The Native American Trope

The trope of Native Americans in American history is problematic to say the least. Since the beginning of the settling of North America by the Spanish in 1565, the indigenous groups have  been at odds with these newcomers—often meet with the results of famine, violence, disease, and colonization. Yet, even though these indigenous groups are the victims of European colonization and cultural genocide, they have been made to be seen as a group needing of civilization and aid from their very oppressors. This trope of seeing Native Americans as a group inferior to that of white America is what will be explored in the media below. 

This wanted poster of Sitting Bull, a Dakota Chief responsible for uniting the Sioux tribes of the Great Plains and prominent Native American land rights activist, in 1876 shows how Native American tribal leaders fighting for their tribes’ land rights were seen as enemies to the security of the United States. Sitting Bull in this wanted poster is being targeted in the aftermath of the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 1876, where General George Custer and his men were defeated by the united Sioux tribes, even though Custer knew his men were outnumbered and was ordered not to attack by his superiors. This poster represents how the United States twisted any victory the Native Americans had in securing their land rights as a way to depict them as dangerous and savage and needing to be brought to justice at the hands of the civilized United States. 

This magazine cover design for Harper’s Weekly was done by Thomas Nast in 1879. The title of this cover illustration can be found at the bottom, which reads: “Every dog (no distinction) of his color) has his day.” In this, the Native American is shown to be another “dog” that is part of the United States mission to cleanse and purify the nation. The Native American is seen reading the wall in front of the Chinese man that is filled with anti-Chinese and anti-immigrant sentiment due to the rise of the Nativist party, which believed that the United States should only be a country for those of the superior white, Anglo-Saxon breed. In having the Native American reading and pondering the same anti-Chinese sentiment that the Chinese man is reading serves to illustrate how their situations are one and the same, for the same rhetoric to degrade and drive out American Chinese have been used for centuries on Native Americans. The inclusion of the Black man in the back serves to reinforce the same idea. America does not value or want their existence because they are lesser than the ideal white United States. 

This wall mural painted by Los Angeles based graffiti artist Bandit in 2014 serves to show the hypocrisy of the United States’ values of equality in relation to the treatment of Native Americans in the past and in the present. The image is in reference to the song “This Land is Your Land” written by Woody Guthrie in 1940 during the Great Depression as a way to unify the people and see that the struggles of poverty were shared by all the American people. However, in relation to the Native Americans, it references a darker history of forced relocations onto reservations, such as the Trail of Tears ordered by President Andrew Jackson in 1931 that forced Eastern Woodland Indians to move from their homes in the Southeast to the west of the Mississippi River. More recently, it references the continued disenfranchisement of Native American reservation treaties and land rights at the hands of the United States—the Dakota Access Pipeline fight. Tribal leaders and members in North and South Dakota argued that they were not adequately consulted about the construction of the pipeline, and that it being built would cut into vital sources of water for the Sioux reservations and destroy sacred sites. The mural serves to use a somber Native American youth disheartened, seeing that despite hundreds of years of change, that the phrases of equality, such as “this land was made for you and me” does not ring true for everyone in the United States. 



Blair, Elizabeth. “How ‘This Land Is Your Land’ Roamed And Rambled Into American Life.” NPR, NPR, 14 Mar. 2019, 

Hersher, Rebecca. “Key Moments In The Dakota Access Pipeline Fight.” NPR, NPR, 22 Feb. 2017, Editors. “Sitting Bull.”, A&E Television Networks, 9 Nov. 2009, 

Sitting Bull Wanted Poster – /American_History/Native_Americans/famous_Native_Americans/Sitting_Bull/Sitting_Bull_wanted_poster.Jpg.html, 

Society, National Geographic. “European Colonization of North America.” National Geographic Society, 

“Trail of Tears.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 

Walfred, Michele. “‘Every Dog (No Distinction of Color) Has His Day’ 1879.” Illustrating Chinese Exclusion, 24 Dec. 2019, 

Underthebluedoor. “Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day!” Under The Blue Door, 13 Oct. 2014, 


Discussion — One Response

  • Eric Pryor 03/02/2021 on 3:08 PM

    Great analysis, it’s very important to acknowledge and address all the negative and harmful tropes out there! I’m glad you chose to address this one. I like that your examples span the entire history of the US, showing that the poor treatment of native Americans hasn’t gotten much better since the beginning.

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