Art Interrupted: Where are the Indigenous Women?

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In my research to better understand the influence of Native American cultures on the art created by artists of the United States, I read about the history of contact between the indigenous people of North America and the ongoing appearance of immigrants from Europe. Through North America’s history of interaction between these two groups, there have been poles of promotion towards cultural extinction contradicted by mass amounts of cultural appropriation from Native American cultures. This becomes quite evident when reviewing the effects of the Removal Period on the eastern parts of the United States. Along with the absence of indigenous people first from east of the Mississippi River and then from most areas of the United States outside of government reservations, the lack of indigenous people leaves room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation. From the absence of interaction with indigenous people, myths about the Native American people snowballed into stereotypes that fall into three main categories: the doomed warrior, the wise elder, and the princess or squaw. In this paper, I will focus on the objectification of indigenous women as they are portrayed, moving on to the true history of several indigenous women and, finally, conclude with where we can find indigenous women making a difference in today’s world.

The Objectification of the Indian Princess

The stereotype of Native American women was not only prevalent in the past but is still seen today. One can head to the grocery store and still see these stereotypes on packages of butter, cornstarch, and, even, hair products. The objectification of Native American women has been part of the culture in the United States for more than a century. In the article, “Images of Native Americans in Advertising”, William M. O’Barr explains that:

Native American women are typically presented as one of two quite different images: the American Indian princess (of which Pocahontas is perhaps the most familiar example), and the squaw (typically depicted in gendered roles like collecting and preparing food, caring for children, and so on). Advertising imagery, in particular, alternated between these two depictions of Native American women. (O’Barr, 20)

Later in his article O’Barr writes, “By the end of the 19th century, images of Native Americans had become commonplace in American advertising. Almost all of these images had nothing to do with the real lives of Native Americans nor even advertising products and services to them” (7). Further evidence of this objectification can be seen in S. Elizabeth Bird article “Savage desires the gendered construction of the American Indian in popular media.” She details that:

From early times, a dominant image was the Indian Princess, represented most thoroughly by Pocahontas, the seventeenth-century sachem’s daughter who, according to legend, threw herself in front of her tribe’s executioners to save the life of colonist John Smith. (78)

This role of the Native American woman being represented as Pocahontas has been portrayed throughout cinema and media alike. We see this in movies such as Walt Disney’s 1953 Peter Pan and the 1956 movie White Squaw. The question then arises, why does Pocahontas epitomize the indigenous women in North American culture? Bird answers this question when she quotes Robert S. Tilton:

The Pocahontas/Princess myth became a crucial part in the creation of a national identity. The Indian Princess became as important, non-threatening symbol of white Americans right to be here, because she was always willing to sacrifice her happiness, cultural identity, and even her life for the good of the new nation (79).

Tilton’s quote gets to the heart why this role was so important to the people that killed, stole, and removed the indigenous people from their lands. If Pocahontas is portrayed as this selfless “Indian Princess” willing to give up her whole life for this new nation, then others among her people should be willing to do the same. This convoluted story allowed the American people to legitimize the horrific policies and practices that the American Government was then enforcing on the indigenous people of North America.

Indigenous Women as Heroes

While viewing the documentary The Men Who Built America: Frontiersmen, I heard a word that to this point in my research into Native American history I have never heard used. That word was “hero”, and the narrator was not talking about a European settler, but instead a Native American named Tecumseh. It was a word that through all my years of education was never assigned to an indigenous person when written by a person of European descent. Native Americans were always depicted in film and literature as evil savages that were always taking advantage of situations. They were the enemy of the U.S. Cavalry and the cowboy. They were never portrayed as heroes; instead, they were relegated to the role of the adversary. For this reason, I chose to write about several indigenous women that are heroes, even though they don’t show up in any history books used in schools when explaining the contributions of strong individuals to the U.S.

The first of the three indigenous women I want to discuss is Nancy Ward. She was a member of the Cherokee people and amongst her people is seen as a great hero, and is known by her designation as “most beloved woman”. In the article “3 Historical Native American Women You Might Not Know, But Should” by Dina Gilio-Whitaker, she writes about the amazing things Ward accomplished. She details how:

In the early 1750s, Nancy Ward married the noted war leader, Kingfisher of the Deer Clan, and was at his side when in 1755 he was killed by Creek warriors at the battle of Taliwa. She immediately picked up his weapons and rallied the Cherokee warriors to overwhelming victory. (Gilio-Whitaker 2)

It’s also important to understand that Ward did this while only being seventeen at the time of this battle. By showing her bravery in battle, the Cherokee saw Ward as a powerful and important person among their people. For this reason, Ward was chosen to take part in the following events:

  • Ward was the only female among the voting members of the Cherokee General Council and was the leader of the Women’s Council.
  • As a “beloved woman” she served as a negotiator in important meetings with whites. When the Cherokees met with U.S. officials, Nancy Ward was present, often to the surprise of the assembled white men.
  • In 1781, she addressed the U.S. treaty commissioners after settlers attacked Cherokee towns. She believed that peace would come only if Indians and whites saw themselves as one people, and she thought only women on the two sides could make this happen. (New York Historical Society 1)

Ward’s bravery, intelligence, and experience helped her lead her people, and due to her incredible accomplishments, she is still celebrated by the Cherokee today.

The second indigenous woman that stands out as a hero is Toypurina. She was born in 1760 into the Kumvit tribe of Southern California. By age 24, she was a respected religious leader and medicine woman amongst her people. Where Toypurina truly shined was in her ability to lead her people. This becomes evident when learning how she dealt with the mistreatment of her people by the Spanish. Gilio-Whitaker explains:

In addition to rebelling against the violence of widespread rape, forced labor, and conversion, the final straw had been the banning of traditional dances. Toypurina, widely known as a powerful Tongva medicine woman, 25 years old and pregnant at the time, emerged as one of the primary planners of an attack against the mission. After receiving word of the plan, the Spanish launched an ambush, thwarting the revolt. (2)

When questioned about her involvement in the attack, Toypurina bravely admitted to her part in the planned coup, which took her captors by surprise. For her bravery, Toypurian is celebrated today with murals of her in the Los Angeles area; one of them is 60 by 20 feet in size.

The next hero’s name is Mourning Dove, and she was from the Upper Columbia River Plateau region and was born a Colville Indian around 1884. Unlike the two other indigenous women mentioned who were recognized for their bravery in battle, Mourning Dove was a writer. Originally named “Morning Dove, she changed the spelling to “Mourning Dove” after a trip where she observed a mounted bird of the same name and wished to reflect the mournful nature of the bird. Gilio-Whitaker explains that Mourning Dove thought of herself as a woman between two worlds, “Her first language was Salish, but her Catholic mission school education and later at a business school gave her enough command of the English language to compose manuscripts that would be published into books” (3). Her ambition was to break the stereotype of Native Americans as unintelligent savages. She felt by that writing books she would show how stereotypes of indigenous people were false. Jack and Claire Nisbet document Mourning Dove’s journey to this goal, in their biography of her life. They write:

By 1915, she had completed a draft of a novel with a mix-blood Indian girl named Cogewea as the protagonist. In that same year, she met Yakima businessman and tribal advocate Lucullus McWhorter, who had founded the American Archeologist and encouraged Mourning Dove to tell her peoples’ stories. At her death Mourning Dove left behind 20 folders of miscellaneous writings, which it was discovered that they included many autobiographical fragments. These writings later appeared in 1990 as a book titled, Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography. (3)

Although she made not have lived to see her goal of the breaking of a stereotype happen, I believe she helped others in accomplishing that goal.

With plenty of evidence of past heroes found, I look to our present to find where modern heroes are. All one needs to do to find these indigenous women is an Internet search of “Native American women today” and evidence of different women breaking the stereotypes of the past is easily accessible. One example of the ways that indigenous women are leading the world today is exemplified in the federal government; two indigenous women are the first to be elected into the United States Congress. In the article “First Native American Women Elected to Congress: Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland” by Eli Watkins, it’s evident how these women have been heroes. When researching the accomplishments of both women, it’s obvious that their lives have been devoted to helping others. Several of the accomplishments that I found on Sharice Davids’ (Ho-Chunk) website include:

  • Sharice was raised by a single mom, who spent more than 20 years in the Army followed by a career in civil service at the US Post Office.
  • Sharice is highly trained in martial arts and has competed as both an amateur and professional in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).
  • Sharice was one of 16 selected to participate in the prestigious White House Fellowship program (2016-2017).
  • Sharice has lived and worked on Native American reservations, working with tribes to create economic development opportunities, programs, and initiatives.
  • Sharice regularly speaks at conferences as a nationally recognized expert on economic and community development in Native communities.
  • Sharice, along with her brother, created Starty Pants – a video podcast that highlights entrepreneurs in the Greater Kansas City area with a focus on women, people of color and LGBTQ founders. (

Accomplishments, such as these, allow others to see the impact that indigenous women are having in our society today.

When viewing the accomplishments of Deb Haaland one can see her commitment to change. Her website lists:

  • Deb was theDemocratic Lieutenant Governor nominee of New Mexico in 2014.
  • Deb served for one year (2012-2013) as Native American Caucus Chair for the Democratic Party of New Mexico (DPNM).
  • She was the New Mexico Native American Vote Director for Organizing for America NM (OFA NM) in 2012.
  • Deb was the Native American Vote Manager for the Diane Denish gubernatorial campaign in 2010.
  • Deb volunteered full-time for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.
  • Deb has volunteered for dozens of local and statewide Democratic campaigns and, for over a decade, has worked to engage the Native American community as voters and active constituents.
  • In 2005, Deb led passage of SB 482 in the New Mexico Legislature, whichshe authored to allow members of New Mexico Indian tribes in-state tuition at higher education institutions – regardless of their residency.
  • In 2017, Debpartnered with state LGBTQ civil rights leaders to help pass a ban on Conversion Therapy in New Mexico – one of few progressive legislation signed by the Governor. (

Considering her past achievements, there is no doubt that Ms. Haaland will go on to do great things for the American people.

While searching other indigenous women who have made a change, I was lead to the biography of Wilma Mankiller. Mankiller was the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation but her life was filled with activism. After overcoming several setbacks in her personal life, Mankiller became energized with a new sense of purpose in her life. She soon found the perfect project for her drive and talent in the tiny community of Bell, Oklahoma. Bell was a small village on the Cherokee reservation where most of the residents were poor and spoke only Cherokee. Most were living in unsafe, run-down housing without running water. Using money from grants and the federal government, Mankiller organized a community self-help project. Volunteers from Bell constructed an 18-mile long water system and repaired the dangerous housing.  As Chief, Mankiller focused on education, job training, and healthcare for her people (“Wilma Mankiller Biography” par. 2). What all three of these women have in common is that they weren’t only making a difference within their culture but for all American people. They show that they are willing to give of themselves to benefit the lives of others. These women and many others like them should emody the stereotype of what it is to be an indigenous woman in The United States.

Indigenous Women in the Art World

I will conclude with viewing how indigenous women who are visual artists convey their messages in the works they create. The three women artists that I will discuss are viewed as three of the top indigenous artists in the United States today. They are Merritt Johnson, Wendy Red Star, and Margaret Jacobs.

Merritt Johnson is of mixed Mohawk, Blackfoot, Irish and Swedish heritage. Her artwork falls under mixed media since she uses numerous types of materials, including placing herself in her art pieces, which also makes the artwork a performance piece (Turner 1). One of her artworks that stand out to me is titled is Figure 1.

The power of this art piece comes from the implications it conveys to the viewer. Without being able to see the character, the viewer must use his or her own assumptions based on the dress that she is wearing. Johnson is pointing out how in today’s society there are still stereotypes made about different cultures.

Artist Wendy Red Star works across mediums to explore the intersections of Native American ideologies and colonialist structures, both historically and in contemporary society. Raised on the Apsáalooke (Crow) reservation in Montana, Red Star’s work is informed both by her cultural heritage and her engagement with many forms of creative expression, including photography, sculpture, video, fiber arts, and performance (Wendy Red Biography 1). Her piece here titled, White Squaw (permission to use image was not received) has the artist returning to one of many pieces of media the objectified indigenous women into a stereotypical role. S. Elizabeth Bird wrote, in her previously cited article, that these roles were never given to indigenous actors, but instead were played by people of European descent (76).

The last artist whom I’m introducing is Margaret Jacobs, is from the Mohawk tribe. Jacobs is a recipient of the Harpo Foundation’s prestigious Native American Residency Fellowship and works almost exclusively in one style, which is an abstract metal sculpture (Margaret Jacobs Biography 1). One critic says of her works that they are, “Emotive and sharp edge with knowledge and heavy with history, but not violent or threatening” (Sullivan 1). The piece I found iconic is Figure 2, which shows her talent and proficiency in metal.

My original goal was to show how far indigenous women have traveled to overcome the stereotypes introduced at the beginning of this paper. I would like to say as a society that we have moved past the earlier centuries’ stigmas of indigenous people, but unfortunately, it has not changed. All one needs to do is to Google images of “Native American woman” and along with photos of a proud people, you will still see stereotypical comics and costumes amongst them. Critics might say that this happens within all cultures. I would respond by asking them to do an Internet search of other cultures that reside within the United States and let me know how many derogatory images they find.



Works Cited

Bird, S. Elizabeth. “Savage Desires: The Gendered Construction of the American Indian in Popular Media.” Selling the Indian: Commercializing & Appropriating American Indian Cultures, Edited by Carter Jones Meyer and Diana Royer, University of Arizona, 2001, 62-98.

Gilio-Whitaker, Dina. “3 Historical Native American Women You Might Not Know, But Should.” News Maven. 26 Sep. 2017, Accessed 15 Jan. 2019.

Margaret Jacobs Biography. 2018,, Accessed 1 Feb. 2019.

New York “Nancy Ward 1738-1822.” Women and the American Story. Accessed 18 Jan. 2019.

O’Barr, William, M. “Images of Native Americans in Advertising.” Advertising & Society Review. Vol. 14, no. 1, 2013, pp. 1-51.

Sharice for Congress. 2018. Accessed 20 Jan. 2019

Turner, Jordyn. “Art with a Voice: A Profile of Merritt Johnson.” Inspiring Indigenous Youth. 2018.

Watkins, Eli. “First Native American Women Elected to Congress: Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland.: 7 Nov. 2018. Accessed 27 Jan. 2019.

Wendy Red Star Biography. 2018, Accessed 20 Jan. 2019.

Wilma Mankiller Biography. 2014, Accessed 19 Jan. 2019.