In the last year, the Washington Redskins lost their logo copyright on the grounds that it was slur to Native Americans. This made many football fans irate, including Washington Redskin’s owner Daniel Snyder who claims that the team name is a term of honor and respect.
Why is this a big deal? What does it matter that they have an Indian head in a feathered headdress for a logo and mascot? The answer is simple: representation matters. Native Americans have been consistently portrayed as something other than human throughout the history of the United States, and into colonial times. Throughout the years, both historical figures and fictional Native characters have been romanticized and stereotyped for audiences who might never encounter a “Real Indian”, and these audiences learn to understand people through these stereotypes. It is dehumanizing in its portrayal.
Much like the racist act of blackface, i.e. white actors putting on make to appear like a caricature of a black person for entertainment, redface is a racist performance of Native American characters. Redface means that a performer, historically a white person, puts on makeup and clothing to pretend to be a stereotype of an indigenous person for fun or profit. The practice is rampant. Have you seen a sexy Indian Princess costume? Or an Indian brave? Look through your Halloween photos, and I’m sure you’ll find at least one example. We must think about the implications of its continued practice and critically examine its place in our culture.
Without further adieu, eight critical examples of redface in American history.
Ponteach; or the Savages of America.
One of the very first plays written by a British colonist was Ponteach: or the Savages of America by Robert Rogers in 1766. Colonists in British Colonial America did not import plays and acting as a form of professional entertainment when they first came to North America. Theatre didn’t really take off in the colonies until the English crown outlawed play performance in England with the licensing act of 1737. The act caused traveling troupes of players to tour North American and the Caribbean, instead of England. Ponteach, at the very beginning of colonial American playwriting, introduces the recurring character type of the Tragic Native chief to the American stage.
The play focuses on the events of the playwright Robert Rogers life as a military leader from New Hampshire who led a band of soldiers against the Ottawa chief Pontiac in the early 1760s. This conflict between British soldiers and the various tribes of the Great Lakes region is known as Pontiac’s War, and it was a series of conflicts that stemmed from tribal leaders dissatisfaction with the end of the French-Indian war and their desire to keep British colonists from taking over their land.
It’s relevant for a couple of reasons. First, conflicts with indigenous tribes are a large aspect of the colonial past that influences the way that stories about Native Americans are told. It is not just about thanksgiving pageants in grade school but a far more complex relationship between the people who lived in the land that would become the United States and the colonists who arrived here.
There were many bloody battles fought and they became the foundation for a lot of theatrical plots. These battles, and the enemies that colonial America fought against, cemented the identity of the fledgling country. Fighting the “Indians” is part of why redface becomes so popular and is the first place that a colonial dramatist thinks of when he wants to write a story about being “American.”
That’s not to say that redface began in the Americas – it didn’t. Blackface and redface were regular occurrences in the English Restoration stage. The seventeenth-century English playwright John Dryden’s popular Indian Emperor and Indian Queen used white actors for its “Indians” or entertainment long before the American colonists revolted and formed a new country. The fascination with Native culture continued in the early republic, as historian Jill Lepore writes “without its aboriginal heritage, America was only a more vulgar England, but with it, America was its own nation, with a unique culture and its own ancestral past.” The newly formed United States benefited greatly from co-opting Native history, and the policy of assimilation (i.e. making Native American tribes become more like their white “civilized” natives) was an attempt to make a nation of one people. Most Native tribes were uninterested in taking on all the trappings of so-called white/western civilization, which led to violence, death, treaties, and ultimately the reservation system.
Pocahontas Plays: The Trope of the Willing Native Princess
John Smith wrote about Pocahontas in his accounts of Virginia in 1624, and ever after the Powhatan Princess became immortalized in the mythos of American nationhood. The historical narratives that feature Pocahontas, while based on an actual person, are often more myth than fact.
Pocahontas plays were a recurring narrative of the early republic. In 1808, Pocahontas (played by Mrs. Wilmot, an English actress) was the titular character of James Nelson Barker’s international musical drama hit The Indian Princess, or Le Belle Sauvage. Between 1808 and the mid-1840s, the character of Pocahontas was frequently featured onstage, performing the myth of the Native American princess who chooses white culture over her own.
The play versions of Pocahontas are similar to the plot of Disney’s 1994 animated movie. The plots roughly follow the same course of action. First, the Virginia Company with John Smith lands, and they are spotted by the Powhatan tribe. Pocahontas is pursued romantically by an interchangeable Powhatan Warrior. Then, John Smith encounters Pocahontas, is captured by the Powhatan tribe and is condemned to death by Powhatan, Pocahontas’s father. Iconically, Pocahontas saves John Smith, but then Pocahontas chooses John Rolfe (her real-life eventual husband) over the Powhatan warrior. The key characters are Pocahontas, John Smith, Powhatan, and to a certain extent John Rolfe. These nineteenth-century plays also contain a Christian religious them where Pocahontas converts to Christianity. The plays include James Nelson Barker’s Indian Princess or Le Belle Sauvage; George Washington Parke Custis’s 1830 Pocahontas, or The Settlers of Virginia; Robert Dale Owen’s 1838 Pocahontas, A Historical Drama; Charlotte Barnes’s 1848 The Forest Princess, or Two Centuries Ago. In the 1930s there is a resurgence of Pocahontas plays as well.
As many historians have written, the most famous event of the Pocahontas theme, the salvation of John Smith, is likely fiction. While John Smith recounts it in his early narrative, it is likely either a dramatic invention or a misinterpretation of a Powhatan ritual. There is no love story between John Smith and Pocahontas in Smith’s initial recounting. Pocahontas, in fact, did marry a white man (John Rolfe) and claim Christianity and a Christian name, Rebecca.
Taken all together, the myth of Pocahontas is the myth of a real Native American Princess choosing white/western religion, marriage and culture over those of her people. She is the quintessential “Good Indian” by western standards, she chooses western culture over her own and confines herself to western standards of femininity. The historical Pocahontas died from a disease (unknown but theories range from smallpox to poisoning) during her trip to England in 1617. She was probably twenty-two, although her exact date of birth is not known. Her early death left her no time to put her own take on events into public record, leaving her story ripe for mythologizing. Her status as a royal “princess” native to the newly democratic land added to her allure in the imagination of the new nation.
Pocahontas, in the early nineteenth century, was a redface character. What does it mean for this historical figure to be portrayed by white, often English, actresses? What does it mean to play a culture outside of their own? These are the big questions when we deal with cross-cultural performance. Performance, and acting specifically, allows the actor to empathize with people who are not like ourselves. Unfortunately, that’s not always what happens in performance.
When a white woman plays Pocahontas, she is claiming Pocahontas as part of white culture, as civilized “good” Indian. This portrayal denies this character her native heritage and her own voice. It reinforces a message of assimilation, and it visually tells the audience that assimilation is true and best. The dissent of Natives becomes invisible and they are reduced to stereotypes. After President Andrew Jackson announced a policy change from assimilation to removal (remember the Trail of Tears?), it became less and less likely that an audience member in New York City, Philadelphia, Boston or Charleston (the major theatrical centers at the time) might see and interact with a living Native American, and their opinions about these complex people became more influenced by theatrical portrayals and popular media.
Rolla, the Noble Incan Warrior
It wasn’t just North American tribes that were featured on the U.S. Stages, The Inca, and their encounter with the Spanish, were also a particular theatrical curiosity as well. German author, August Von Kotzebue wrote Die Spanier in Peru in 1795. It was an exotic tragedy involving a love triangle between a European explorer and a Noble Indian Chief over an Incan Princess (are you sensing a theme?). The melodramatic role of choice in Die Spanier in Peru was Rolla, the noble Incan warrior. Von Kotzebue had never been to Peru, and based his play on documents from the Spanish Conquest of South America.
Die Spanier in Peru was translated into English very quickly, and frequently. The most well-known translation was by English playwright Richard Sheridan (known for comedies of manners like School for Scandal and The Rivals), he called the play Pizarro in Peru, but it was most frequently referred to as just Pizarro. William Dunlap, known as the father of theatre history in the United States, also translated Pizarro. It was a popular vehicle for leading men. William MacCready, Edwin Forrest, and other leading men of the age kept it in their repertoire and there was rarely a season in any of the major theatrical centers (London, Philadelphia, New York) that did not see at least one production of Pizarro.
This play, and its popularity, solidified the role of the Noble Savage warrior in the public’s mind. Full of noble intents, and savage instincts, the Native American warrior stereotype was closer to an animal than it was to a human. Rolla’s tragic rage, while a great role to play, creates a narrative that aggression is the primal way that these so-called “Indians” understand the world. Additionally, Rolla is an Incan character (a tribe located in what is now Peru) engaging with Spanish conquistadors. This detail would’ve allowed the primarily English-descended audiences in the United States to see these issues as familiar, but foreign. Still, the familiarity of this redface portrayal lingered on in the culture imagination and influenced other plays and performances, like # 4 on this list.
Metamora: The Noble Savage & Edwin Forrest
Metamora: The Last of the Wampanoags by John Augustus Stone was likely the most successful and most frequently performed play by a United States citizen during the 19th century. Actor, Edwin Forrest (who you can see in and out of redface in the above pictures, and who bears a striking resemblance to a certain Ron Swanson from NBC’s Parks and Rec), held the first playwriting competition in the newly formed country, offering a prize of five hundred dollars for “the best tragedy, in five acts, of which the hero, or principal character, shall be an aboriginal of this country.” Metamora won the competition in 1828 and Forrest immediately added it to his repertoire, performing it for the next 40 years throughout the United States and Great Britain.
Metamora is a dramatization of King Philip’s War, one of the bloodiest armed wars fought in North America in the colonial period.ref]Lepore. In The Name of War. xiii[/ref] The conflict was initiated between the Wampanoags of Massachusetts and the English colonists in Massachusetts from 1675-1678. The eponymous King Philip was the chief (or sachem) of the Wampanoags. In his own language, his name was Metacomet. John August Stone changed his name to Metamora in his play, and with that, he changed Metacomet to Metamora in popular culture. Several towns that Edwin Forrest toured through in the western territories named themselves Metamora after the play.
If Rolla is the role model of the Noble Savage type, then Metamora is the pinnacle of this incarnation of redface caricature. This “Noble Savage” archetype was the prevailing attitude towards Native populations in Jeffersonian America. Nobility didn’t equate to humanity. So while Native Americans were stereotyped as having bold and righteous sentiment, a nineteenth-century understanding of nobility, they were still unchristian uncivilized savages capable of great violence and rage. This portrayal helped to cement the Native Americans as a sub-human class, closer to animals than humans. Their humanity was judged higher than that of slaves, but not equal to those of European descent.
Following nineteenth-century working-class mores, Metamora is a respectable figure: he is a family man, he leads by example, and he follows through with his intentions. However, he denies Christianity, and when provoked he rages like a wild animal. At the end of the play, when Metamora realizes that he cannot survive the oncoming attack from the colonists he kills his wife, Nahmeokee, and his infant child rather than let them live in a conquered world. As he dies he curses the audience saying:
“Spirits of the grave, I come! But the curse of Metamora stays with the white man! I die! My wife! My queen! My Nahmeokee!”
The plot leaves the land vacant. Metamora was the “last of the Wampanoags”. He is the flip side of the Pocahontas myth from #2. The Native Americans that won’t accept the ways of the Christian colonists will die and leave their land free. You might remember the movie The Last of the Mohicans, which is based on the story by James Fenimore Cooper from around the same period. These narratives support the founding nations’ identity of taking unoccupied land. Of course, the truth is, they didn’t take it. The Natives who formerly occupied it were either assimilated, killed by disease or war, or removed. Metamora is a reflection of the changing political environment towards Native Americans. President Jackson’s removal policy took effect in 1829. This policy, which caused the Cherokee Trail of Tears, forced Native tribes from their lands making the myth of unoccupied land true.
Edwin Forrest, the man who played this well-known redface role for the entirety of his career, was known for a particular style of “American” acting. He was one of the first actors born in the United States to rise to prominence on the stage. He was a working-class audience’s hero, with a clear resonant voice and a commanding presence on stage. He was no wilting flower, but rather a man who could believably play kings and warriors. Forrest claimed to have gone to visit different tribes in order to give his portrayal of Metamora authenticity, but at the end of the day he is still a white man from Philadelphia playing a Wampanoag sachem from 150 years in the past. The popularity of Forrest, and of this play, speaks to the audience’s willingness to accept the narrative of the last Indian as a tragic hero. Forrest’s natural charisma on-stage white-washes this villain, and makes the dying native a tragic and acceptable figure.
With Metamora, “Indian Plays” became all the rage. But with every craze comes a backlash, and John Brougham-an Irish comedian, producer, and playwright- was the satirist who took it upon himself to make fun of Indian plays.
Brougham wrote quite a few burlesques, which on the nineteenth-century stage meant parody: think of any of the classic Mel Brook’s movies, like Robin Hood: Men In Tights. Two of the burlesques he wrote and performed in were based on the Indian tragedies craze. The first was Met-A-Mora; or, The Last of the Pollywogs written in 1842, and the second (and more popular) was Po-Co-Hant-As; or, The Gentle Savage written in 1845.
This faux anthropological study that was heavily edited and directed to fit the narrative of a dying Indian. “These people are gone now” is the message of movies like this, and the underlying second half of that message is “and now their land is ours.”
Nanook of the North is one of the first documentaries in film history, it helps define the genre but it was also heavily influenced by early film’s desire for sensational drama. Nanook of the North was Robert Flaherty’s first film, he was formerly employed as a mining surveyor. He had no anthropological training, but he wanted to show the world the people he had met in his journeys. The family and drama that the documentary shows is fiction. The film became wildly popular internationally, and Flaherty saw himself as an activist on the Inuit people’s behalf. However, the Inuit people didn’t see any of the income from the film. When the titular Nanook died two years after the film was released the international press picked up the story and his death was mourned around the world. The press said he died of starvation while hunting caribou, but his family said he died of tuberculosis.
This film uses photography to convey the same false messages of 100 years earlier. The same message that Metamora had, the noble savage is dying and dead, and by extension Native Americans are a people of the past. It is a slightly more progressive message, Flaherty’s narrative shows a primal people that are untouched by civilization and thriving in harsh climate. While his intention was to help the Inuit people who had helped him survive during his mining days, Flaherty’s film never gets past the earlier biases that he was blind to.
Is it still redface if the characters are played by Native people? When a story is adapted and staged and made to be fact, they are using the vehicle of film to paint the same images that redface performances did before. This still happens in Hollywood today, but Native actors have more agency and more access to the press to make their own voices heard.
“Let’s play cowboys and Indians!” For many years, studios used any actor who could pass as “Indian” to play the villains in these narratives of the Wild West. Some of our biggest misconceptions about Native American life persist because of the tropes and stereotypes of redface, born on the stage and transferred to Hollywood.ref]See: Aleiss, Angela. Making the White Man’s Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2005. And Diamond, Neil, and Catherine Bainbridge. Reel Injun. Documentary.[/ref] They also seeped into cartoons – the same stereotypes are performed in Looney Tunes cartoons and in Disney Features. Think about Disney’s animated feature Peter Pan, or the animated feature Pocahontas.
The Hollywood western used bodies that were other than white to reinforce the narrative from Metamora, and the Wild West Show, that the land of the United States. In the Wild West any other-than-white body could and would easily fill in for each other. For example, a Lakota would play a Navajo, or a Mexican cowboy would play a Cree (and vice versa). The Wild West Shows, like Buffalo Bill’s Congrees of Rough Riders, were “historical” reenactments showing the “Indians” of the past saved for the enjoyment of the audience. As a popular entertainment from the 1870s-1900s, the Wild West Shows continued the legacy of Native Culture and people as relics of the past. Hollywood Westerns continued these casting practices.
These movies were widely distributed. They were seen by lots of people, who like the theatre audiences before them, might not have any interaction with living Native American people. Their views on Native culture were influenced by what they saw on film, especially since history books don’t cover a lot of Native American culture on their own terms. The red-face tradition is an old one, and a harmful one.
Mascots: Chiefs, Redskins, Warriors.
This is one of the most consistent and insidious vestiges of the racist tradition of redface. It’s why Native American activists went after the Washington Redskins.
Take a second and think about this, what other race is made into a mascot? There are professions (think Knights, but knights actually don’t exist anymore). There are animals (Philadelphia Eagles, Indianapolis Colts). There are colors (The Cleveland Browns). Occasionally there are Trojans, but this is an actual ancient culture.
So what’s so bad about having Braves, Chiefs, Warriors, and Redskins as your mascot? Remember all that stuff about Noble Savages stereotypes and presenting Native American cultures as a past and dead cultures? Having a Native American as your mascot reaffirms all of the negative stereotypes in a very public way. Every time the football team, or the baseball team, etc, goes out onto the field they are reaffirming the less-than-human and past position of Native Culture.