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Nothing is quite so powerful as the popular media - movies, books, television - when it comes to creating perceptions of people or stereotypes.

Just ask any American Indian. Perhaps more than any other ethnic group, American Indians - both past and present - have suffered horribly at the hands of the popular media, which has portrayed them alternately as savages, buffoons and drunks."The first images people have of Native Americans is grunting savages who just hung around in caves, stayed dirty and barely subsisted," said W. Michael Gear, an archaeologist and novelist. "From an archaeological perspective, they did none of those things."

But perceptions are hard to change. They've been part of the popular literature so long that fiction somehow assumed a cloak of pseudo-accuracy in the minds of many people.

Granted, the stereotyping of the American Indian has been around since Columbus decided to haul a few local Caribs back to Spain for show-and-tell. But it may have reached its zenith in 1939 with the release of the John Wayne classic "Stagecoach" - a movie that defined the "whooping savage" stereotype and shaped public attitudes about American Indians for the next 30 years and on a popular scale never seen before.

"The stereotypes are still prevalent, and they run the gamut: Indians are drunk, lazy, shiftless, and they don't have a protestant work ethic. And they are definitely perceived as ignorant," Gear observed.

The popular media, perhaps feeling the pinch of white guilt, has made a concerted effort in recent years to shed American Indian stereotypes with movies like "Black Robe," "The Mission" and the overly romanticized "Dances With Wolves," last year's Academy Award winner for best picture.

"What `Dances' did was cause us to step back and think about how we see Indian peoples," said Deseret News movie critic Chris Hicks.

Gear and his wife, Kathleen, have also tried to change how the world sees prehistoric American Indians through a series of best-selling books - novels based on archaeological research. Their latest book, "People of the Earth," takes place in the deserts of southeastern Utah.

The images in the books are hardly stereotypical. They are images of native peoples with complex ideologies, fully developed languages, elaborate social structures and a marvelous capacity to exploit limited resources from an uncooperative environment.

What is particularly disturbing to the Gears is that even American Indians have lost much of their own heritage. "Not only are Euro-Americans ignorant about Native American culture, but we eliminated any vestiges of Native American culture," Gear said.

"We picked up their kids, made their religious observances illegal, cut their hair and eliminated their understanding of their own culture to the point they have no concept beyond the white myths we created for them. We have done our best to deprive them of who they are."

The ultimate deprivation may be loss of dignity, fueled by stereotypes so deeply ingrained they may never be erased.

As the recipients of generations of inaccurate stereotypes themselves, Utahns in particular should be sensitive to American Indian stereotypes. And maybe it's a good time for all Utahns to "step back" and re-evaluate how we perceive people who may be "different" from ourselves.