November 07, 2006

Tonto taught us

Tim Giago:  Few roles for Indians in HollywoodI need not go into the horrific, erroneous, hideous, nonsensical and racist movies about Native Americans that have sprouted in this magic kingdom and left such an onerous stench across Indian country because they have been enumerated countless times amongst the Indian people themselves.

We are all products of our times. Jay Silver Heels, the infamous Tonto of the Lone Ranger films, fought to make changes in the movie industry at a time when Indians were considered no more important than ornaments that decorate the movie set. He went along to get along and his “pidgin English” pronunciations to the “Masked Crusader” soon became synonymous with all Indians. “Me makeum smoke signals to Great White Father, Ugh” was the kind of language any aspiring Indian actor had to master before he could be cast in the early Grade “B” Westerns. White kids playing Indians in the perennial game of Cowboys and Indians were soon spouting this “Tontonese” with expert clarity. In the 1930s and 1940s, Indian children attending classes at the Indian boarding schools went so far as to emulate the linguistics of Mr. Silver Heels. Even in the movie Key Largo, a movie in which Silver Heels plays the part of a Seminole Indian, he continues to speak in his “pidgin English” voice.

1 comment:

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
Ah, Timmy me boyo, how kin ya be so right and then not so right?
Yes, roles for Natives in today's movies and television are as scarce as those for Abos.
No, NORTHERN EXPOSURE was not an exception to the rule, as it had Elaine Miles (Umatilla) in a rotating role and naturally blond Darren E. Burrows (son of actor Billy Drago who claims Apachean descent) in a semi-regular role. Graham Greene popped up occasionally, as did Floyd Red Crow Westerman, but neither were rotating nor regulars. In truth, EXPOSURE was a modern 'western' and so Natives were de rigeur.
Yes, Jay Silverheels and even Eddie Little Sky could have stood up for a more truthful character to the roles they played in their careers, but given the politics of the time, they then wouldn't have had careers and others who were more pliable to producers and directors would have been hired in their places. Then, those others would be getting the blame for the content of the material they were hired to play. Damned because you worked, or doomed because you didn't...
Of course, it's easy to write a column about all this if you never knew the compulsion to go into films or TV, or had to go up cold for blind auditions, or had to memorize three pages of dialogue in five minutes, or have a set of strangers discuss your merits like you aren't even there at all...
All Best
Russ Bates