Rabbit-Proof Fence is my favorite big-screen movie of American Indians.
But that’s an Australian movie, you say? Yep. The best film of American Indians is a Down Under 2002 movie about aboriginals without a loin-cloth, smear of war paint or drop of firewater in sight. It’s the story of three young mixed-race girls who find their way home after being ripped away from their parents in 1931 by the government and trained to focus on their “white side” so they can become somebody’s servants. A few critics have complained that this based-on-a-true-story movie goes overboard in demonizing the main white character (Kenneth Branagh) and depicting most other whites of the era as deeply bigoted, morally uncourageous paternalists. What could the director have been thinking?
The American version of Rabbit-Proof Fence has been out there for the telling ever since Thomas Edison showed his “movie” Hopi Snake Dance at the Columbian World Exposition in Chicago in 1893 on the brand-new kinetoscope his staff had developed. It’s the story of how American Indian children were torn from their customs, religions, languages, tribes and parents by demons and paternalists who saw cultural genocide as the proper modern alternative to the centuries-old physical genocide that had become no longer an acceptable course of action. But of all the hundreds of movie Westerns depicting Indians, this story has failed to generate excitement among four or five generations of movie-makers. Instead, the Hollywood Indian has prevailed.
As Ted Jojola, an Isleta Pueblo Indian and associate professor at the University of New Mexico, wrote in his 1998 essay, “Absurd Reality II: Hollywood Goes to the Indians,” Edison’s choice presented a stereotypical view of American Indians that would ...
“...persist into contemporary times. Its longevity though, is explained by the persistence of myth and symbol. The Indian became a genuine American symbol whose distorted origins are attributed to the folklore of Christopher Columbus when he ‘discovered’ the ‘New World.’ Since then the film industry, or Hollywood, has never allowed Native America to forget it. The Hollywood Indian is a mythological being who exists nowhere but within the fertile imaginations of its movie actors, producers and directors. The preponderance of such movie images have reduced native people to ignoble stereotypes.”
It should not go without mentioning that Frederick Jackson Turner presented his The Significance of the Frontier in American History" in Chicago the same year as Edison’s movie. Turner’s acclaimed thesis was that the frontier had shaped America and the American character, but that it had closed in 1890, that being, not coincidentally, the year the 7th Cavalry got revenge for Custer by slaughtering 300 or so Lakotas at Wounded Knee Creek. While Turner’s thesis has subsequently been deeply critiqued, it held sway among academics and others for a century and still resonates for some today.
What this has meant for the movies is the same as you see in most school textbooks: The end of the frontier marks the end of the Indian. With few exceptions – and none of them even close to the epic films that reinforced the dime-novel, wild-west-show image of Indians that was well-formed before the turn of the 20th Century – most movies about or including Indians have been displays of racism and ahistoricity. They have performed a cultural genocide no different, but a great deal more widespread, than the Indian boarding schools of America which started long before the whitification schools of Australia were pressed into service. The best of these movies, however, have been finely crafted, deeply entertaining and gorgeously photographed productions, enjoyable for all kinds of reasons if only you can keep yourself from retching during certain segments.
That wasn’t a problem when I was young. As a kid, if it was movie, I tried to see it. The only real theater was 30 miles away, a trip we rarely made, even more rarely for entertainment purposes. But some entrepreneur had struck a deal with the local board and installed a screen in the auditorium of the consolidated junior-senior high school where I lived in southwest Georgia. We used to sneak in to avoid paying whatever the going rate was for a Saturday matinee. A dime? A quarter? I can’t remember. I do know that in my extended family at the time, admission was too expensive to hand out to my dozen cousins and me, so we winged it.
When we came home, we drove my grandfather crazy playing cowboys-and-Indians. None of us Seminoles and Creeks wanted, of course, to be Indians in our game because of what we saw in those movies. Not that there were usually any real Indians to watch, but reenacting the demeanor of heavily made-up white warriors and suffering their fate was not the kind of thing any sane kid would repeatedly choose for fun. The youngest of us usually caught those roles. I was nearly 16 before I figured out how screwed-up it all was.
I shouldn’t have to say this in a progressive venue, but I’m going to anyway because I don’t wish to be misunderstood. For everyone, Indian or non-Indian (as well as part-Indian and part-something else), movies are subjective. We bring to the theatre (or wherever we watch movies) all our varied prejudices, upbringings, cultural quirks, generational specificities, gender and ethnic contexts, our urban sensibility or ruralness, our economic class and geography, just as we do to every venue in the rest of our lives.
Our unique mixtures make us focus on different things. My longtime Kiowa friend Tim Kloberdanz loved Dances with Wolves and nearly walked out on Last of the Mohicans.From beginning to end I hated the Kevin Costner film (a bad remake of Little Big Man) and fully enjoyed the flawed Mohicans, including watching the then-53-year-old Russell Means sprint youthfully through the forest in a muck-up of James Fenimore Cooper’s original novel. I’m just trying to say, to be really, really clear about this, just as all European Americans and African Americans and Asian Americans don’t think alike, all Lakota, Navajo, Haudenosee and Seminoles don’t think alike. So, for anyone to whom it isn’t already obvious, as I comment below on four movies about American Indians, let me reiterate: I speak only for myself.
While our viewing of movies is subjective, however, the making of movies is something else entirely. Without getting into specifics of capitalism and empire, the reinforcement of the dominant paradigm and the adherence to cultural norms, it’s no news to anybody that movies, including some of the most aesthetically pleasing, have been tools of societal propaganda. John Ford’s career shows just how complex that can be. Why pick on somebody who made his last film more than 40 years ago? And clearly one of the best and most prolific directors of all time? Because he did more to shape the quintessential Western than anybody, and thus the image of the Hollywood Indian.
Richard Maltby has written that Ford’s movies were intended to be false historical representations. And Ken Nolley, English Professor at Willamette University in “The Representation of Conquest: John Ford and the Hollywood Indian: 1939-1964” wrote:
“If fictional representations are taken as history, they have real historical consequences. In this sense, Ford’s films function as if they were historical texts, constructing a sense of Native American life on the frontier, participating in the social and political debates of the era in which they were produced, and helping to construct much of what still stands for popular historical knowledge of Native American life.”During World War II, like many Hollywood directors, Ford made a couple of real propaganda films. But it was his shaping of the genre of the Western in which he made his greatest contribution. In these epic, poetic, panoramic, big-story movies, although no real Indians appear as stars, the Indian myth is ever present. The trajectory from Stagecoach in 1939 to The Searchers in 1956 to Cheyenne Autumn in 1964 takes us from crude racism through semi-critique to soppy sympathy.
In almost every Top 100 movies, The Searchers appears. This year, it was named the No. 1 Western ever by the American Film Institute. (Ford’s Stagecoach clocked in at No. 9.) Because my Libyan-raised stepdaughter was taking a film class this semester and her teacher told her about this movie, I watched it for the first time in 15 years a couple of months ago. It was a rough go.
In its own time half a century ago, The Searchers was not particularly popular with the critics. It has since come to be seen as perhaps the director’s best. John Wayne, Ford’s star in 24 films, called it his favorite part. That role was one of redemption as lonely, cynical, “redskin”-hating, Confederate war veteran “Ethan” seeks to find his niece “Debbie” (Natalie Wood) – abducted as a girl by Comanches – to kill her and end the misery of living among these savages. His turning point comes when he rescues her after five years of searching and at the last minute chooses not to blow her brains out for being “soiled.” Many critics see the film as a critique of anti-Indian racism. Ford’s insertion of miscegenation at a time when this was nearly taboo in Hollywood gives this view more credence.
I don’t buy it. For all its scenic beauty, angst-ridden characters and skillful story-telling The Searchers does nothing to erase the myth – that is, the lie – of the American Indian created in his (and a multitude of other directors’) movies. In part, that’s because Wayne’s characters are so often Indian-killers in Ford’s films, and that carries over even though “Ethan” certainly was Wayne at his best and most nuanced. The fundamental problems are the same as in all Ford’s films as regards Indians: The narrative is defined by white characters and white consciousness. Everything, even the choice of music, plays to the white audience’s sensibilities. In most of his films, it is true, there are good Indians and bad. You can tell which are which with ease. The good Indians don’t resist.
In The Searchers, there are good and bad whites. White atrocities, too. But there are no good Indians. Chief Scar (Henry Brandon) is presented as Ethan’s red reflection, nasty, brutal, hateful. But we don’t get his full story in order to humanize him, nor that of any other Indian in the movie. What we do get, for example, are scenes like that when the 7th Cavalry herds captives after a raid into a fort. Ethan and the mixed-blood Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) check out the white captives in the fort’s chapel. One of them is a crazed young woman who screeches and rocks her battered doll (which turns out to be Debbie’s). A pair of obviously crazy girls hug each other. In keeping with his character, Ethan views them with disgust.
But what is the audience to think? Why is this woman whacked out; why have these girls gone insane? Comanche life is the film’s unspoken reply. In fact, from long before the Republic was founded, most captives taken by Indians as young children had to be forcibly returned to their white parents if they were “rescued” after a few years, and many subsequently ran away back to the tribes. The historical “Debbie,” Cynthia Parker, was abducted in a Comanche raid in 1836, recaptured in 1860, and died four years later, having never readjusted to white society. Her son was the famous Comanche chief Quanah Parker, who warred on whites until 1875 and then adjusted quite well to the white world, so much so that today some Comanches (Numunuu) still consider him a sell-out for an agreement he signed in 1892.
At the same time Debbie is rescued, Ethan takes out his anger on the dead Chief Scar by scalping him, which, if you want to go there, has all kinds of layered psycho-sexual meaning regarding Ethan’s view of the raping, marauding, savage Comanche tainting the white woman, and Ethan’s unconsummated love for his brother’s wife that appears as a loud whisper in the earliest frames of the film.
A word, too, about the use of that stunning Southwest topography. Nearly every outdoor frame shows the West as wilderness, untamed, unpopulated, ready and waiting for white settlement, a reiteration of one of the oldest myths since Englishmen landed in the Western hemisphere.
Ford reportedly said: “My sympathy was always with the Indians.” At some level, that is undoubtedly true. But that was not the overall impact of his films, including The Searchers, with the partial exception of Cheyenne Autumn, his last Western, and one that some might take as an attempt to make up for all the others he made. Had that movie been told from the Indian point of view, instead of through the lens of white romance, and with Indians instead of “Indians” in lead roles, sympathy might have turned into something more powerful.
While you’re waiting for me to change reels, let me recommend six books on the subject of Indians in film that are part of my library.
The White Man’s Indian (1977) by Robert F. Berkhofer
Hollywood’s Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film. (1998) edited by Peter Rollins and John E. O’Connor. In the foreward, the late ethnographer Wilcomb E. Washburn writes:
Critics can easily find ... incorrect and anomalous details in any number of Indian films. Others will apply questionable abstractions, such as “collective wish fulfillment patterns” in interpreting Indian films. Still others will use the past to comment on the present (for example, Soldier Blue or Little Big Man which allude to the Vietnam War). Few will agree on what films truly represent the American Indian, but no one should be deterred from debating the question. The “historical reality” – if one can accept the concept at all – will always remain elusive, speculative, and controversial.The whole anthology is terrific, but especially Ted Jojola’s essay, “Absurd Reality II: Hollywood Goes to the Indians”; Ken Nolley’s essay, “The Representation of Conquest: John Ford and the Hollywood Indian”; James Sandos and Larry Burgess’ “The Hollywood Indian vs. Native Americans: Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here”; and Amanda J. Cobb’s “This Is What It Means to Say Smoke Signals. If you only read one book on Indians in film, this would be a good one.
Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema and the Colonization of American Indians (1998) by Ward Churchill. I’ve had massive personal, professional and ideological differences with Ward Churchill over the years, but this book of his is worth the read.
The Book Of Westerns (1996), edited by Ian Cameron and Douglas Pye, especially the essay by Richard Maltby titled “A Better Sense of History: John Ford and the Indians”
Wiping the War Paint Off the Lens: Native American Film and Video (2001) by Beverly R. Singer and Robert Warrior
Making the White Man's Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies (2005) by Angela Aleiss.
Communicating with images can be more difficult than communicating with words. Despite being worth a thousand words, pictures – moving or not – are more subject than words to misinterpretation by the viewer taking in these images on an emotional and sensory level. Combine that with the fact that, from the beginning, the depiction of Indians in the movies has been designed to meet the needs of non-Indians, to fit them within the master narrative, and you come to understand why Hollywood Indians are far from real.
Some films made attempts to depict Indians differently from the myth. Or rather, to depict the whites who interacted with them more accurately. For instance, there’s The Half Breed (1950 – greedy traders), Apache (1954 - crooked Indian agents), Run of the Arrow (1956 – bad soldiers). But, with the partial exception of Cheyenne Autumn, there’s no whole-hearted attempt to demolish the myth.
Two films came out in 1970 marked a distinct change in movie-making about Indians. The ultra-violent (by the standards of the day) Soldier Blue was rather quickly forgotten. The other, Little Big Man, continues to be discussed by critics, revisionist critics and re-revisionist critics to this day.
Filmed as they were in the midst of America’s longest single conflict, both films made allusions to Vietnam by means of fictionalizing two massacres of Indians, at Sand Creek in Colorado in 1864 and at the Washita River in Kansas in1868.
In Soldier Blue, directed by Ralph Nelson, Candice Bergen plays Cresta, a one-time captive of the Cheyenne who, along Private Honus Gant (Peter Strauss), has survived the killing of an Army unit by Cheyenne intent on getting money for rifles. Bergen sympathizes with the Cheyenne.
Honus: 21 men [were killed]!She’s not, of course. What happens next is that Honus seeks to keep the Indians from getting the rifles from a sleazy trader (Donald Pleasance) while Cresta tries to persuade him that they need those guns for self-defense. Next thing you know, the Cheyenne have been attacked, and soldiers indiscriminately kill men, women and children. There’s a graphic rape scene, and bullets tearing flesh (something audiences had not yet been subjected to for the most part). In real life, many of the soldiers of the Third Colorado volunteers who attacked the Cheyenne-Arapaho encampment cut off breasts and scrota to be made into tobacco pouches and paraded back into Denver with Indian scalps hanging from their saddles.
Cresta: A drop in the old bucket.
Honus: A what!?
Cresta: It's not the army, Soldier Blue. They're not the ones being killed off in this damn fool country.
Honus: Our country, Miss Lee, is neither damned nor foolish.
Honus: Miss Lee, you have a most profane way of speaking.
Cresta: You should hear me in Chyenne, you want to? Na...
Cresta: Good brave lads, coming out here to kill themselves a real live Indian. Putting up their forts in a country they got no claim to. What do you expect the Indians to do: sit back on their butts while the Army takes over their land?
Honus: You saw for yourself what they did: taking off scalps.
Cresta: Yeah, and who told them that little trick? The white men.
Honus: And cutting off their hands and cutting off feet and cutting off ... [shuts up]
Cresta: I know what they cut off, but at least they don't make tobacco pouches out of them, that's something else you soldier boys made up.
Honus: You're lying.
Cresta: Did you ever see an Indian camp after the Army has been there, huh!? Did you ever see the women and what was done to them before they were killed? Ever see the little boys and girls stuck on the long knives, hrm!? Stuck and dying? Well, I have!
Honus: You're lying.
Cresta [after a pause]: Go to sleep.
Honus: You're lying.
To be sure, Soldier Blue is no great movie. Weak acting, a story with plot holes big enough to drive a Conestoga through, and, again, no Indians in lead roles, although the Mexicans chosen for some parts no doubt could claim some native blood. Moreover, the wiping-out of soldiers that begins the movie was not the reason the Third Colorado was sent to Sand Creek in '64. Once again, the story is told from the point of view of whites, though of whites with different perspectives.
Soldier Blue was, of course, overwhelmed by Arthur Penn’s tragic satire and social critique, Little Big Man. The young Dustin Hoffman gives a twangy, gravelly voice to the narration of 121-year-old Jack Crabb, a survivor of Indian and white massacres, Colonel Custer’s “Last Stand,” and a host of other “adventures.” For the first time in a blockbuster, an Indian – a real Indian – portrays a fully realized character. Dan George (Tsleil-Waututh [Salish]) plays Old Lodge Skins, the young Crabb’s adopted grandfather and mentor. Other Indians play major and minor roles, and considerable attention is paid to accuracy in costuming and, especially, some Cheyenne customs.
Margo Kasdan and Susan Tavernetti write in “Native Americans in a Revisionist Western: Little Big Man, 1970”:
The film criticizes America’s historical military aggression against Indians by graphically dramatizing an overwhelming military force employed against a technologically primitive people. Viewers at the time may have connected the portrayed genocide of the Indians to America’s attack on the Vietnamese people..
That military aggression is depicted in an almost elegiac manner, when, out of the morning mist, to the strains of “Garry Owen,” Custer’s 7th Cavalry comes riding into the village where Crabb lives a happy and lusty life with his wife and the Cheyenne. In a brutally realistic scene that he watches in the snow across the river, she is shot repeatedly as she tries to escape with their baby. It’s the fictional version of the real-life massacre on the Washita in '68, where Black Kettle, the Cheyenne who had managed to survive Sand Creek four years earlier, is gunned down along with his wife and anywhere from 50 to 100 Indians, twice as many women and children as warriors, according to one on-the-scene officer who resigned his commission in protest.
Much of Little Big Man is played for laughs, and at everybody’s expense, with Old Lodge Skins often making jokes about himself, as when he goes off to die, but doesn’t, finally opening his eyes to rise and offer another bit of his wisdom: “Sometimes the magic works; sometimes it doesn’t.”
While Little Big Man sharply criticizes white society, its turning of the tables is problematic in that it goes from the old depiction of Indians as “savage” savages to a new one, of the “noble” savage, in its own way as dehumanizing as its predecessor. The savage-savage and noble-savage motifs are not new, just new in the age of movies. But save that discussion for another time.
Furthermore, some portrayals in the film are positively offensive. For instance, Little Horse (Robert Little Star) is a flouncing, lisping, stereotypically gay man who is supposed to represent the heemaneh, men among various Plains tribes who had sexually ambiguous roles, but were respected for their spiritual and other contributions. In the film, however, Little Horse is played strictly for laughs and ridicule.
There are other problems. Kasdan and Tavernetti write:
”...the depiction of the Cheyenne women suggests a Sixties stereotype with a comic twist. They personify the “natural” women of the era who engaged in communal living and practiced sexual freedom. The film introduces Sunshine as a strong woman courageously giving birth in hiding while soldiers slaughter her people in a nearby encampment. Later Sunshine goes off alone like a wild creature to deliver her second child, when actually ... Cheyenne women were always accompanied by their mother or another woman invited by the mother. Subsequently, Sunshine is portrayed as a coy child-wife, unhampered by puritanical constraints about monogamy and fidelity; she insists on sharing her husband with each of her three sisters who are, in turn, more than willing collaborators. A scene of communal lovemaking in the teepee mirrors the image of a hippie commune, and reflects the free-love, open-marriage ethos associated with the Sixties.In other words, Little Big Man meets Easy Rider. The reality? Cheyenne culture maintained strict rules of chastity and rigidly defined courtship over several years.
However, even though no Jack Crabb ever spoke to Custer like this, if you were an Indian sitting in the theater when the movie first screened, you couldn’t help grinning at this inspired bit of dialog after Custer is warned about going into Medicine Tail Coulee near the river the Indians know as the Greasy Grass and that is known ever after as Little Big Horn:
Custer: What do you say, mule skinner? Should I go down there, or withdraw?The fourth and final movie in Part I is Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans, a lush production of the French and Indian War filmed in the Blue Ridge Mountains and taking its title from the James Fenimore Cooper novel. For once, we have real Indians playing major and minor roles, including Wes Studi (Cherokee) and American Indian Movement activist Russell Means (Lakota).
Crabb (thinking): I had him. But this time what I held in my hand wasn't a knife, but the truth.
Custer: Well? What's your answer, mule skinner?
Crabb: General... you go down there.
Custer: You're saying, go into the coulee?
Crabb: Yes, sir.
Custer: There are no Indians there, I suppose?
Crabb: I didn't say that. There are thousands
of Indians down there... and when they get done with you there won't be nothing left but a greasy spot. This ain't the Washita River, General, and them ain't helpless women and children waiting for you. They're Cheyenne brave, and Sioux. You go down there if you got the nerve.
Custer: Still trying to outsmart me, aren't you, mule skinner?
Countless people I know think this is a great movie. And, as romance, as epic, as storytelling, as an accurate depiction of costumes and weaponry, I don’t disagree. And since it’s from James Fenimore Cooper novel, who can complain that its leading male main character is Hawkeye, a white man (Daniel Day-Lewis) with more than a touch of frontier libertarianism and love for the Mohican way of life?
Except that the film is not Cooper’s novel, but rather the 1936 screenplay of the novel adapted for the 1992 remake. And it’s riddled with problems.
Uncas (Eric Schweig – Inuit) and Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe) are the romantic duo in Cooper’s novel, and that romance he wrote about was between a Mohican and what was once called a mulatto in America, not between the white Native-Americanized Hawkeye and an all-white Cora. Of course, Cooper himself did not write Mohicans as a romance; indeed he downplayed the whole idea in his novels. Instead of Stowe, they should perhaps have cast Halle Berry or Thandie Newton.
Shortly after the film came out, Jeffrey Walker wrote Deconstructing an American Myth: Hollywood and The Last of the Mohicans
To focus on the love affair between American literature’s most strongly individualistic, anti-authoritarian, and anti-British mythic hero and Cora Munro is to miss the essential theme and flavor of Cooper’s classic tale. As James Franklin Beard informs us in his historical introduction to the SUNY edition of the novel, The Last of the Mohicans is not finally about such peripheral action as two lovers (particularly white ones), but about the "unremitting, frequently violent, always exasperating contest between the Native Americans and the intruders, white immigrants and settlers of every description" and its consequences: the destruction of the last vestiges of a race of Native-Americans.