Images of Indians in Newspapers Examined in Book by TU Professor

Friday, March 12, 1999

Journalistic images of Native Americans that dominated the 19th century, including some stereotypes that endure even today, are described in a new book, “The Newspaper Indian,” by John M. Coward, associate professor and chairman of the communication department at The University of Tulsa.

“This book is about how the mainstream press in the 19th century turned real Native Americans into symbolic Indians, and how this identity was used as a measure of American progress,” says Coward, a former newspaper reporter and editor in Tennessee.

The 264-page book, including 12 photographs, was published in January by the University of Illinois Press as part of the series “The History of Communication.” Coward will sign copies of his book at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 25, at Borders bookstore, 2740 E. 21st St., in Tulsa.

Coward examined seven decades of newspaper reporting that he says perpetuated the many stereotypes of the American Indian. Stereotypes that have carried over into this century include images of Indians as innocent children of nature or as blood-thirsty savages.

Coward says an illustration reproduced on the book’s cover reflects one popular view at the time, depicting a uniformed cavalryman who has just shot a half-Indian, half-beast in the act of scalping a fallen soldier. It appeared Aug. 15, 1876, in the New York Graphic with the caption “The Right Way to Dispose of Sitting Bull and His Braves.”

Indians were not described on their own terms but by the norms of the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant society that wrote and read about them, he says.

Coward says his book presents the first in-depth look at how newspapers and newsmaking practices shaped the representation of Native Americans.

“I do more than condemn inaccurate reporting -- and there’s plenty to condemn,” says Coward. Instead, he analyzed the ways that newspapers “conceived of, explained and made sense of Native Americans at specific historical moments.”

He says idealized images of Indians contributed to serious setbacks for Native Americans, such as the Dawes Act of 1887. The act, supported by naive Indian sympathizers, split tribal lands into individual Indians tracts on which presumably they could grow crops, raise cattle and eventually transform themselves into ordinary U.S. citizens.

Says Coward: “The Dawes Act, despite its Christian idealism and humanitarian aims, was a disaster for American Indians because it undermined the tribal government and way of life, which seriously eroded the strength of their cultures.”

Note: The book cover and a summary of the book can be seen on the Web at this address: click here