Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Southwest Semiotics: Native American Roadside Texts

WITHOUT QUESTION, THE AMERICAN West is one large, complicated text, ripe for any number of readings. With its mythology of "free" land, the promise of gold, virgin wilderness, and the vistas of the Rockies and the Sierras, the West has enjoyed decades of a kind of cultural free pass. The Southwest, on the other hand, The West's younger troublemaking brother, has its own mythology, but nothing quite as grand as its bigger sibling. The main iconography of the Southwest's myth--for better or worse--is all things Indian. On one hand, the pervasiveness of Indian imagery reminds Americans passing through Native lands that Indians are still here. They are alive, well, and doing just fine. On the other hand, the stereotyping--especially among roadside statues and sculptures--continues to rankle.

For example, the Chief above giving the "Howe" greeting looms out front of Howe Chevrolet in Clinton, Oklahoma, just off of Route 66 and Interstate 40. It's been there for as long as I can remember, and it stands as the car dealership's main visual cue. But, it also reminds too much of the painful cigar store Indian, which (even if not intentional) evokes images of the stoic, "wooden," passive, and defeatable Indian. Even though this particular guy looks ready for the WWF, the idea that he is the icon for used Pontiacs and Cherokees is just too much.

The sign and statue to the left stands outside the Cherokee Restaurant and Trading Post near Hinton, Oklahoma. This guy, too, seems a bit stiff, but at least he is armed for battle. I'm not at all convinced he's wearing traditional Cherokee clothes, and again, he's bare-chested. I'm still waiting to see a statue of an Indian holding a book, looking through a microscope, sitting in a stately chair, or holding hands with a white woman. The problem with images like these is their reductiveness--it limits how we see Indians. We think we're smart enough not to equate these images with true Indianness, but if these are the only representations of Indians most Americans see, aside from the Land O' Lakes gal and the American Spirit tobacco guy and the Washington Redskins mascot and the Atlanta Braves mascot and the Florida State Seminoles mascot . . .well, you get the idea . . .

The collection of arrows surrounding the visitors to this Gallup, New Mexico gas station and convenience store also reinforces the Indian-as-warrior motif, though, with a better sense of humor. Again, rather than being reminded of the many contributions American Indians have made to American culture, the same old brave/savage notion gets reinscribed one more time. To be sure, the arrows are bright and fun and kind of cool the way they appear to have been lobbed from the outcroppings in just to hem in unsuspecting drivers in need of fuel, big cokes, and dream catchers, but very quickly, they can lose their campy charm.

You have to admit, the teepee remains one of the most resilient Indian texts. Even here, in Arizona, where no one really lived in teepees, they perform strong semiotic work. When coupled with the "Geronimo" sign, it's really a twin billing of weirdness. At least Geronimo, who was Chiricahua Apache, was born in what is now Arizona (then, Mexico). But the teepes? The designs? Teepees as icons of Indianness are nothing new. From Oklahoma to Arizona all the way up to Washington, there are roadside teepees, restaurant teepees, and even hotel teepees. Yes, they are everywhere, but, their ubiquity doesn't make them good.

Of course, no one is accusing any of the proprieters of racism, but it is unlikely drivers in the Deep South would see similarly caricatured statues of African American slaves or visitors to Brooklyn see hulking likenesses of Jews. So, the question remains--why is it okay to caricature Indians?

While most would agree that these kinds of Indian texts play with stereotypes and are a bit tacky or campy, it becomes more problematic with images like "The Guardian," another bare-chested Indian warrior who sits not along the road but atop the rotunda of the Oklahoma State Capitol building . . .


  1. This is your coolest post yet. You should do a book on this topic. Do you know if someone has written on this? Do you have more pictures?

  2. wait, i want to hear what you have to say about the statue on the capitol building . . .are you going to address that?

  3. Howe here!

    It doesn't seem necessary, [in the 21st century] to say, "imagine these statues were all 20-foot-tall Black Mammies." How then would we read the American landscape.

    Yet, as we drive across America hundreds of folks stop and take their pictures with these giant wooden icons, roadkill from another era.

    Dean, I think you should write a book about this American landscape, this Oklahoma, better known as Native America its own self.

    LeAnne Howe

  4. LeAnne... That "Howe" statue begs for some tinkering with photoshop...

  5. Thanks to Ken Ebbitt for pointing out that WWF is now WWE. The Weekly Rader hopes now to get back in the good graces of the World Wildlife Fund . . .

  6. I would be interested to read what you think the differences are between the "sculpture" on top of the rotunda and the "statues" near the tourist traps. Does commerce and capitalism have anything to do with this?

  7. These giant fiberglass Indian Salute statues were mass produced, along with many others of manly men. I remeber the same one greeting motorists as they crossed into San Antonio city limits. It was perched atop poles in front of one of Red McCombs' car dealerships, and it's still there. http://eccentricamerica.net/oddities.cfm?ref=77&action=detail&s=TX

    Red McCombs is now a billionaire who gave a pile of money to the University of Texas School of Business, and got the whole thing named after himself.

  8. Good points, Dean.

    Several people have written books on Indian stereotypes. I haven't read them all, but my favorite (so far) is Shadows of the Indian by Raymond Stedman.

    I'll take a rhetorical shot at the Indian statue atop the Oklahoma State Capitol. First, let's assume it's an accurate representation of a traditional Oklahoma Indian warrior. If so, it's better than all the wooden chief statues Dean has observed. It's arguably fulfilling its goal: to "honor" Oklahoma's Indian heritage.

    But it's positioning Indians as people of the past. Do you see any half-naked warriors on today's reservations, at the office downtown, or on TV sitcoms? As Dean suggests, these images imply that Indians are a vanishing breed. They're no longer around so we don't have to think about them or address their concerns.

    So it's a mixed blessing at best. Why not a statue of Will Rogers or Jim Thorpe? Or Wilma Mankiller, for that matter? These would represent the diversity of Oklahoma's Indian history and culture better than "The Guardian" does. Maybe the state could create several statues and rotate them periodically.

    P.S. You can find lots of images of Native stereotypes in my Stereotype of the Month contest. Check it out if you're interested.