Tropes & Stereotypes

by Catherine Anton Baty, MLS (Big Sandy Rancheria)


Munahuu! (Hello in Western Mono)

In the “How to Choose Materials” article, we went over some questions to ask when choosing materials. Equally important is having an understanding of tropes and stereotypes about Native peoples.

There is no such thing as a good stereotype.

All stereotypes cause harm. Because stereotypes about Native peoples are often more prevalent than factual representation, they can be perceived as truer. These clichés can keep non-Natives from seeing Native peoples in a contemporary light, which helps perpetuate the belief that we have a backward way of living or are relics of a bygone era. Stereotypes dehumanize and take away from one’s sense of self. They can even prevent potential growth.

Generally speaking, Native stereotypes fit under two umbrellas: The Bloodthirsty Savage and the Noble Savage. As you can see, one word connects them. Savage is a slur which dehumanizes on contact. Whether Noble or Bloodthirsty, savages are uncivilized, ignorant, and less than human. They both are ignorant of Western ideals and can have great, possibly magical, abilities like superior strength or agility, a link to the spirit world, or connections with animals. Though these traits can be found in both Noble and Bloodthirsty stereotypes, there are also characteristics specific to each.

Common Stereotypes


Bloodthirsty Savage

can also be called the Red Man. They are wild, seem inhuman, and have a need to be tamed. They may also be an obstacle to overcome. The concept of Bloodthirsty Savage has been a central part of the American belief system since the country’s founding. Even the Declaration of Independence states, “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.”

  • Common traits of the Bloodthirsty Savage or Red Man include:
    • are quick to anger
    • may kill without remorse
    • can have wild physical characteristics as viewed by Western ideals
    • may have a connection with wolves or other predatory animals
    • refuses to learn about Western ideals
    • perceived as unattractive according to Western ideals
    • written to be feared by non-Natives
    • can have aggressive animalistic personality traits

The Noble Savage has two main types: naive and wise. Both are often spiritual in nature. This character stereotype is helpful to non-Natives. The Noble Savage can have a loving relationship with animals and an ethereal understanding of everyone’s place in the ecosystem. They support the non-Native in their goal or offer some kind of spiritual education which illuminates the non-Native’s path.

  • Naive Nobel traits often include:
    • perceived as friendly
    • perceived as submissive
    • wants to learn Western ideals
    • may talk to animals
    • sees animals as friends
    • seen as attractive according to Western ideals
    • seen as the Western ideal of what Native women should be
    • are sexualized
  • Wise Nobel traits:
    • perceived as stoic
    • perceived as withholding
    • seen as all-knowing
    • has a working relationship with animals
    • seen as mysterious
    • indifferent to Western ideals
    • seen as Western ideal of what Native men should be

Common Tropes

Along with stereotyping Natives, there are four tropes prevalent in the media’s perception of Native peoples in North America.

  • Relegation to the Past: Native people are represented as historical figures, not contemporary peoples, failing to recognize that #WeAreStillHere.

This trope is rampant in media about Natives. Many Native peoples practice their cultures every day and are simultaneously part of contemporary society. Speaking or writing about Natives in the past tense locks us in a time of genocide and cultural loss. A time when our languages and ceremony were beaten out of us. Today Native peoples are working to regain our stolen heritages. Relegation to the past diminishes our current struggles in the eyes of non-Natives.

  • Tonto-Speak: Native peoples speak in broken English, implying that they are inferior.

This trope carries across Native character stereotypes and media characterizations. Native peoples speak different languages; English is depicted as a second language—one at which they do not excel. These broken sentences, spoken by slow-to-comprehend Native peoples demonstrates the superiority of the English language and the white people who speak it.

  • “Mohican Syndrome”: A non-Native chooses to leave their contemporary life behind to live with the Natives. They succeed in their endeavor and uphold the Western Native stereotype better than the Native peoples themselves. This results in them appearing more Native than the Natives.

In this trope, the Native people are a background to the main, non-Native character. They are only present to exemplify the superiority of the non-Native character, who will fight on behalf of the poor, ignorant Natives. (Dubbed in Native American in Comic Books by Michael Sheyahshe of the Caddo Nation, Native Americans in Comic Books, Sheyahshe 2016)

  • White Savior: The Natives are too ignorant or naive to take care of themselves. They are rescued by a kind-hearted white person, usually a man.

The white savior trope shows that Native peoples cannot save themselves. They need a white person, who can navigate the contemporary world, to save them. This trope is not unique to Native representation and is found across media representation of other diverse identities as well.


These themes and others force Native peoples into categories created by non-Natives, limiting consumer’s understanding to preconceived stereotypes that have no place in responsible and accurate representation. Books perpetuating these tropes and stereotypes should be weeded from a collection or taught with the context that they preserve the stereotypes and allow for them to carry on in the minds of young people. (For more information on Native Tropes and Stereotypes check out Native Americans in Comic Books by Michael Sheyahshe.)

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