Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 17 Number 2
January 1978


Tim Shaughnessy

This article is an excerpt from a dissertation entitled "The Attitudes of Selected Educational Groups in Arizona Toward Indians." Tim Shaughnessy received his Ph.D. degree at Arizona State University. He is now in the Department of English, University of the Pacific, Stockton, California, 95211

STEREOTYPES, while not attitudinally intrinsic, are beliefs regarding "traits and attributes assumed to be characteristic of certain kinds of individuals" (see Note 5) and often serve as the base for attitude formulation. Rokeach (see Note 12) defined stereotype as:

a socially shared belief that describes an attitude object in an oversimplified or undifferentiated manner; the attitude object is said to prefer certain modes of conduct which, by implication, are judged to be socially desirable or undesirable. . . . A person’s stereotype may contain an element of truth in it, but the stereotype is not qualified in any way.

Since stereotypes are beliefs, their identification and analysis are important factors in attitudinal research for "it appears that we now have fairly conclusive evidence that a person’s attitude toward any object can he seen as a function of his beliefs about the object (see Note 4).

Although significant evidence supports the hypothesis that an individual’s attitudes are a function of his beliefs, the inference cannot be made, according to Fishbein (see Note 4) that a certain belief will be correlated with an accompanying attitude. He pointed out, for example:

Although each belief suggests an attitude, the attitude per se can only be reliably abstracted by considering the many beliefs an individual holds. Thus while an individual’s attitude will be highly correlated with an estimate based on a consideration of his many beliefs, it may be uncorreIated or even negatively correlated with any single belief considered in isolation. . . . It is not necessarily inconsistent for an individual (a) to have a favorable attitude toward some object and (b) to believe that the object has some negative characteristics, qualities or attributes.

The concept of ethnic stereotype, Brigham (see Note 3) pointed out, has received considerable research attention over the past 50 years. He noted that while definitions of the term have varied considerably:

Most researchers seem to have viewed stereotypes as generalization, concerning trait attributions, made about the members of an ethnic group. A theme which recurs in most discussions of stereotypes refers to their undesirable nature—a stereotype is usually seen as a generalization which is, in some sense, undesirable.

A number of attributes have been identified which several researchers have determined to be criteria which underlie stereotypes. Among the enumerated attributes summarized by Brigham are:

They (stereotypes) are factually incorrect; they are products of a "faulty" or illogical thought process; they are characterized by inordinate rigidity; they are derived from an inadequate basis of acquisition, such as hearsay; they are consensual beliefs within a culture, perhaps implying a lack of individual thought; they serve a rationalization function for ethnic prejudice; they ascribe to racial inheritance that which may be cultural acquisition and they serve as justifications for prejudicial or discriminatory social practices.

In a study dealing with white attitudes toward Blacks, Brigham reported a correspondence between general trait attributions and attitude. He found, for example, significant correlations existed between the tendency to attribute some specific traits to Blacks and the racial attitudes of white subjects.

One of the main objectives of Hooton’s (see Note 7) study was to determine what distinguishing characteristics the "typical" Indian was thought of as possessing. It was concluded, by the data generated from a sample of Utah college students, that the American Indian was stereotyped as possessing the following traits:

. . . artistic, reserved, shy, traditional, loving, loyal to family ties, imaginative, superstitious, not scientifically-minded, pleasure-loving, strong, sportsmanlike, loner, submissive, backward, brave, inarticulate, unsophisticated, inferior, quiet, nonaggressive, sensual and stubborn.

Stensland (see Note 14) enumerated upon several common stereotypes which, she felt, were damaging to the modern Indian’s self-image. "Among many Americans who have no contact with Indians, the stereotype of ‘the noble red man’ is still widely held." This particular stereotype, she added:

. . . originated with such European writers as Montaigne and Rousseau and pictures a free, happy, natural man; it also shows him to be childlike, innocent and simple. This concept was perpetuated by some of our masters of American literature in characters such as James Fenimore Cooper’s Chinachgook and Longfellow’s Hiawatha.

Other commonly held stereotypes she discussed were "the heathen war-like savage," created (according to Stensland) by the frontiersmen who had to justify taking land from the Indians, and "the cigarstore Indian," characterized by the "granite-faced, humorless TV Indian who answers ‘ugh’ to everything" (see Note 14).

Iglitzin (see Note 8) like Stensland, also focused on the historical origin of Indian stereotypes and emphasized their collective psychological nature. Iglitzin agreed with the historian Rubenstein (see Note 13) that the early white society was forced to generate "extreme racism" in order to suppress the large Indian populations for gratifying economic reasons. According to Iglitzin:

The dominant white society justified its violent campaigns against the Indians by first vilifying them because of their race, then claiming the whole race to be inferior, and, finally, to be less than human. Once the Indian was conceived of as stereotype (shiftless, a hunter, incapable of rational thought, childlike, and so on) instead of an individual, the dehumanization process was complete and violence against him was made acceptable to respectable people.

The bleak realities of contemporary Indian life are results, Iglitzin felt, of this historical, psychologically-motivated stereotyping.

Weaver (see Note 16) stated that Americans continued to witness social injustices in Indian-white relationships. These injustices, according to Weaver, "were encouraged through stereotyping of Indians by the dominant society, and especially through television and the movies."

It was believed by Weaver that the typical communications media portrayal of Indians, as people who were prone to violence, torture and scalping was a "personal affront to the Indian and frequently placed stress on the Indian-white relationship" (see Note 16).

Weaver also felt that many stereotypes, held by whites for Indians and by Indians for whites, resulted from direct social contact. Due to the general lack of cross-cultural understanding between Indians and whites, cursory social contact between them often led to misunderstandings, which turned to generalizations, and which ended in stereotypes. Because of this situation, Weaver believed:

The white population may persistent view the Indian as undependable, immoral apathetic, and ignorant-one to sits by while his children drop out of school and is content to hold menial and sporadic employment. Because of his increasing demands for welfare and his failure to carry his share of property taxes, he is considered a burden to society. He is considered immoral because be practices non-Christian ceremonies, and apathetic because he seems to accept willingly the status quo without attempting to improve his position.

Hofdahl (see Note 6) in an article concerned with Indian self-determination, agreed with both Stensland, who related several Indian stereotypes to an early literary origin and Weaver, who accused the communication media of perpetuating Indian stereotypes. Hofdahl stated:

A few outstanding novels have been written which have put life into true flesh and blood Indians’ characters, but most of the literature of the past has created the basic stereotypes, the "noble savage" or the "blood thirsty savage," who massacres men, women and children indiscriminately and without compassion. Neither portrays him as a real human being.

These distortions have been reinforced by the motion picture and television industries. In these media, as well as in literature, the Indian has been portrayed as being less than bright.

The notion that the Indian was unable to change and did not want to change was, according to McKinley (see Note 9), a commonly upheld stereotype. Officer (see Note 11) too noted that the most familiar cliché regarding Indians, to his knowledge, was that "Indians are slow to accept cultural change." McKinley argued, however:

It is to their (Indians’) credit that they survive and exist today, retaining much of their culture, language, customs and personalities, simply because they were able to change, adjust and swerve much like a well-trained cow pony, in spite of all kinds of adversities and trials.

Taylor (see Note 15) also denounced this stereotype since, in his words:

Many Indians have adjusted to the non-Indian culture to the extent that they compete successfully--economically, socially and politically--and many of these have retained those portions of their Indian culture and tradition that they find useful.

The stereotype that Indians were unable and unwilling to adapt to change was linked with another prominent stereotype, that Indians were lazy and shied away from responsibility. In Myers’ study on the Hoopa Reservation, he found that among the white subjects that were regarded as "prejudice," according to his analysis, frequently held "the stereotyped portrayal of Indians as being lazy and unwilling to accept responsibility." Myers, for example, cited a response of a local mill worker as being representative of this stereotypal point of view:

A lot of people around here think the mills are prejudiced against Indians because there ain’t (sic) any Indians in key positions in the mills. The truth is Indians don’t take the better jobs because they don’t want the extra responsibility. (see Note 10)

This similar stereotypal portrait of Indians that Myers discovered was also discussed by Boutwell, et al. (see Note 2) in an article which examined Indian students in formal education settings:

A significant generalization that is common is that because of his culture, the Indian will usually withdraw from the competition presented by the more competition-oriented white students.

Research conducted by the American Indian Historical Society (see Note 1) was reported in a pamphlet entitled "Common Misconceptions of American Indians." Among the Society’s findings were the following stereotypal points of view with which Indians were often labeled:

1. Indians are warlike people.

2. Indians’ physical features are generally distinguishable.

3. Indians are dry, stoical, humorless.

4. Indians are unclean and diseased.

5. Indians don’t like school.

6. Indians are not good workers; they are unreliable.

7. Indians like to eat foods that are unfit for human consumption.

8. Indians are always in conflict with one another. They never seem to acquire unity. That is why they have not progressed.

9. The languages of Indians are guttural, simple, just like animals. They have no sophistication of thought, meaning, and cannot count numbers.

10. "Lo, the poor Indian! The noble Indian! The true American who has been so long oppressed and mistreated! Pity the poor Indian!"

This attitude is particularly distasteful to the Indian people. The Indian may be poor, but some are not. The Indian may be of a noble race, but may not be noble in himself as an individual. We have our share of shirkers, drunkards and ignoramuses, just as others have. We want only to correct them. Thus an Indian is not necessarily noble, nor is he necessarily poor, nor is he necessarily angelic. He is an individual who is to be respected for his individual attainments, and criticized for his individual errors.


1. American Indian Historical Society. "Common Misconceptions About American Indians." San Francisco, Calif., 1968, pp. 1-9.

2. Boutwell, Richard C., et al. "Red Applies," Journal of American Indian Education, 12, No. 2 (January, 1973), pp. 11-14.

3. Brigham, John C. "Ethnic Stereotypes and Attitudes: A Different Mode of Analysis, Journal of Personality, 41, No. 2 (June, 1973), pp. 206-214.

4. Fishbein, M. "Attitudes and the Prediction of Behavior," Kerry T’homas, Ed., Attitudes and Behavior. Baltimore: Penquin Books, 1971, pp. 57-58.

5. Hilgard, Ernest R., et al. Introduction to Psychology. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1975, p. 535.

6. Hofdahl, Grayce. "Is Self-Determination an Answer to Problems of American Indians?" The Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, 33, No. 2 (Winter, 1971), pp. 54-58.

7. Hooton, Richard J. "Race, Skin Color, and Dress as Related to the American Indian Stereotype," Dissertation Abstracts, 33A (January, 1973), p. 3822A.

8. Iglitzin, Lynne B. Violent Conflict in American Society. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Co., 1972, p. 83.

9. McKinley, Francis. "What Are New Horizons?" Journal of American Indian Education, 5, No. I (October, 1965), p. 28.

10. Myers, James E. "Community Background Reports: Education on the Hoopa Reservation," National Study of American Indian Education. Chicago: University of Illinois, 1970, p. 9.

11. Officer, J. E. "Indian Unity," Journal of American Indian Education, 3, No. 3 (May, 1964), p. 1,

12. Rokeach, Milton. Beliefs, Attitudes and Values. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1968, pp. 125-126.

13. Rubenstein, Richard E. Rebels in Eden. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970, p. 110.

14. Stensland, Anna L. "Indian Writers and Indian Lives," Integrated Education, 12, No. 4 (November-December, 1974), pp. 3-7.

15. Taylor, Theodore W. The States and Their Indian Citizens. Washington: Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1972, p. 159.

16. Weaver, Thomas, Ed., Indians of Arizona: A Contemporary Perspective. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1974, pp. 4-5.

[    home       |       volumes       |       editor      |       submit      |       subscribe      |       search     ]