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Tonto, Teepees & Totem Poles:

Considering Native American Stereotypes in the  21st Century

On View: 04.05.2018 — 11.30.2018

Tonto, Teepees & Totem Poles exhibit space.

Exhibit Overview

Tonto, Teepees & Totem Poles is a multi-faceted response to the cultural misunderstandings surrounding Native people that persist in North America today. 


Once the subject of literary fantasy and frontier adventure, Native Americans have long been cast in mythical caricature. Framed as villainous savage or vanishing remnant of a utopian race, the diversity and everyday reality of the 4 million Indigenous people living in North America today remains largely invisible.


Who are the authors of these distorted, even damaging misrepresentations? Since early contact anthropologists, writers, and promoters have re-imagined First Nations people in ways that speak not to whom these individuals are, but to who non-natives wish and need them to be. Surprisingly, Indigenous people themselves also bear a responsibility in the creation and propagation of these persistent and complex fictions.  

Below: A selection of artwork from Tonto, Teepees & Totem Poles.

Promotional advertisement for The Lone Ranger, released in 2013.

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Still image from the 2012 music video "Looking Hot"  by pop band No Doubt.

Native American imagery has been commonplace in advertising since the late 1800’s. Incorporating an almost exclusively Plains Indian repertoire (a region that represents only 5% of the Native population), war bonnets, face paint, teepees and pinto ponies were, and remain, stock elements in the representation and reduction of 567 distinct nations into a generic hodgepodge.  


More recently, the appeal of the Plains Indian motif has lost traction in advertising, but it is far from exhausted. Popular culture, fashion, and the music industry refuse to disengage, actively mixing, matching, and trivializing cultural

components in outrageously inappropriate ways. This practice of “playing Indian” extends from celebrity parties to music festivals. 


Pervasive in the 1940’s and 50’s, the stereotypes of rampant alcoholism, poverty and laziness have largely been relegated to the past. Unfortunately, fresh stereotypes have sprouted from their ashes. First Nations individuals today are more likely to be framed as Spiritual Teachers, Rich Indians, Tax Free Indians, Militants, Pseudo-Indians, and Smugglers.


While these overly simplified images are often negative, even positive stereotypes can be grossly inaccurate. Today, Indigenous people are expected to serve as “keepers of primordial wisdom,” sport traditional attire, be one with the natural world, and speak their languages. Those who lack these romantically appealing attributes are often regarded as inauthentic impostors.  

“We have sophisticated tribal governments and communities, but how will we be able to be seen as modern, successful people if we are continually represented through plastic tomahawks and feathers?”


— Adrienne Keene, Cherokee Nation


Josephine Day Skye, Hollywood Hills Motel, 

Old Forge, NY, 1936.


Unidentified male, Oneida, 

Wisconsin Reservation, 1939.

The use of stereotypical imagery is not restricted to non-native sports mascots, hipsters, and chain stores. Despite well-founded and outspoken reaction to such portrayals and their disrespect for context and cultural delineation, Native people have, at times, chosen to represent themselves in ways that confuse the issue.


From the 1930’s to the late 1970’s Iroquois entertainers donned faux fringe, beaded headbands, and an eclectic assortment of headdresses. For the wearer such accouterments adopted for performances on the entertainment and Wild West circuits, pageants, and the NY State Fair’s Indian Village functioned as true costume, intended to appeal to non-native expectations. Individuals representing their communities at public and government events also embraced the full feather headdress, often worn with everyday clothing. While not distinctly Haudenosaunee, these tribally non-specific outfits were instantly identifiable and served as indicators of pride in Native heritage. 

Kahnawake Mohawk “Indian Show” at the Windsor Hotel. Montreal, Quebec, 1936.

joe copy.jpg

Logo for Smokin Joes Trading Post on Tuscarora Nation Reservation, 2017.

With the rise of tribal sovereignty, nationalism, and renewed interest in Iroquoian stylistic expressions, the popularity of stereotypical iconography might have waned. Not so! Today, teepees and totem poles promote tobacco shops, casinos, and gift shops on reservations thousands of miles from their original tribal affiliations.


Billboard on Six Nations Reservation, Ontario, 2017.

What can we make of this?

Is the 20-foot wooden Indian erected on the NY State Thruway intended as a tongue-in-cheek insider joke? Do Buffalo Brand, Smokin Joes and other such logos serve as cultural camouflage, with symbols of true identity exempt from such commercial enterprises? There is no simple answer. The impact of such decisions however, warrants consideration.


With these observations and questions in mind, we asked Haudenosaunee and other First Nations artists to respond to this complex and divisive issue. From Mohawk students enrolled at Massena High School to established artists from New Mexico, Wisconsin, New York, and Ontario each rose to the occasion with thoughtful and creative commentary. Honest and at times self-reflective, their submissions provide a richly textured counterbalance to our investigation.

Special thanks to all participating artists:

Layla Bush (Mohawk Nation)

Eric Gansworth (Onondaga Nation) 

Kelly Greene (Mohawk Nation) 

Cannupa Hanska Luger 

(Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara/ Lakota Nations)


Karen Ann Hoffman (Oneida Nation) 

Tom Huff (Seneca-Cayuga Nations)

Alex Jacobs (Mohawk Nation) 

Robin Logan (Mohawk)

Peter B. Jones (Onondaga Nation)


Landon Laffin (Mohawk/Onondaga Nations) 

Darryl Lazare (Mohawk Nation)

Daygot Leeyos (Oneida Nation) 

Linley Logan (Seneca Nation) 

Shelley Niro (Mohawk Nation)

Ieronhenehtha Point (Mohawk Nation)

Tehonwentsiawakon Pyke-Jacobs 

(Mohawk Nation)

Amanda Rourke (Mohawk Nation)


Natasha Smoke Santiago (Mohawk Nation)


Marion Snow  (Mohawk Nation) 


Mallory Sunday (Mohawk Nation)


Keely Thompson-Cook (Mohawk Nation)


Kirby Thompson (Mohawk Nation)


CRANK Productions - 

Frank Buffalo Hyde (Onondaga Nation) & 

Courtney Leonard (Shinnecock Nation)

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