- Seven Myths of Native American History by Paul Jentz
Weaving together political, social, and artistic histories, Paul Jentz interrogates seven of the most prevalent historical myths surrounding Native Americans in the United States: the “Noble Savage,” the “Ignoble Savage,” the uninhabited (re: Indian-less) “Wilderness,” the “Vanishing Indian,” the “Authentic Indian,” the “Ecological Indian,” and the “Mystical Indian.” Through a rich understanding of the flawed and [End Page 477] often racist notions surrounding each particular myth, Jentz ultimately disproves them in favor of a more realistic understanding of the complex histories that underpin Native tribes and Native people. While Jentz clearly presents an effective critique of American settler-colonial policy toward its Indigenous people, he also skillfully weaves critiques of depictions of Native people in art, popular media, and educational curricula within his narrative, making his work less of a mere recounting of myths and more of a critical viewing of how America has engaged with Native people through a variety of societal lenses.
One particular strength of Jentz’s work is that he does not presuppose that the reader possesses a full knowledge of the particular history of Native Americans within the settler-colonial state. Indeed, Jentz devotes much of the preface and introduction to giving a short history of the ways that Native nations were slowly consolidated into a homogeneous “Indian” identity by American society and treated as second-class citizens at best and caricatures at worst, alternating between being viewed as cartoonish mascots on one end and as uniformly wealthy due to casino revenues on the other end. While Jentz turns his attention to the “main” myths after the introduction, his introduction is particularly effective through its presentation of myths that are far more familiar in public discourse today. By presenting these myths, Jentz has put the reader in a position to approach the rest of the book better informed of how these myths can subtly shape perceptions of Native people by the dominant settler-colonial culture.
Jentz’s rich accounts of the historical events and views that formed and shaped the myths he analyzes help the reader to grasp the banal and often deceptively violent forces at work behind the myths. Rather than existing as ideas that suddenly sprang into being, these myths evolved and shifted to fit the needs of settler society as it expanded across the continent, pushing Indigenous people out of its way. Accounts of events ranging from the supposed “rescue” of John Smith by Pocahontas, to settler accounts of “savage” Indigenous peoples attacking settler villages and encampments, to the coverup of massacres of Indigenous people are covered in detail by Jentz, always with an eye toward tying each account to the particular myth he is describing.
Jentz excels at his usage of Western/American art and media to underpin these myths. For example, Jentz devotes many pages to describing the ways that western films, ranging from John Wayne movies of [End Page 478] yesteryear to beloved Looney Tunes cartoons, all the way to newer works such as the recent Lone Ranger remake, have worked to effectively shape American ideas of Native American culture, whether that ties into the myth of the Native as an ignorant buffoon of few (or no) words or the Native as a violent, bloodthirsty savage who seeks to kidnap and/or kill as many white settlers as he can. Even more sympathetic portrayals of Native people in film, such as in Dances with Wolves, are presented by Jentz as simply another skewed portrayal, this time of Native people and their relationship with settlers. Other forms of American entertainment are critiqued by Jentz. For example, he asserts that depictions of Native Americans in period shows such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West led to a certain societal expectation of what an “authentic” Native person might look like, prioritizing Plains tribes as more “authentic” than other tribes. American artistic portrayals of wilderness are also critically interrogated by Jentz, especially in their depictions of Native people as either in the background of...