Tropes: The Noble Savage

The trope is The Noble Savage. In the 3 examples that follow the baseline for the Noble Savage stereotype shown below, the noble savage stereotype represents the American Indian who is lives in harmony with the natural world. He is primitive and untouched by the world of the civilized human. More often than not, Noble Savages are seen a naïve, innocent, peaceful, spiritual, and pacifist. This view promotes a generally good stereotype of Native Americans; however, a generalization of an entire culture is far from good. This stereotype still portrayed American Indians as below civilization and, while depicting these people in a good light, still painted them as different and foreign, despite being originally from the place we now call the United States. The three forms of media I have included as examples are 1) a print advertisement, 2) a filmed PSA, and 3) an animated television short.

Print Media – Label: Pala Brave Sunkist Valencia Oranges, original designer not known, produced in the 1930s

The image above is a blatantly racist attempt to gain ethical and emotional appeal from the stereotype of the noble savage. The image is an advertisement and label within itself and shows the American Indian as a selling point. It drives home the natural and organic feel of the oranges through the perpetuation of the spiritual and nature-loving Indian, though not seen as racist in the time (the 1930s). The portrait also demonstrates the location where the oranges were grown, also announced by the tag “Grown in the U.S.A.” presented next to the figure in red. The reds and other natural, warm tones promote this calm and organic feeling, and the color palette as a whole is connected to nature in some way, be it the browns, blues, or greens. In Cultural media, and society as a whole, we can see this generalization more than ever, with the noble savage being seen as a “Mammy” type mascot, promoting oranges similar to how caricatures like Aunt Jemima sold maple syrup. This image makes me cringe as the perpetuation of Native American stereotypes was prevalent in this period, luckily not as much in today’s society as in the ‘30s. The image is found on a crate holding oranges and features characteristics of American Indian culture such as headdresses and animal skin clothing. The figure portrayed takes up most of the frame, with the largest word being “Brave” – an American Indian slur used to perpetuate the noble savage stereotype – describing the portrait that lies beside it. The rest of the text bends to the will of the headdress and encircles it remaining mostly in the maroon background of the piece. This makes the portrait front and center, again making the figure the ethical and emotional appeal of the label.

TV – Public Service Announcement: The Crying Indian, Keep America Beautiful Inc., 1971

The video presented is of a campaign by Keep America Beautiful Inc. that served as a way to keep pollution off the streets of America. The PSA was run in the 1970s and led to a massive change in pollution, however, the Chief present in the video, named Iron Eyes Cody, perpetuates the noble savage stereotype and even promotes red face, as Iron Eyes Cody was actual an Italian immigrant dressed up to look Indian. The use of the noble savage stereotype was again used to promote ethical and emotional appeals and get people to clean up after themselves and stop litter for good, and it worked to great success, however, racism and generalization were still at the root of this good thing. The advertisement promoted a generalization that all Native Americans are tree-huggers and environmentalists, and only that. The video includes several cultural references, such as the costuming of Iron Eyes Cody and the canoe he rides in, but the generalized “natural way” of the American Indians is contrasted by the pollution present in the water and the industrial factories presented in the background of the lake Cody canoes in. The tear at the end brings the entire piece together and climaxes the ethos and pathos of the piece, followed by the sponsor of the message. This PSA also promoted a series of ads known as “The Crying Indian” and promoted the phrase “Keep America Beautiful.” The video is offensive; however, I cannot seem to belittle the piece due to how positive the message and the effect was. The PSA perpetuated an American Indian stereotype, promoted red face, and generalized a people, yet it brought a green revolution down upon America that led to an extreme drop in physical pollution and litter as well as a want to keep America beautiful.

Cartoon: The Origin of Giganta – Super Friends, Hanna-Barbera, 1978

The video shown is an extreme generalization of American Indian culture and a perpetuation of the stereotype of the Noble Savage. The most generalized character, in this case, is the unknown older American Indian, who has a stereotypical voice and calls Apache Chief “young one.” The worst offense comes at the scene where the older American Indian presents Apache Chief with an “ancient Indian powder,” showing the spiritual and also surreal nature of the noble savage. The older Indian is also seen as stoic and one with nature, as presented by the calmness when facing the bear and the “wisdom” given to Apache Chief. The episode aired in late 1978 and ended up not doing so well, with the episode being seen as racist and the character not appearing as frequently. The character Apache Chief was introduced to the Super Friends with 3 other characters: El Dorado, Samurai, and Black Vulcan. These three other superheroes were other under-represented minorities who were introduced by the Hanna-Barbera but were commercial flops due to the stereotypical representations. The representation of the noble savage stereotype to this degree makes me shiver and is extremely offensive. The fact that this piece of media is a children’s cartoon also makes the cartoon even more offensive due to the audience being impressionable and young. The social values were similar then as they are now, and this episode of Super Friends wouldn’t be tolerated today, same as when the episode was originally released.


Discussion — One Response

  • Charina Paras 03/31/2020 on 7:58 PM

    Dominic, thanks so much for your in-depth analysis of the Noble Savage stereotype that is often presented in the media. To expand on your discussion, your post reminded me of George Catlin’s paintings of Native Americans that I’ve learned about during my History of American Art last semester. Like several other painters during his time period, Catlin painted his figures of Native Americans with a “peace medal” around their necks, which was a special type of medal given to Native American leaders from Europeans in order to symbolize the “peace” and “alliance” between the two groups. Now there’s a reason why I put these words in quotation marks. While artists such as Catlin would include the peace medal in these paintings, they were also not afraid to emphasize (or even exaggerate) the accessories of their sitters. It’s exactly like what you said in the first part of your post–while there were means to to promote a better stereotype of Native Americans, they were still harmful in some ways. While Catlin’s paintings meant to portray a civilized, peaceful Native American, they were still seen as foreign and different.

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