Americans Discover Vacation: The Cigar Store Indian Syndrome

The history of America’s national parks usually begins with the “discovery” of Yosemite. This so-called discovery is described in a 1910 book The Yosemite Valley written by one of the early while settlers of the region Galen Clark. “The Yosemite Valley was discovered and make known to the public by Major James D. Savage and Capt. John Boling, who, with a strong detachment of mounted volunteers from what was known as the Mariposa Battalion, went with friendly Indian guides to the Valley in March 1851 to capture the resident tribe of Indians and put them on the Fresno Indian Reservation.”

(Ken Kistler)

(Ken Kistler)

What Clark does not explain is how you can discover a territory when in fact there are some folks already living there. This is a good example of the attitude of European Americans to Native Americans which is part of the whole story of the “discovery” of America. One might instead suggest that the Europeans were immigrants to America rather than discoverers.

By the mid-19th century whites had killed off a substantial portion of the Native American population and what was left was in the process of being herded into reservations by outfits like the Mariposa Battalion. But this was also a time, according to See America First author Marguerite S. Shaffer, when “scenic nationalism swept through the U.S.” And as more and more Americans began to travel West their attitudes toward Native Americans shifted and began to take on a romanticized image of the Native American as part of the scenery, players in the whole Manifest Destiny, conquer the wilderness patriotic narrative.

It didn’t take long for the white pioneers of Yosemite to see the potential as a tourist attraction. Clark writes, “The first house in Yosemite was built in the fall of the year 1856, and was opened the next spring as a saloon for the entertainment of that class of visitors who loved whiskey and gambling. The next year it was fitted up and used as a restaurant.” Nor did it take long for promoters of Western tourism to try to make the Native American part of the attraction.

Railroads hired Native Americans to greet their westward bound passengers. A series of travel guides called See America First that was published by Page and Company beginning in 1914 offered up images of the noble savage. Shaffer describes how “the series guides constructed a tourist spectacle of primitive Indian societies living in harmony with nature that served to augment an ideal of nature as a refuge from modern society. In effect they (tourists) purchased and thus participated in the primitive lifestyles embodied in the romanticized tourist Indians…”

(Michele Walters)

(Michele Walters)

Native American ceremonies were presented as one of the sights to see while traveling through the West. Shaffer writes: “Picturesque and exotic tourist Indians who willingly collaborated in the staged authenticity of the tourist experience were acceptable and appealing. As objects on display they were aestheticized consumer products.”

This would only get worse. By the mid-20th century, many Americans had cars and paid vacations. They also had TVs. As observed by Are We There Yet? author Susan Sessions Rugh, “the new medium of television was quickly captured by gun-slinging cowboys fighting Indians…to save the frontier for white man and his woman.”

Just as later generations of tourists would bring their children to amusement parks built around brands like Dora the Explorer or Harry Potter, travelers in the 50’s and 60’s set out for theme parks branded with names like Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger. And at these venues the portrayal of Native Americans sometimes veered off into the ludicrous, if not outright stupid.

One such amusement park in California was Knott’s Berry Farm. Started in the 30’s as a fried chicken joint, it evolved into an amusement park that by 1952 was attracting 1.2 million visitors. Those visitors could get their picture taken with statues of gold miners or saloon girls or Native Americans wearing headdresses. In Rugh’s book there is a picture of a Filipino family that the park hired to dress up as Native Americans.

(skeeze)

(skeeze)

Another of the 50’s cowboy and Indian themed attractions was the Corriganville Movie Ranch. This was originally opened as a place to film westerns. Rugh notes that one of the regular Sunday afternoon attractions was an “Apache flaming arrow attack on covered wagons.” This bit of theater was actually broadcast live by one of the local TV stations. Guests could also pretend to be Indians and go on the hunt for hidden arrowheads. In 1955 the Corriganville attraction was bought out by none other than the Lone Ranger himself and it was later renamed the Lone Ranger Ranch.

In that same year Disneyland opened. While the new Disney park notably welcomed black and Mexican-American guests at a time when prejudice kept them away from some other resorts, the Disney attitude toward Native Americans was somewhat less enlightened. One of the features of the new Disney park was Injun Joe’s Café. Rugh quotes a description of Frontierland in a 1963 edition of Disney News that touts the fact that children could dance with Indians at the “authentic Indian Village where true-to-life, honest-to-goodness Indians from throughout the Great Southwest perform daily.” Long before the advent of Disney princesses there were performers by the names of Horse Stealer, Whitecloud, Red Eagle, Little Deer and Whirling Wind.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESThe cigar store Indian was introduced long before that. Its origin was based on the fact that it was Native Americans who turned Europeans on to tobacco, much as it was Native Americans who led whites to the “discovery” of Yosemite. This ultimately resulted in Native Americans being driven off the tobacco fields that they had cultivated, in some cases being replaced by plantations which would be cultivated by black slaves. And in the same way that the “noble savage” was later marketed as a symbol of the now cultivated West, the wooden carved Indian sitting outside the shop was a way for the tobacconist to market his goods and attract customers.

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28 Responses to Americans Discover Vacation: The Cigar Store Indian Syndrome

  1. lenie5860 says:

    Ken, this story about the Native Americans (as well as Native Canadians) is not one to be proud of. First we try and control them, the manipulate them, then use them as objects. Pretty sad. But a most interesting series and great reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. patweber says:

    The title of The Cigar Store Indian Syndrome, actually brought back some wonderful family memories for me. I have a photo of my dad and mom sitting in front of one of these, apparently that I took, when we would visit different parks in upstate NY. Of course reading the whole big picture you shared with us, kind of momentarily popped that happiness. This truth you share is sad, but my memory is still so wonderful.

    Like

  3. Leora says:

    The history of the Native Americans is indeed tragic. I like to think of the West as an Albert Bierstadt painting, with no people at all, just some animals. One day I would love to visit Yosemite.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The history of the Native Americans is a shameful period in our history. Your post, as always, was very interesting. Any idea how long Disneyland had Injun Joes cafe? Before they realized it wasn’t p/c? Please tell me they don’t still have it!. Cigar store Idians are still everywhere, never realized why until now though.

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    • Ken Dowell says:

      I don’t know how long Injun Joe’s lasted. I did find that at some point in the 60’s Disney was claiming that all of their Native American shows were approved by the tribes involved, so at that point they were showing some sensitivity to the issue. As a point of interest, the carved Indian photo at the end of my post was taken at Disney World Magic Kingdom two weeks ago.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Erik Royds says:

    Wow. I haven’t thought about cigar store Indians in 35 years. They were ubiquitous when we were kids. Going to keep my eye out for some this summer.With gas under $2.00 a gallon this could be the year of the road trip.

    Like

  6. jacquiegum says:

    This part of our history has always been, in my opinion, America’s greatest shame and still very under-acknowledged. I do remember. as a child, seeing the Injun Joe Cigar guy everywhere! I can’t remember the last time I saw on though!

    Like

  7. andleeb says:

    It is sad to know about this story about Indians and immigrants( I will say that). I first time came to know that, ‘ Native Americans who turned Europeans on to tobacco. ” It is sad that white people used the land and resources of Indians and give them hard time. History of Americans is sorrowful.

    Like

  8. Tim says:

    I, like all the others, find it difficult to reconcile white European invasions of land held by others and then pretend we discovered it. I guess the argument could be made that “discovery” means “by Europeans” because without that distinction then pretty much nothing has ever been discovered. I have read many stories about the Yosemite indiams and even wrote a piece a bit ago about the Miwok. They and all other American Indians certainly got a sour deal and history will look back on this era as shameful. That said though, it is a rare country that does not have a shameful past and some even a shameful present.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. maxwell ivey says:

    hi ken; well as a guy who grew up in a family of carnival owners and makes his living helping sell amusement park attractions this was an eye opening lesson in the early days of tourist attraction. as for disney the cafe you mentioned wasn’t their first such mistake in the area of equality or stereotypes. they recently updated the pirates of the caribbean ride so it would look like the pirates wanted to steal the mad en’s food or drink instead of the maydens themselves. and everyone knows about them updating the its a small world ride. however, here in texas we had a restaurant chain called sambos. thanks again for your hard work. i feel like i should be paying tuition and getting class credit for these, max

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ken Dowell says:

      I’m sure you’ve encountered a lot of stuff that wouldn’t be considered appropriate now. I grew up with cowboys and Indians on the TV and it never occurred to my immature mind that the portrayal of Native Americans would be considered insulting.

      Like

  10. Erica says:

    The injustices done to the Native Americans is one of the least addressed injustices out there. We rarely see Hollywood addressing the subject and it is usually mentioned as more of a footnote in our history books (if at all). I live in Southern California, have been to Knott’s Berry Farm and never knew this history. Thanks for the enlightening article.

    Like

  11. We have our own shame in Canada when it comes to the treatment of aboriginal peoples. And the sad thing is that in Canada, the prejudice and inequalities continue. Something that none of us can be proud of.

    Like

  12. What an incredibly interesting post. You’ve really done your research. And if course it’s also horribly depressing the way Native Americans were treated at every turn. One could indeed make the Europeans as immigrant argument with little difficulty at all.

    Like

  13. Meredith says:

    I think there was a country song about a cigar store indian, but I can’t remember the name of it right now. This has been a fascinating series, Ken, and has raised some really interesting and important questions about class and race in America.

    Like

  14. What immigrants did to native Americans is disgraceful. More should be done to compensate them for what was done to them.

    Like

  15. I often wondered how you “discovered” a land when someone was there first. In terms of movies and TV’s show, I guess the “true” Native Americans, got some revenge. In certain scenes they spoke their native tongues. Knowing the director did not speak it, they would call the white actors names or screw up the script just to get some payback.
    Nothing was worse than “The crying Indian” environmental commercial. Where Espera Oscar de Corti, had claimed to be a Native American, most of his life. He did the iconic commercial of shedding a tear after seeing garbage dumped on the highway. People did not realize until his death, he was of Sicilian descent.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. cheryltherrien says:

    Stories like these just upset me. Not the history in and of itself, but what White people did to Native Americans. I don’t think we have ever righted that wrong.

    Like

  17. Another great history lesson Ken! Always giving me something to think about. Thank you!

    Like

  18. Andy says:

    “A series of travel guides called See America First that was published by Page and Company beginning in 1914 offered up images of the noble savage.”

    1914, savage? Ugh…just over ten years earlier the U.S. had slaughtered thousands and thousands of Filipinos in the wake of the Spanish-American War. Just who were the savages again?

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Alice says:

    It reminds me of great visits to Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, the Pacific NorthWest tribes, and that we must attend another PowWow with our offspring.

    Like

  20. Donna Janke says:

    An informative and thought-provoking post. The history of the treatment of native Americans and Canadians is a sad chapter in history, one that continues. The creation and exploitation of stereotypes for tourism really highlights the condescending attitude towards them by the immigrant Europeans. Thanks Ken.

    Like

  21. Pingback: Americans Discover Vacation: Book Reviews | off the leash

  22. Husnaa says:

    Hello Ken,
    Very sad to read about the unjust done to native americans and wish there was more awareness raised about this as it seems to be a matter thats brushed under the rug, thank you for the new knowledge and I found your post very informative.
    Love, Husnaa x

    Like

  23. Jason @ TheButlerJournal.com says:

    All I can say is wow after reading the story. The history of our country flat out sucks. There were so many injustices done to way too many groups of people.

    Like

  24. ramonamckean says:

    I’d like to believe we’ve evolved our consciousness since “those days.” Sadly, not by much, if at all. I live in Canada and “we” (i.e.Caucasians) have a record that stinks in terms of our First Nations people. Reservations still, racism still, procrastination with land claims still. The number of aboriginal women (many mere children) who disappear is appalling. The bodies of many of these poor souls are sometimes found later. If it were white women, the outcry would be deafening. How dare any of us ride a high horse when it comes to human rights abuses in other lands. We have a LONG ways to go.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Johnnyb505 says:

    My best friend belongs to one of the large tribes in Southern Colorado. Yes, I am a Native “white” Westerner and he is Native American or “Indian” as he calls him self. I am also the first “white person” that has ever been invited to my friends family reunion ( well over 100 members ) on the land that his family has occupied for hundreds years. I have gotten to know many his fellow tribe members as well. While my friend admits that there have been many cultural struggles and injustices, he does not want to dwell on this forever. He just wants to be treated like anyone else in today’s modern world. To him it is demeaning to be pitied and bowed down to in sorrow and sadness. I printed out this article for him and what he found offensive were all the “white peoples” responses filled with commiseration. He also finds it humous that, and I quote: “white people love to be offended”. This blog is obviously written to pander to those sentiments. Is anyone here Native ? Does anyone here have any close Native friends ? Isn’t it racist in its self that the writer sees a “Red & White” world here ? The horrible stereotype presented here is the we should all hang our heads and be filled with sorrow and sadness while carefully tiptoeing around each other……I don’t want that and my good Native friend says he doesn’t either. Face to face honesty and respect is all that is really needed.

    Like

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