Sidekicks and Savages, Part II

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.


  1. It’s pretty neat that I know most of the ndn actors MB mentions and I like their movies too. However there are some parts in each that misportray the people. Such as when the guys are looking around for a medicine person and can’t find one on the Cheyenne rez. ( that’s powwow highway isn’t it?) anyway I know that all young people on that rez know some medicine people and Sundance leaders and most probably they’re related to them. But the only one they can find is an old drunk. They then go all lost to Bear Butte where even the Park Superintendant (Cheyenne River Sioux) is knowledgable about our ceremonies and several tribes own land on her slopes. So to me this buys into the “vanishing american” meme so many wasicu believe and put in all modern movies. The truth is traditional ways have rebounded all over the country and the traditional people are known and respected on the rez.

    I also hate it when they misuse our songs and mix up our ceremonies but that’s just criticism for us skins because it would mean nothing to the greater audience. I’ve mentioned my sister is an actress, she goes out to Sundance Film Festival most years to teach an master actors class for young ndns and she does small parts for young directors while there so they can show their chops with experienced actors. imo, they’re making a difference and ndn made films are getting better even though U.S. film makers have a hard time getting funding. Up in Canada things are much better and some really good stuff is being put out.

    One funny thing, Wes Studie used to be in AIM and as a young guy he’d always wear a red beret along with another young guy. I liked to put them in camera range for the news people to shoot because I couldn’t get most of the warriors to wear the silly things. Who knew he’d get used to the cameras?

  2. I followed White Rabbit here and found Meteor Blades too!  

    My son is very interested in film making and I’ve forwarded this to him, right up his alley.

    Thank you both for all you do.  

  3. Another movie to include would be Follow Me Home,which was made several years ago.This movie after its cinema run is not on video,it is or was played at colleges and at fund raisers.It tells through humor and pain this countries historical way of treating people of color,sexism,and cultural differences.It also was written and directed by a native person.The Fast Runner was an excellent film.Another movie that was interesting was The Snow Walker.

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