January 25, 2008

John Wayne respected Indians

Some surprising claims about the Duke's relationship with Indians:

John Wayne's Approach to Native AmericansJohn Wayne was accused by some critics of being racist because of his presumed belief in white supremacy in America. His intimate association with the Western film, which has traditionally ignored or, at best, under-represented all ethnic minorities, was used by his critics as further proof of his racism. Most of all he was attacked by Native Americans and African Americans.

Leaders of the Native American community rejected his rationale for white hegemony: "When we came to America, there were a few thousands Indians over millions of miles, and I don't feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from these people, taking their happy hunting grounds away." "There were great numbers of people who needed new land," he explained, "and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves." He not only believed that the whites were "progressive," but that they were also doing "something that was good for everyone."

It therefore astonished him that the Indians indignantly protested his views of the necessity of eliminating what he considered handouts to the Indians. Later, by way of apology, he explained that the writer of Playboy and himself "were kidding around about the Indians in Alcatraz," and that he said not-too-seriously "he hoped they'd taken care of their wampum, so maybe they could buy Alcatraz like we bought Manhattan."

"I can't imagine any Indian," Wayne said in his defense, "not realizing that over the past forty years I've done more to give them human dignity and a fine image on the screen than anyone else who has ever worked in pictures." "Indians were part of our history," he elaborated, "I have never shown the Indians on the screen as anything but courageous and with great human dignity."
Comment:  As with Indian mascots, "courageous and with great human dignity" translates into savage and warlike. Any character who's primarily a warrior is a one-dimensional stereotype.

Wayne probably wasn't the worst offender against Indians, but he wasn't a champion of them either. He probably was typical of his times. No doubt he thought of them in stereotypical terms: chiefs, braves, squaws, teepees, wampum, etc. Perhaps he envisioned them as children who occasionally grew troublesome, but were easily tamed.

7 comments:

dmarks said...

You missed pointing out Wayne's statement "Indians were part of our history". Subtle difference, but compared to saying "Indians ARE part of our history", he makes Indians seem like they have gone the way of the passenger pigeon.

Doesn't that apply, in often typical fashion, that Natives are gone? In the past, only?

Now, I wonder how many Natives played those Indians in the John Wayne films? I looked up one, Vittorio from "Hondo", and he was played by an Australian.

Rob said...

Good point. The warrior stereotype implicitly places Indians in the past, but Wayne explicitly placed them there.

I believe John Ford and Wayne used Indians--primarily Navajos--as extras. Many of the "Indians" in the background probably were Indians.

The main Indian characters were more problematical. Chief Big Tree, who apparently was Onandaga, played Blue Back in Drums Along the Mohawk and Chief Pony That Walks in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. But Miguel Inclán, a Mexican, played Cochise in Fort Apache, and Gilbert Roland, Ricardo Montalban, and Sal Mineo played the lead Indians in Cheyenne Autumn.

In short, I suspect Ford made little effort to find real Indians to play his lead characters. Perhaps Chief Big Tree was the only one he used in a significant role.

russell said...

Writerfella here --
Most of what has been stated here is correct, but one factor has been overlooked. John Ford's Westerns mostly were filmed in Monument Valley, which meant that the 'Indians' were portrayed by Navajo extras. The lead speaking parts almost always were portrayed by Mexicans, as they were the most available 'ethnic types.' However when John Wayne made THE ALAMO, it was filmed in the same region as John Ford's films, and so the company hired Navajos to portray the Mexican soldiers. What goes around, comes around...
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

Anonymous said...

The Duke was emblematic of the times he lived in. While he is remembered fondly by the Goulding's, whose hotel he stayed at while in Monument Valley, he was ridiculed by the Dine' for his lack of skill with a horse.
His contempt of the Dine' and other natives is terribley ironic that he died of the cancer from nuclear testing by his own government. The fed. government purposely tested nuclear devices when the fallout moved toward Navajo Nation, termed a 'national sacrifice area'. While on set in St. George, UT the cast and crew were subject to the same fallout that killed thousands of Dine'. Too bad Reagan wasn't on set as well...

Rob said...

Regarding what the Duke died of:

http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a2_016.html

Dear Cecil:

My girlfriend says that half of the film crew and eight of the cast of the movie The Conqueror starring John Wayne died of cancer after an A-bomb test in Nevada. It can't be the truth--that many people--can it? Please, Cecil, give us the Straight Dope. --John L., Santa Monica, California

Cecil replies:

I'm horrified to have to report this, John, but your girlfriend's claim is only slightly exaggerated. Of the 220 persons who worked on The Conqueror on location in Utah in 1955, 91 had contracted cancer as of the early 1980s and 46 died of it, including stars John Wayne, Susan Hayward, and Agnes Moorehead, and director Dick Powell. Experts say under ordinary circumstances only 30 people out of a group of that size should have gotten cancer. The cause? No one can say for sure, but many attribute the cancers to radioactive fallout from U.S. atom bomb tests in nearby Nevada.

Anonymous said...

Writerfella here --
THE CONQUEROR was filmed near Hurricane Mesa in Utah where one of the first atomic tests was conducted. Then, several tons of the earth from that region were imported to the studio so that interior shots would match the outdoor scenes. All of the actors therefore continually were exposed to the same radioactive soil. Only Lee Van Cleef seemingly escaped the carcinogen-producing exposures. He died in 1989 from a heart attack. Thus it is that actors sometimes are victims of the verisimilitude that motion pictures employ...
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

russell said...

Writerfella here --
Hey, how did that happen? writerfella all of a sudden found himself becoming AnonyMouse! Must have been a STAR TREK Transporter anomaly! Yike!
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'