What does "noble savage" mean for Native Americans?

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Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Navajo comedy duo, Ernie and James, often joke about the "noble savage," as they battle many long-held stereotypes about Native Americans. (For example, they are frequently asked if Indians still eat buffalo. "Yeah," James drawls, "but only the wings.")

The myth began early and in Europe. For example, in "The Conquest of Granda," the English poet John Dryden wrote:

I am as free as Nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.

Since at least 1655, Native Americans have fought two stereotypes that are ironically polar opposites. On the one hand, you have the "noble savage," the wise, mystical, "natural" man; on the other, you have the "ignoble savage," who is brutual, immoral, and dirty. 

The "noble" savage came about only after the "ignoble" savage had been conquered, and the concept spread in lockstep with Manifest Destiny.  It was much easier to paint the "other" as "pictureseque and quaint" once they were no longer a threat. 

Native Americans, of course, subscribe to neither of these depictions of themselves. As Larry McMurtry, who often writes about Native American issues notes, "Most of the traditions which we associate with the American West,were invented by pulp writers, poster artists, impresarios, and advertising men."

One of the most popular and critically-acclaimed Native American writers to debunk the myth of the noble savage is writer Sherman Alexie (Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian; Tonto and the Lone Ranger Fistfight in Heaven). For example, Alexie notes that "Sixty percent of all Indians live in urban areas, but nobody's writing about them. They're really an underrepresented population."