, much of the American wilderness, like the Indian, had been “tamed.” If one wanted to have a real wilderness experience, more and more that required a visit to a few areas of the country that had been spared from “progress”-National Parks and Monuments. The wilderness, so important to self-identity, was gone.

What followed was a nostalgic romanticizing of what had been. The rampant exploitation of natural resources, and the conquering, or in some cases extermination of Natives was recast in the popular imagination as a necessary, if bittersweet consequence of progress. Indians could be depicted in all of their “natural” glory, as noble savages, mythical icons of America's wilderness past. This phenomenon allowed Americans to largely forget the ugly consequences of their expansionist past. Additionally, even though the Noble Savage is defended as being a “positive” stereotype, the result is historical amnesia and the dehumanization of real people who still exist. By cementing the Indian as an “other” from the past, it allows modern society to largely ignore the existence and plight of Native Americans today.

Imagery

Ethnographic Photography

Native Americans were a common subject for photographers, especially in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. As ethnography, many of these photographs have enormous value. At the same time, however, there were often conscious messages being sent. Photographs of the Native leaders Sitting Bull, and later Geronimo in captivity made it clear that civilization was in charge. One of the most famous photographers was Edwin S. Curtis. In 1906 Curtis was financed by famed banker J.P. Morgan to produce a 20 volume set of 1,500 photographs of American Indians. It is now known that Curtis staged many photographs, removed any evidence of Western material and culture (wagons, parasols, clothes, clocks), and misrepresented photographs in their captions. He also is known to have paid natives to pose in staged scenes, wear historically inaccurate dress and costumes, dance and to engage in simulated ceremonies.

Curtis' picture “Oglala War-Party” shows 10 Oglala men wearing feather headdresses, on horseback riding down hill. The photo description reads, “a group of Sioux warriors as they appeared in the days of inter tribal warfare, carefully making their way down a hillside in the vicinity of the enemy's camp.” In truth headdresses would have only been worn during special occasions and, in some tribes, only by the chief of the tribe. The photograph was taken in 1907 when natives had been relegated onto reservations and warring between tribes had ended. Curtis' photographs reinforced the noble savage stereotype, thereby diverting attention away from the plight of the American Indian at a critical time when they were trying to adjust to the radical changes brought about by Western culture.

Photographs printed on cardboard known as cabinet cards, as well early 1900s postcards were also commonly produced and sold to the general public. These images too tended to reinforce The Brave caricature.

The Brave as Product Endorsement

The demise of the Indian coincided with the rise of a new form of advertising; the Victorian trade card. These postcard-sized lithographed images were mass produced in the latter quarter of the 19th Century and became the most important form of advertising of the era. They were widely distributed in stores and as premiums packaged with some products, and were collected by many Americans because of their often lush, colorful graphics. The manufacturers of trade cards catered to America's carnivalesque fascination with imagery, and they often mined the racial attitudes of the time to promote a sense of Euro-American middle class consumer solidarity. Blacks, Asians, Irish, and Indians were all marginalized in Victorian trade advertising in order to foster this sense of White American identity. Native exoticness became the perfect advertising vehicle. Most prevalent were Quack medicines that identified themselves with Indianness. Part of the Indian myth included the notion that Indian communion with nature put them more in tune with the natural healing powers of the earth. Indians held medicinal secrets lost to the science of civilized man, except for the product being advertised, of course. In an era of consumerism when there were virtually no regulations controlling medicinal products, manufacturers pumped out pills, oils, and potions that claimed to cure everything from falling down stairs to migraines to “women's diseases” to liver ailments. Containing mainly innocuous ingredients, these products were successfully marketed by connecting them with Indian mythology in the minds of Euro-American consumers. The use of The Brave as product endorser continued into the 20th Century, and examples can still be found today.

Tobacco

The use of The Brave as an advertisement for tobacco is a special category. Most famous were the “cigar store Indians” or “wooden Indians”, sometimes produced as large as life-sized, that were set outside of tobacco shops to draw customers the way that barber poles were used easily identify barber shops. Use of the cigar store Indian gradually fell out of use in the 20th century, but the image of the noble brave as tobacco endorser continues today.

A common artistic depiction of The Brave has him either sitting or standing with a “peace pipe” in hand. The term “peace pipe” is a misnomer, based on only one type of pipe and one way it was used. Various types of ceremonial pipes, called calumets, have been used by multiple Native American cultures, with the style of calumet, materials smoked, and ceremonies involved being unique to the distinct religions of those Nations.

The Brave as Souvenir

Souvenirs are another form of product endorsement. Not surprisingly, many towns and states over the years have sought to forget the past and to identify themselves as connected to America's wilderness past through the noble savage and a romantic notion of Indianness.

Early 1900s Music

The Noble Savage became a specific genre of music during the early 1900s, at a time when the music recording industry was in its infancy. Sheet music with noble savage imagery on the cover was very popular, and went a long way toward reinforcing the noble savage caricatures.

The Brave in Comic Books

The Native American has a long history in the American comic book, appearing most frequently when Western-themed comics were popular during the post-WWII years of the Golden Age (1946-1958). Mostly a plot device, the Indian male was the typically cast as the ignoble savage, while the Indian woman was virtually nowhere to be seen. There were a few examples of the noble savage as well, most notably with the beautiful painted covers of the Indian Chief series and in the character of Tonto, the Lone Ranger's loyal sidekick.