Native Americans in Film: A Retrospective
It’s not a high profile observance, but November is Native American Heritage Month. In honor of this, how about we take a look back at how film has treated the indigenous people of America over the years? It’s not exactly one of Hollywood’s proudest legacies. Many stereotypes of Indians can be traced back to the way they were portrayed in early film. But movie makers have tried to do better over the years, to mixed results. Here are a few notable movies that deal with Native Americans.
A hugely influential film for a number of reasons. Orson Welles claimed to have watched it dozens of times as a reference during the making of Citizen Kane. Oh, and it featured the breakout role an actor you may have heard of named John Wayne. But it’s also emblematic of the standard portrayal of Native Americans in cinema for the time. An Apache war band is roving about, and they are shown indiscriminately killing innocent people. They are a horde of interchangeable Others with no motivation other than being “savages.” It’s rather uncomfortable to watch.
Broken Arrow (1950)
A trend-breaker, this movie was one of the first to portray Native Americans in a more compassionate light. It’s a fictionalized account of historical events surrounding Apache leader Cochise’s fights against the incursion of the United States into Indian land, as well as his relationship with American officer Tom Jeffords (James Stewart). While the film represents a great step in the right direction, it still features Caucasian actors playing all the major Indian parts. The extremely white Jeff Chandler plays Cochise, while Debra Paget plays Jeffords’ wife Sonseeahray.
The Searchers (1956)
John Ford, director of Stagecoach, collaborated with John Wayne many times over the course of their respective careers, and this film is another that’s counted among the best. It also features an extremely complicated and difficult examination of race relations. Wayne, in his best role ever, is playing a man obsessed with rescuing his niece from her Comanche abductors, to the point where he is willing to kill her after it looks like she may have become assimilated into their culture. The movie provides an unflinching look at the racism of the times, and isn’t afraid to put its characters in an unflattering light. At the same time, the Indians rape, pillage, and murder. There are no easy answers in this movie. It’s a nuanced view of an ugly situation.
Little Big Man (1970)
A satirical picaresque about America, Arthur Penn’s chronicle of the ever-changing fortunes of Jack “Little Big Man” Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) compared the treatment of Native Americans to, at varying times, the Holocaust and the Vietnam War. Crabb is abducted by, becomes, and is “rescued” from the Cheyenne in short order, and works as a snake oil salesman, and gunslinger, a store manager, an army scout, a trapper, and much more, crossing paths with Wild Bill Hickock and General Custer along the way. Like much of Penn’s work, the film is dark, cynical, and unrepentant.
Dances with Wolves (1990)
Kevin Costner’s epic of the west features himself as a Union army officer who slowly comes to learn the ways of the Sioux after getting a solitary post on the plains. He grows closer and closer to the tribe, until he finally renounces the army and joins them. The movie won seven Oscars, infamously beating out Goodfellas for a few of them (including Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay), and helped revitalize the western genre. It also tried very hard to portray Native Americans in a positive light, to the point where many (including myself) believe that it went too far in the opposite direction, idealizing them to an extreme degree. And at the same time, it portrays a white man being good, if not better than, activities that he’s just learned, but his hosts have been trained in their whole lives. It’s well-intentioned but awkward.
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Unlike most of the other movies on this list, this one, an adaptation of the book by James Fenimore Cooper, takes a mostly neutral stance in its portrayal of Native Americans. Since the French and Indian War, the period during which the film takes place, pre-dates most of the atrocities committed against the Indians, they feature here simply as characters. The relationships between tribes and the Europeans are more a matter of story machinations than of any thematic concerns. And this is actually a pretty positive move. Normalizing race is just a big a part of encouraging acceptance as it is to draw attention to injustice. Of course, the movie still features a mighty white man, although at least this one was raised by Mohicans (plus, it’s Daniel Day-Lewis).
Disney’s overblown musical telling of the tale of the founding of Jamestown makes Dances with Wolves look measured and reasonable in its attitude towards Native Americans. The film indulges all the worst aspects of the “noble savage” stereotype in a hilariously misaimed attempt to be respectful. Which is ironic, since actual tribe members offered to help Disney make it historically accurate. About as graceful as a hammer to the face, this Oscar-baiting romance (Between a girl who was actually 12 and a grown man. Ew) falls flat, despite some very pretty animation.
Smoke Signals (1998)
A product of the independent film boom of the 90s, this movie, based on some of Sherman Alexie’s short stories in his (excellent) collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, is probably the most notable made by Native Americans about Native Americans. Like half of all indies, it features a road trip and focuses on identity, but that journey in this film stands out, given its subject matter. As traditional and modern points of view conflict, the characters try to figure out how best to move forward in their own lives.
The issue of America’s treatment of Indians isn’t really settled. Many of the more unpleasant contemporary issues affecting Native Americans are explored in this movie, including the rampant alcoholism and unemployment that infects reservations. Directed by Chris Eyre, who also made Smoke Signals, this film is much angrier in comparison. The main character, driven half-mad by his anger at institutional injustice, resorts to numerous acts of vigilantism. It speaks to a generational frustration, one that’s not at all unfounded.
The New World (2005)
Like Pocahontas, this movie turns the relationship between English settler John Smith (Colin Farrell) and the daughter of a chieftain, who saved his life, into a romance. And it’s even weirder here, since the actress (Q’orianka Kilcher) was actually age-appropriate. And this film still idealizes the native way of life a bit too much. But it’s Terrence Malick, and thus it is great. The movie is gorgeous and evocative, spinning an amazing sense of atmosphere. Is a portrait of unspoiled nature falling to the march of progress. It’s slow and methodical, like all of Malick’s work, and some think it a slog. They’re boring.