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Indian princess

An Indian princess (or Native American princess) is a representation of indigenous women of the Americas. Often, Indian princesses are portrayed as daughters of Tribal chiefs and are depicted as cartoons that conform to unnatural standards of beauty.[1] The most famous and legendized Indian princess is Pocahontas. The phrase "Indian princess" is often considered to be a derogatory term and is deemed offensive to Natives.



Origin of the Indian princessEdit

In the 17th and 18th centuries, American colonial culture portrayed the Native woman as a symbol of the Americas.[2] For colonists, the Native woman represented mysterious new land and enticing new freedoms, and could dignify the Americas as a potential source of power.[2] As the colonists became more independent, the Native American woman was typecast as the Indian princess. 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.[3] 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.[3] The symbol of the Indian princess relied on ideas of freedom, power, wildness, and loyalty to the white man.[2] 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 untamed connection to nature and her alleged rescue of John Smith.[2] Though the image of the grand and liberated Indian princess was commonly used to epitomize America, icons and accounts depicting Native and indigenous women as savages and squaws were still publicized and normalized.[2]

Historic roles of Native womenEdit

Generally, Native American and indigenous women of all statuses were in charge of the agricultural sector of tribal life. They cleared fields, planted, and harvested crops, providing most of the food for the tribe.[4] This proximity to nature is reflected and often exaggerated in depictions of Indian princesses in media.[5] 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.[5] Native women also played integral roles in the fur trade, acting as interpreters. In some tribes, Native women of higher status were able to participate in council, elect chiefs, and participate in battles.[6]

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 servants, some Native women assimilated, or were forced to assimilate, into colonial society.[7] Native women of higher rank, such as daughters of chiefs, could also be recruited 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 as squaws, despite their elevation of class.[7]

The Native woman’s assimilation into colonial society is a key part of many depictions of Indian princesses in media.[2] 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.[2]

Media representationEdit

Common CharacteristicsEdit

The “Indian Princess” is determined by her relationship with the white man and her behavior that deems her the idealized Indian woman. This observation of Native American women in media, like any, is important because it reveals to the audience the lifestyle of a culture that is generally hidden from the public[8]. The Indian Princess serves to be an important connection between white culture and native culture, specifically the dominance of the former over the latter[8]. The Princess thus serves as a model for assimilation into a more civilized society[8]. She gains this privilege by guiding the white man into her territory. Native female author, Denise K. Lajimodiere, elaborates on this idea of the Indian Princess being an aid to the white man by claiming that Princesses must help non-indians in their conquest against their own people in order to achieve a likeness to their European counterparts[9]. 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 they had helped them transition from barbarism to a refined society[10]. Typically, the Indian Princess serves as a symbol of triumph for white men in colonizing and asserting their power over Native people[10].

Indian Princesses are considered to be the idealized Indian woman[10]. These woman 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 men lust after[10]. Their characterization isolates themselves from typical Native American women and portray them as an extension of their white counterparts. This emphasizes the “otherness” of Native American woman who are considered to be a squaw figure if they don’t adopt these beauty regimes[9]. The decision for Native American woman to become an Indian Princess or squaw depends on their relationship with men[8]. Squaws are “uncivilized” Indian woman while Indian Princesses are gentle and loving toward her white hero. The Indian Princess acts as a symbol of the success of these colonizers, the “otherness” of Native Americans is combatted when she acts as a medium between these two cultures[10]. Scholars agree then agree that Indian Princesses in media are portrayed as submissive, idealized supporting figures to the white hero. This sentiment is clearly evident in characters such as Pocahontas and Tiger Lily.

Tiger LilyEdit

Tiger Lily is an Indian princess character from the Piccaninny Tribe [11] in Peter and Wendy by J. M. Barrie. In the book, she is captured by Captain Hook and Mr. Smee and it is rescued by Peter Pan. She only speaks in a stereotypical dialect with a limited command of the language[12] following her rescue. Her most famous depiction in adaptation is in the 1953 Disney film. Controversy has surrounded the character, as its representation has been touted as racist and sexist. Tiger Lily is depicted as both a sexualized figure[12] and a strong warrior[13] in Peter Pan. 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[12]. The depiction of Tiger Lily stands in stark contrast to the female figure of Wendy[12]. While many of the female characters appear to desire the affections of Peter Pan[11], Wendy, the older sister in the Darling family, is presented as a pure, motherly, and talkative figure, often associated with the color white[12]. Conversely, Tiger Lily is depicted as both ethnic and quiet[11], 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[13]. Tiger Lily is brave in the face of fear and possesses important knowledge of the forest[13].


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.[14] Critical reception of her character has panned her overly sexualized portrayal.[15] Her appearance was modeled on a number of sources, including Eskimo-French Canadian/Cree actress Irene Bedard, who provided the character's speaking voice,[16] Powhatan historian Shirley Little Dove Custolow,[17][18] and her sister Debbie White Dove,[17] 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."[17][18][19] The fictional Pocahontas is portrayed as being different from the rest of her Powhatan tribe[20], particularly as it relates to her relationship with John Smith, the European character she falls in love with in 1607[20]. Unlike her violent and unfriendly tribe, Pocahontas is gentle and loving[20]. She represents the “noble savage” in her willingness to defy the stereotypical traits assigned to indigenous people, instead embracing traits of the colonists, specifically her adventurous spirit which allows her to turn her back on her past and embrace new opportunities[20].

Indian Princess CostumeEdit

Dressing up as Indian costumes is a term referred to as ‘Playing Indian’. 'Playing Indian’ is an American practice that goes back to colonial times. During The Boston Tea Party, colonists were dressed up as Indians, as they threw the English’s tea of the ship and into the harbour. The colonists wore feathers, blankets and drew black soot on their faces to portray themselves as Native Americans.[21]

The ‘Indian princess’ is often used as a form of dress-up, costume or a form of ‘playing Indian’. Many non-indigenous people believe that dressing up as and 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 traditional Native-American regalia as significant and regularly sexualizes Native American women.[22]

According to authors, Kisban Lara-Cooper and Sammy Cooper, Society’s idea of the image of an Indian princess exists only historically. Therefore Indian princess costumes represent historical figures and representations. The costumes are not Indian princesses living and existing in today’s society.[22] This is because today’s populations of Indian-Americans lack relations with the rest of America. 57% of Native Americans live off reserves, while 34% do live on Indian reserves, being the smallest population of any other racial groups.[23]

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 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 suggests 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. [24]

Indian princess pageantsEdit

Indian princess pageants have taken the stereotype and used it as a form of empowerment for young indigenous women.[25] Contrary to typical beauty pageants that judge based on physical appearance, indigenous women who compete in Indian princess pageants are judged on how well they promote traditional values and represent their community and not on how they look.[25]

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 [26]. It was part of a morale and community-building effort that is also now recognized by American Indian scholars as an important effort toward accurate representation of Native Americans in theatre [26]. It was supported by the Dakota Indian Foundation and had since become a tradition [26]. 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” [26]. Deloria’s pageantry began with the assimilation and accommodation of Euramerican institutions, but later developed into an exploration of “Indian identities under siege” [26] 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”[27], an effort that Native American pageantry has since been able to accomplish. According to Deloria, the purpose of her pageants were to “reclaim, with pride, the cultural resources of the past” [26] 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 [28]. Previous winners were typically shown with traditional Native American attire in natural settings for an ‘“authentic”’ rendering of Native Americans [28]. 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” [28] 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 tradition alive.

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.[29] The contest is the largest and most prestigious of its kind.[29]

Requirements for participation[30]

  • 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.

Judgement criteria[30]

  • Must be a woman of Native or indigenous descent
  • Must be between 18–25 years old
  • 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 intimiate 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.[32] 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.[33]

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.[34] 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.[34]

Requirements for participation:[35]

  • 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:[35]

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


  • 2015 – Maya Many Grey Horses
  • 2014 – Carly Weasel Child
  • 2013 – Amber Big Plume
  • 2012 – Amelia Crowshoe
  • 2011 – Eva Meguinis
  • 2010 – Sahvanne Weasel Traveller
  • 2009 – Nikkole Heavy Shields
  • 2008 – Calgary Stampede Indian Princess Ambassadors
  • 2007 – Livia Manywounds
  • 2006 – Nichole Weasel Bear
  • 2005 – Lana Waterchief
  • 2004 – Marcie Meguinis
  • 2003 – Natasha Calf Robe
  • 2002 – Chrissy Snow
  • 2001 – Tiffany Andy
  • 2000 – No Royalty Crowned
  • 1999 – Camille Wildman
  • 1998 – Charity Red Gun
  • 1997 – Gaylene Weasel Child
  • 1996 – Nicole Yellow Old Woman and Lisa Starlight
  • 1995 – Vada Hoof and Ivy Kim-Scott
  • 1994 – Lori Ann Wright
  • 1993 – Rachel Poucette
  • 1992 – Lonetta Starlight
  • 1989 – Eleanor Crane
  • 1972 – Denise Yellowhorn
  • 1966 – Donna Weasel Child
  • 1965 – Gloria Little Light


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