August 06, 2008

The influence of movies

I sent the following message to some correspondents:"Second to religion, I think movies have been the most damaging thing to Indians."

Chris Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapaho), filmmaker, quoted in Indian Country Today, 4/20/02
Any thoughts on this quote? How much do movies affect the public perception of Indians?
Here are their responses:Movies/film, being the creature that it is (popular media) both reflects AND influences how audiences (read that: the general populace) views a particular culture. While these days we might discuss the 'narrowcasting' of cable TV, magazines, and HD has been possibly the most popular media--and thus most widely consumed--of the 20th century. people form entire worldviews on the information they get from movies. Do I know what a Sicilian Mafia member is like from personal knowledge? No. But, I can sure identify an Italian mobster movie when I see it. Thus, the film industry has shaped my view of a particular culture (Mafia). The same is true for the way Native people are viewed...more than a century of bad Westerns (several times, one of the most popular genres in the US) has left its scarring brand on our culture.

Michael Sheyahshe, author of Native Americans in Comic Books
The purpose of religion and all media is to support the norms and mores of our dominant society. Our society is based on a series of racist myths so it is not surprising that religion and movies support these lies and suppress truth.

Michael Lombardi, Indian gaming consultant
Movies ARE the public perception of Indians outside of Indian Country. They don't "affect it"; they comprise it.

Steve Russell, judge and professor
He has a good point. There are movies that are just anti-Indian propaganda, others just embarrassingly bad, and still others that place Indians in a fantasy realm, where anyone can make up elements of the culture.

Linde Knighton, writer
I would respectfully submit as one and two European-borne diseases and the US government. These two could be combined to be "colonization." But beyond colonization, I agree, pretty much, with religion and the movies (and by extension, television). It seems to have been a full-spectrum attack. Life, land, beliefs, values, identity and self-esteem destroyed, distorted and damaged. Movie images can't tell you who you are, but when the rest of a culture has so few truths about many other cultures, both cultures suffer. English language movies, not always on purpose, help to finish the job of cultural/physical destruction.

Non-Native writer and teacher
I will second the quote and add a little to it. In the public's mind the images created by Hollywood have been the most suppressive tool used to keep American Indians from evolving into the twenty-first century. We remain the most misunderstood and underrepresented people in America today.

Mark Reed, Americans Indians in Film and Television
I think I would agree to Chris Eyre's statement. I have no idea how you would quantify HOW MUCH the movies affect public perception. I think we have a strong tendency to believe something that is printed, but we also are prone to not question facts couched in visual form, too.

Most non-Indians have little exposure to personal or non-movie knowledge about or experience with Native Americans, either contemporary or historic. Although books and other media are probably just as guilty of blatant omission and commission errors involving Indians, I would say that the American public are less likely to indulge in reading, researching, etc. these forms of potential opinion influences involving Natives, either in the general course of their life or by deliberate seeking information from these forms.

As a teacher I have spent years presenting cultural programs for school children, and even very, very young children have some strange ideas about Native Americans. I have to assume that much of what they learn is from visual cues, since I doubt that their parents taught them that all Indians are dead (a very frequent comment from very young children.) I assume that they think this because they do not see people who "look" or act like Indians.

Eulala Pegram, educator
Movies, unfortunately, are what handed all of us about 80% of the stereotypes we have to deal with today.

The cruel savage, the war bonnets. The guttural language, the attacks on non-Indians without provocation.

The overall "look"--translated, Western, dark-haired, tan etc. Indians.

The drunken image.

The movie attitudes of racism, bigotry, disdain and hatred.

The attitude that we weren't worth anything, were in THEIR way, and that anything done to us was o.k.

For openers.

Sheila "Firehair" Stover, educator and genealogist
Personally, I'd put movies in fourth place, after the U.S. government, religion and alcohol, just a notch above the New Age movement. Also, though movies have been damaging in terms of creating and perpetuating stereotypes, it's not damage that can't be undone. Consider how the stereotypes have "evolved" over the years in movies and the popular media, from the warbonnet-wearing warrior of Westerns; to the drunken, reservation dwellers that penetrated the liberal consciousness in the '60s and '70s; to now what seems to be a growing, widespread belief that all Indians, regardless of the tribe, are rich from casinos.

With filmmakers like Chris Eyre, writers like Sherman Alexie and an emerging generation of Native Americans more media-savvy than ever before, Indians are in a better position than ever to refute, negate and blow apart the stereotypes of the past. The real trick remains in coming up with entertainment content that not only changes, molds and corrects the public perception of the American Indian, but also emerges as a product that mainstream audiences want to pay money to see. That's how you change things. And, as Indians, we're going to have to figure out how to do that for ourselves.

James Lujan, filmmaker and playwright
Comment:  So colonization, religion, and other forces may have had more effect on Indians' physical circumstances. But our "panelists" seem to agree that movies and other media have had the most profound effect on our perception of Indians. I believe that's what Chris Eyre meant.

As Firehair put it: "Movies, unfortunately, are what handed all of us about 80% of the stereotypes we have to deal with today."

Of course, I'm not sure about her statistical guesstimate. There are an awful lot of paintings, statues, TV shows, books, mascots, product labels, and commercial signs out there. I remember my kachina coloring book more than any movie I saw.

But for many people, I'd say movies are the leading source. They provide a child's first exposure to Indian images: the half-naked brave, the beautiful maiden, the big chief, the throbbing tom-toms, the wild war-whoops, the stealthy ambush or raid, the charge across the plains. Because movies are visually arresting and young minds are easily influenced, these images become indelibly imprinted.

Seeing is believing

We've established why people believe movies: because filmmakers use historical facts and details to create verisimilitude. Because they cite research and expert testimony to vouch for their movie's authenticity. Such factors lead people to suspend their disbelief and accept the film's reality.

Now we see the consequences of these moviemaking practices. To sum it up: People believe what they see about Indians. What people see about Indians is false. Therefore, what people believe about Indians is false.

Or as Steve Russell said succinctly: "Movies are the public perception of Indians outside of Indian Country. They don't 'affect it'; they comprise it."

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

P.S. I edited these responses slightly to fix their spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Below:  A good visual summary of the common Indian tropes in movies and other media.


writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
Oh, wow! Lujan comes the closest to writerfella's grasp of it all. BUT -- NONE of those puts the finger where it truly lies... 'discovery,' invasion, conquest, elimination, and control, thus precipitating minimalization. There's a whole science fiction story in that word, and writerfella now begins a wholly new story with that as its basis. See, Rob, even you have a positive influence that you want to have but are taking a round-about way of getting there. Thanks...
All Best
Russ Bates

Rob said...

As we've seen, your grasp of the obvious is shaky at best.

The respondents all said roughly the same thing, albeit in different ways. The only thing Lujan added was a solution to the problem they all recognize.