June 10, 2012

Tlingit ancestry in The Proposal

The Proposal is a 2009 romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. In Native Stereotypes in The Proposal, I noted the critical response to the movie. Everyone seemed to think Betty White's faux-Native dance was one of the worst parts.

Recently I saw The Proposal, so I can talk about it more concretely.

The Dance

As Ryan Reynolds's Alaskan grandmother, White goes into the woods to seek harmony. She wears a Pacific Northwest-style headdress and robe. The items are probably touristy kitsch, but at least they're from the right cultural region. They're reminiscent of the real thing. For example:

"Tlingit man named Charles Jones Shakes wearing headdress and blanket, Alaska 1940."

White chants an invocation to "Mother Earth." She doesn't use any Native phrases or gestures. When Bullock arrives, White encourages her to make up a dance and say nonsense words.

See the full scene here:

Dancing Scene--The Proposal

The scene is silly and unnecessary. But since White never says it's a Native ceremony, I'm not sure it rises to the level of offensive. It comes off as a generic New Age bit where one participant happens to wear Native garb.

White's ancestry

Later White gives Bullock a piece of jewelry from White's great-grandmother. White explains that her great-grandfather was Russian and her great-grandmother was Tlingit. The couple had to persevere to overcome the objections of their families.

Interesting. That means White's character is 1/8 Tlingit and Reynolds's character is 1/32 Tlingit.

This revelation offers some slight excuse for the previous scene. Perhaps White got the headdress and robe from one of her Tlingit ancestors. Perhaps she was doing a dimly-remembered version of a Tlingit ceremony performed by them.

These tidbits of Native history and culture are a poor substitute for the real thing. There are no actual Natives in the movie, and no cultural bits other than these. But at least there's a vague acknowledgement that Natives are part of the Alaskan environment.

As for the rest of The Proposal, it does have several cringe-inducing moments, but the main actors are charming, so it's enjoyable as light entertainment. Rob's rating: 8.0 of 10.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.

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