the help of a woodpecker, whose feather tuft he streaked with red. He invented picture writing. Following the death of his beloved Minnehaha and the coming of the white man, Hiawatha left his tribe to travel through the Portals of the Sunset to the Land of the Hereafter. The poem was enormously successful and, when taught in the elementary classroom, fully romanticized the Indian in the minds of numerous American generations.
Westward expansion soon brought "civilization" across the Appalachians in large numbers, and into conflict with Plains Indians, especially after the Civil War and the building of the transcontinental railroads, and once again negative images of Indians took center stage. By 1890, following the destruction of the buffalo, the surrender of Sitting Bull, and the tragedy at Wounded Knee, the "Indian threat" had been permanently extinguished. This again allowed for the re-emergence of the Noble Savage. Wild West shows run by Buffalo Bill and others perpetuated both the noble and ignoble savage stereotypes, and even featured real Indians in the show, including Sitting Bull, and Geronimo.
One key to understanding the imagery presented below is to understand that the re-imagining of the American Indian was intimately connected with a re-imagining of nature. The raw and expansive American wilderness was central to the development of the American identity and character, and this imagery too was being re-invented, mythologized. Early on, the wilderness (which contained Indians) was conceived as a negative. William Bradford, upon landing at Plymouth in 1620, expressed real fear, describing the wilderness as "hideous and desolate, full of wild beasts and wild men." In subsequent times, the wilderness was seen sometimes as an impediment to progress, or at best, as a cornucopia of God-given resources to be consumed by civilization (with little to no thought about conservation). In short, it was the natural order of things for civilization to conquer nature. By the 1890s, much of the American wilderness, like the Indian, had been "tamed." If one wanted to have a real wilderness experience, more and more that required a visit to a few areas of the country that had been spared from "progress"--National Parks and Monuments. The wilderness, so important to self-identity, was gone.
What followed was a nostalgic romanticizing of what had been. The rampant exploitation of natural resources, and the conquering, or in some cases extermination of Natives was recast in the popular imagination as a necessary, if bittersweet consequence of progress. Indians could be depicted in all of their "natural" glory, as noble savages, mythical icons of America's wilderness past. This phenomenon allowed Americans to largely forget the ugly consequences of their expansionist past. Additionally, even though the Noble Savage is defended as being a "positive" stereotype, the result is historical amnesia and the dehumanization of real people who still exist. By cementing the Indian as an "other" from the past, it allows modern society to largely ignore the existence and plight of Native Americans today.