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Confetti - Your Future

The Changing Identity of Native Americans in Cinema

31 July 13 words: Ashley Carter

This month’s release of The Lone Ranger has re-opened a debate that has lain dormant for quite some time

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Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer in The Lone Ranger

The decision to have Johnny Depp portray Tonto, a Native American guide, alongside Armie Hammer’s Lone Ranger created some controversy among those who felt his performance was a crude racial stereotype, and that, despite his claims of Cherokee ancestry, the role should have been given to a Native American actor. Whether you agree or disagree with this, it can hardly be argued that when it comes to the on-screen portrayal of Native Americans in popular cinema, there has been a prolonged history of shallow stereotyping.

For context, although enduring inherently different social situations, the social position of the Black population of America can be charted through their representation in film. From the vile depictions of the heroic Ku Klux Klan in D.W. Griffiths The Birth of a Nation (1915), to Sidney Poitier’s Oscar win for Lilies of the Field (1963), to the scores of movies in which slavery is frankly and honestly examined, a clear progression of America’s conscience can be seen. Truthfully, it’s still far from perfect. Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) and Lincoln (2012) still focus almost exclusively on the heroic white characters fighting against the injustice of slavery, but although it has been a painfully long struggle for equality, there at least seems to be some semblance of Black equality in Hollywood.

With Native American’s however, although a change has occurred, it seems to have been moving from one shallow stereotype to another. Initially, and undoubtedly, the lowest point in the on-screen depiction of Native American’s came during the Westerns from the beginning of cinema to the late fifties where they were exclusively portrayed as a red-skinned, savage plague hell bent on the destruction of the civilised White man. The belief of Manifest Destiny – that White American Settlers were destined to expand across the continent of America despite the indigenous Native American presence – is key to understanding this two-dimensional representation, the effects of which are still being felt both socially and artistically today.

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The Searchers

Although the two are obviously incomparable for a myriad of reasons, the response from America’s conscience to their role in both the Slave Trade and the widespread massacre of Native Americans is vastly different. Whereas regret and reparations - however futile in comparison they may seem - were offered for the former, the latter was, and still is, largely ignored. But the 1830 Indian Removal Act, infamous ‘Trail of Tears’ and the massacre at Wounded Knee remain among the most shameful, and largely unaddressed, acts in America’s short history. The reservations in which the majority of Native Americans still live in the States are amongst the poorest areas in the country, with remarkably high levels of teen suicide, drug use and alcoholism. Key to the seemingly widespread lack of interest in this has been the continued on-screen portrayal of Native Americans as sub-human, insignificant and unworthy characters.

This villainous portrayal in movies continued until the seventies. The Native American ‘savage’ (more often than not a white actor in red make-up) perpetrated some terrible endeavor completely expected of their uncivilised, barbaric and heathenish nature. John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) is one noteworthy example, where Native Americans were represented as child-stealing murderers up against the heroic John Wayne. The very embodiment of the classic Western, Wayne later stated in an interview with Playboy in 1971, “I don't feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them. There were great numbers of people who needed new land and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”

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Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man

Post-1970, following the sharp decline of the classic Western, a different portrayal of Native Americans began to emerge. The establishment of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1968 and The Native American Right’s Fund (NARF) 1970 created an increased feeling of solidarity towards the Native American presence across the country. Films such as Little Big Man (1970) told the story of the their struggle from a previously unseen and altogether more sympathetic angle. The red-skinned savage transformed into the pure, wise and stoic martyr. This new perspective created an interest in the history of the indigenous people of America that continued in cinema, but still never progressed further than superficially. In the years that followed, the portrayal of the Native American in film had just morphed from savage to victim, neither of which offered any semblance of honesty.

This naive viewpoint continued into the nineties, with The Last of the Mohicans (1992) (in which the duality of the Native American is perfectly represented – one character is untrustworthy and bloodthirsty, the other is a wise figure of self sacrifice) and Dances With Wolves (1990), in which the lead in both was a white character. Although the more recent representation is more kind, it appears as fraudulent and patronising as the earlier stereotype. The common representation of America as an Eden-like existence, bursting at the seams with love, harmony and an abundance of natural resources is as ridiculous as the Sodom and Gomorrah, untouched by civilisation wasteland portrayed pre-1970. What’s lacking is integrity, and a fair and even-handed view of what the Native American population, both pre and post the arrival of White settlers, was really like.
 

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Terence Malik's The New World

There have been some instances of this: The Black Robe (1991) portrays a candid depiction of the different aspects of Native American culture, and Smoke Signals (1998) - entirely cast and produced by Native American talent - is a frank view at modern life on a reservation. Like everything he does, Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005) has been lauded as the most accurate and just representation of the Native American way of life, allowing neither stereotype nor fear of causing offence get in the way of the honesty of his depiction.

You might view cinema as harmless entertainment, in many cases (the example of the Native American depiction principal among them) the deployment of these two different, but equally harmful, commonplace views only serve to perpetuate the reduction of indigenous cultures through subjective stereotypes. That isn’t to say that Hollywood has any specific obligation to do anything; there are no Reith-like values to educate and elevate the public; they will, as ever, do what is the most financially rewarding. Neither do specific artists have a responsibility to portray Native American’s in a way considered dishonest to them. But until America as a society discontinues the ongoing ignoring of their part in the history of the Native Americans, these stereotypes will just continue. Whether society follows art, or vice versa, is true is somewhat irrelevant, as, for the meantime at least, both seem stuck in an unwelcome and antiquated stalemate.

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