In the beginning there was Tonto, the "faithful Indian companion" and there were "renegades" who didn't want to live on the reservation. I was a perfectly naive urban lad, and of course I bought the whole package.
In my defense, I early developed serious qualms at the Saturday westerns where buckskinned redskins were regularly drilled by six-shooters to fall picturesquely from pinnacles or palaminos. My first serious movie, Red River, featured a memorable and even-then-revolting scene in which redskins were remorselessly and shockingly slaughtered.
I'm proud to say that early on I started to identify with the underdogs. Renegades indeed? But some of my sympathy was bought with eroticized stereotypes of women (such as Debra Paget in Broken Arrow). And then there were Rudy York and Allie Reynolds, who were real people. How to reconcile the stereotypes to the facts? Beyond my childhood abilities.
It's astonishing how much of my view of our native cousins was generated by the movies. And by Fenimore Cooper as well, although at this present moment the only clear remembrance of the Leatherstocking saga that remains in my mind is a gruesome scene in which fiendish Mohawk "squaws" torture a white captive.
In school there were maps of territory inhabited by the Navajos and the Iriquois and the Comanche and the Pawnee. All very exotic but I for one had no concept that these names signfied people with lives and identities and histories. P. S. 217 textbooks certainly did not use the word "genocide."
In the 1960s, I read perhaps a hundred "captivity narratives." And also Theodora Kroeber's very moving biography of Ishi. Exposure to these books opened my mind.
And since then I've visited the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde and read about the vast city of Cahokia. But my knowledge remains literary, rather than experiential. Although I live in the great west (and just two blocks from Arapahoe Avenue), I've rarely encountered genuine native Americans -- they're mighty scarse in these parts. And the few folks whom I've met who claim Indian "blood" are far blonder than I.