In recognition of Native American heritage month, I’d like to focus on an interesting documentary film that explores the depictions of Native Americans in film, “Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian” (2009).
It was directed by Neil Diamond with co-directors Catherine Bainbridge and Jeremiah Hayes. Diamond (who is not the 1970s pop singer) is a Cree-Canadian, ambitiously attempts to chronicle the history of Hollywood’s depiction of Native North Americans from the silent era to the present.
The film’s opening statement sets the film’s purpose: “In over 4,000 films Hollywood had shaped the image of Native Americans…not until a renaissance in Native cinema did films like…Smoke Signals portray Native people as human beings.” The multiple stereotypes the film explores include the noble savages, those living in teepees, riding horseback and whooping and hollering, to the groovy hippie versions to the drunken, neglected or forgotten souls.
The film also examines many truths about the legend of Crazy Horse and other Native leaders, the overt genocide of Native people, the Wounded Knee incident, as well as the expert horsemanship of the Crow people.
The film was produced by the National Film Board of Canada and shot around the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and the Black Hills, in South Dakota, as well as parts of Montana, New Mexico, Arizona and Monument Valley, Utah. The narrative takes the form of director Diamond’s personal journey across the heartland, the locations of many of these Hollywood stories of Native people.
Interviews are made with Native American directors, like Chris Eyre, who made “Smoke Signals” and “Skins,” actors John Trudell, Adam Beach, Wes Studi, Graham Greene, director/producers Zacharias Kunuk, Clint Eastwood, Jim Jarmusch among others.
Some of the earliest films made at the turn of the 20th Century by Thomas Edison featured Indian dancers and the romance of the Indian culture. John Ford’s “The Iron Horse” (1924) featured Native people and the so-called “noble Injun” was a popular character of early Westerns. The doc-drama “The Silent Enemy” (1930) which dealt with the starvation of Native tribes featured a Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, who soon became a favorite of society’s social scene. Tragically Chief Long Lance committed suicide at the age of 41.
The 1930s are noted as the beginning of the era where the Native character was simply portrayed as the savage, especially in films like “The Plainsman” (1936). Ojibway film critic Jesse Wente points to the films of John Ford, mostly specifically “Stagecoach” (1939) for the most damaging and vicious misrepresentations of the Native Americans. In the ‘40s Hollywood had most natives speaking broken English, called “Tonto speak.” Soon after, in the ’50s and ‘60s, adding insult to injury, white actors like Burt Lancaster, Burt Reynolds, Chuck Connors and Anthony Quinn became known for playing Indian characters with red-tinted complexions. And the Native female character became almost exclusively associated with the idealized young goddess, Princess Pocahontas. In the 1960s some Westerns finally began using and subtitling Native American dialogue.
Native American actor and activist Russell Means recalls a sad memory of these watching these early films: “When we watched the Indians getting slaughtered at the end of every movie… well, my brother would refuse to watch it. Every time that bugle went off and the charge started, my brother – he was a year and a half younger than me- he’s go like this… (bending over, putting his head between his knees)…and he wouldn’t look. He wouldn’t watch.”
Overt criticism of Hollywood’s depiction of Native Americans was made obvious on March 23, 1973, at the Oscar ceremonies when Marlon Brando refused his best actor Oscar for “The Godfather.” He sent Apache actress/Indian rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather in his place reading a note protesting Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans. Sitting in the audience that night was John Wayne; he became so furious that he reportedly had to be restrained by security.
Some of the most positive representations of Native people came from Will Sampson’s silent Chief in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) and two characters played by Chief Dan George in “Little Big Man” (1970) and “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976). It wouldn’t be until the late 1990s that Native and indigenous filmmakers began seeing their own cinematic works and stories produced.
Yet each semester when I teach John Ford’s classic Western “The Searchers” in my introduction to film class, in addition to discussing the film’s rich narrative and character study, I am compelled to address and discuss this racist storytelling legacy that is perpetuated by the entertainment industry.