The Misappropriation of Native/Indigenous Imagery
in Pharmaceutical Advertising

"No plaque or monument can ever adequately convey a complicated and difficult history. But they can start a conversation that begins to move us from ignorance to awareness."

—University of Wisconsin–Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, 06/18/2019.

Our Shared Heritage Historical Marker at the University of Wisconsin–Madison

In honor of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s commitment to the Ho-Chunk Nation, as represented by the Our Shared Future Heritage Marker, schools, colleges, and units across campus are hosting the Heritage Marker and engaging faculty, staff, students, and the community in a variety of educational activities to spark learning and deepen understanding about the Ho-Chunk Nation and other regional Indigenous history and culture.

The following objects, mostly from the collections of the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Pharmacy and the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy, document the ways in which drug companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers have misappropriated Native and Indigenous imagery, customs, and beliefs to market their products—particularly during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Please be advised that this exhibit includes stylized and stereotypical images of Native Americans based on the prejudiced conceptions held by white American culture. Drug companies frequently used simplistic and degrading misrepresentations of Native/Indigenous people to advertise their products to consumers.

These uncomfortable artifacts and difficult images help us to confront, acknowledge, and understand how white Americans have co-opted, misappropriated, and exploited Native/Indigenous culture, particularly in regard to drugs, medicines, and healthcare. 

Indigenous peoples in North America have long used medicinal plants and botanicals to treat illnesses and diseases. White American society adopted some native plants for therapeutic purposes and also came to strongly associate medicinal plants and natural medicines with Indigenous cultures. Drug companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers, in turn, capitalized on these beliefs and co-opted Native and Indigenous imagery and iconography to market drugs and medicines containing plants and natural products. Drug companies often relied on these misrepresentations and misappropriations of Native Americans and Indigenous cultures to brand their products as “natural” and safe for therapeutic purposes.

Note: Throughout this exhibit, please click on any picture to read complete descriptive information and/or to see a larger version of the image.

Funding provided by a University of Wisconsin–Madison Wisconsin Experience and the Our Shared Future Heritage Marker Educational Initiative Grant; the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Pharmacy; and the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy.

Our Shared Future Exhibit and Marker in Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin–Madison