“Those who tell the stories rule the world,” Hopi Nation proverb
Television tapped into our human hunger for stories. Like earlier forms of media, TV’s narratives told us who we were, where we belonged in society, and how to identify outsiders who differed from us. For example, some television series framed plots around assumptions of white superiority (including the nostalgic Wild West) that erased Indigenous Peoples. The National Congress of American Indians issued a resolution in 2017 denouncing the failure of Hollywood and TV networks to accurately portray the lived experiences of Native people or hire them to play Indigenous characters. This essay focuses on some ways TV reinforced prejudices and then examines why “whiting out” history matters.
The parade of caricatures of Indigenous Peoples began with the earliest forms of storytelling among the Europeans who invaded the Americas. We normally do not use that language, preferring words like “exploring,” “settling,” or “turning the wilderness into a garden”; however, the verbs we choose to describe our past actions color the way we see the present and shape the future. John Coward, the author of Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press, explained the labeling began in the Colonial Era. Over time, plots about U.S. history and progress reduced Native Americans to caricatures, like “noble savages,” “bloodthirsty killers,” “idealized princesses,” or “bedraggled squaws.” Moreover, since they did not fit into these pigeonholes, ordinary Indigenous Peoples stayed invisible to the public. As Robert Berkhofer Jr. noted in The White Man’s Indian (1978), “Native Americans were and are real, but the Indian was a White invention and still remains largely a White image, if not stereotype.”
Therein, symbols (like rawhide drums or tomahawks) identify individuals along a cultural nexus children learned as they grew up in a cocoon of stories, metaphors, and images they absorbed at home, school, places of worship, and public spaces like shopping centers. Since this mental library of signs triggers automatic recognition, even dignified illustrations reinforced negative perceptions. For instance, the feathered headdress signified going to war, and so the Indian Head Test Pattern, drawn in 1938, and embedded in an RCA TV tube told viewers this chief was ready to fight. Did the millions who saw this Indian daily ascribe hostile traits to him? Probably not. Nevertheless, the image was fabricated from white assumptions and, therein, reinforced expectations concerning what Indigenous Peoples looked like. Newspaper TV schedules listed test patterns that appeared before programming and again briefly after the station played the “Star-Spangled Banner” prior to signing off at midnight.
Technicians liked this popular test pattern featuring an ersatz chief in a fully feathered bonnet because using the myriad of details in the various contrasts of gray helped viewers adjust their sets before programming began. This portrait is shrouded in mystery. James O’Neil traced the origin of “A Pattern for Testing” for the blog tvtech on September 16, 2010. He discovered that an artist named Brooks completed the work and then vanished so completely that not even PBS’ History Detectives could crack the case when antique TV camera collector Chuck Pharis asked for help.
The son of a contractor fished a box out of a dumpster at the RCA station in Harrison, N.J., where workers were razing the building. He stashed the carton with the Indian Head Test Pattern and associated papers in a closet where they remained for 30 years until his son found them as he was helping his dad move. Pharis purchased the original artwork and papers from him.
“This is really the Mona Lisa to me,” Pharis said. “If you look carefully, you can see the slight hole in the paper the person who drew this made with their compass.”
RCA stations across the nation used the Indian Head Test Pattern because it was built into that monoscope camera tube. Today, the chief reminds people of the early days of television when kids colored or played jacks in front of the Indian Head as they waited for Saturday morning programs like Sky King, Jungle Jim, and My Friend Flicka to start. Probably, nostalgia for those happy long-gone times imbues the image with fond memories for many baby boomers. On the other hand, this test pattern reduced all Native Americans (regardless of where they lived or what they believed) into a stock character. Everyone recognized the image, but few cared about the context. From its earliest days, television treated individual members of Native American nations like electronic cigar-store Indians—frozen in a time, pose, and garb that never existed, except in the imaginations of outsiders.
Wooden Indians first stood in front of 17th century English tobacconist shops and then a bit later arrived in the colonies. The artists who carved the bulkheads for ships made most of them, and some were famous for these carvings usually whittled from one white-pine log. By the 1890s, congestion in the cities forced shop owners to move their statues inside. Today the antiques sell for over $100,000, and folk artists who advertise on the internet get from several hundred to thousands of dollars for their replicas, which often include famous chiefs.
Just as store statues and the test pattern projected white definitions of Indians, so did the broadcasting industry’s practice of hiring non-Indigenous actors, often Italians, to those fill roles. For example, consider an ad that circulated widely through the media in the early 1970s and sparked an environmental movement around the slogan, “Keep America Beautiful.” Iron Eyes Cody, an Italian American who claimed he was part Cherokee, paddled a canoe as a tear slipped down his cheek. He was typecast often in movies or TV programs, and until his death in 1999, he visited schools as part of anti-litter campaigns.
This erasing of Native Americans through ignoring their existence began centuries ago. In the 1890s, newspapers predicted the demise of wooden Indians indicated the downfall of their Indigenous counterparts. For example, “THE CHEERFUL IDIOT” observed in a Cincinnati newspaper, “Like his human brother, Lo, the Wooden, is becoming an extinct individual, and soon the country will know him no more.” In Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Hidden Wars of the American West, Rebecca Solnit pointed out that entrepreneurs in Yosemite spoke of the Indigenous Peoples in the past tense because they worried vacationers might go elsewhere to avoid contact with the local tribe. To reassure visitors to Yellowstone whom they assumed would dread encounters with Indians, promoters said the Native Americans were so superstitious that the geysers filled them with terror, and so they stayed out of the realm of smoking lands and hissing steam.
Obviously, language empowers us to tell inclusive stories as well as to write plots based on excluding misfits or overcoming enemies. Otherwise, Mark Twain’s comment in Pudd’nhead Wilson and Other Tales was correct: “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” If we continue to ignore Indigenous Peoples and other people of color or merely cast them as pawns to play their part in the Great White Saga, then our pop culture (including TV shows) will devolve into a sinkhole of ignorance and arrogance. We will not reach our potential because, in denying others that same opportunity, we will choose the path of self-righteousness instead of wisdom.
Whitewashing Native Americans, Asians, Latinos, or anyone else from our national story of who we are as a country warps our perspective and prevents us from making the American Dream a reality for everybody, a promise kept that ensures our future as a nation united by kindness and social justice. How do we get there? Perhaps we should follow this advice from Michael Margolis, the CEO and founder of Get Storied, “The stories we tell literally make the world. If you want to change the world, you need to change your story. This truth applies both to individuals and institutions.”
About the author: Paulette D. Kilmer is the author of two published books and a third making the rounds to publishers, as well as several articles and essays. Her research interests focus on the connections between narrative, myth, social justice, and history. She is a professor of narrative journalism writing, ethics, persuasion, and media history at the University of Toledo.
Featured image: In the test pattern, the Indian chief head provides a handy means of checking to make sure the images are sharp and true in tone. Chuck Pharis features the original art used to make the test pattern, which he owns, in his museum of historical broadcasting equipment.
 “Misappropriation of Native Identity in Film and Television,” the National Congress of American Indians,https://www.ncai.org/resources/resolutions/misappropriation-of-native-identity-in-film-television
John M. Coward (2014) “The Princess and the Squaw: The Construction of Native American Women in the Pictorial Press,” American Journalism, 31:1, 71-99, DOI: 10.1080/08821127.2014.875327
 Coward, “The Princess and the Squaw,” 71.
 James O’Neil, “A Pattern for Testing” tvtech, September 16, 2010, https://www.TVtechnology.com/news/a-pattern-for-testing. Chuck Pharis offers likenesses of the Indian Head Test Pattern for sale on his website about early TV history at http://www.pharis-video.com/
 Emily Schmall, “‘Crying Indian’ Ad That Targeted Pollution to Be Retired,” New York Times, February 27, 2023, at https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/27/us/native-american-pollution-ad.html.
 THE CHEERFUL IDIOT, “Lo, the Wooden, Fast Disappearing from This Mundane Sphere. His Course Nearly Run. And Soon He’ll Be Numbered with the ‘Has Beens.’ A Midnight Convention of Cigar Store Signs Attended and Faithfully Reported by the Cheerful Idiot,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, December 6, 1896, p 13. NewspaperArchive.
 Michael Margolis #storytelling #change