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Native Americans on Film

Educational Resources -> Native Americans on Film

by Shane Rivers

Native Americans on Film: Dances with WolvesThe history of Native Americans in the movies is a complicated one, with portrayals ranging from dignified to downright insulting. The same can be said for the history of the race itself, with the indigenous peoples of North America frequently vilified and sometimes out-and-out eradicated as settlers pursued the concept of Manifest Destiny.

Luckily, cinematic depictions of Indians as stock villains waiting to be dispatched by the white, hat-wearing hero have lessened over the years, although some of this can be attributed to the decline of the Western genre as much as an increase in cultural sensitivity. Still, strides have been made since the cinematic revolution of the 1970s, and additional progress can be expected in the coming decades.

The following article is designed to take a look at some of the significant depictions of Native Americans in film, regardless of what light they‘re shown in. Some will delight, while others may offend. But either way, you’ll learn something about the evolving role of Indians in American cinema, as well as the attitudes of the people behind the camera.

For additional reading, be sure to explore the links provided. They serve to illuminate and expand upon the topics being discussed.

Dances with Wolves (1990) - Kevin Costner’s epic look at the slow, painful death of the American West, Dances with Wolves captured seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and helped revitalize a western genre that had been flagging for years. Costner stars as Lt. John J. Dunbar, a veteran of the Civil War who earns the post of his choice thanks to an act of battlefield bravery. Arriving in Colorado to view the diminishing western frontier, Dunbar encounters a tribe of curious Sioux, slowly earns their respect, and becomes increasingly fascinated and absorbed into their culture. Native Americans are portrayed in a positive light throughout, especially in comparison to the white men obsessed with material wealth and mindless slaughter. Actor Graham Greene received a major career boost by taking on the role of Kicking Bird, and Mary McDonnell also gained attention for the part of Stands with a Fist (after 21 years doing theater and television). Much of the dialogue is presented in the Lakota language, although it’s amusing to note that Costner and other male actors were taught the feminine-gender version of the dialect.

Windtalkers (2002) - Nicolas Cage and Christian Slater star as WWII soldiers responsible for protecting a pair of Navajo code talkers (Adam Beach and Roger Willie) whose language can’t be decoded by the Japanese. Directed by action legend John Woo, many have pointed to the project as an example of Native Americans in film being overshadowed by their Caucasian counterparts. While Pvt. Ben Yahzee and Pvt. Charlie Whitehorse have their part to play in the narrative, they often seem cast as damsels in distress, needing to be rescued (or killed) by their keepers. This depiction was not well received by critics, and neither were the perceived Asian stereotypes that littered the film’s 134-minute runtime.

Billy Jack (1971) - Examining the issues of racism against Native Americans, this hit independent action film stars Tom Laughlin as Billy Jack, a half-breed Cherokee who happens to be a former Green Beret and current master of martial arts. When local bigotry threatens the students of the aptly named Freedom School, Billy Jack unleashes a flurry of violence that seems ill-suited for the movie’s message of peace. The counter-culture theme of Billy Jack was a major selling point for moviegoers of the period, and the inclusion of martial arts sequences (especially the climactic fight in a park) helped make it a major hit at the box office. Two sequels would follow, although neither would achieve Billy Jack’s level of success.

Incident at Oglala (1992) - Narrated by Robert Redford and directed by Michael Apted, this tension-filled documentary centers around the 1975 murders of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and the subsequent trial and conviction of Native American activist Leonard Peltier. A sobering look at issues ranging from Native American rights to the political machinations within the justice system.

Soldier BlueSoldier Blue (1970) - Filled with graphic depictions of rape and murder (at least for 1970), this controversial film provided an account of the 1864 Sand Creek massacre, in which a peaceful village of Arapaho and Cheyenne were massacred by militia troops from Colorado. Peter Strauss stars as an idealistic cavalry officer who survives an ambush of the hands of the Cheyenne, and he’s joined by Candice Bergen as a woman who’s lived among the Indians for two years and sympathizes with their plight. With direct parallels to the Vietnam War and the infamous My Lai massacre, Soldier Blue is notably for depicting the cavalry--previously portrayed as the good guys who arrive in the nick of time--as brutal savages with a fondness for pointless death and sexual degradation.

Pocahontas (1995) - The first animated project from Disney to be based on a historical figure, this film gives a highly fictionalized account of Pocahontas, her meeting with the members of the Virginia Company, and the eventual (only in the movies) romance with Englishman John Smith. The film’s release upset many Native Americans, especially those who felt as though the negative treatment of Indians at the hands of the English was glossed over in favor of selling tickets to kids. The movie grossed over $345 million.

Miss Navajo (2007) - Held annually, the Miss Navajo pageant elects a young woman to serve as role model and leader among her people. Command of the Navajo language and customs are tested, as well as skills at cultural talent and butchering sheep. This documentary takes a look at the 2005-2006 contest through the eyes of 21-year-old participant Crystal Frazier. While the production values are spotty at times, the overall product provides a unique glimpse into a culture trying to maintain its individuality amidst a rapidly changing world.

A Man Called Horse (1970) - Based on a 1968 short story, this film stars Richard Harris as an English aristocrat who’s captured by Sioux and tries to gain their respect and his freedom. While practices and rituals were said to be taken from historical records, the film’s look at Native American culture was still criticized by some activists as being too “white.” Despite these complaints, the motion picture was successful enough to spawn a pair of sequels and depict Native Americans in film as something more than mindless savages (although the climactic ritual known as the “Vow of the Sun” was pretty harsh).

The Searchers (1956) - Filled with issues of revenge and miscegenation, this John Ford film is regarded as one of the greatest Western ever made. John Wayne delivers a nuanced performances as Ethan Edwards, a veteran of the Confederacy with a shady past and a virulent hatred of Indians. When his young niece (Natalie Wood) is abducted by a vengeful Comanche named Scar (German-born actor Henry Brandon), Ethan becomes obsessed with either saving or killing her. Ford’s success at examining the rationale behind the genocide against Native Americans is mixed, as many came away from the film viewing Scar and his motivations as nothing more than stock villainy. Still, the Monument Valley locales are breathtaking, the scope ambitious, and the acting suitably grim.

Bury My Heart at Wounded KneeBury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007) - Adapted from the book by Dee Brown, this HBO movie would receive a staggering 17 Emmy nominations and earn almost universal praise. The film depicts the famed massacre at Wounded Knee Creek, as well as the slow--and often forced--assimilation of Native Americans into the new White culture. Notable for giving an even-handed treatment to all involved, the movie documents both heroes and fools among the Native American people, as well as showing Whites who want to do more than simply force Indians onto reservations. A number of real-life historical figures are depicted, including Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg), Senator Henry L. Dawes (Aidan Quinn), Red Cloud (Gordon Tootoosis), General William Sherman (Colm Feore), and President Ulysses S. Grant (Fred Thompson).

That concludes our look at Native Americans in film. As you can see, the history of "cinematic Indians" is a complicated one, ranging from even-handed portrayals to blatant stereotyping. But this is to be expected with any ethnic minority, especially one whose voice has been marginalized over the decades. Luckily, filmmakers such as Kevin Costner and Tom Laughlin have attempted to present these often misunderstood people in a different light, thus allowing Native American actors and filmmakers to gain greater prominence in Hollywood. While the journey is far from over, it remains a fascinating trek to follow.