Teaching Our Journal: The Princess and the Squaw

The article is freely available at the Taylor & Francis website.

The Princess and the Squaw:
The Construction of Native American Women in the Pictorial Press

Volume 31, Issue 1, 2014

By John M. Coward


Portrait of Pocahontas, Harper’s

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Weekly, June 29, 1907

European-Americans have had a long and troubled relationship with Native Americans. From the discovery era to the recent past, speculation, pseudoscience and a host of ethnocentric assumptions have shaped ideas and attitudes about American Indians. Who were these people? Where did they come from? Why were they so different from Europeans? How

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they should be treated? The answers to these questions shaped an entire body of thought—a complex and sometimes contradictory racial ideology—that affected the representation and treatment of Indian people and their place in American life for hundreds of years. Historian Robert Berkhofer Jr. said it well in the first chapter of his now-classic 1978 book, The White Man’s Indian: “Native Americans were and are real, but the Indian was a White invention and still remains largely a White image, if not stereotype.”

In this article, Coward examines one often-overlooked aspect of the Indian stereotype in American popular culture: the representation of Native American women in the pictorial press. In broad terms, this research attempts to explain and analyze the ways that the illustrated press portrayed a diverse and poorly understood group of cultural “outsiders”—Native American women—to an audience of mostly white, working- and middle-class American readers. These readers, many of whom had no interaction with actual Indians, knew Native Americans largely through popular stereotypes, simplified portrayals drawn from popular culture and the press. From the earliest days of the colonial press, in fact, Indians had been subjected to pervasive forms of racial stereotyping. In the nineteenth century, for example, Indian men were often classified as either Noble Savages (think of James Fenimore Cooper’s literary Indians or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha) or bloodthirsty killers (such as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Geronimo). Similarly, Indian women were assigned to their own simplified but contradictory categories, either idealized princesses or bedraggled squaws. Indians in the vast middle of this racial spectrum—ordinary men and women who did not call attention to themselves—sometimes turned up in the news, but depictions of these Indians were rare and almost always overshadowed by more narrowly defined (and extreme) Indian stereotypes.

This research asks why and how such stereotypes developed in regard to Indian women and why these stereotypes persisted so long in the press. Importantly, Coward argues that this process of racial representation was less intentional than it was automatic and seemingly “natural” given the racial ideology of the era. That is, the news depends on and reinforces stereotypes, as Walter Lippmann once noted. Thus a press system organized by and for Euro-American (and male) journalists for an audience of Euro-American (mostly male) readers automatically positioned Indian women as social and cultural outsiders. Indeed, from the perspective of nineteenth-century white Americans, Native American women were outsiders, people very different from the norms and practices of Euro-American life. These differences, in fact, are powerful visual evidence for the racial construction of Native American women in the pictorial press.

The Rise of the Pictorial Press: Background and Method

Leslie's cover

A sick Indian girl, cover of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 30, 1870

This research began after I noticed a gap in the scholarship concerning Native American representations in the press, a gap that included my own work on Indian representations. The gap is long standing and straightforward: most historical research about Native Americans in the press focuses on men. Moreover, much of the research on Indian men in the press examines texts such as news stories and editorials, not images. Indian women and their images in the nineteenth-century press, in contrast, have been largely absent from journalism history.

This article examines the process of representation—both words and pictures—but my primary focus is imagery. This focus responds to a plea from historian Louis Masur, who has called for more attention to images in the study of American history. Writing in 1998 in The Journal of American History, Masur noted that textbook publishers were indifferent in their use of historical pictures. Masur also made the more important point that historical images are a powerful means of understanding the past. Images, Masur noted, “serve as primary sources that illuminate the past in ways speeches, sermons, letters, and laws may not.” In addition, images are a powerful means of illuminating the past: “Every image sheds light on the assumptions of the day. Every image reveals, as well as defines, events. Every image must be read, must be interpreted. This is a perilous act, one that often leads us far away from the safe ground sought by most historians. Yet reading the image, like reading any text, is a way to engage the past and connect it to our lives.”

In the mid-nineteenth century, pictures became a popular and powerful force in the news, thanks largely to Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s Weekly. These periodicals, after all, were established to provide pictures for a variety of American readers at a time when news publications published few images. The lavish use of news and feature illustrations, in fact, was the principal attraction of the pictorial press, providing readers with illustrations of newsmakers and news events in a timely way. With the development of photography and advances in wood engraving techniques, the pictorial press deployed a small but talented corps of artists, illustrators and photographers to churn out images of American life, especially prominent men (and it was mostly men) and scenes of political and civic life, business and agriculture, as well as feature pictures of Americans engaged in a variety of leisure activities. Indians were sometimes depicted as well, especially Indian men who were violent or engaged in negotiations or other encounters with government officials.

Indian women, however, had few opportunities for making news in the nineteenth century, a fact that explains their relative scarcity in the illustrated papers. When they did appear in the pictorial press, Indian women were depicted in familiar, safe and culturally useful categories. In this way, the representation of Indian women in the illustrated press was more than journalistic documentation. Images of Indian women were loaded with racial meaning. Some women were idealized, identified in the papers as beautiful, gentle and nearly civilized, all the more praiseworthy because they had transcended the limitations of their race. Others were assigned the opposite role. They were dirty, rough and unworthy, living reminders of the inferiority of non-European peoples. Still other Indian women were recognized for their craft-making talents, a marker of Native American authenticity for journalists and their readers. Given the pervasive racial ideology of the nineteenth century, Native American women were rarely represented on their own terms, in ways that showed them as fully developed individuals with a wide range of personal abilities and life stories.

For this project, I used two primary databases: Harpweek, a popular online source for Harper’s Weekly, and 19th Century U.S. Newspapers, a Gale product that includes Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Both databases are widely available in research libraries and both allow for word and illustration searches, which students can use for in-class exercises and homework assignments. Other databases can be used to supplement these resources. These include ProQuest Historic Newspapers and Chronicling America from the Library of Congress, among

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other sources. Additional information about these sources is listed below.

Teaching the Article: Exercises and Questions

Online Sources


19th Century U.S. Newspapers

Chronicling America, Library of Congress

ProQuest Historical Newspapers (access available through subscribing academic and public libraries)

Sequoyah National Research Center, University of Arkansas at Little Rock


Secondary Sources

Norman K. Denzin, Indians on Display: Global Commodification of Native America Performance, Art, and Museums. Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press, 2013, pp. 13-36.

Juan Gonzalez and Joseph Torres, News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media. London: Verso, 2011.