Native Americans and Cinema

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Native Americans and Cinema


The representation of Native Americans in mainstream films throughout movie history corroborates the story of colonization of indigenous peoples and their homelands beginning in the sixteenth century, with Spain, France, England, and Portugal claiming ownership of "America" and the "New World." There are more films than books written about Native Americans, whose designated film role became known as the "Indian." The "Indian" in movie portrayals established a film stereotype that continues to serve the marketing interests of the highest-grossing entertainment industry today. In 1995, with reported earnings of $31.9 billion that year, the Walt Disney Company released an animated version of Pocahontas, a story perpetuating the view of "Indians" as obstacles to British explorers arrived to civilize the "New World."


The popular use of the term the "American West" by early historians was a natural segue for what became the "western" film genre identified by film historians. Classic "westerns" in the 1930s and 1940s featured recognizable plots in which tension and ambiguity are expressed by white settlers as they came into contact with the wilderness and "Indians" who were portrayed as uncivilized and violent. John Ford (1894–1973), the master European American filmmaker who began making movies during the silent era, produced many western films; his most famous silent western, The Iron Horse (1924), featured eight hundred Pawnee, Sioux, and Cheyenne Indians along with twenty-eight hundred horses, thirteen hundred buffalo, and ten thousand Texas steers. The film was a mythic version of the completion of the trans-continental railroad in 1869. Ford almost single-handedly rewrote American Western history by codifying conventions of the western genre, including those related to the representations of Indians in such films as Stagecoach (1939), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950), The Searchers (1956), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964), his farewell to the western film tradition he helped found.

Of the Ford films, The Searchers openly promoted a white European American perspective, invoking a deep-seated anti-Indian sentiment buried in the character of Ethan Edwards, portrayed by actor John Wayne. The story concerns the murder of white families and children and the theft of a surviving female child by Comanche "Indian" raiders. While professing to understand the Indians, Ethan demonstrates a racist thirst for revenge, as when he points and shoots at the eyes of an already dead Comanche warrior so that, according to "Indian" belief, he cannot enter heaven. This is in marked contrast to the next scene, showing a proper Christian burial for a white man. The film offers numerous negative biases regarding the "Indian," whereby viewers begin to think that Indians deserve to be punished or exterminated to make way for white settlement. This is most obvious in the story line's focus on the search for the stolen child, Debbie, who is now a young adult (Natalie Wood). Ethan's open hatred for Indians plays into his derision for Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) who was taken in by Debbie's family and has Cherokee blood. Martin's compassion for Indians is brought to a standstill during their search when Martin is given a fat Indian wife who is used as comic relief. The Indian woman expects to sleep with Martin but instead he kicks her, causing her to roll down a hill, making her the butt of the joke. Ethan and Martin continue their quest by locating Debbie, who is found living in an Indian camp with an Indian chief, Scar (Henry Brandon). The unacceptability of this scenario is such that Ethan would rather see her dead than allow her to stay with her Indian captors. It is true that Ethan changes his mind about killing Debbie at the last moment, but this "rescue" is an ironic happy ending that at once provides narrative closure and invites questioning about Ford's use of racist stereotypes to promote sympathy for white settlement in the West.

Ford's films are often cited for his cinematic use of the Southwest's desert topography, which he made famous by framing his characters within the naturally sculptured land formations called Monument Valley. Ford's use of that landscape also established the West as an empty wilderness just prior to being colonized by white settlement. Similarly, Ford's Cheyenne Autumn endorses Manifest Destiny in that the wilderness must be "tamed" by the imprisonment of Cheyenne Indians by the US military. Although numerous film critics have suggested that Cheyenne Autumn was Ford's apology to Indians for his earlier negative portrayal of them, this view is not warranted. In the film, defeated Indians fight with one another, captured by the army and held captive until their fate is decided by a US official in Washington, D.C. Also, white actors portrayed key roles as Cheyenne chiefs in the film and a Mexican woman who gave birth to Cheyenne sons was played by the Mexican actress Delores Del Rio.

The popularity of the major studios' western films peaked during World War II; the commercial availability of television in the late 1940s led to a reduction in the number of big-budget westerns filmed on location. Actual Native Americans appearing in Hollywood westerns as warring "Indians" became victims of exploitation by white filmmakers, who transported them from their reservations to work in Hollywood, paying them with alcohol and tobacco to appear in battle scenes. The history of Indian movie extras being financially exploited and mistreated by white filmmakers was consistent with the mass exploitation of Native Americans during the "settling" of the West. Since the inception of Hollywood cinema, not one Native American has sustained a career as a film director, including James Young Deer (d. 1946), a Winnebago (a tribe also referred to as Ho Chunk) who directed Yaqui Girl (1910), and Edwin Carewe (1883–1940), a Chickasaw, who directed the first version of Ramona (1928).


Despite the fact that a diversity of indigenous peoples had a legal and historical significance in the formation of every new country founded in the western hemisphere, in the United States and Canada the term "Indians" became a hegemonic designation implying that they were all the same in regards to culture, behavior, language, and social organization. The view of Indians as savage and uncivilized was repeated in early films and crystallized the image of "Indians" as dangerous and unacceptable to the normative lives of European immigrants whose lives appeared in films to be more valuable than those of the indigenous people they were colonizing. Mainstream films featuring Indians have been glacially slow in changing any part of this running narrative of conquest. Native Americans today seek to rectify and balance the one-sided, stock image of Indians as ignorant, distrustful, and undesirable through continued work in the film industry.

The availability of acting roles for Native Americans to portray "Indians" in films was essentially limited to westerns, which came complete with stock accoutrements of feathers and buckskin dress that accommodated at least four distinct Indian tribes: Apache, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Sioux. In the 1950s and into the 1960s, western films featured more sympathetic native characters, but even here Indians were played by white actors, including Jeff Chandler, who received an Academy Award® for his portrayal of Apache leader Cochise in Broken Arrow (1950).

By 1970, divided social opinion about the Vietnam War gave further impetus to this trend in films such as Little Big Man (1970). The film featured Native American chief Dan George (1899–1981), an Aboriginal Squamish from Canada, as one of the main characters. Directed by Arthur Penn, Little Big Man received high acclaim for Chief George, but it was the white actor Dustin Hoffman who received the most attention as the film's primary protagonist, Jack Crabb. However, Little Big Man was a breakthrough in that it was a major film with a Native American in a major speaking role. In the 1960s, the political upheavals in the United States resulting from both antiwar protests and civil rights issues set a precedent for agitated Native Americans who became involved in open resistance in an effort to call attention to the social consequences of colonial policies that left many Native Americans destitute and impoverished on Indian reservations. The American Indian Movement (AIM) held protests in front of theaters showing films about Indians they felt glamorized the demise of Indians, such as A Man Called Horse (1970). Also, during the early 1970s, other commercial films that capitalized on the social climate of the times involved a retelling of a historical massacre of the Cheyenne in Soldier Blue (1970), and the story of a half-blood Indian Vietnam War veteran named Billy Jack (1971).

In the 1990s Dances with Wolves (1990), directed by and starring Kevin Costner, was perhaps the most popular western of the decade that featured Indians. Costner's film changed the shooting location of earlier westerns, using some one thousand buffalo, five hundred Indians, and as many horses in the high plains of South Dakota, the homeland of the Sioux, rather than Monument Valley. The film used native actors to speak Lakota, the indigenous language of the Sioux, and often positioned the camera inside Indian tipi lodges and in the encampment where a white female, captured as a child, was now fluently speaking and behaving as an Indian; these features added to the film's feeling of authenticity. The film almost romanticizes the ending scene where the Lakota are hiding out in the mountains, trying to escape their inevitable fate at the hands of Manifest Destiny as the US Cavalry pursues them, the last free Sioux Indians on the Plains. Dances with Wolves signaled to Native Americans that no major change had actually taken place in films, as the basic tenets of white domination and colonization were still shown as inevitable, even if tragic, and Indians forever resigned to defeat on reservations set aside for them by a colonial power.

In the early 1970s the anthropologists Sol Worth and John Adair taught a group of Navajo youths how to shoot and edit films, and left to their own approach, they produced a series of seven films described in the book, Through Navajo Eyes, originally published in 1972. In the 1990s young, educated, and highly motivated Native Americans were encouraged by the success of Dances with Wolves to seek to produce their own successes. However, the opportunities to work in mainstream films were limited to working as "Indian extras"; thus, few chances to actually produce or direct their own films did not materialize. However, the desire by individual Native Americans to make their own films became stronger. Between 1990 and 2000, a Native American film movement was born, with numerous Native Americans enrolled in film schools while others strived to complete college degrees in all fields of study, with particular emphasis in law, medicine, and the sciences.

The director Chris Eyre and the writer-producer Sherman Alexie embarked on a film project that could have only happened after many previous and unsuccessful attempts by other Native Americans to produce a feature film backed by a major studio or production company. Eyre graduated from New York University's film program, and Alexie received a degree from Washington State University and became a writer. His critically acclaimed serial novel, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven (1993), provided the groundwork for Eyre to collaborate with Alexie on Smoke Signals (1998), about a contemporary native community with a mostly native cast. The film was purchased by Miramax Films distribution after its debut at the Sundance Film Festival and released in mainstream theaters. Since its success, Eyre and Alexie have continued to produce films independently. Eyre's subsequent films include Skins (2002) and Skinwalkers (2002), and Alexie directed The Business of Fancydancing (2002). Hopefully, these and subsequent native-made films will in time help reframe the historical misperception of indigenous peoples.

SEE ALSO Ideology;Race and Ethnicity;Westerns


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Beverly R. Singer

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Native Americans and Cinema