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Reviewed by:
  • Seven Myths of Native American History by Paul Jentz
  • David Dry (bio)
Seven Myths of Native American History by Paul Jentz Hackett Publishing Company, 2018

MYTHS ABOUT AND STEREOTYPES OF American Indians abound in American culture. Although the myths examined in Seven Myths of Native American History will likely already be familiar to many readers, Jentz looks at less well acknowledged aspects of popular myths: the history behind their formation, the reasons for their endurance over centuries, and the pernicious ramifications they have had on Indian communities. Jentz considers in depth seven of the most familiar and long-lasting caricatures of American Indians and argues that they were fashioned to meet specific needs of white settler- colonial society and adapted over centuries to cater to the shifting appetites of mainstream American culture. For each myth, Jentz begins with its origins, connecting its emergence to that period in American history and US government Indian policies, and then proceeds to trace the various configurations of the myth in the popular imagination to the twenty-first century. In Jentz's analysis, myths are far from static—they continually adapt to compartmentalize and limit Indian people in service of the dominant culture.

Each of the seven myths gets its own chapter. In chapter 1, Jentz examines the myth of the noble savage, a romantic image of primitive and idealized Indians that emerged in part as a tool by white authors to critique their own society. Jentz underscores its detrimental effects in labeling Indians as incompatible with modernity. Chapter 2 explores the myth of the "ignoble savage," which labels Indians as objects of scorn, as savages, fools, and drunkards, and was unleashed to justify wars of conquest and extermination. Jentz describes these two myths as "foundation myths," and the remaining five myths are viewed as subsets of these broader positive and negative classifications. Two myths that Jentz links strongly to nineteenth-century government policies include the myth of the wilderness, which seeks to erase Native people from the lands they occupied and was an extension of Manifest Destiny, and the myth of the vanishing Indian, which was based in notions of racial inferiority and used to justify removal, forced assimilation, and boarding schools. The last three myths find their fullest expressions in the twentieth century and include the myth of the authentic Indian, which confines Indians to traditional roles and was circulated on stage and screen; the myth of the ecological Indian, which classifies Indians [End Page 188] as innocent and primitive devotees of nature; and the myth of the mystical Indian, which turns Indian spiritual practices into a commodity to be bought and sold.

Every chapter opens with a primary source document that is subject to scrutiny, and the book is littered with additional primary source examples, ranging from letters and administrative documents to artistic and literary works. Jentz takes on many well-known depictions of American Indians, from the earliest European accounts into the twenty-first century. From the world of literature and poetry, excerpts from Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Charles Sprague, and Francis Hopkinson are examined in some detail. Visual culture is examined through the works of artists such as George Catlin, Thomas Moran, and John Gast, with black-and-white images accompanying the text. Notable movies from the silent film era to the present find a place in Jentz's work, as do public figures such as Brooke Medicine Eagle and Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance. Jentz also draws upon numerous less well known examples, and even a student of American Indian studies will find new examples in Jentz's work.

Jentz is not the first to attempt to correct erroneous generalizations regarding American Indians; however, he is more effective than most in exposing the historical genesis of these constructed depictions. One limitation of his approach is its Euro-American focus. Although Jentz does take pains to dispel each myth by highlighting the complexity of Indian societies, Indians' agency in their responses and resistance to the imposition of myths does not always fall within the purview of his analysis. The book is successful in being accessible to the undergraduate and general audiences Hackett Publishing intended for its Seven...


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pp. 188-189
Launched on MUSE
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