When I was a schoolboy, Native Americans were known as ‘Red Indians’. All I knew about them was that they wore feathered headdresses, attacked wagon trains, and rode around on horses making a strange whooping sound. They lived in tepees, and liked to fight the US cavalry, as well as killing white settlers in the ‘Wild West’. They were easily pleased with gifts of small items like mirrors, blankets, or beads, and the men got drunk very easily on whisky, which they apparently called ‘fire-water’. When they decided to make peace, they passed around a large ‘peace-pipe’, which had to be smoked by all concerned. Some of their leaders, like Geronimo, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse were very well-known, even in Britain.
Of course, this was all very far from the truth. It failed to address the awful treatment of the indigenous peoples by white settlers, and the US government. The exploitation of the tribes, the theft of their ancestral lands and the destruction of the buffalo they depended on. False imprisonment, rape, abuse, kidnapping, forced relocation, and massacres.
In 1964, I went to see a film called ‘Cheyenne Autumn’. For the first time, the plight of Native Americans was treated with some sympathy. By the time I was 18 years old, in 1970, two films attempted to expose the atrocities carried out by the US governments of the time, with ‘Soldier Blue’, and ‘Little Big Man’. Finally, Hollywood was trying to give us some insight into the complex tribal society of Native American Tribes; their spirituality, culture, and long-standing traditions. But they still us gave us their version.
It is plain to see that things never recovered for most Native Americans. Despite some casino licences, and wider recognition of some of their rights, they remain very much an underclass in modern-day America.
These photos were taken between 1880, and 1912. Some have been ‘colourised’. They show beautiful women, proud handsome men, and well-loved children. The original Americans.
So the next time you watch a US Cavalry film starring John Wayne, or one depicting Native Americans as heartless savages, think of the real people behind the myth.