The Problem with the Filmic Native American
Ever since the dawn of the American film industry in the late 19th Century, the Native American tribes (Navajo, Sioux, Creek, Cherokee and so on) have played a huge part in its progression to become an important part of cinema’s global reach.
Ever since the dawn of the American film industry in the late 19th Century, the Native American tribes (Navajo, Sioux, Creek, Cherokee and so on) have played a huge part in its progression to become an important part of cinema’s global reach. However, like many other marginalised social groups, Native Americans have faced somewhat irreverent treatment at the hands of white American directors and producers in Hollywood. This irreverence can be seen in many of the hundreds of westerns that were churned out by American film studios during the early part of the 20th Century. Films like The Battle of Elderbrush Gulch, Stagecoach, The Searchers and They Died with Their Boots On. Indeed, these films have faced more than their fair share of criticism from film scholars who have taken offence to the often one-dimensional and potentially racist attitudes these films have sometimes adopted in their representation of Native American characters.
Indeed, these films have faced more than their fair share of criticism from film scholars who have taken offence to the often one-dimensional and potentially racist attitudes these films have sometimes adopted in their representation of Native American characters.
However, the filmic presence of Native Americans has not been exclusively consigned to films produced and directed by white Americans. Native Americans themselves have also taken charge of how they are represented on film thanks to the efforts of directors and producers like James Young Deer, Chris Eyre, Sterlin Harjo and Phil Lucas, with films like Smoke Signals, The Honor Of All and Four Sheets to the Wind seeking to address the nature of their people’s filmic representations via the apparent virtues of self-representation. But will this greater degree of self-control produce any representational improvement in terms of quality? Have they done so already? Does filmic self-representation even hold any virtues for the groups concerned? If we are to find any answers to these questions, we must first understand the nature of how Hollywood – and by association, white Americans – have represented and stereotyped Native Americans on film.
We shall begin with 1956 John Ford western The Searchers. This film’s treatment of its Native American characters can be considered problematic at best. The Comanche tribe in this film are naturally encoded as being the villains of the piece, led by their fearsome chief, Scar, who is portrayed by a white American actor, Henry Brandon, attired in vibrant face paint, tanned-skin make-up and feathered headdress. Scar offers no dialogue when the audience are first introduced to him, standing threateningly over Debbie Edwards (the young girl whose family farmhouse has been burnt to the ground off-screen by the chief’s tribe). This introduction to Scar immediately harkens back to the stereotype not only of the silent, savage, menacing warriors that were commonplace in silent American films featuring Indian characters, but also of the industry-wide practice of employing Caucasian actors to play the lead Native American roles.
This has been a source of much condemnation amongst scholars, who believe such filmic traditions in industry practices allowed directors and producers to continue to use Native American characters as blatantly stereotyped one-dimensional villains in an unashamedly racist manner (after all, what self-respecting Native American actor would want to endorse such stereotypes as those seen in films like The Searchers?)
Thankfully, the representational problems of characters like Scar had been offset by the time Dances with Wolves hit cinema screens in 1990. Kevin Costner’s critically-acclaimed epic western revised the filmic Native American representation thanks to the film’s laudable ability to produce Native American characters portrayed by Native American actors who are well-developed and understandably motivated. The Sioux tribe, which US army lieutenant John Dunbar (Costner) takes residency with are represented as being a noble, democratic, inquisitive community, albeit one that lives in fear of the white men who are moving ever nearer to their territory, which makes some of them initially hostile to Dunbar’s presence.
Over time, however, Dunbar is accepted as a friend and member of the tribe, not least of all by ‘holy man’ Kicking Bird (played by Graham Greene, a member of the Oneida tribe), a gentle, wise, sometimes comical father-like figure who develops a strong friendship with Dunbar; his wife, Black Shawl (Irene Bedard), a warm-hearted yet strong-willed matriarch who offers an empowering female Native American representation thanks to her ability to successfully advise her husband on some matters; and Chief Ten Bears (Floyd Red Crow Westerman, a real-life Sioux Indian), an elderly, noble, sage-like figure.
Unfortunately, while Dances with Wolves does much to improve the Native American filmic representation, it also conforms to some of the historic stereotypes that are associated with them. Chief Ten Bears is every inch the ‘wise old chief’ that came to prominence in films like Broken Arrow (1950) and Little Big Man (1970), and the villainous Pawnee Indians are just as underdeveloped as the one-dimensional and equally savage Comanche tribe in The Searchers. Also, besides Black Shawl, female Native American characters receive very little, if any, attention at all. Therefore, it could be argued that while many of the negatively-connoted stereotypes had been marginalised in Dances with Wolves, the fact that they were still present at all meant filmic representations of Native Americans remained somewhat problematic.
One can scarcely believe under such circumstances, that only a year before Dances with Wolves was released, a white American director created an independent, low-budget film which featured a remarkable array of well-constructed Native American characters.
Jonathan Wacks’ Powwow Highway (1989) has since gone on to earn cult film status (especially amongst Native American communities) thanks in no small part to the interesting development of its two Cheyenne main characters: the angry, highly-politicised Buddy Red Bow and the gentle, spiritual Philbert Bono, portrayed by part-Blackfoot actor A Martinez and Cayuga Indian Gary Farmer respectively. Their trip from Montana to New Mexico in Philbert’s battered Buick sedan helps Buddy come to terms with his relationship to his tribal ancestry and get back to the roots of everything he has been fighting for on behalf of his tribe whilst growing to respect and even join his pal Philbert in his quest to become like an Indian warrior of old, but without any of the white-America-appointed stereotypes.Powwow Highway is a contemporary film with contemporary Native American characters, in terms of both narrative setting and representation. Moving into the 21st Century, a number of Native American directors have stepped up to fill not only the void left by the absence of a western film requiring the presence of Native American actors, but also that of a critical and box office hit film which almost exclusively features a Native American cast since the release of Seminole Indian director Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals.
Moving into the 21st Century, a number of Native American directors have stepped up to fill not only the void left by the absence of a western film requiring the presence of Native American actors, but also that of a critical and box office hit film which almost exclusively features a Native American cast since the release of Seminole Indian director Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals.
While it may not have been a box office hit, Creek Indian Sterlin Harjo’s 2007 feature-length debut Four Sheets to the Wind garnered much praise at that year’s Sundance film festival. This can, without doubt, be attributed to the fantastic characterisation and representation of its predominantly Native American cast, with Cufe and Miri Smallhill (Cody Lightening and Tamara Podemski) being the two most interesting characters. Cufe starts off as a shy slacker who leaves home for a while to stay with his sister, Miri, in her Tulsa flat and ends up a more confident and self-assured young man after developing a good friendship with Miri’s neighbour, Francie (Laura Bailey), built on lengthy conversation, which was something he previously had limited amounts of.
Miri, by contrast, lacks massively in terms of positive or meaningful relationships with people, including her brother, as she seeks immediate thrills and distractions from her difficult life in alcohol and sex. But the temporary nature of these only serve to paper over the cracks, so when she is fired from her job as a Barista at a coffee house for stealing from the cash register, and is evicted from her flat for not paying rent, Miri’s life is left in ruins. Seeing no way out of her predicament, she attempts to commit suicide, but is rescued by the timely intervention of Francie, and moves back home to live with her mother, Cora (Jeri Arredondo). In spite of the fact this action means Miri loses her empowering pseudo-feministic individuality, it also allows her to repair her strained relationship with her mother, and serves to reinforce the notion of Miri as a character who showcases a complex and interesting collective female Native American representation. Four Sheets to the Wind effectively illustrates how these self-representing films have at least managed to produce multi-dimensional characters which have informed the Native American cinematic representational portfolio.
This brings us to Disney’s 2013 live-action commercial failure, The Lone Ranger, with Jonny Depp (an actor of reputed, yet unverified Native American heritage) in the role of Tonto, and Pawnee actor Saginaw Grant in the minor role of Chief Big Bear.At face value, one would be tempted to describe the representations of these characters as an unashamed return to many of the stereotypes which have, at one time or another, been associated with filmic Native Americans; Tonto vibrant face paint harkens back to the Pawnee of Dances With Wolves and Big Bear is the ‘wise old chief’ character stereotype seen in both that film and Little Big Man, amongst others. However, the representations of these characters could be seen as an almost postmodern take on these all-too-recognisable Native American character types, offering a playful nod-and-wink to them in an unserious manner befitting the often comedic tone of the film, thereby refusing to formally endorse the encoded attitudes of production behind these historic representations.
The tale of the representations of filmic Native Americans is a problematic one, largely because those stereotypes that have been scorned by numerous scholars continue to reappear in some form, in spite of the ability of some white American directors to create empathetic, well-developed Native American characters.
Self-representational films, even though they have produced some wonderful multi-dimensional characters, still suffer from a lack of commercial attention. So how can this dilemma possibly be resolved?Does it require a well-budgeted, critically and financially successful film, directed by and featuring Native Americans to prompt a new understanding of Native Americans in mainstream film culture whilst addressing their problematic representations? Could it even come from Hollywood? Only time will tell, but all of the films I have mentioned have laid down important cinematic markers for future efforts to take note of; hopefully on their way towards an ever-greatly improved multi-dimensional and increasingly well-developed general Native American filmic representation.