August 22, 2009

Hollywood loves dying Indians

Here's a great article on Indians in Hollywood Westerns. I urge people to read the whole thing.

Killing the white man's red man"Hollywood movies about Indians are dependent upon the Indians dying; there's no other story line for us," said filmmaker Chris Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapaho), who is known for his contemporary pictures Smoke Signals, The Doe Boy, and the television adaptations of the Tony Hillerman mysteries A Thief of Time and Skinwalker. "It's not a story line that will ever go away because it's a genre that's part of our American history, and we love the telling of it in a romantically tragic way. It's almost like Greek tragedy, whether it's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dances With Wolves, or The Searchers. It's all about, 'Indians have to die, and isn't that romantic?' That's a perverse ideology in our cinema."

Since the dawn of Hollywood, films about Indians have sold. Ralph and Natasha Friar, in their excellent and lively history The Only Good Indian: The Hollywood Gospel (Drama Book Specialists, 1972; the main branch of Santa Fe Public Library has a copy), list the films made each year about Indians. 1909 brought Custer's Last Stand, Half Breed's Treachery, Hiawatha, The Indian Runner's Romance, On the Warpath, The Redman's View, The Seminole's Vengeance, and The True Heart of an Indian, for instance. The authors write that between 100 and 200 Westerns were made every year during the silent era, most dealing with Indians and most ensuring that the "red man" met his end in the final reel.
Chris Eyre sums up the message of these movies:"That perception of Native people went around the world, and it said, 'We are losers,'" Eyre said.Comment:  Movies make the "loser" message explicit, but it's implicit in our love of stereotypical chiefs and "braves." Why do we "honor" the Plains Indians of 150 years ago? Because they were great: brave, stalwart, courageous, etc. They were great until we defeated them, which proves how really great we are.

This is the message of the monuments and mascots that "honor" dead Indians. It's why the images are usually impossibly noble and romantic. We "love" Indians the way they were. We regret that they're no longer that way. How sad that these mighty warriors have "vanished."

And what does our failure to honor today's Indians imply? That they haven't done anything worth honoring. These days the military names ships after George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, but the Indian names it uses are primarily warrior stereotypes: Apache, Tomahawk, Lakota. Even the incongruous USS Mesa Verde is named for an ancient Indian site.

Message to the world: US presidents have accomplished things recently, but Indians haven't accomplished anything since the Indian Wars. Sure, they gave us a good fight before our God-given superiority defeated them. Now they're just losers--irrelevant and invisible. They used to matter, but they don't anymore.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies and America's Cultural Mindset.

Below:  Love the "rising sun" motif of this image. I wonder if the artist was consciously or unconsciously equating the Indian "enemy" with our (former) Japanese enemies.


Anonymous said...

What's the point if most if not all of the Presidents are white Indians?
Bush is an Indian. You can't be Mayflower and be in North America 400 years and not be part Native. I don't know if you can win without being part Native. It helps out a lot on the long campaign trail.
Our Prime Ministers are Indians too. Only Trudeau has been 'outed'. His father met his Scotish-Indian mother on a reservation.

Anonymous said...

What on Earth is a "White Indian"?

Then again your delusional stricken fantasy that all the U.S. Presidents are "Indians" can safely be called--retarded.

Anonymous said...

And more thing. I forget to add that I think its proper, that real American Indian actors/actresses should boycott any Hollywood film that will surely call for their demise in the movie, if the plot says it. Then they will have to seek fake indians as usual like they did in old times. Ironically, those silly cow pokes in those films were actually killing whites(i.e. Italians, French, Mixed and Half-Breeds) technically they were killing their own. If I was an actor myself, I wouldn't do their movies, unless we came out on top as victorious, champions and survivors. I wouldn't even pass up the opportunity if my character in the movie is able to kill enough non-Natives for the sake of the plot. Its time we are portrayed as warriors, survivors, and fighters. Rather than be the hapless victim all the time. Indeed, we are warriors, fighters and survivors to this day and age, which explains why the Manifest Destiny failed and that our very own presence is evident of that.

dmarks said...

The earlier Anonymous might have been confusing the word "native" with the ethnic term "Native American".

I don't think that a white person with a tiny smidgeon of Native American ancestry and no cultural affiliation or identity or tribal membership is any kind of Native American/American Indian.

"I don't know if you can win without being part Native. It helps out a lot on the long campaign trail."

Is that some sort of reference to some sort of physical superiority as trackers?

Anonymous 1 said...

I don't know about trackers but certainly I'd say travelers which helps when you're campaigning across a big continent. Not everyone travels so well, foot or vehicle, as I can attest.
We're talking roll of the dna dice whether you're 1/8th or 7/8ths. But since most people don't have that many kids anymore, Anonymous 2is probably right in considering them White. But what's Quana Parker?
And why does Aboriginal television here in Canada show Kilmer, Costner and Depp movies?

Anonymous 1 said...

Here is a link that confirms some of what I said in my original post. Although it deals mostly with African American ancestry, it also deals with Native American. It even claims Jefferson as a quarter like Trudeau.
I'll agree they're no Quanah Parker.

Rob said...

I covered the subject of black and Indian presidents in September 2008, Anonymous. The Bushes were not among the contenders.

It's true that most longtime Anglo-American families (such as mine) probably have a bit of black or Indian blood. That makes us whites with a bit of black or Indian blood, not blacks or Indians.

Canada's Aboriginal TV probably shows Westerns featuring Kilmer, Costner, and Depp because these movies also include Indians. And not because the stars themselves have some Cherokee blood.