I'm an Indian

Music by Leo Edwards, lyrics by Blanche Merrill, 1921

What stereotypes of Native Americans are present in the lyrics of "I'm an Indian"?

What inauthentic musical conventions for representing Native Americans do you hear in this song?

What is Yiddish? Why does Fanny Brice sing "I'm an Indian" with a Yiddish accent and sayings (such as "oy")?

Were Jewish immigrants and their descendants considered white when "I'm an Indian" was written? How does an awareness that Jews were not generally considered white until after World War II—and in many ways are still considered outsiders today—change the meaning of this song? How might Jews have related to Native Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s?

"I'm an Indian" performed by Fanny Brice on Victor Records. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

Fanny Brice (1891-1951) was a popular American singer and comedian who was long associated with the Ziegfeld Follies. Though she had comedic appeal, Brice didn't get many parts in the act because she wasn't seen as beautiful by Ziegfeld's standards. Thusly, the young Jewish girl who often resorted to self-deprecation and stereotypes for laughs failed to have her contract renewed in 1911. After struggling to find work yet again, Brice teamed up with Blanche Merrill, a songwriter who specialized in working with women. With Merrill's help, Brice became a comedic entertainer who took the Ziegfeld Follies of 1916 and 1917 by storm with songs like "The Yiddish Bride." Hoping to be taken more seriously as an actress and comedian, Brice began performing "My Man" without any accent or over-the-top movements—unlike her other numbers—in 1921's Follies production. Two years later, she underwent plastic surgery to alter her nose, a characteristic that she felt most reflected her Jewish heritage and caricature acting. Transitioning to film in 1928, Brice became the first woman to star in a film with sound; she played the landmark role of Fannie Brand in the film My Man that year, though her performance didn't garner much appreciation. Brice went on to star in several more films, including Be Yourself! (1930) and The Great Ziegfeld (1936), but she never gained the same stardom in front of the camera that many of her female counterparts managed to attain.

View the lyrics for "I'm an Indian"

View the published score.

Fanny Brice (1891–1951) was a star of the American musical stage. She rose to fame in the 1910s in the Ziegfeld Follies, an annual revue produced by Broadway legend Florenz Ziegfeld. She was particularly noted for performing in a Yiddish accent, which she used to great comedic effect in "I'm an Indian." Brice introduced the song, which was written by prolific Tin Pan Alley team Leo Edwards (1886–1978) and Blanche Merrill (1881?–1966), in the musical Why Worry? (1918). Although the show was unsuccessful, "I'm an Indian" became a hit. Brice sang it in later editions of the Follies and in the 1928 movie My Man.

Fanny Brice
Fanny Brice

On one hand, "I'm an Indian" is a mildly offensive song that delights in imagining a young Jewish woman from New York wearing stereotypical Native American dress and participating in Native traditions. On the other hand, however, the song participates in a long tradition in which Jewish art encourages sympathy with Native Americans. The trope of the "vanishing Indian" hit home with many Jewish immigrants struggling to maintain the traditions of their homeland. Moreover, the forces that led to the vanishing Indian—racism, ghettoization, and modernization—were the same forces that many Jews confronted.

The Jewish-Native American connection in art dates at least to 1910, when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem Hiawatha was translated into Yiddish by Yehoash. Since many Tin Pan Alley songwriters were Jewish, this connection was also developed in many popular songs, including "I'm an Indian" as well as Irving Berlin's "I'm an Indian Too," which was introduced by Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun (1946).

Expressing this connection through comedy was common throughout the twentieth century. As Ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin notes, "The comic side of the Indian-Jewish confrontation is a vein richly worked throughout the history of Jewish-American and mainstream entertainment, down through Hollywood films of the 1970s (Blazing Saddles, The Frisco Kid)" (p. 110).