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American Indians and the Mass Media

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Mention “American Indian,” and the first image that comes to most people’s minds is likely to be a figment of the American mass media: A war-bonneted chief. The Land O’ Lakes maiden. Most American Indians in the twenty-first century live in urban areas, so why do the mass media still rely on Indian imagery stuck in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? How can more accurate views of contemporary Indian cultures replace such stereotypes? These and similar questions ground the essays collected in American Indians and the Mass Media, which explores Native experience and the mainstream media’s impact on American Indian histories, cultures, and communities.

Chronicling milestones in the relationship between Indians and the media, some of the chapters employ a historical perspective, and others focus on contemporary practices and new technologies. All foreground American Indian perspectives missing in other books on mass communication. The historical studies examine treatment of Indians in America’s first newspaper, published in seventeenth-century Boston, and in early Cherokee newspapers; Life magazine’s depictions of Indians, including the famous photograph of Ira Hayes raising the flag at Iwo Jima; and the syndicated feature stories of Elmo Scott Watson. Among the chapters on more contemporary issues, one discusses campaigns to change offensive place-names and sports team mascots, and another looks at recent movies such as Smoke Signals and television programs that are gradually overturning the “movie Indian” stereotypes of the twentieth century.

Particularly valuable are the essays highlighting authentic tribal voices in current and future media. Mark Trahant chronicles the formation of the Native American Journalists Association, perhaps the most important early Indian advocacy organization, which he helped found. As the contributions on new media point out, American Indians with access to a computer can tell their own stories—instantly to millions of people—making social networking and other Internet tools effective means for combating stereotypes.

Including discussion questions for each essay and an extensive bibliography, American Indians and the Mass Media is a unique educational resource.

ISBN-13: 9780806142340

Media Type: Paperback(New Edition)

Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press

Publication Date: 04-06-2012

Pages: 286

Product Dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

Meta G. Carstarphen is Gaylord Endowed Professor in the Gaylord College of Journalism, University of Oklahoma, and is co-editor of Sexual Rhetoric: Media Perspectives on Sexuality, Gender, and Identity, among other books. John P. Sanchez is Associate Professor in the College of Communications and Distinguished Professor in the Schreyer Honors College, Pennsylvania State University. He has published numerous journal articles and book chapters on teacher education, communications, and American Indian issues.

Read an Excerpt

American Indians and the Mass Media

By Meta G. Carstarphen, John P. Sanchez


Copyright © 2012 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8510-1


American Indian News Frames in America's First Newspaper, Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick


American Indians have been a part of the American newspaper media on this continent since the very first American newspaper was published in Boston in 1690. However, in the twenty-first century it is not uncommon still to find news frames that are culturally insensitive to American Indians in use as part of the daily American mass newspaper media experience. This chapter examines the very beginnings of American Indian ethnocentric cultural perceptions found in the first newspaper frames in America.

In the United States, many public school curricula include introductions to American Indian cultures, and colleges and universities across the country offer undergraduate and graduate studies in American Indian cultures, including classes taught by American Indian professors. Even with all these opportunities in the education system for gaining knowledge, the most common approach to learning about American Indians in the United States remains information in American mass media. But why do the mass media in the twenty-first century seem to remain focused on American Indian imagery that is stuck in the eighteenth century? When did this all begin, and what will it take to change it to a more accurate and more contemporary view of American Indian cultures today?


The first recognized newspaper in America, Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, was published on September 25, 1690, in Boston. The first issue filled only three 6-by-10-inch pages with news of events and happenings around colonial Boston. The fourth page was blank. The publisher, Benjamin Harris, a London-born writer who had also been a publisher in England, promised to publish monthly only "honest accounts of news and information as they occurred" and to "cure the spirit of lying" that prevailed in the colonies at that time. On September 29, 1690, only four days after its maiden issue appeared, Boston officials as surrogates for the British crown officially closed down Publick Occurrences, ending the run of the first multipage newspaper in America. Their reasons for censuring Harris included his lack of permission from the Crown and of the necessary license needed to publish in the colonies.

A brief examination of the sole issue of Publick Occurrences shows that a total of thirteen news stories appeared in its few pages. More than half of them (eight) contained references to American Indians, verifiable proof that American Indians have been a part of American newspapers since that mass medium first existed on this continent.


Publick Occurrences also stands at the beginning of mass media news frames in America. Gamson and Modigliani have defined news framing as "a central organizing idea or storyline that provides meaning to an unfolding strip of events." As news media consumers we begin to accept the news frames of stories that we consume in the print and broadcast media as "reality," most of the time without serious reservations about how accurate these frames really are.

A content analysis of articles in Publick Occurrences, in the sequence they were published, reveals a preponderance of negative frames over positive ones, including some negative characterizations that remain vivid today. Over time, colonial and later news consumers would begin to accept as reality the story frames that we first see presented here, without questioning their accuracy.

The first news story, or story of any type, in Publick Occurrences is seemingly a laudatory story about American Indians. (This and all further examples given are shown as originally written and published, in colonial English with all misspellings and typographical errors.)

THE Crisstianized Indians in some parts of Plimouth, have newly appointed a day of Thanksgiving to God for his Mercy in supplying their extream and pinching Necessities under their late want of Corn, & for His giving them now a prospect of a very Comfortable Harvest. Their Example may be worth Mentioning.

This first news story contains references to Christianity, God, and Indians and tells the reader about a promising fall harvest. It says that there is a newlyappointed day of thanksgiving and that these Christianized Indians from Plymouth should be recognized for the day.

The second news article reports that two young boys from the town of Chelmsford are missing and that it is believed that Indians have taken them. The Indians are described negatively here:

While the barbarous Indians were lurking about Chelmsford, there were missing about the beginning of this month a couple of Children belonging to a man of that Town, one of them aged about eleven, the other aged about nine years, both of them supposed to be fallen into the hands of the Indians.

American Indians appear for the third time when Harris reports that Indians and Frenchmen have attacked a small ship on its way to Virginia, according to one of the sailors who was able to get away, and describes the attack and the seaman's escape:

That a Vessel of small Bulk bound from Bristol to Virginia, having been so long at Sea, till they were prest with want, put in at the Penobscot instead of Piscataqua, where the Indians and French seized her, and Butchered the Master, and several of the men: but that himself who belonged unto the Ships Crew, being a Jersey-man, what more farourably used, & found at length an advantage to make his Escape.

This news story frames American Indians and the French forces as killers and, with a surviving eyewitness account, heightens the sense of reality in the report.

The fourth news story to mention American Indians reports on events involving Canadians, New Yorkers, and the Five Nations of the Iroquois:

The chief discourse this month has been about the affairs of the Western Expedition against Canada. The Albanians, New-Yorkers and the five Nations of Indians, in the West, had long been pressing of the Massachusers, to make an Expedition by Sea, into Canada, and still make us believe, that they stayed for us, and that while we assaulted Quebeck, they would pass the Lake, and by Land make a Descent upon Mount Real.

In this story the Albanians (from Albany), New Yorkers, and the Five Nations of Indians are described as all working together in a military campaign against the French in Quebec. Though only three sentences long, the news frame conveys the valuable information that Indians could sometimes be allies of the British colonists, not always adversaries.

The fifth story involving American Indians marks a noticeable shift in content. Here, the Maqua (Indians from the Iroquois Confederacy) are mentioned as allies in a military campaign, charged with having canoes ready to move General Fitz-John Winthrop's army across Lake Champlain. However, plans fell through:

The Honourable General Winthrop was Head of these, and advanced within a few miles of the Lake; He there had some good Number of Maqua's to joyn his Forces, but contrary to his Expectation, it was found that the Canoo's to have been ready for the Transportation of the Army over the Lake, were not prepared, and the other Nations of Indians, that should have come to this Campaign, sent their Excuses, pretending that the Small-pox was among them, and some other Trifles.

This story contains several distinct references to American Indians. The first news frame in this regard, seen in the excerpt above, indicates that Indians are not reliable: the Maqua did not have canoes prepared, as promised, for Winthrop's army; and many of the other Indian forces did not arrive to assist the army when expected. Their excuses given for not showing up are characterized as pretense or "trifles." The remainder of the article proceeds to report that the Maqua were dispatched into the French territories to fight for Winthrop and that they did meet with some success, killing some French forces and returning with some prisoners. However, this good report is curtailed, as the story goes on to relate that the Indians then used these French prisoners in such a "barbarous manner that no Englishman could approve." The story ends with a condemnation of those "miserable salvages"—the very same Indians General Winthrop had depended upon to assist his army in a military campaign:

And if Almighty God will have Canada subdu'd without the assistance of those miserable Salvages, in whom we have too much confided, we shall be glad, that there will be Sacrifice offered up to the Devil, upon this occasion God alone will have all the Glory.

The next news article focuses only on American Indian activity, reporting on a battle between American Indians in alliance with the French (referred to in this story as French Indians, thus enemies at this time), and the Maqua (in alliance with the English). In this story a French captive escapes from the fort and then informs the French forces that the Maqua are approaching:

Another late matter of discourse, has been an unaccountable destruction befalling a body of Indians, that were our Enemies. This body of French Indians had a Fort somewhere far up the River, and a party of Maqua's returning from the East Country, where they have a great rate pursued and terrified those Indians which have been invading of our North-East Plantations, and Killed their General Hope Hood among the rest; resolved to visit this Fort; but they found the Fort ruined, the Canoo's cut to pieces, and the people all either Butchered or Captived.

The seventh news story containing American Indian material reports that two English captives being held by Indians and the French at Piscadamoquady have escaped. It also reports that a Captain Mason (an English officer), in full view of the French, mutilated and killed two captured Indians and threw another overboard. This report clearly describes the execution of American Indian prisoners (in this case, allies of the French) by an English officer. Later, after the French informed their Indian allies what had happen at the hands of Captain Mason, Indian allies of the French retaliated and "barbarously butchered" forty English captives that they were holding:

Two English Captives escaped from the hands of the indians and French at Piscadamoquady, come into Portsmouth on the sixteenth Instant & say, That when Capt Mason was at Port Real, he cut the faces, and ript the bellies of two Indians, and threw a third Over-board in the sight of the French, who informing the other Indians of it, they have in revenge barbarously Butcher'd forty Captives of ours that were in their hands ... whereupon twenty Kennebeck Indian Warriors went to look further after the business, who never yet returned. Which gives hope that they may come short home but upon this the Squaws are sent to Penobscot, and the men stand on their Defence.

The remainder of the article reports more detailed information about the fighting between the English and the French, as well as about the clashes between French Indians and the Maqua Indians. In the latter part of the article, we see one of the first instances of an "unnamed source." Also in the passage quoted above, the word "squaw" here makes its first appearance in American journalism.

The eighth and last news story in Publick Occurrences that refers to American Indians contains much more in-depth information about military maneuvers that benefited the colonists and were designed to repel the French and French Indians. Here, the French forces attack auxiliary Indians—American Indians friendly to the English and colonists—and during an attempt to repel the French, the English forces instead receive a surprise attack by French Indians and lose the battle:

From Plimouth Sept. 22 We have an Accounts, that on Friday the 12th Instant, in the night, our Force Landing privately, forthwith surrounded Pegypscot Fort; but finding no Indians there, they March d toAmonoscoggin. There on the Lords-day, they kill'd and took 15 or 16 of the Enemy, and recovered five English Captives, mostly belonging to Oyster-River; who advised, that the men had gone about ten days down to a River, to meet with the French, and the French Indians; where they expected to make up a Body of 300 men.


Some of the news frames that were used to describe American Indians in Publick Occurrences in 1690 can still be found in the American mass media in the twenty-first century. On assessing positive and negative values exhibited toward American Indians in the eight news stories from Publick Occurrences that reference them, it can be seen that they fall within either positive or negative news frames.

Frame 1. Positive shared Thanksgiving celebration

Frame 2. Negative "barbarous" and lurking

Frame 3. Negative "butchered" the ship's master and several of the men

Frame 4. Positive collaboration of citizens of Albany and New York and members of the Five Nations of the Iroquois

Frame 5. Negative Indians "pretend" smallpox at home has prevented promised support of colonists; several prisoners are used in a manner "too barbarous for any English to approve"

Frame 6. Negative the people all either "butchered" or "captived"

Frame 7. Negative Indians have in revenge "barbarously butchered" forty captives

Frame 8. Neutral Indians take some French captives and are now sending a force farther afield, outcome uncertain

This summary reveals that only one of the eight news frames that include American Indians can be considered entirely positive in referencing them. Only one story falls into a neutral category and cannot be considered negative or positive in referencing American Indians. The remaining five of these eight news stories exhibit framing images that are negative or insensitive toward American Indians. Thus, negative imagery makes up the majority of all the news frames referring to American Indians in the first recognized newspaper in America. One other notable ethnocentric perception arose in the newspaper media with the publication of Publick Occurrences: the monolithic images of the good Indian and the bad Indian. From the news stories contained in Publick Occurrences one can see that Indians are considered good Indians when they can be referenced as allies, friendly, and "our" auxiliary Indians. They are considered bad Indians when they go against the status quo in the Boston of 1690: these are French Indians, butchers, lurking, lying about having smallpox, undependable, "salvages," abusing French prisoners in a manner "too barbarous for any English to approve"—even though in the same story, these Indians have gone on a military excursion into French Territories at the request of General Winthrop, where the general himself felt unprepared to venture. Instead of being hailed as a brave people for undertaking a military feat that a well-trained English army would not attempt, these Indians are featured in this news story as savages.

True, Publick Occurrences represents the first attempt in America to publish a newspaper, which means that its content should not be judged by twenty-first-century journalism standards. Still, on learning that the majority of the frames referencing American Indians in the newspaper's sole issue exhibit a negative or insensitive attitude toward them, it seems justifiable to say that a generally negative position against American Indians prevails in Publick Occurrences. This, despite Harris's promise in the first words of his newspaper to report with truth and honesty:

That some thing may be done towards the Curing, or at least the Charming, of that Spirit of Lying, which prevails amongst us wherefore nothing shall be entered, but what we have reason to believe is true, repairing to the best fountains for our Information. And when there appears any material mistake in any thing that is collected, it shall be corrected in the next.

One source of the power of the print media is the ability to create mental images with words. This first American newspaper exerted its power of persuasion during a time when words were the most powerful mode of understanding and knowing.

Over time, these insensitive ethnocentric perceptions of American Indians would come to represent a reality to European settlers and eventually to more recent citizens who absorbed the images from stories in the media of their eras. The power of the media to create insensitive, ethnocentric, and inaccurate media perceptions was as true in 1690 is it is today in the twenty-first century.


Excerpted from American Indians and the Mass Media by Meta G. Carstarphen, John P. Sanchez. Copyright © 2012 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Preface: The Call Meta G. Carstarphen,
Introduction: Finding a New Voice—Foundations for American Indian Media Patty Loew,
1. American Indian News Frames in America's First Newspaper, Publick Occurrences Foreign and Domestick John P. Sanchez,
2. "Stories of Great Indians" by Elmo Scott Watson: Syndication, Standardization, and the Noble Savage in Feature Writing Miranda J. Brady,
3. "Indians on Our Warpath": World War II Images of Native Americans in Life Magazine, 1937–1949 Selene G. Phillips,
4. To Sway Public Opinion: Early Persuasive Appeals in the Cherokee Phoenix and Cherokee Advocate Meta G. Carstarphen,
5. Names, Not Nations: Patterned References to Indigenous Americans in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, 1999–2000 Ruth Seymour,
6. Smoke Signals as Equipment for Living Jennifer Meness,
7. The "Fighting Whites" Phenomenon: An Interpretive Analysis of Media Coverage of an American Indian Mascot Issue Lynn Klyde-Silverstein,
8. The "S"-Word: Activist Texts and Media Coverage Related to the Movement to Eradicate "Squaw" Stacey J. T. Hust and Debra Merskin,
9. Buying into Racism: American Indian Product Icons in the American Marketplace Victoria E. Sanchez,
10. The Notion of Somebody Sovereign: Why Sovereignty Is Important to Tribal Nations Paul DeMain,
11. A Shifting Wind? Media Stereotyping of American Indians and the Law andré douglas pond cummings,
12. American Indians at Press: The Native American Journalists Association Mark Trahant,
13. Native Social Networking Roy Boney, Jr.,
14. Native Americans in the Twenty-First Century Newsroom: Breaking through Barriers in New Media Juan A. Avila Hernandez,
15. Joining the Circle: A Yakima Story Ray Chavez,
List of Contributors,