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.”
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…”
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.
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.
The 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.