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"Indian" Stereotypes in TV Science Fiction

"Indian" Stereotypes in TV Science Fiction
First Nations' Voices Speak Out

A social study examining the harmful stereotyping of First Nations peoples in television science fiction.

March 2005
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160 pages | 6 x 9 |

According to an early 1990s study, 95 percent of what college students know about Native Americans was acquired through the media, leading to widespread misunderstandings of First Nations peoples. Sierra Adare contends that negative "Indian" stereotypes do physical, mental, emotional, and financial harm to First Nations individuals.

At its core, this book is a social study whose purpose is to explore the responses of First Nations peoples to representative "Indian" stereotypes portrayed within the TV science fiction genre. Participants in Adare's study viewed episodes from My Favorite Martian, Star Trek, Star Trek: Voyager, Quantum Leap, The Adventures of Superman, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Reactions by viewers range from optimism to a deep-rooted sadness. The strongest responses came after viewing a Superman episode's depiction of an "evil medicine man" who uses a ceremonial pipe to kill a warrior. The significance of First Nations peoples' responses and reactions are both surprising and profound. After publication of "Indian" Stereotypes in TV Science Fiction, ignorance can no longer be used as an excuse for Hollywood's irresponsible depiction of First Nations peoples' culture, traditions, elders, religious beliefs, and sacred objects.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Discussion of Terms Used
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: First Nations Voices on Hollywood "Indians"
    • Selection of Participants
    • Videotaped Clips
    • Survey 1
    • Survey 2
    • Shoshone Survey Groups
    • Interviews of First Nations Individuals
    • Summary of Methodological Strengths and Weaknesses
  • Chapter 2: It's All in the Label
    • The Label Begins
    • The Collective "Indian"
    • Origins of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly "Indian" Stereotypes
    • Hollywood Picks Up the Stereotypes
    • Overview of "Indian" Stereotypes in TV Science Fiction
  • Chapter 3: Future "Indians," Past Stereotypes
    • My Favorite Martian "Go West, Young Martian, Go West, Part II"
    • Star Trek "The Paradise Syndrome"
    • Star Trek: Voyager "Tattoo"
    • First Nations Peoples' Assessment of Futuristic "Indian" Stereotypes
    • Common Threads
  • Chapter 4: Shoshones and Non-Shoshones Assess Quantum Leap "Freedom": A Special Showing
    • Quantum Leap "Freedom"
    • First Nations Peoples' Assessment of the Stereotypical Depictions of Shoshones in "Freedom"
    • Shoshones' Take on the Stereotypical Depictions of Shoshones in "Freedom"
    • Common Threads
  • Chapter 5: Sky Spirits in Space: "Indian" Spirituality and the Small Screen
    • The Adventures of Superman "Test of a Warrior"
    • Star Trek: The Next Generation "Journey's End"
    • Star Trek: Voyager "The Cloud"
    • First Nations Peoples' Assessment of "Indian" Spirituality as Depicted in Science Fiction TV Shows
    • Common Threads
  • Chapter 6: Visions for the Future
    • Analysis of Common Threads: Positive and Negative Comments on Stereotypical Depictions of "Indians" in the Science Fiction TV Episodes
    • Participant Reactions While Viewing the Episodes
    • Common Threads in the Star Trek Universe
    • Common Threads in "Indian" Spirituality
    • Other Common Threads
    • The Depiction of Shoshones on Quantum Leap "Freedom"
    • What First Nations Peoples Would Like to See
  • Conclusion and Epilogue
    • Epilogue
  • Appendix A: Survey 1 Form: Stereotyping Indigenous Peoples in Science Fiction TV Shows
  • Appendix B: Shoshone Survey Form: Stereotyping Indigenous Peoples in Science Fiction TV Shows
  • Appendix C: Survey 2 Form: "American Indian" Religions and Spirituality Stereotyping in Science Fiction TV Shows
  • Appendix D: Interview Questions for Focus Group
  • Appendix E: Categorizing the Comments
  • Appendix F: Common Threads: Positive and Negative Comments on Stereotypical Depictions of "Indians" in the Episodes
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Sierra S. Adare, of Laramie, Wyoming, is an independent scholar, a documentary filmmaker for Educational Fundamentals, and a member of the Word Craft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. She has been a Visiting Fellow at Cornell University’s American Indian Program and an instructor at Haskell Indian Nations University.


Like feature films, television confined Native Americans to a handful of tribes and cultures and then redrafted them to suit popular conceptions. Screen Indians belonged only to Plains tribes, spoke the same language, dressed in the same clothes, and practiced the same religion.
—Annette M. Taylor, Cultural Heritage in Northern Exposure

I remember how excited I got when the Star Trek episode "The Paradise Syndrome" aired because I could lose myself in the story, and, for a single hour that Friday night it was OK for me to be me, the Indigenous me. It didn't matter that the "Indian" characters had as much depth as a sheet of onionskin or that the way they were represented on our new color TV reeked of inaccuracy, stupidity, and that generic jumble of which Annette M. Taylor speaks. None of that mattered. It was the only time I could remember seeing TV "Indians" who were not being chased by the cavalry or shot by cowboys and whose intent was not to massacre innocent settlers. That Star Trek episode had a profound affect on me as a young girl whose people were hardly mentioned in American history books in school, whose classmates were overwhelmingly white, whose way of looking at and interacting with the world was "different" from that of the others kids, and whose daily life included having to coexist with "Indian" stereotypes that had no grounding in reality but were ones the dominant society expected me to resemble because they passionately believed the stereotypes.

Euro-Americans appear not to realize that the "Indian" stereotypes they are constantly bombarded with on television are stereotypes rather than realistic depictions of First Nations peoples. Movie and television viewers have had a steady diet of the feathers and the fantasy for over a hundred years, through which they have learned what it supposedly means to be a "real Indian."

This stereotypical life of these supposed "real Indians" depicted in movies and television is a hodgepodge of authentic items added to the filmmaker's own fantasy." For example, a "Tonto-figure" or other "strange, romantic, demonic, dangerous...Indian as virile barbarian" (i.e., the "typical Hollywood Indian man") bursts onto the screen, wearing "a long, flowing, feathered headdress, a breech cloth...and moccasins" and wielding "a fierce-looking tomahawk," while his sister, "the little Indian Maiden" or "the Indian Princess," who is "maidenly, demure and deeply committed to some white man" (i.e., the typical Pocahontas), sports a long or short "beaded and fringed buckskin dress and a beaded headband with one feather sticking straight up in the back." He hunts buffalo or does nothing at all, and she gathers berries and wild herbs, makes pottery and baskets, and slaves away at the buffalo hides or cooking fire outside their teepee. According to the writers, directors, and producers of the entertainment seen on television, this imagery applies to nineteenth-century "Indians" as well as to modern-day twenty-first-century First Nations individuals and even to those living in the twenty-third century.

Colleagues have often asked me why I am so passionate when it comes to the stereotypical depictions of "Indians" in movies and on TV, and especially in science fiction, since I am, like several participants in this study, a fan of the genre. It is after all, as my colleagues are quick to point out, fiction. Unfortunately, movie and TV fiction have become accepted as America's facts (and the world's for that matter) when it comes to "Indians." My response is that I am so passionate because these careless and universally accepted stereotypes do damage. Negative "Indian" stereotypes do physical, mental, emotional, and financial harm to First Nations individuals.

My husband, who is also a First Nations individual, and I have been forced to put up with the fallout from so-called harmless "Indian" stereotypes all of our lives. We have been denied jobs for which we were overqualified, due to the stereotype that all "Indians" are lazy and drunks. Or as Andrew J. Orkin stated in explaining the dominant society's attitude toward the employment of "Indians," the stereotype that is perceived as reality is that we are "shiftless won't-works, recipients of handouts and a drain on the national economy." A statement made in 1816 by Cyrus Kingsbury, the founder of the Christian mission school at Brainerd, Tennessee, aptly demonstrates the Euro-American's belief that they must assume a parental role in order "to form them ['Indians'] to habits of industry, and to give them competent knowledge of the economy of civilized life."

We have also faced similar discrimination in academic and other areas. A law professor at a southeastern university once informed me that "Indians" had no place in a discussion of First Amendment rights. I found that rather odd, given that the First Amendment deals with such items as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion, but federal governmental policies and do-gooders' desires to transform "bad Indians" into "good Indians" have resulted in the denial of these First Amendment rights to First Nations individuals, even though they are U.S. citizens.

Unfortunately, employment and academia rank as only two areas where stereotype-based racism applies. For example, when our home was vandalized and we reported the incident to the police, they said we were "primitive savages" and told to "go back to where you came from," as if we foreigners living on this continent. The root of this particular attitude dates back to Columbus's arrival in the "New World," when Europeans demonstrated that they believed they had a moral right to lay waste to the land and its people. Or as Horace Greeley so aptly expressed this attitude, "These people [First Nations individuals] must die out—there is no help for them. God has given this earth to those who will subdue and cultivate it, and it is vain to struggle against His righteous decree." Greeley, as the editor of the New York Tribune, took the outrageous, inaccurate, and sensationalized accounts of First Nations peoples published in colonial newspapers and ran with them, greatly contributing to the perpetuation of the "barbaric," "cruel and cowardly," "stealing," "squalid and conceited, proud and worthless, lazy and lousy" "Indian" stereotypes that Hollywood latched onto and perfected—the same labeling my husband and I have had to deal with at every turn.

In addition to being discriminated against in the workplace and in the academic world, we have been denied medical care because everybody assumes that "Indians" sponge off the government, so the government could take care of our medical needs.

My husband and I have also been the victims of ethnic profiling by store security and the police while shopping in a large Midwestern city, because of the stereotype of "Indians" being thieves and criminals. My husband's civil rights were denied him in a state court due to profiling activities by a county sheriff's department. Constitutional rights are nonexistent in our state court system because a number of western states refuse to acknowledge the rights of any Indigenous sovereign nations. These states still actively promote ethnic profiling based on "Indian" stereotypes in order to deny First Nations individuals their federal civil and constitutional rights. The ideology behind the derogatory term "prairie nigger," as used by officers of a state court system, is alive and well and continues to promote the negative stereotype of First Nations individuals among the dominant society and, in particular, law enforcement.

The "dumb Injin" categorization allows otherwise intelligent individuals to treat us First Nations people as if we have the IQ of morons. We have been told we can't possibly know our own history. We have even been told we have no right to claim being "Indian" because we didn't study "Indians," "Indian history," and "Indian religion" in white schools. For that matter, dominant-society individuals insist that we can't possibly have "Indian religion" because "Indians" don't have the equivalent of "Sunday school" where "Indian" children can learn religion. Clinging to the "Indian" stereotypes, these non-Indigenous individuals refuse to accept that our religious education is not limited to two hours on Sunday morning or an hour on Sunday or Wednesday night. For us, religion is not restricted or compartmentalized to a particular hour or a particular day. It is part of every minute of every day from the moment we are born. We live our religions.

I was writing the Wyoming Guide a few years after the National Park Service first included "Indian" traditions and cultural associations concerning the sacredness of the site known as Bear's Lodge (disrespectfully called Devil's Tower by Colonel Richard I. Dodge in 1875). To promote western tourism, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the volcanic butte to be the first national monument in the United States in 1906, but rock climbers have been "conquering" it since 1893. Many expressed outrage that the National Park Service would even consider allowing the Lakotas the right to hold their Sun Dance each June near their sacred site. In reaction, members of the local non-First Nations population told me that "seeing as how the 'Indians' had never bothered to hold any ceremonies here in the past, why all of a sudden do they want to hold them now?" Sadly, these members of the dominant society were unaware of or ignored the fact that until and after the passage of the Native American Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (yes, 1978), it was against federal law for First Nations people, who had been citizens of the United States since 1924 and who supposedly enjoyed all the rights and privileges of the Constitution of the United States and its amendments, to practice their religions. Despite this federal law, widespread legal persecution of First Nations individuals participating in traditional religious ceremonies such as the Sun Dance continued until the early 1990s.

Even now, many if not most non-Indigenous people have little understanding of First Nations religions. When I asked for the time off work to attend the Sun Dance, one of my coworkers wrinkled her brow and said, "That's in Utah, isn't it? Robert Redford runs it, doesn't he?" She of course was referring to the location of the Sundance Film Festival, which Redford named after his movie portrayal of Harry Longabaugh, also known as the Sundance Kid. Other coworkers told me to "have a good time at the pow wow."

Granted, certain ceremonies conducted at pow wows are deeply significant to First Nations peoples and are very religious in nature. Pow wows, however, are social gatherings and, unfortunately, the congregation spot for racism in one of its worst forms—the anthropologist. Anthropologists, in broad terms, need not be professionals but simply those who feel they have the right to steal the images of First Nations individuals in any form at any time—the obnoxious photographers who believe they have an absolute entitlement to take anybody's picture even after the individual tells them no. As Richard Hill, a Mohawk artist, has remarked: "Nearly all Indians have been asked to 'pose' for a visitor's camera, and the visitor leaves with his personal image of 'real, live Indians.'...Stories about White photographers entered tribal oral histories and the camera became the latest weapon to be used against Indians.... The camera was an intrusion on Indian life. The photographs were taken for outside interests, by outside people, outside of the needs of Indians themselves."

There was such a photographer at the pow wow my husband and I recently attended on the reservation. We had dressed to participate in the Grand Entrance Veterans' songs and flag ceremony. A photographer started to take my husband's picture without permission. When my husband told the man no pictures, the photographer tried it again from a greater distance. When that didn't work, he got his son to try to get pictures. My husband again said no. The photographer then whined to the pow wow officials. They told the photographer he could not take anyone's picture without first obtaining permission. It took my husband donning his Green Beret before the photographer finally decided it might not be wise to press the issue any further. But we still caught him trying to take First Nations children's pictures who were not participating in the pow wow dances. His attitude was that every First Nations person attending the pow wow was there on display for his entertainment and edification.

Unfortunately, children today are learning the same stereotypes as their parents did. When we give talks to grade-school children, the kids start dancing around, whooping with their hands over their mouths in classic Hollywood fashion, and greeting us with the word "How!" They want to know where we tied up our horses. They ask if we live in a teepee. They demand to know why we aren't wearing feathers. They ask to see our collection of scalps. They are shocked or surprised when we smile or laugh. And inevitably one child informs us that his or her great-great-great-granddaddy married an "Indian princess."

Such comments, questions, and prejudicial treatment are all based on the "Indian" stereotypes presented in movies and on TV. They are all stereotypes that appeared in the seven episodes reviewed by First Nations participants for the present study, and they are all stereotypes that all First Nations individuals must deal with daily. For the most part, they let it roll off their backs and go on with their lives as best they can. Occasionally, however, when a number of blatant discriminatory remarks and bigoted actions occur in rapid succession, patience and tolerance disappear. The "angry Indian" label is not always a stereotype. It's sometimes a reaction to the stupidity, arrogance, and hatred displayed by the dominant society. Stereotypes do harm.

The majority of my husband's and my personal encounters with "Indian" stereotyping discussed here have taken place within the past few years. This is one of the reasons why the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed Affirmative Action in 2003. Even though we are in the twenty-first century, minorities still continue to face discrimination based on five-hundred-year-old characterizations. It may be a new millennium, but it's already filled with very old stereotypes about the Indigenous population of this country.

In 1991, Linda P. Rouse and Jeffery R. Hanson conducted a study in "Indian" stereotyping and status-based prejudices at universities in Texas, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. They found that "ninety-five percent of what students know about American Indians was acquired through the media." In this way the problem has been defined and observed from both an informal and an academic point of view.

The purpose of this book is to explore participation responses of First Nations peoples to the "Indian" stereotypes portrayed within the TV science fiction genre, in seven representative episodes: Star Trek "The Paradise Syndrome," My Favorite Martian "Go West, Young Martian, Go West, Part II," Star Trek: Voyager "Tattoo," and Quantum Leap "Freedom," which look at general Indigenous stereotyping; and The Adventures of Superman "Test of a Warrior," Star Trek: The Next Generation "Journey's End," and Star Trek: Voyager "The Cloud," which examine "American Indian" religions and spirituality. It is my intent to give a voice to First Nations peoples' reactions to the stereotypes in these representative episodes.

By the same token, I have been asked, "Why science fiction?" My response is, "Why not science fiction? Are First Nations peoples supposed to be portrayed only in westerns, as the losers to the greater good of manifest destiny?" Historians, ethnographers, anthropologists, archaeologists, and the media persist in relegating First Nations peoples to the past, a tradition carried on in TV westerns. No contemporary TV genre includes First Nations characters. Furthermore, science fiction is the only genre that suggests that First Nations peoples and their cultures have a future that has not been assimilated into the dominant society. This feature of science fiction is significant to First Nations individuals. There is a great irony found within the genre. While allowing First Nations peoples to have their own cultures in the future, which in itself defies well-established "Indian" stereotypes, the writers, producers, and directors of TV science fiction constantly rely on "Indian" stereotypes in their story lines. Thus science fiction is the perfect paradox for such a study.

Furthermore, my study was not designed to be a compendium of every "Indian" episode in TV science fiction. The study looked at normal everyday "Indian" life and spirituality as depicted through the futuristic genre, which is why I purposefully did not include X-Files "Indian" episodes in my study. First, The X-Files has had an enormous amount of dissection in print, mostly from the dominant-society perspective. Second, the show's "Indian" episodes described Hollywood's idea of "Indian" mysticism rather than spirituality (see "Discussion of Terms Used"); thus the X-Files episodes did not fall into the categories studied. Third, the majority of the participants were viewing the chosen episodes for the first time, whereas most of them had previously seen the X-Files episodes. To ensure honest evaluation of the images, there was no discussion of the episodes or shows prior to the viewing and filling out of the questionnaires.

Chapter 1 looks at the methodological approaches used in this research project, which presents the responses of First Nations peoples' perceptions of stereotyped portrayals of cultural traditions within the selected TV science fiction episodes. Thus, it examines the stereotype of "Indians" from the exclusive perspective and voices of First Nations peoples. Within-cultural-group (internal) research is needed if we are to begin to address the cognitive, social, and psychological effects that such forms of racism that stereotypes have on those who are being portrayed. The overwhelming majority of literature about "Indians"—be it history books, novels, or television scripts—is written by and from the perspective of non-Indigenous people. Ward Churchill, in his book Fantasies of the Master Race, refers to the "the new racist intellectualism" of Euro-American authors such as James A. Clifton and Werner Sollors, who warn scholars, as a methodological approach to studying "Indians," to dismiss anything that "Indians" say:

This is to say that all work done about Indians by Indians—or by non-Indians, but with which Indians are known to agree—should, no matter what its presentation or documentation, be disregarded out of hand as "partisan...intellectual atrocities." "Sound scholarship" requires that all such material be (re)interpreted by "responsible" Euroamerican academics who, above all else, embody the necessary "distance" and "objectivity" necessary to arrive at "realistic" determinations about any people of color (by the same fallacy, of course, this would mean only people of color possess the neutrality and perspective needed to analyze and assess Euroamerica, but this point seems never to have dawned on either Sollors or Clifton).

Yet that "distance" and "objectivity" rarely make it into scholarly works about "Indians" authored by non-Indigenous people; instead their so-called objective scholarship is, as Linda Tuhiwai Smith points out in Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, "inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism." Smith elaborates: "Research 'through imperial eyes' describes an approach which assumes that Western ideas about the most fundamental things are the only ideas possible to hold, certainly the only rational ideas, and the only ideas which can make sense of the world, or reality, of social life and of human beings." Smith's observations imply that First Nations peoples must remain absent from the picture (or the script), leaving only "cinematic stereotyping within North America's advanced colonial system."

Chapter 2 deconstructs the term "stereotyping" and identifies relevant factors that underlie these particular ethnic stereotypes. The creation of a stereotype for a group of people allows another group of people to rationalize their prejudicial treatment of that group. In the case of First Nations peoples, stereotyping began with the first written accounts soon after Columbus arrived, became fixed in the minds of Europeans and Euro-Americans during the colonial period through oral and written sources, and became visual perceptions with the invention of the moving camera. These centuries-old stereotypes made their way onto the small screen soon after its birth, and today are projected into approximately 80 percent of American homes via satellite or cable TV. An overview of "Indians" in TV science fiction follows the discussion of stereotypes.

Chapter 3 explores science fiction television shows that aired between 1965 and 1995, using synopses and textual analyses of three shows that illustrate and challenge "Indian" stereotypes in primarily nonspiritual, day-to-day living situations. The episodes are arranged chronologically. Following this, First Nations peoples voice their reactions to and concerns about the images portrayed in these shows.

Chapter 4 offers a unique study of the Quantum Leap "Freedom" episode. In addition to commentary by a general cross section of First Nations individuals after viewing the depiction of Shoshone "Indian" stereotypes in the episode, a group of Shoshones critiqued Hollywood's interpretation of the everyday life of Shoshones. As in chapter 3, these discussions follow a synopsis and textual analysis of the episode.

Chapter 5 focuses on Hollywood's interpretation of "Indian" spirituality and discusses how First Nations peoples view Hollywood's efforts to portray "American Indian" spiritual traditions and practices in TV science fiction. The first portion of the chapter contains the synopsis and the textual analysis that challenges "Indian" stereotypes seen in three specific episodes from shows that aired between 1954 and 1995. These episodes, also presented chronologically, offer classic examples of formulaic "Indian" spirituality and religious practices found in science fiction TV shows. In the second portion of the chapter, First Nations peoples share their opinions of Hollywood's stereotypes of "Indian" spirituality.

Chapter 6 sums up the concerns of First Nations peoples and, using this summary as a foundation, hypothesizes how the reader can begin to view more clearly how centuries-old stereotypes continue to reinforce racial prejudices that persist to this day.


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