The idea that Indian tribes (all of them) had a "big chief" is one of the most well-known and enduring stereotypes. Usually he wears a flowing feather headdress and has a beautiful maiden daughter. Often he's stoic to the point of woodenness, which is why chiefs and wooden Indians are related stereotypes.
One probably could write a book about the significance of "chiefs" in our cultural history. To me the most significant point is this: We portray Indian chiefs as all-wise and all-powerful figures to their tribes. The corollary: Everyone else is a minion, a cohort, a fighting machine. It's the chief and his warriors or braves or savages, who will fight to the death for him like deadly, implacable animals.
A chief must lead his braves; braves must follow their chief. A chief and his Indians, with nothing in-between. The result is a one-dimensional portrait of Native culture no more complex than a beehive (with a queen and her worker drones).
Where did the "chief" stereotype come from? One theory is that it started with George Catlin's 1832 portrait of the Mandan chief Four Bears. See In a Chief's Portrait, the American Indian Image Is Cast for more.
Paintings, dime novels, Wild West shows, and movies cemented the image over time. Honoring the Plains chief in full headdress became a way of expiating our guilt over decimating the Indians. "We killed them all with guns or smallpox, but look how regal they were in their prime."
Entertainment products, advertising campaigns, and sports teams like the Kansas City Chiefs engage in this myth-making when they portray Indians as chiefs. Below are some examples.
Chiefs in the Stereotype of the Month contest
"Chief Chicken Hawk" t-shirt
Navajo plays chief for tourists
"Buffalo Bill and the Indians on the Beach"
Australian Indian whoops it up
Scout society stereotypes Indians
Pageant contestant = sexy chief
Stereotypes in the Rose Parade
Lego Western Chess has chief, squaw, and totem-pole pieces
N. Carolina Cherokee man dressed as Plains chief for tourists
Fire chief given headdress with black feathers for "bad guys"
Electric smoker's logo depicts little chief in front of a teepee
Town seal of Massapoisett, Mass., features Plains-style chief
Zack and Cody dress as Plains Indians for Boston Tea Party
Tenn. school's Chief Win-Em-All, "Reservation" are "history"
Butcher calls Indian lawmaker "chief" and gavel a "war club"
Volleyball "Warriors" don headdresses to show school pride
Student is elected "Chief Sun Slayer" to sell land for wampum
Casino foe mimics sachem with painted feathers, gold chains
Bizarro cartoon shows Indian chief dressed as Chief Justice
"Lakota Way" remedy ad uses non-Natives in headdresses
Mother Goose shows Plains chiefs greeting Columbus
Pocahontas toy depicts princess, chief, teepees, weapons
Chief Illiniwek okay because he's derived from traditions
Card shows chief admiring Little Miss Sunbeam as Indian
Sec'y Colin Powell sings "YMCA" with phony Indian chief
Miss USA dresses as scantily-clad chief in faux warbonnet
Illiniwek protesters are "malcontents" throwing "Tantrum"
FSU statue depicts black student in Plains Indian headdress
Bridgeport mayor dons Indian headdress, tells casino joke
Order of Red Men has Chiefs, Prophet, Pocahontas annex
Bizarro depicts "Big Chief Tablet," "Atlanta" brave, tipis
Chief Homer Simpson gives Sacagawea to Lewis and Clark
Cartoon: Chief wants to "Save Our Graves" to build casino
"Little Mary Sunshine" play portrays cartoonish Indians
Kan. church displays cutout of bug-eyed, big-nosed chief
Leno: Bustamante celebrates with chief dancing by teepee
Lopez: Bustamante would do rain dance for casino money
"Order of the Arrow" Boy Scouts dress up as Indians
Columnist calls Indians' lawyer "Chief Running Mouth"
"Chief Winaton" is "the enemy" at Cache Creek casino
Ramirez cartoon: "Chief" Gray Davis sells Calif. for $24
Pin features Ronald McDonald as a chief in a headdress
Raymond's mother called "Sitting Bull" for stubbornness
Window/siding company uses Cherokee "chief" as logo
Bizarro shows chief giving away the West in bingo game
Greeting card shows sheep dressed as an Indian chief
Bizarro shows chief in teepee narrating faux TV story
Mixed Media cartoon mocks Chief Rain-in-the-Face
Non Sequitur panel: Blanketed chiefs greet Columbus
Greeting card shows two chiefs choosing "funny name"
Yahoo auctions "Great Apache," "Princess Rain" dolls
French "Smart Buffalo" resembles big-nosed aardvark
Cartoon shows chief and boy wanting to be mascots
Novelty catalog sells savage Indian dolls, headdresses
WSJ calls Gov. Pataki "big chief," "great white father"
Store sells chicken with "Top Chick" logo in headdress
Editorial blames chiefs in SUVs for aboriginal problems
West Wing shows Native leader acting like a stoic chief
Native union carpenters called "wagon burner" and "chief"
Washington Times: Mascot foe is "running a race hustle"
Thanksgiving script has Indian in headdress saying "ugh"
Herman shows an Indian chief brandishing human skulls
Idaho businessmen wear headdresses to "honor" Indians
Play presents a phony "chief" trying to open an Indian casino
"First Americans" Rose Parade float features giant headdress
Students wear headdresses and war paint for Thanksgiving
Editorial says Chief Illiniwek is a "venerated representative"
eBay auction item shows a girl wearing a "war bonnet"
Seller auctions a "Cherokee war bonnet" for casual wear
Chicago firefighters call Native colleague "Chief Sitting Bull"
Shanghai Noon uses a chief, teepee, daughter, and pipe
Nugent dons an "Indian" headdress and shoots a "buffalo"
Indian Motorcycle logo features a red-skinned "chief"
Mardi Gras: "To be an Indian is a very special calling"
More on the "big chief" stereotype
Cartoon of the day
"Chief" Lambert stereotyped Indians
"Chief" defended phony "chiefing"
More on Indian chiefs
Famous Native American Indian Chiefs, Leaders, and Warriors
Stereotype Hall of Shame
Wooden cigar-store Indians
Indian women as sex objects
Team names and mascots
. . .
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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.
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