Indian princess

The Indian princess is usually a stereotypical and usually inaccurate representation of Native American or other Indigenous woman of the Americas.[1] The term "princess" was often mistakenly applied to the daughters of tribal chiefs or other community leaders by early American colonists who mistakenly believed that Indigenous people shared the European system of royalty.[1] This portrayal has continued in popular animation, with characters that conform to European standards of beauty,[2] with most famous misrepresentation being that of Pocahontas. Frequently, the "Indian Princess" stereotype is paired with the "Pocahontas theme" in which the princess "offers herself to a captive Christian knight, a prisoner of her father, and after rescuing him, she is converted to Christianity and live with him in his native land."[3] The phrase "Indian princess", when used in this way, is often considered to be a derogatory term and is deemed offensive to Native Americans.[1]

In Native American Pow wow culture, some competition titles for girls or young women might include the name "Princess", but this is of a wholly different context and meaning than the above usage.[4]


Origin of the Indian princess stereotypeEdit

In the 17th and 18th centuries, American colonial culture portrayed the American Indian woman as a symbol of the mysterious new world and freedom.[5] In paintings and engravings, North America was personified by the symbol of the Indian princess, who wore a feathered headdress, gripped a bow and arrow, and was often depicted in pursuit of freedom.[6] Sometimes, the Indian princess was pictured leading troops of American colonists into battle. In later years, she could be seen cloaked in the American flag.[6] This appropriated symbol of an Indigenous woman relied not only on ideas of freedom, power, and wildness but, paradoxically, loyalty to the white man.[5] These themes can be seen in modern media renditions of the Indian princess; for example, in portrayals of Pocahontas, who has been defined by her noble savage connection to nature and her debunked rescue of John Smith.[5] Though the image of the "grand and liberated" Indian princess was commonly used to epitomize America; other icons and accounts depicting and denigrating Native and indigenous women as savages and squaws [sic] were still publicized and accepted.[5]

Early popular representationEdit

Native Americans were frequent subjects in popular 1860's "dime" novels. Two well-known novels of that period being Mahaska: The Indian Princess (Stephens 1863) and The Indian Queen (Stephens 1864).[3] The covers often depicted Native American women with "darker complexion, distinct dress (belted, fringed and ornately decorated), moccasins, leggings, and loose hair with feather headgear" with the feathered headgear being quasi-Caribbean.[3] The popularity in literature helped in the rise of popularity in productions like the Buffalo Bill's Combination Shows where an Indian Princess, He-Nu-Kaw, was seen on advertising posters. The show typically performed Western melodramas with white people playing the role of Native Americans. By 1877 Bill was actively recruiting Native Americans from reservations to "play themselves" but it is still unknown as to whether or not He-Nu-Kaw was actually a Native woman[3]. Either way, her character representation was that of an "Indian Princess" which was further reinforced by the portrayal of Native women by white women in other theater shows, advertisements, and literature illustrations. In the 19th-century photography books on American Indians, white women are often shown wearing stereotypical "Indian Princess" clothes[3].

Historic roles of native womenEdit

In many Native American cultures, women of all statuses are traditionally in charge of the home and agricultural sector of tribal life. While roles vary depending on geographical region and culture, historically, women have cleared fields, planted and harvested crops, hunted and fished, and providing a great deal of the food for their communities. This is in addition to managing food distribution, owning their homes and, in many communities sitting on war councils.[7] This proximity to nature is reflected and often exaggerated in depictions of "Indian princesses" in non-Native media.[8] To the mainstream, the Native woman's symbolization of American land and agriculture also gave rise to her as a symbol of fertility. Twentieth century poet Hart Crane describes Pocahontas as “'a woman, ripe, waiting to be taken'” by the white man. [sic][8] Native women also played integral roles in the fur trade, acting as interpreters. In some tribes, Native women of higher status have and still do participate in council, elect chiefs, and participate in battles.[9]

As Native American life evolved alongside colonial culture, Native women began to play a larger role in Euro-American life. Recruited by settlers as interpreters, guides, craftspeople, and instructors some Native women were assimilated (or were forced to assimilate) into colonial society.[10] Native women of higher rank, such as daughters of chiefs, were sometimes pressure to marry white settlers. Though it was generally seen as cultural advancement for a Native woman to be accepted into Euro-American society, many of these women were still referred to derogatorily as squaws, despite their elevation of class, and these marriages were usually for the purpose of white families claiming Indian land through forced kinship.[10]

The Native woman's assimilation into colonial society is a key part of many depictions of "Indian princesses" in media.[5] This is often conveyed through the religious conversion of the Indian princess, portrayals of the Indian princess and white men in close proximity, and illustrations of the Indian princess with a skin tone lighter than other Natives.[5]

Media representationEdit

Common characteristicsEdit

Characteristics of the "Indian Princess" stereotype can be seen in said characters relationship with the white man and specific behaviors or traits that would make her the idealized Indian woman. The depiction of Native American women in media is important because it may be the only insight the mainstream audience has to the lifestyle of a culture that is generally hidden from the public.[11] The Princess stereotype thus serves as a model for the assimilation of Indigenous people into a more "civilized" society.[11] She gains this "privilege" by "allowing" the white man into her territory. Even if she is actually being taken prisoner or raped.[12] Native author Denise K. Lajimodiere elaborates on this idea of the Indian Princess being an aid to the white man by claiming that these captive "Princesses" must help non-Indians in their conquest against their own people in order to achieve a likeness to their European counterparts[12] Her aid to the white man is typically portrayed as being done out of love and 'Christian sympathy' as many "Indian Princesses" are portrayed as Christian converts.[3] Because of this, the Indian Princess is seen as a sidekick to the white hero. John M. Coward asserts that their relationship is based on a power dynamic that shows the colonizers as heroes to a group of "savages" because the colonists had helped them transition from barbarism to a "refined" society.[13]. Typically, the Indian Princess serves as a symbol of triumph for white men in colonizing and asserting their power over Native people[13]

"Indian Princesses" are considered by the promoters of this stereotype and narrative to be the idealized Indian woman.[13] They are commonly depicted with lighter skin and follow other European Beauty standards. Coward claims that Indian women who then follow this standard and show signs of a charming feminine beauty will become the woman that men lust after.[13] Their characterization isolates them from typical Native American women and portrays them as an extension of their white counterparts. This emphasizes the “otherness” of Native American women who will be denigrated as squaws if they don't adopt these European beauty standards.[12]. The decision for Native American women to become an Indian Princess or squaw depends on their relationship with men.[11]. The Indian Princess acts as a symbol of the success of these colonizers. The “otherness” of Native Americans is combated when she acts as a medium between these two cultures.[13].

Tiger LilyEdit

Tiger Lily is an "Indian princess" character from the fictional "Piccaninny Tribe" [sic][14][15] in Peter and Wendy by J. M. Barrie. In the book, she is captured by Captain Hook and Mr. Smee and is rescued by Peter Pan. She has a limited command of the English language[16] and speaks in stereotypical, halting, broken English. Her most famous depiction is the 1953 Disney film adaptation. In an early version of the manuscript, Tiger Lily plays out a rape fantasy by asking Peter Pan what would happen if he attacked her in the woods to which the other Indians replied that “she him’s squaw[16]. Tiger Lily is depicted as both a sexualized figure[16] and a strong warrior[17] in Peter Pan. The depiction of Tiger Lily stands in stark contrast to the female figure of Wendy[16]. While many of the female characters appear to desire the affections of Peter Pan[15], Wendy, the older sister in the Darling family, is presented as a pure, motherly, and talkative figure, often associated with the color white.[16] Conversely, Tiger Lily is depicted as both ethnic and quiet,[15] but not embodying the stereotypical role of a woman. Although Peter Pan saves both Wendy and Tiger Lily in the story, Tiger Lily promises to protect him from the threat of pirates in return.[17] Tiger Lily is brave in the face of fear and possesses important knowledge of the forest.[17] In Warner's 2015 Pan, Tiger Lily was played by a Caucasian actress, Rooney Mara. This generated a vast amount of controversy around the whitewashing of Native American representations, with thousands protesting the role. In an interview with The Telegraph in 2016, Rooney Mara said she regretted her role and said that she could "understand why people were upset and frustrated".[18][19].


The Disney character Pocahontas, eponymous star of the 1995 Disney film is the most famous modern representation of an Indian princess. She has been inducted to the ranks of the Disney Princess franchise.[20] Critical reception of her character has panned her overly sexualized portrayal.[21] Her appearance was modeled on a number of sources, including Eskimo-French Canadian/Cree actress Irene Bedard, who provided the character's speaking voice,[22] Powhatan historian Shirley Little Dove Custolow,[23][24] and her sister Debbie White Dove,[23] Christy Turlington, who is of Caucasian descent, and Dyna Taylor, a then-21-year-old senior at the California Institute of the Arts, who was used as the model for the character's face. Taylor, who is of Filipino descent, was paid about $200 for four modeling sessions, saying, "I work across from a Disney Store. When they show the promos, certain expressions are really familiar."[23][24][25] The fictional Pocahontas is portrayed as being different from the rest of her Powhatan tribe[26], particularly as it relates to her relationship with John Smith, the European character she falls in love with.[26] Unlike her violent and unfriendly tribe, Pocahontas is gentle and loving.[26] She represents the “noble savage” in her willingness to defy the stereotypical traits assigned to indigenous people, instead of embracing traits of the colonists, specifically her adventurous spirit which allows her to turn her back on her past and embrace new opportunities.[26]

Indian princess costumeEdit

"Playing Indian" or dressing up in a stereotypical Native American costume is an American practice that goes back to colonial times. During The Boston Tea Party, colonists dressed up as Indians by wearing feathers, blankets, and drawing on their faces with black soot. They then threw the English's tea off the ship and into the harbor.[27]

An Indian princess is often a form of playing Indian. Many non-indigenous people believe that dressing up as an Indian princess is innocent, inoffensive and harmless. The cultural appropriation of Native traditional dress as a costume is often viewed as offensive because it ignores the cultural and religious significance of traditional Native American regalia, and regularly sexualizes Native American women.[28]

Reclaiming the stereotypeEdit

Real life Indian princessesEdit

Sarah Winnemucca, a Northern Paiute educator, translator, author, and activist, is a well-known performer who acted as an Indian princess. She played many roles in the late 1800s after she came to the northeastern United States in 1883. She had previously spent more than 13 years negotiating with the press on presentations of herself and American Indians in newspaper media. It is debated on whether she is considered a positive figure for the Indian princess stereotype as her actions are contested by scholars as conforming to Euro-American standards.

She often referred to herself as a “princess” and dressed the part despite the fact that her familial status did not uphold that power, nor was it recognized as part of the structure of her tribe's leadership. Sorisio argues that by using the English term “princess” to refer to herself, she claimed power that the press was able to attribute to her and the Paiute nation. Her role as a princess served to “legitimize in non-Native discourse Northern Paiutes’ political identity”. Scholar, Rayna Green, argues that this persona feeds into colonial desires for Native Americans to be a “helpmate”. The question of her legitimacy is further contested in her costuming.

Scholars argue that the inaccuracies within the costuming that Winnemucca models suggest compliance with the non-Native desires of an Indian princess. Joanna Cohan Scherer, argues that Winnemucca exhibits a "Pocahontas complex” as she dresses in clothing that is not representative of a Paiute woman. She dresses in cloth rather than buckskin and in “elaborate nontraditional costumes”. Some critic her actions as a form of complacency in colonialism. Even so, some scholars see her actions as a means of working through the system to achieve societal presence. Linda Bolton argues that the persona that Winnemucca presents acts as a bridge to help non-natives see Native Americans. She states that even by wearing the inauthentic clothing, she presents an irony of the Indian identity. She states that there is an “authentic Indian self, the vanishing American” that is difficult to translate into Euro-American culture. Media represents the Native American culture as an “unknowable other”, so the irony of a real Native American in inauthentic clothing reveal the absence of the real individuals that exist, in media. According to Bolton, the “unknowable other” is made “present” by Winnemucca. Winnemucca even references the issue of costuming in her lectures. She states that the lack of materials needed to recreate the clothing is understood by the audience because it is a performance. As an Indian princess, she uses the performances to reflect presentations of herself and Native Americans regardless.[29]

Pow wow pageantsEdit

"Princess" is sometimes included in the titles some girls and young women compete for in pageants held at pow wows.[30] Contrary to typical beauty pageants that judge based on physical appearance, indigenous women who compete in Indian princess pageants are primarily judged on how well they preserve, practice and promote traditional Indigenous cultural values and represent their community, and not just on how they look.[30]

Indian princess pageants throughout historyEdit

In 1940 Ella Deloria, a Yankton Sioux scholar, produced a pageant named The Life Story of a People for the Native Americans of Robeson Country and surrounding areas[31]. It was part of a morale and community-building effort that is also now recognized by Native American scholars as an important effort toward the accurate representation of Native Americans in theatre.[31] It was supported by the Dakota Indian Foundation and had since become a tradition[31]. Lumbee Indians, the ninth largest tribe in the United States, has referenced the pageants done by Deloria within their historical narrative, demonstrating the pageants’ “contribut[ion] to the persistence and revitalization of […] Indian identity through narrative and performance”[31]. Deloria's pageantry began with the assimilation and accommodation of Euramerican institutions but later developed into an exploration of “Indian identities under siege”[31] where Native American people performed themselves and acted out their stories in her pageants. According to David Glassberg, pageantry characteristically has a “theme of […] keeping pace with modernity [and] retaining a particular version of their traditions”[32], an effort that Native American pageantry has since been able to accomplish. According to Deloria, the purpose of her pageants was to “reclaim, with pride, the cultural resources of the past”[31] through theatre. American Indian scholars agree that pageantry was able to reclaim the historical tellings of history that had thus been juxtaposed by media's representation of the past.

Feminist writers like Wendy Kozol make note of beauty pageant winners who exemplify Native American tradition within the Euro-American cultural context. According to Kozol, Viola Noah a runner-up for the Choctaw Princess award in the1973 Labor Day gathering stepped away from the typical photo rendering of Native American princesses[33]. Previous winners were typically shown with traditional Native American attire in natural settings for an ‘“authentic”’ rendering of Native Americans[33]. This, however, is interpreted by feminist writers like Kozol as more of a suggestion that Native Americans are “living relics of the past” (Kozol 70) because it suggests a society that has been untouched by time or colonization. Kozol calls the photo of Noah a “competing form […] of affiliation”[33] because she wears traditional attire with modern American elements within the photo. She explains that Native tribes have often used pageants and parades as cultural practices to keep the tradition alive. Anita Ahenakew, 1981 Saskatchewan Indian Princess is identified by her community as being a multiple, medal winning Judoka, a practitioner of Judo, also breaking the stereotype.[34]

Miss Indian WorldEdit

The Miss Indian World contest began in 1984. The contest is held each year during the Gathering of Nations pow wow in Albuquerque, New Mexico.[4] The contest is the largest and most prestigious of its kind.[4]

Requirements for participation[35]

  • Must be a woman of Native or indigenous descent
  • Must be between 18–25 years of age
  • Must be affiliated with a tribe
  • Must be Single
  • Must never have been married
  • Must not cohabitate with an intimate companion
  • Must not have, nor ever had, children
  • Must conduct themselves morally and refrain from drugs, alcohol, smoking, profane language, and intimate public displays of affection with a boyfriend.


  • 2014 – Taylor Thomas
  • 2013 – Kansas K. Begaye
  • 2012 – Jessa Rae Growing Thunder
  • 2011 – Marjorie Tahbone
  • 2010 – Dakota Brant
  • 2009 – Brooke Grant
  • 2008 – Nicole Alex’aq Colbert
  • 2007 – Megan Young
  • 2006 – Violet John
  • 2005 – Cassie Thomas
  • 2004 – Delana Smith
  • 2003 – Onawa Lynn Lacy
  • 2002 – Tia Smith
  • 2001 – Ke Aloha May Cody Alo
  • 2000 – Lillian ‘Cepa’ Sparks
  • 1999 – Mitzi Tolino
  • 1998 – April Whittemore
  • 1997 – Shayai Lucero
  • 1996 – Andrea Jack
  • 1995 – Crystal Pewo
  • 1994 – J.C. Lonetree
  • 1993 – Gloria Snow
  • 1992 – Lanette Asepermy
  • 1991 – Janet Saupitty
  • 1990 – Lovina Louie
  • 1989 – Tammy Deann Billey
  • 1988 – Prairie Rose Little Sky
  • 1987 (August 87 – April 88 ) – Jovanna Plenty
  • 1987 (April 87 – August 87) – Celeste Tootoosis
  • 1986 – Lisa Ewaulk
  • 1985 – Shelly Valdez
  • 1984 – Cody High Elk

Calgary Stampede Indian PrincessEdit

The Calgary Stampede Indian Princess contest began in 1964.[37] The Calgary Stampede Indian Princess joins the Calgary Stampede Rodeo Queen and Princesses to complete the Calgary Stampede Rodeo Royalty. While the Calgary Stampede Indian Princess is considered part of the Calgary Stampede Royalty, she has a separate category and competition of her own.[38]

Evelyn Locker (née Eagle Speaker) of the Kainai Nation was the first First Nations woman to participate in and be crowned as Calgary Stampede royalty in 1954.[39] Controversy erupted after Evelyn Eagle Speaker's crowning because she was of Aboriginal descent. The issues surrounding her crowning focused on how she should represent the Calgary Stampede and perform her role as Queen, specifically what kind of clothing she should wear (her traditional regalia or cowgirl gear). Most of the time the Calgary press referred to her as the Indian Princess instead of her rightful title as Rodeo Queen.[39]

Requirements for participation:[40]

  • Must be a First Nations member of Treaty 7
  • Must be between 18 and 25 years old
  • Must never have been married, lived common-law, or have had a child
  • Must agree not to marry, live common-law, or have a child during her reign
  • Competency in a native language is an asset
  • Riding ability is required

Judgement criteria:[40]

  • Application package
  • Personal interview
  • Public speaking presentation
  • Dance
  • Interpersonal communication
  • Horsemanship and riding ability


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