Monday, October 15, 2007

Wahoo, Yellowpony and Graphic Indians

Last week’s reflection on Chief Wahoo—born on the comics pages, resettled in Cleveland as a baseball team mascot—has caused me to think a little more about depictions of Indians in graphic media in the same period, especially the 30s through the 50s. I neither wish nor pretend to be encyclopedic here, only to add a few sources and thoughts about mid-century images.

Aside from the ghastly Wahoo, the most direct connection between Indians, comics, and baseball can be found in the fictional person of Chief Yellowpony, a steadfast fellow in Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy strip. Yellowpony was modeled after a Pawnee Indian named Yellowhorse who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1921-22 but washed out of baseball due to alcoholism.

Above, Yellowpony goes on the road with Dick Tracy. They drive around Oklahoma looking for the bad guys. Strictly an all-guy thing. “Woman’s place is in wigwam, not in posse chasing gunman,” announces Yellowpony, having earlier been advised by Mr. Tracy to send the wife on her way, to keep her out of danger. (Detail panel 2.)

The Rainbow Dictionary was illustrated by Joseph Low. It seems to have been his first commercial book project, in 1947. This dictionary for children provides textual definitions to many words for children plus a great many small illustrations and a few big ones.

Among the latter category, count the perfectly domesticated illustration for the entry “Indians” below. The book merits sustained reflection, which I promise to give it, but for now, ponder the genre scene of Plains Indian life--buffalo, tipis--and the lullabye lyric about each little Indian sleepy-head.

The seeming innocence of the image collides with the seeming innocence of the copy: "I like to pretend I am an Indian." I am very fond of Low's work in this book, but there is something creepy about that mock-innocence. Seems damning in a different way than the cartoon images do. Sure, the latter are obnoxious. But the pretending seems worse--a fantasy of replacement, the reduction of a tragedy to a costumed activity. Admittedly, I may be over-interpreting, but I don't know how you get around the discomfort.

The image of the sleeping child caused me to think of an animated short from Disney in 1956 called A Cowboy Needs a Horse, about a slumbering kid in an modernist suburban home. As the boy floats above his bed, the title Western song is sung and he begins to dream of life on the range, including a dramatic encounter with hostile Apaches (or the like.) The Indians are from the Chief Wahoo Meets Mr. Magoo school of cartooning. Lots of war-whooping on the audio track.

The Indian chief at the top of this post has modernist attributes, on the order of a UPA cartoon. The warriors in this sequence share some of those characteristics, but the failure to differentiate between the characters (you know, they all look the same) works against an advanced interpretation. This is pretty standard big-nose Injun stuff.

The harmlessness of the dream insulates us from worrying about the boy as he rides through a hail of arrows. He fires his pistols (foundational equipment, according to the lyric of the song) at the Indians, who "die" by grabbing their chests in the manner of backyard actors. There is a sense of play at work, of knowingness, but the Indians are different, more expendable. For comparison's sake, at the end of the cartoon the boy does battle with an outlaw who is more threatening than the Indians, but caucasian. The boy only shoots near the villain's feet to send him running.

Images: Indian Chief smoking “peace pipe” with boy, When a Cowboy Needs a Horse, Walt Disney Productions, 1956, directed by Bill Justice; Chester Gould, Dick Tracy comic book cover, n.d. Dell Publications; Joseph Low, cover illustration and entry for “Indians,” Rainbow Dictionary, World Publishing Company, Cleveland, 1947; animation stills depicting easily foiled Indian ambush from When a Cowboy Needs a Horse.


Brian said...

As a New Yorker who has been living in Cleveland for the last few years, I have done my fair share of head shaking at the image of Chief Wahoo, which
is omnipresent in this area. As an outsider, the caricature seems so harsh that one thinks the locals must be out of their minds to try and defend it.

The strange thing is, after living here some time, I can almost understand why no one can see the racism of the image - they LOVE this cartoon
character here. It is only associated with good things, racism never really enters these people's heads. In a blue-collar town where plants have closed, jobs have been lost, and the economy isn't what it used to be, the Wahoo character's off-center, not-quite-right image is almost a badge of pride. Maybe people here can identify with a character whose time feels past. Even if the team phases out use of the image, I'm quite sure Chief Wahoo will be adorning signs, bar windows, and garage doors in the area for many years to come.

My company put out of line of shirts that we feel makes a humorous point about the Indians' Mascot by turning the tables and leveling the playing field:


Rob said...

An intramural team named itself the Fighting Whites a few years ago, you know. The goal was to satirize Indian mascots. The participants even printed t-shirts with their logo on them.

You can read about the Fighting Whites here:

Rob said...

See Native American Heroes in the Comics: An Overview (Part 1) for a brief history of Natives in comics in the 1930s and 1940s.

ed said...


The Aardvark said...

On the other hand, it IS a childrens book from the '40's. What you term "mock-innocence" was likely actual innocence. I think that there is a problem with examining decades-old works through our race-and racism-sensitive microscopes.

Yellowpony was depicted as a stalwart in The Tracy strip, but too broadly cartoony for our rarified tastes.

Sometimes a cartoon Indian is just a cartoon Indian.