22 January 2014

Images of Native Americans in US Cinema

The handling of American Indians and American Indian subject matter within the context of commercial U.S. cinema is objectively racist at all levels, an observation which extends to television as well as film. In this vein it is linked closely to literature, both fictional and non-fictional, upon which may if not most movie scripts are at least loosely based. In a very real sense, it is fair to observe that all modes of projecting concepts and images of the Indian before the contemporary American public fit the same mold, and do so for the same fundamental 'real world' reasons. This essay will attempt to come to grips with both the method and the motivation for this, albeit within a given medium and examining a somewhat restricted range of the tactics employed. The medium selected for this purpose is commercial cinema, the technique examined that of stereotypic projection. The matter divides itself somewhat automatically into three major categories of emphasis. These may be elucidated as follows.

We are all aware of the standard motion picture technique of portraying the Native American with galloping pony and flowing headdress. We have seen the tipi and the buffalo hunt, the attack on the wagon train and the ambush of the stagecoach until they are scenes so totally ingrained in the American consciousness as to be synonymous with the very concept of the American Indian (to non-Indian minds at any rate and, unfortunately, to many Indian minds as well). It is not the technical defects of the scenes depicted here - although often they are many - which present the basic problem. Rather, it is that the historical era involved spans a period scarcely exceeding 50 years duration. Hence, the Indian has been restricted in the public mind, not only in terms of the people portrayed (the Plains Nations), but in terms of the time of their collective existence (roughly 1825-1880).

The essential idea of Native America instilled cinematically is that of a quite uniform aggregation of peoples (in dress, custom and actions) which flourished with the arrival of whites upon their land and then vanished somewhat mysteriously, along with the bison and the open prairie. There is no 'before' to this story, and there is no 'after.' Such is the content of They Died With Their Boots On, Boots and Saddles, Cheyenne Autumn, Tonka Wakan and Little Big Man, to list but five examples from among hundreds. Of course, commercial film has - albeit in many fewer cases - slightly expanded the scope of the stereotype. The existence of the peoples of the Northeast receive recognition in such epics as Drums Along the Mohawk and The Deerslayer. The peoples of the Southwest have been included, to some extent, in scattered fare such as Broken Arrow, Fort Apache and Tell Them Willie Boy Was Here. The Southeastern nations even claim passing attention in efforts such as the Walt Disney Davey Crockett series and biographical features about the lives of such Euroamerican heroes as Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston.

The latter deviations from the Plains stereotype - which has assumed proportions of a valid archetype in the public consciousness - drives the timeline back some 75 years at most. A century-and-a-quarter selected for depiction is hardly better than a fifty-year span. Further, it should be noted that, costuming aside, literally all the geographical/cultural groups presented are portrayed in exactly the same manner. The point of the historical confines involved in this category is that indigenous people are defined exclusively in terms of certain (conflict and demise) interactions with Euroamericans. There is no cinematic recognition whatsoever of a white-free and autonomous native past. Similarly, no attention is paid at all to the myriad indigenous nations not heavily and dramatically involved in the final period of Anglo-Indian warfare. U.S. audiences know no Aztec, Inca or Anasazi parallel to Cleopatra, The Robe or Ben Hur. Small wonder audiences view the native as some briefly extant, mythic and usually hostile apparition. As a consequence, the public perception of the historical existence of Native Americans is of beings who spent their time serving as little other than figurative pop-up targets for non-Indian guns.

Nor is there an abundance of films attempting to deal with contemporary Indian realities. In effect, the native ceased to exist after the onset of the reservation period of the Plains peoples. This is evidence by the fact that the author could find only two films listed--biographies of Jim Thorpe and Ira Hayes, both starring Burt Lancaster--released prior to 1980 which featured the indigenous experience after 1880 in any meaningful way at all. As to current events, well... There's always the Billy Jack series: Born Losers, Billy Jack, The Trial of Billy Jack and Bill Jack Goes to Washington (the latter, thankfully, was shelved before release), utilizing the vehicle of an ex-Special Forces mixed-blood karate expert to exploit the grisly mystique of Shaft and Superfly-type superheroes (or anti-heroes, if you prefer). The result is a predictably shallow and idiotic parallel to the Batman TV series.


The single (lackluster) attempt by Hollywood to equal for American Indians what Sounder and Lady Sings the Blues have achieved for African-Americans was rapidly withdrawn from circulation as an 'embarassment.' So steeped in cellular myopia are filmdom's critics--so full, that is, of their own self-perpetuating stereotyping--that they panned the characters in Journey Through Rosebud as 'wooden Indians.' This, despite the fact that most Native Americans viewing them ranked them as the most accurate and convincing ever to come from the studios. Possibly, other films of the stature of 'Journey Through Rosebud' have been made but not released, in effect doing nothing to alter the time-warp involving American Indians in film. A result is that the US mainstream population finds itself under no particular moral and psychic obligation to confront the fact of Native America, as either an historical or topical reality.

An Anishinabe (Chippewa) friend of mine visited the Field Museum in Chicago. While examining the exhibits of American Indian artifacts located there, she came across an object which she immediately recognized as being her grandmother's root digger, an item the museum's anthropological 'experts' had identified and labeled as a 'Winnebago hide scraper.' She called the mistake to the attention of the departmental director and was told that she, not the museum, was wrong. 'If you knew anything at all about your heritage,' he informed her, 'you'd know that the tool is a hide scraper.' My friend, helpless to correct this obvious (to her) misinformation, went away. 'They never listen to the people who really know these things,' she said later. 'And so they never understand what they think they know.'

The above sad-but-true story is not unusual. It serves to illustrate a pattern in Euroamerican dealings with indigenous people which extends vastly beyond the mere identification of objects. In terms of commercial cinema and acting, the problem may be considered on the basis of 'context' and 'motivation.' Put most simply, the question of context is one in which specific acts of certain American Indians are portrayed in scenes devoid of all cultural grounding and explanation. From whence is comprehension of the real nature of these acts to come? The viewing audience is composed overwhelmingly of non-Indians who obviously hold no automatic insight into native cultures and values, yet somehow they must affix meaning to the actions presented on the screen. Scenes such as those presented in the John Ford 'classic,' Stagecoach, are fine examples of this stereotyping approach. Thus, the real acts of indigenous people - even when depicted more-or-less accurately - often appear irrational, cruel, unintelligent or silly when displayed in film.

Motivation is a more sophisticated, and consequently more dangerous, consideration. Here, a cultural context of sorts is provided, at least to some degree, but it is a context comprised exclusively of ideas, values, emotions and other meanings assigned by Euroamerica to the native cultures portrayed. Insofar as indigenous American Euro-derived worldviews are radically and demonstrably different in almost every way, such a projection can only serve to misrepresent dramatically the native cultures involved and render them nonsensical at best. Such misrepresentation serves two major stereotyping functions. Since the complex of dominant and comparatively monolithic cultural values and beliefs of Eurocentrism presently held by the bulk of the US population are utilized to provide motivation for virtually all American Indians portrayed in commercial film, all native values and beliefs appear to be lumped together into a single homogeneous and consistent whole, regardless of actual variances and distinctions.

Given that the cultural values and beliefs extended as the contextual basis for motivation are misrepresentative of the actual cultural context of Native America--and are thus totally out of alignment with the actions portrayed--the behavior of American Indians is often made to appear more uniformly vicious, crude, primitive and unintelligent than in cases where context and motivation are dispensed with altogether.

A primary device used by Hollywood to attach Eurocentric values to native acts has been to script a white character to narrate the story-line. Films such as Cheyenne Autumn, A Man Called Horse (and its sequels), Soldier Blue and Little Big Man exemplify the point. Each purports to provide an 'accurate and sympathetic treatment of the American Indian' (of yesteryear) while utterly crushing native identity under the heel of Euroamerican interpretation. To date, all claims to the contrary notwithstanding, there has not been one attempt to put out a commercial film which deals with native reality through native eyes.

This third category is in some ways a synthesis of the preceding two. It has, however, assumed an identity of its own which extends far beyond the scope of the others. Within this area lies the implied assumption that distinctions between cultural groupings of indigenous people are either nonexistent (ignorance) or irrelevant (arrogance). Given this attitude regarding the portrayal of Indians in film, it is inevitable that the native be reduced from reality to a strange amalgamation of dress, speech, custom and belief. All vestiges of truth - and thereby of intercultural understanding - give way here before the onslaught of movieland's mythic creation.

The film 'A Man Called Horse' may serve as an example. This droll adventure, promoted as 'the most authentic description of North American Indian life ever filmed,' depicts a people whose language is Lakota, whose hairstyles range from Assiniboin through Nez Perce to Comanche, whose tipi design is Crow, and whose Sun Dance ceremony and the lodge in which it is held are both typically Mandan. They are referred to throughout the film as 'Sioux,' but to which group do they supposedly belong? Secungu (Brule)? Oglala? Santee? Sisseton? Yanktonai? Minneconjou? Hunkpapa? Those generically--and rather pejoratively--called 'Sioux' were/are of three major geographic/cultural divisions: the Dakotas of the Minnesota woodlands, the Nakotas of the prairie region east of the Missouri River, and the Lakotas of the high plains proper. These groups were/are quite distinct from one another, and the distinctions do make a difference in terms of accuracy and 'authenticity.'

The source material utilized to create the cinematic imagery involved in A Man Called Horse was the large number of portraits of American Indians executed by George Catlin during the first half of the 19th century and now housed in the Smithsonian Institution. However, while Catlin was meticulous in attributing tribal and even band affiliations to the subjects of his paintings, the film-makers were not. The result is a massive misrepresentation of a whole variety of real peoples, aspects of whose cultures are incorporated, gratuitously, into that of the hybrid 'Indians' who inhabit the movie.

Nor does the dismemberment of reality in this 'most realistic of westerns' end with visual catastrophe. The door to cultural reduction is merely opened by such devices. Both the rationale and spiritual ramifications of the Sun Dance are voided by the film's Eurocentric explanation of its form and function. Thus is the Lakota's central and most profoundly sacred of all ceremonies converted into a macho exercise in 'self-mutilation,' a 'primitive initiation rite' showing that the Indian male could 'take it.' It follows that the film's Anglo lead (Richard Harris) must prove that he is 'as tough as the Sioux' by eagerly seeking out his fair share of pain during a Sun Dance. Just bloody up your chest and no further questions will be asked. How quaint.

This, of course, paves the way for the Harris character to become leader of the group. The Sioux, once they have been reduced to little more than a gaggle of prideful masochists, are readily shown to be possessed of little collective intellect. Hence, it becomes necessary for the Anglo captive to save his savage captors from an even more ferocious group of primitives coming over the hill. He manages this somewhat spectacular feat by instructing his aboriginal colleagues in the finer points of using the bow, a weapon in uninterrupted use by the people in question for several hundred generations, and out of use by the English for about 200 years at the time the events in the film supposedly occur. But no matter the trivial details. The presumed inherent superiority of Eurocentric minds has once again been demonstrated for all the world to witness. All that was necessary to accomplish this was to replace a bona fide native culture with something else.

The technique employed in A Man Called Horse is by no means novel or unique. Even the highly-touted (in terms of making Indians 'the good guys') Billy Jack series could never lock in any specific people it sought to portray. The Indians depicted remain a weird confluence of Navajos and various Pueblos, occasionally practicing what appear to be bastardizations of Cheyenne and Kiowa ceremonies. All the better to trot them around as props for every non-Indian fad from the benefits of macrobiotic cookery to those of Aikido karate.

It is elementary logic to realize that when the cultural identity of a people is symbolically demolished, the achievements and very humanity of that people must also be disregarded. The people, as such, disappear, usually to the benefit--both material and psychic--of those performing the symbolic demolition. There are accurate and appropriate terms which describe this: dehumanization, obliteration or appropriation of identity, political subordination and material colonization are all elements of a common process of imperialism. This is the real meaning of Hollywood's stereotyping of American Indians.

It should be relatively easy at this point to identify film stereotyping of American Indians as an accurate reflection of the actual conduct of the Euroamerican population vis-a-vis Native America in both historical and topical senses. North American indigenous peoples have been reduced in terms of cultural identity within the popular consciousness--through a combination of movie treatments, television programming and distortive literature--to a point where the general public perceives them as extinct for all practical intents and purposes. Given that they no longer exist, that which was theirs--whether land and the resources on and beneath it, or their heritage--can now be said, without pangs of guilt, to belong to those who displaced and ultimately supplanted them. Such is one function of cinematic stereotyping within North America's advanced colonial empire.

Another is to quell potential remorse among the population at large. Genocide is, after all, an extremely ugly word. Far better that the contemporary mainstream believe their antecedents destroyed mindless and intrinsically warlike savages, devoid of true culture and humanity, rather than that they systematically exterminated whole societies of highly intelligent and accomplished human beings who desired nothing so much as to be left in peace. Far better for their descendants if the Euroamerican invaders engaged in slaughter only in self-defense, when confronted with hordes of irrationally bloodthirsty heathen beasts, rather than coldly and calculatedly committing mass murder, planning step by step the eradication of the newest-born infants. 'Nits make lice,' to quote US Colonel John M. Chivington.

Filmdom's handling of 'history' in this regard is, with only a few marginal exceptions, nothing more or less than an elaborate denial of European/Euroamerican criminality on the American continent for over the past 350 years. Implicitly then, it is an unbridled justification and glorification of the conquest and subordination of Native America. As such, it is a vitally necessary ingredient in the maintenance and perfection of the Euroempire which began when the Pilgrims landed in 1620. Hollywood's performance on this score has been, overall, what one might have legitimately expected to see from the heirs to Leni Riefenstahl, had the Third Reich won its War in the East during the 1940s.

As the Oneida comedian Charlie Hill has observed, the portrayal of Indians in the cinema has been such that it has made the playing of 'Cowboys and Indians' a favorite American childhood game. The object of the 'sport' is for the 'cowboys' to 'kill' all the 'Indians,' just like in the movies. A bitter irony associated with this is that Indian as well as non-Indian children heatedly demand to be identified as cowboys, a not unnatural outcome under the circumstances, but on which speaks volumes to the damage done to the American Indian self-concept by movie propaganda. The meaning of this, as Hill notes, can best be appreciated if one were to imagine that the children were instead engaging in a game called 'nazis and Jews.'

That movieland's image of the Indian is completely false--and often shoddily so--is entirely to the point. Only a completely false creation could be used to explain in 'positive terms' what has actually happened in the Americas throughout centuries past. Only a literal blocking of modern realities can be used to rationalize present circumstances. Only a concerted effort to debunk Hollywood's mythology can alter the situation for the better. While it's true that the immortal words of General Phil Sheridan--'The only good Indian is a dead Indian'--have continued to enjoy a certain appeal with the American body politic, and equally true that dead Indians are hardly in a position to call the liars to account for their deeds, there are a few of us left out here who might be up to the task.

[This is a slightly edited reprint of an essay originally written by Ward Churchill, which appeared under the title 'Fantasies of the Master Race: Categories of Stereotyping of American Indians in Film' in Churchill's 1992 book Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema and the Colonization of American Indians (Common Courage Press, pp. 231-241; revised edition published in 1998 by Clear Light Books). The book also includes his review of Dances With Wolves that further highlights the inherent white supremacy of Hollywood cinema. Broader issues of the depiction of Native Peoples in American history were previously addressed by Robert Berkhofer in The White Man's Indian (Vintage Books, 1979) and Angela Aleiss explores the topic at length as it pertains to cinema in her recent book Making the White Man's Indian (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005). Readers interested in this topic might also find useful the documentaries Reel Injun (2009) and Images of Indians (2003)the latter featuring commentary by Ward Churchill.]


  1. I think you need to cite some of your references, you are stating the words of Ward Churchill, Shohat and Stam among many others as your own. PLAGIARISM! But other than that, good overview...apart from its not your own!!

    1. Thanks for the feedback and glad you enjoyed it! Actually, this is entirely a reprinted article by Churchill. Full citation of the original article is given at the end of the piece.