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In the final paragraph of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, the Delaware sage Tamenund remarks, "The pale faces are masters of the earth, and the time of the red-men has not yet come again." Despite hopeful signs, in the case of commercially viable movies, that time has still not come.

Although we’ve come a long way from those movies in which whooping, headdress-bedecked Plains Indians are depicted riding around and around circled wagon trains – a myth stolen directly from the performances of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show – the only places you can typically see Indians as more than savages or sidekicks is in films by Indians given attention by the American Indian Film Institute at the American Indian Film Festival, the 33rd annual of which will take place this autumn in San Francisco, and the Talking Stick Film Festival, which debuted two weeks ago in Santa Fe. The Talking Stick Festival opened with Older Than America, a Canadian film by director Georgina Lightning (Cree) about atrocities at Indian boarding schools, and Hopi director Victor Masayesva’s  Paatuwaqatsi – Water, Land, Life.

These festival films aren’t the kind that make it to your neighborhood multiplex. Indeed, although Wes Studi (Cherokee), Gary Farmer (Cayuga), August Schellenburg (Mohawk), Michael Horse (Yaqui), Irene Bedard (Inupiat-Metis), Steve Reevis (Blackfeet), Adam Beach (Saulteaux), Kalani Queypo (Blackfeet), Graham Greene (Oneida), and a handful of others make a living as actors, only a single American Indian has managed to sustain a career as a director – Chris Eyre (Cheyenne-Arapaho), whose premier film was Smoke Signals a decade ago.

Considerable progress has, of course, been made. In the early part of the 20th Century Indian extras were lured to Hollywood and paid with alcohol and tobacco, a reprise of an earlier time when land was stolen the same way. But, by and large, Hollywood continues to present the white man’s Indian.

Ethnicity and cultural distinctions among the tribes and within tribes are blurred. And while clothing and other outward signs are depicted far more accurately than in the past, religious traditions of one tribe are often mushed together with another’s or into a nonexistent pan-Indian worship of the “Great Spirit.” Films about Indians have been, since Edison first played the Hopi Snake Dance in 1893, designed to meet the needs of non-Indians. They have become in ways that much other popular culture is not – even other movies – a part of the nation’s master narrative.

Four decades ago, John Cawelti wrote in The Sixgun Mystique:

“...the Western formula seems to prescribe that the Indian be a part of the setting to a greater extent than he is ever a character in his own right. The reason for this is two-fold: to give the Indian a more complex role would increase the moral ambiguity of the story and thereby blur the sharp dramatic conflicts; and, second, if the Indian represented a significant way of life rather than a declining savagery, it would be far more difficult to resolve the story with a reaffirmation of the values of modern society.” (p. 38)
Moral ambiguity is something with which Hollywood has ever dealt with well only on rare occasions, whatever the subject. The good guys-bad guys formula of popular culture makes everything straightforwardly simple, anti-heroes notwithstanding.

As noted in Part I two weeks ago, there was a shift in the late 1960s with the appearance of two movies, Soldier Blue and Little Big Man, both of them heavily influenced by the trauma of the Vietnam War, and the parallels many Americans, including denizens of Hollywood, saw between that war and what had been done to the indigenous people. These weren’t the only films to take a new approach. But, with the exception of Little Big Man, none of the lead roles were played by Indians even when the characters were supposed to be Indians. This was true of Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here in 1969, with Robert Blake as the hapless Paiute of the film’s title, and When Legends Die, the 1972 film starring Frederic Forest as the Ute rodeo star alongside the drunken Richard Widmark.

Willie Boy received a lot of attention because, like Soldier Blue and Little Big Man, the deeper story related to the angst over Vietnam. The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael despised the movie as a racist testament to collective white guilt.

By the 1980s, the Western movie itself had fallen on hard times. Except for Heaven’s Gate, a critical and commercial flop, followed by Silverado in 1985 and the execrable Young Guns in 1988, in which Lou Diamond Phillips (disputed Cherokee) plays a Mexican-Navajo, there were simply no Westerns of note.

In the early ‘90s, the genre was revived with several films in which Indians were a major focal point. These included: Dances with Wolves (1990), white man (Kevin Costner) saves Indians, although not quite as ludicrously as in A Man Called Horse;  Black Robe (1991), French priest (Lothaire Bluteau) goes into the wilderness to Christianize people he knows next to nothing about; Thunderheart (1992), assimilated Indian (Val Kilmer – disputed Cherokee) investigates murders similar to those for which Leonard Peltier is still rotting in prison; Last of the Mohicans (1992), the fifth film version of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, and the fourth to get the author’s meaning all wrong (Russell Means, Lakota; Eric Schweig, Inuit); and Geronimo: An American Legend (1993),  the Apache scourge (Wes Studi, Cherokee) is depicted in what for me ranks as the best telling of this much-told story of the last campaign of the Indian wars.

For all their defects, each of these films has three qualities that stand out. They are gorgeously filmed, a tribute to the vision of John Ford at the same time they stand as a rebuke to the false image of Indians he popularized in a half-century of Westerns in which he practically rewrote American history. For the most part in these latter films, Indians play the role of Indians and the Indians in each film are differentiated people, with full personalities. But as I said in Part I, it’s all subjective. My friend Barbara Walkingstick (Santa Clara) isn’t willing to give Dances with Wolves a plus in any department, and my friend Tim Kloberdanz (Kiowa) thought it was the best Western he ever saw.  

And then the backsliding began. In 1995, the racist, ahistorical Disney animation Pocahontas debuted. Pauline Strong of the Folklore and Public Culture Program at University of Texas, Austin, wrote that Pocahontas created a New Age princess designed to rid Americans of their feelings of emptiness and embody their "millennial dreams of wholeness and harmony." To show how far the mighty have fallen, one-time American Indian Movement leader Russell Means, who was the voice of Powhatan, said it was the best movie about Indians ever made. But then some Navajos held a purification ceremony after Means’s role as a shaman in Natural Born Killers (1994).

Three years ago came The New World in which one can only suspect drugs were a large part of the production, particularly when the rewrites were being hacked out. And then, in 2006, came Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, about which the less said the better.

Three films in which Indians are the main characters Pow-Wow Highway (1989), Smoke Signals (1998) and Skins (2002) remain beacons for what could be. All depict Indians living in the here and now. Within are echoes of our old cultures and of the post-Columbian conquest as well as a true-to-life reflection of the tug-of-war between the traditional and modern which all Indians have faced since the first European offered the first steel blade for a slab of venison. These films go farther than any which have reached the mainstream to explore how we as Indians, in our diverse and often contradictory and self-contradictory ways, try to demystify a world in which buckskins have long since been replaced with denim.  

Smoke Signals has gotten the most attention, deservedly so. The film is based on the wonderful short story, “This Is What It Means to Say, Phoenix, Arizona,”  by Sherman Alexie (Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, which is part of his collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Directed by Chris Eyre, with every Indian portrayed by an Indian. Thomas Builds-a-Fire played by Evan Adams (Coast Salish) is the narrator, another first in a major film for an Indian, something John Ford should have tried in one of his early Westerns. The story is straightforward, in a way, like Pow-Wow Highway a buddy road-trip. Thomas and his friend Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) are off from the Coeur d'Alene reservation in Idaho to collect the ashes of Victor’s estranged father, Arnold, in Phoenix. Thomas tells stories of Arnold (Gary Farmer) that Victor doesn’t want to hear because this alcoholic who abused him and abandoned him as a child. On the other hand, Thomas has fond memories of Arnold, who rescued him from a fire that killed his parents. They remember him quite differently, as we see in the story-telling flashbacks. Ultimately, however, he is able to reconcile himself with to his father.

Many critics have noted the similarities between Pow-Wow Highway and Smoke Signals, even going so far as to hint darkly film plagiarism. But, while she praises both films, Amanda J. Cobb (Chickasaw) trashes the view that the latter is a copy in her essay “This Is What It Means to Say Smoke Signals: Native American Cultural Sovereignty”:

Pow-Wow Highway does an admirable job of  portraying Indians as fully dimensional individual people, rather than a singular, monolithic “idea,” and is told from a Native perspective, but ultimately it is still about Native, and white conflict. ... the tension between the protagonists takes a backseat to the overarching conflict between AIM activist Buddy Red Bow and the federal government and police.

Smoke Signals, on the other hand, does not center on Indian and white conflict, but instead focuses on Victor’s internal struggle with his feelings about his father. In fact, white characters play a very minimal role throughout the film. This film is about two young Coeur d’Alene men who tell stories, argue, sing, play basketball, and take care of their mother and grandmother. Although Victor as “the jock” and Thomas as “the nerd,” and even Arnold as the “alcoholic father,” could be considered stereotypes in and of themselves, here they serve to reinforce the humanity and complexity of the characters. That is, all Indian people are not alike, but they do indeed have unique, individual personalities. These two friends are not the Lone Ranger and Tonto; as Thomas Builds-the-Fire jokes in the movie, “it’s more like we’re Tonto and Tonto.”

In 2001, Zacharias Kunuk's 2001 The Fast Runner made it to the big screen, just barely, without the impact of either Pow-Wow Highway or Smoke Signals, in great part because no attempt was made to connect in anyway to popular culture of non-native audiences. White characters are completely absent from this Inuit film about a tribal legend filled with ghosts and evil spirits.

As can be seen, unlike in the heyday of Westerns, mainstream films about Indians are few and far between and getting more so, which is truly sad given the scores of Indian film-makers whose work has appeared at the two Indian film festivals. Someday, the optimists among us hope, the medium that did so much to destroy the self-image of generations of Indians, will, as the American Indian Film Institute has spent three decades attempting, become a force for reshaping those false perceptions.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Sun Feb 24, 2013 at 06:10 PM PST.

Also republished by Native American Netroots, SFKossacks, and Barriers and Bridges.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Peter Matthiessen's novel (10+ / 0-)

    At Play in the Fields of the Lord looks at an Amazon tribe and the conflict between U.S. evangelicals down there on a mission and the natural state of the tribe's life along the river.  

    Hector Babenco's 1991 film of the novel is also very good.  Hard to find, though.  If you have an all-regions DVD player you can find it on some of the European film sites.  

    Excellent diary.  

    The first film I saw that seemed to be about Native Americans was a "Western" film about a kid named 'Tony,' who was played by decidedly non-Native American Sal Mineo.  

  •  I used Little Big Man as a high interest teaching (8+ / 0-)

    movie, it was the best I could find.  The educational films on native american subjects were tough sells in my alternative high school classroom.  I tried a film on indian schools once and even though I was in tears, the students didn't see why.  

    If love could have saved you, you would have lived forever. &

    by weck on Sun Feb 24, 2013 at 06:26:55 PM PST

  •  great diaries - both of these (7+ / 0-)

    Thanks. I will go back over them when I can concentrate better (studying right now).

    I used to be in the business and had the opportunity to work with Augie Schellenberg and some Blackfeet actors - Dutch Lunak, for one. Dutch had been a bronc buster, which brought him to doing stunts (Dances w/Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, Geronimo), but got a decent small role in Iron Will. Working with and spending some time with these men gave me a small window into the world of Native American cinema.

  •  My favorite part of Little Big Man. (16+ / 0-)
    [Grandfather, who has laid himself down to die, wakes up]
    Old Lodge Skins: Am I still in this world?
    Jack Crabb: Yes, Grandfather.
    Old Lodge Skins: [groans] I was afraid of that. Well, sometimes the magic works. Sometimes, it doesn't.
    Sometimes the magic works. Sometimes, it doesn't. There it is.
  •  Saw "Little Big Man" at the Time, Never Then Nor (7+ / 0-)

    since did I see the Vietnam War in it. The Civil Rights movement was still vigorous when it came out, and I saw much more of that issue in it.

    My overriding impression was that a long ostracized minority was being presented as the human beings, with the incoming White Americans as the aliens. I may be forgetting something huge but I don't recall a major hit movie about Blacks attempting such a thing, maybe till Roots.

    Civil rights activism was still very energetic when it was shot even though some key legal victories had been won. I saw this movie only months after I faced the loaded rifles of the Ohio National Guard on my campus; but this was days before the rest of the nation's campuses including Kent State blew up, our original demonstration having been organized by the Afro Am club over civil rights issues.

    And the US were temporary occupants of Vietnam; but we were invading conquerors of our Natives.

    The film came after some 20 years of civil rights strife mainly about Blacks fighting to join the American mainstream. And it followed at least 40 years of movie portrayals of Natives and Native-related history as badly as you describe. And it's based on a 1964 book from before we made Vietnam a shooting war.

    I could see the Vietnam issue contributing to create the favorable climate for the film though, and could have influenced some choices made during production and editing.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sun Feb 24, 2013 at 06:50:21 PM PST

  •  Star Trek OS got in on the Pocahontas meme (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Aunt Pat, hazey

    with The Paradise Syndrome, where Kirk beams down into a John Ford film.  

    You have exactly 10 seconds to change that look of disgusting pity into one of enormous respect!

    by Cartoon Peril on Sun Feb 24, 2013 at 06:53:46 PM PST

  •  Sherman has a great poll ... (6+ / 0-)

    for "Wolves." At his homepage.

    write, Sherman. write on !

    There is no Article II power which says the Executive can violate the Constitution.--@Hugh * Addington's Perpwalk: TRAILHEAD of Accountability for Bush-2 Crimes.

    by greenbird on Sun Feb 24, 2013 at 07:07:24 PM PST

  •  One of the best films ever starred an Indian ... (9+ / 0-)

    Will Sampson as Chief Bromden:

    [last lines]
    Chief Bromden: Mac... they said you escaped. I knew you wouldn't leave without me. I was waiting for you. Now we can make it, Mac; I feel big as a damn mountain.
    [he suddenly sees the lobotomy scars]
    Chief Bromden: Oh, no...
    Chief Bromden: [embracing McMurphy] I'm not goin' without you, Mac. I wouldn't leave you this way... You're coming with me.
    Chief Bromden: [laying him down] Let's go.

    You have exactly 10 seconds to change that look of disgusting pity into one of enormous respect!

    by Cartoon Peril on Sun Feb 24, 2013 at 07:10:04 PM PST

  •  as an aside . . . . . (5+ / 0-)
    "disputed Cherokee"
    I don't have a single drop of Native blood in me (at least that I know of) and never felt any particular need to claim any. Yet over the years I have seen and heard about many many many people, usually liberals, often New Age types, who claim to be "part Native American".  Invariably, they are "Cherokee", and most of the time, they are descended from a "Cherokee princess".

    Were the Cherokee the only native nation that existed at the time?  And didn't they have any males?


    PS--I agree with your friend Barbara.  "Dances With Wolves" was like watching "Lawrence of North Dakota".

    •  The "Cherokee princess" bit gets a ... (12+ / 0-)

      ...good takedown by the late Vine Deloria in his 1969 book Custer Died for Your Sins:

      Whites claiming Indian blood generally tend to reinforce mythical beliefs about Indians. All but one person I met who claimed Indian blood claimed it on their grandmother’s side. I once did a projection backward and discovered that evidently most tribes were entirely female for the first three hundred years of white occupation. No one, it seemed, wanted to claim a male Indian as a forebear.

      It doesn’t take much insight into racial attitudes to understand the real meaning of the Indian-grandmother complex that plagues certain whites. A male ancestor has too much of the aura of the savage warrior, the unknown primitive, the instinctive animal, to make him a respectable member of the family tree. But a young Indian princess? Ah, there was royalty for the taking. Somehow the white was linked with a noble house of gentility and culture if his grandmother was an Indian princess who ran away with an intrepid pioneer. And royalty has always been an unconscious but all-consuming goal of the European immigrant.

      The early colonists, accustomed to life under benevolent despots, projected their understanding of the European political structure onto the Indian tribe in trying to explain its political and social structure. European royal houses were closed to ex-convicts and indentured servants, so the colonists made all Indian maidens princesses, then proceeded to climb a social ladder of their own creation. Within the next generation, if the trend continues, a large portion of the American population will eventually be related to Powhatan.

      While a real Indian grandmother is probably the nicest thing that could happen to a child, why is a remote Indian princess grandmother so necessary for many whites? Is it because they are afraid of being classed as foreigners? Do they need some blood tie with the frontier and its dangers in order to experience what it means to be an American? Or is it an attempt to avoid facing the guilt they bear or the treatment of the Indian?

      The phenomenon seems to be universal. Only among the Jewish community, which has a long tribal-religious tradition of its own, does the mysterious Indian grandmother, the primeval princess, fail to dominate the family tree.

      Don't tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe.

      by Meteor Blades on Sun Feb 24, 2013 at 07:22:21 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I read "Custer Died For Your Sins" way back in (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        rl en france

        high school.

        Also "We Talk, You Listen".

      •  It's a problem for the real pale Cherokees (8+ / 0-)

        I'm Cherokee, and very fair. I've got my legal ID, and all the family records to be sure it's real. But if I tell anyone, they are all "yeah, right!" So I don't tell.

        The genetics are strange. I know, for my direct previous 4 generations, who "looked" Cherokee and who looked like the Scottish side. It's about 50-50.

        That said, some of the disputed people are just undocumented. For the older ones, who have family stories, i believe that their grandparents told them the truth. Why would they lie when their generations did not see being Native American as a good thing? My own grandmother lied about it, and was very racist in general. When I found her on the Dawes roll, and all the other records, I realized she had chosen to pass as white.

        As far as I can tell, the great thing about doing the roots-search is that the real stories are better than any fiction. But I can't imagine wanting someone else's story.

        BTW, I love these diaries, as someone who ignored the liberal arts, I am sadly ignorant of history and culture.

        We can safely abandon the doctrine of the eighties, namely that the rich were not working because they had too little money, the poor because they had too much. JK Galbraith, 1991

        by Urban Owl on Sun Feb 24, 2013 at 08:09:24 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Most Americans Have Lived East of Mississippi Rivr (0+ / 0-)

      over time.

      About the princess issue: there's also a well known snark that it's a lot harder for a Native woman to rape a white man than vice versa.

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Sun Feb 24, 2013 at 07:23:14 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  "War Party" (0+ / 0-)

    I remember seeing this movie sometime in the late 80's or early 90's.  It was one of the very very few movies about Natives that was set in the present day. What struck me most was that the beginning depicted a 19th century massacre of a Native village and closes on a scene of a US Cavalry soldier picking up a bloody tomahawk, then comes the story set in the present day, in which a group of Native teens are killed by the military, and closes on a scene of a US National Guardsman picking up a bloody tomahawk.  I can still see that imagery very vividly in my head.

  •  Thank you for these diaries, (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    navajo, LinSea, rl en france

    I have only seen seven movies relating to Indian Americans: Smoke Signals, Barking Water, Skins, Trail of Tears, Dreamkeeper, Incident at Oglala and Bury my heart at Wounded Knee. I have to see them again, because I can't remember exactly all of them and what I liked or disliked about them.

    But I liked Smoke Signals and Barking Water a lot.

    Now I have to see the old ones... Thanks for posting the diaries again. I have missed them the first time around. I got to see the other films because Navajo mentioned them.

    Off to retirement ... and watch some movies. :-)

  •  Good stuff, thanks. (0+ / 0-)

    I agree completely about Geronimo. What did you think of Hombre?

    The free market is not the solution, the free market is the problem.

    by Azazello on Mon Feb 25, 2013 at 08:01:08 AM PST

  •  Feel like I'm posting into empty air, (0+ / 0-)

    having missed these diaries on Sunday.

    Smoke Signals is one of my favorite films.  Bought it the day after I saw it, along with Alexie's books.

    Thunderheart holds a place in my affection mostly because so many folks from Incident at Oglala are in it.  Not enough of John Trudell, though.  ;)

    "Throwing a knuckleball for a strike is like throwing a butterfly with hiccups across the street into your neighbor's mailbox." -- Willie Stargell

    by Yasuragi on Tue Feb 26, 2013 at 06:59:03 PM PST

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