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Representations of Native American Women in Twentieth-century Visual Culture

The history of Native American women has been largely neglected in the scholarship, as historians have tended to focus on the male colonial experiences of indigenous people. Recent humanitarian crises’ that highlight the alarming rates of sexual violence, murders, and kidnappings of Native American women, however, demand that their experiences be rewritten into the narrative of America’s colonial past. This thesis focuses on the representation of Native American women through the construction of ‘female Indianness’, that is the white-constructed perception of Native American culture that’s rarely ever true. By studying the uses and changing symbolic meanings of female Indianness in popular visual culture, we are able to see how representation has aided this process of symbolic genocide, and thus recognise neo-colonial tools still at play.

The thesis identifies two main stereotypes that have been used persistently since their colonial inception and observes the ways they have been used throughout the twentieth-century to transmit racist and sexist ideologies that keep Native American women at the periphery of society. The first stereotype is the Indian Princess, who we recognise from icons such as Pocahontas, Peter Pan’s Tiger Lily, and various other characters. The Princess is typically portrayed as a whitened, beautiful, sensual figure who has been used to represent the fertile land of the New World, but also been used as a sexual metaphor for conquest. The second stereotype is the Squ*w, who is less known but is very prominent in visual depictions of female Indianness. The Squ*w (which we censor because it’s a racial and sexual slur), is described by historians like Ranya Green and Debra Merskin as the Princess’ negative, the darker “drudge”, the “sexual punching bag”, or an ugly prostitute. While the Princess is virtuous and admired, the Squ*w is ugly and inherently abused in her community, which condones further abuse by Whites. Typically, the Indian Princess displays positive attributes of female Indianness, however, she is whitened in her appearance and is used to reflect white beauty standards. Furthermore, she is heavily sexualised which reinforces the stereotype of Native American women as being promiscuous and therefore subject to exploitation.

These representations reflect how Native American women are trapped within the pillars of intersectionality; they are discriminated racially, but also by their gender under patriarchy, which adds another layer of colonial subjugation that Native American men have been largely immune to. The unique position Native American women occupy, therefore, suggests that a space needs to be dedicated to their study, as their gendered dimension adds new meaning to Indianness.

To explore the ways these harmful stereotypes have remained largely consistent and unchallenged from their colonial origin, this thesis adopts a wide timeline of analysis, starting from the early 1900s until the end of the twentieth-century. The first chapter outlines the colonial inception of prominent tropes we can recognise in later depictions, suggesting that female Indianness was created to advertise the exotic, exciting and bountiful New World to European settlers in the 16th century. This idea is then applied to early twentieth-century food labels, demonstrating how the Princess and the Squ*w continue to be used to sell ideologies, evidencing their strong iconographic abilities in the American culture. With this in mind, we also make sure not to over-simplify our analysis of these stereotypes, by grounding their depictions in their contemporary context. For example, the oppositional values of the Princess and the Squ*w in the early 1900s can be seen reflecting the racially polarised society at the time, as Americans were influenced by Eugenics theory and increasingly defined themselves by Whiteness. This study is then extended into the post-war years, considering how the Counter-culture movement of the 1960s-1970s influenced the merging of the stereotypes to facilitate culture-crossing and appropriation, particularly by white women. Finally, the thesis considers female Indianness in visual culture between 1980-1990 and how conversations about the harms of cultural appropriation in decolonising discourses begins to address the damaging nature of these heavily ingrained images.

This study, therefore, demonstrates how colonial depictions and understandings of female Indianness have been maintained in American visual culture through an array of mediums such as adverts, food labels, music albums, fashion, films, and videogames. Identifying these harmful stereotypes and how they’ve been used to portray Native American women repeatedly as inferior, exploitable and ‘rapable’, this thesis draws connections between symbolic genocide and the physical genocide of Native American women today. This study contributes to the work done by movements such as #WhyWeWearRed and Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, spreading awareness of ongoing genocide and illuminates how representation has played an important role in convincing Americans that this is how Native American women should be treated.


This article is part of a themed week of articles sharing summaries of undergraduate dissertations related to feminism or women's history and literature. We hope you enjoy!



Elaura Lacey

Bristol '21

Elaura Lacey is a third-year History student at the University of Bristol with a passion for writing. In her spare time, she co-edits and History blog 'Bristorian', and enjoys contributing to her local newspapers and magazines.
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