Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Shifting Other: Native Americans in Film, 1950-Present

Bill Schnupp

Representations of Native Americans in popular film are as interesting as they are problematic: the subject remains somewhat static as the other, while the position of the producer of such texts—mainly the Euro-American majority—has undergone a drastic shift in the last five decades. Through analysis of films produced since 1950, I argue that representations of Native Americans fall under two socio-historically-forged paradigms: the vilified other, and the sympathetic other. Far from harmless cinema, the deployment of these two models serves to perpetuate the commodification of indigenous cultures through reductive stereotypes, and prolong the lack of agency of native people in society. However, the recent increase in films produced and directed by Native Americans may signal a positive trend in the distribution of cinematic and social power in the native community.

The Vilified Other: 1950-1970

Construction of native identity as the vilified other is intensely familiar, and essentially a continuity of historic misrepresentations reaching back beyond such works as Longfellow's Hiawatha (1855), Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1896), and George Caitlin's over-romanticized portraits of Native Americans rendered during his mid-ninteenth century tour of the American west. Picture the Saturday morning “cowboys and indians” film, in which indigenous people (usually white actors in red face), perpetrate a terrible transgression reflective of their wild, savage natures, and accompanying base moral and cognitive faculties, which are often further impaired through stereotypical abuse of "fire water." Indigenous offenses range from the indiscriminant slaughter and sexual abuse of Euro-Americans, to the theft of Euro-American property or infants; vengeance from white victims is both swift and just. The key to such representations lies in the social and historical context of the time.

Coming into the 1950’s, America was at best two or three generations removed from the era of westward expansion, a thrust infamous for its association with Andrew Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act, which begot the infamous “Trail of Tears,” the forced death march of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creeks, and Seminoles from their ancestral territories to government-approved “Indian Territories” in the west. The influence of such legislation endured, and as late as 1897, Government Americanization programs like the Dawes Act and the adjunctive Curtis Act of 1898—resolutions that allotted Native Americans land (upon which they had dwelled for several thousand years) in exchange for abandoning their traditional customs and values in favor of majority American culture—were enacted. At the heart of such laws was the drive to divide, conquer, and assimilate; to displace a culture based on social unity with that of rugged western individualism in order to more effectively separate land and resources from the indigenous obstacles to a growing nation. The legacy of such programs: Native Americans were not constitutionally recognized as citizens until 1924; into the 1940s, they required permission to leave reservations; and the right to vote did not come until nearly 1950.

The practices of alienation that fed such policies was only buoyed following World War II. The attack on Pearl Harbor—on America—fostered so strong a rhetoric of distaste and distrust for anything non-American that atrocities like Dillon Myer's Japanese American Internment camps were actively administered (Myers also headed the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1950-53). Despite large contributions to the war effort, it is clear by their restricted rights that Native Americans could not completely shake the stigma and accompanying mistrust of otherness.

As the war concluded, an economic boom began, and Americans loosened their grip on their roughly $140 billion of war-time savings (Kilpatrick). Life was good, and national pride was at its peak. To draw audiences and tap their share of post-war profits, popular film makers mirrored this nationalist sentiment, and there was perhaps no more quintessentially American theme than the story of the formation of the nation. Nostalgic renderings of this period were the order of the day, in which "we seem condemned to seek the historical past through our own pop images and stereotypes about that past, which itself remains forever out of reach" (Jameson 198). As a nation, Americans sought to reinforce pride by recreating an idyllic past that hinged largely on the tale of taming the savage frontier, a blanket entity under which unfamiliar Native Americans were swept. This theatrical misconstruction of native identity was cyclical: cinematic innaccuracies were internalized as truth by viewers who in turn brought them to bear on their realities, and eventually, back into their movies. Strong evidence can be found in a 1943 Readers Digest article outlining the prowess of Native Americans in World War II:

The red soldier is tough. Usually, he has lived outdoors all his life,
and lived by his senses;he is a natural Ranger. He takes to
commando fighting with gusto. . .At ambushing, scouting,signaling,
sniping [Indians are] peerless. Some can smell a snake yards
away and hear the faintest movement; all endure thirst and lack
of food better than the average white man (Kilpatrick 50).

This perspective is clearly informed by too many afternoons spent at the matinee, where native identity was imbued with the fictive skill set necessary to thrive in a mythic frontier.

With the onset of the Cold War in the fifties, and the accompanying repugnant poltical outgrowth of McCarthyism, the distrust of anything outside the norm only deepened. Self-protection was the ability to confirm and display one's American-ness. As with any other widespread social phenomenon, McCarthyism too found expression in popular media: Arthur Miller's 1953 The Crucible, for example, worked to criticize the fanaticism named for the infamous senator from Wisconsin. Given their unfamiliarity in a time of social inquiry of entities thus tagged, Native Americans stood little chance of escaping construction as something wholly non-American and consequently unworthy of trust (in this era, both Native Americans and Russians were equated with red). In such an environment, we witness the rise of the Native American as the vilified other. Among films from this era, two of the most popular and offensive are John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), and John Huston’s The Unforgiven (1960).

The Searchers

The Searchers
boasts an element that, for its time, equates to a near-universal seal of approval: John Wayne. Until his death in 1979, this American icon embodied cinematically all the qualities upon which the Jacksonian era of westward expansion was founded: rugged individualism (the roots of the bootstrap mentality), fierce ambition, courage, and equanimity tempered with violence when necessary. He even mirrored (and doubtless strengthened) the national perspective of the place of Native Americans in westward expansion: "I don't feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them. There were great numbers of people who needed new land and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves" (Kilpatrick 44). Perhaps in none of the Duke’s films are these ideas more evident than in The Searchers, where his quintessentially American persona is played up from the outset (viewed below).

Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran returning to his brother’s Texas homestead to find the peace that has so long eluded him. His homecoming is tainted with tragedy when much of his family is killed by the murderous Chief Scar’s (notice that the character’s very name bespeaks deformity and hideousness) Comanche, and Ethan’s nieces, Lucy and Debbie, are taken captive. For the next five years, Ethan, his hatred for all things indigenous seething, wanders to recover the girl with the help of his nephew, Martin, who is often rebuked by Ethan for his partial Cherokee heritage. Though they eventually find the girls, they have been assimilated into the tribe. Lucy is in fact killed (arguably by Ethan himself) while Debbie remains captive (a young Natalie Wood in fully “native” garb):

Brad: I found her, I found Lucy!

Ethan: “What you saw was a buck wearin' Lucy's dress. I found Lucy back in the Canyon.”

Brad: “Was she. . .?

Ethan: [screams] Whad’ya want me to do, draw ya a picture?

Spell it out? Don’t ever ask me! Long as you live, don’t ever

ask me more!

Perhaps even more offensive than the film’s depiction of Native Americans as murderers and child thieves (and often as animals, evidenced by Ethan’s nomenclature for a male native person as a buck) is Ethan's view of his nieces' assimilation into the tribe: it is a fate worse than death, and spurs Ethan to brandish his pistol toward his remaining niece in order to end her hellish life as something non-American. Martin steps in to prevent this waste, this negation of a five-year struggle, only to have Ethan threaten him as well. Though Martin eventually succeeds in his efforts at pacification, spurring Ethan to accept Debbie despite her tainted condition, it is only by the thinnest of margins.

The Unforgiven

The Unforgiven
retraces the thread of assimilation employed in The Searchers, but reverses it. Rather than losing a daughter to native people, the fine, upstanding Zachary family takes in an adopted daughter from the local Kiowa tribe. As she grows, Rachel’s (Audrey Hepburn) dark complexion draws unwanted inquisition. Before long, her true origins are suspect, and at one point in the film, she is commanded by a local male official to strip in order to verify whether her darker-than-average-skin is only sun-related, or if she has truly has tainted blood. The moral ambiguity of this exchange is noteworthy: the man specifies that Rachel is to strip only in front of the womenfolk, thereby preserving his integrity; thus, it is morally defensible to render a young woman completely vulnerable in a nude examination at the hands of strangers, but unacceptable that she be anything other than white (clip available below).

Rachel’s refusal to undress, backed by her step-brother, Ben (Burt Lancaster) alienates the Zacharies from the community as heathen outcasts. Meanwhile, Ben has slowly fallen in love with his adopted sister, and revises his own ontology to accept her despite her taint. Near the end of the film, Rachel’s Kiowa forbearers come to claim her, and Ben, in classic western fashion, exchanges makeshift sign language and stilted, pronoun-ambiguous speech with his indigenous visitors:

Kiowa Man: You show us woman, we want see.

Ben: You see no woman in my house.

Kiowa Man: How much woman worth?

Ben [signing]: There are not enough horses to pay

for her; not all you can own; not all you can steal!

This exchange is offensive on many levels: first, the use of stilted, ridiculous speech and over exaggerated sign language betrays a child-like and simplistic characterization of native cognition. Additionally, Ben’s parthian shot about the theft of horses typifies native morality as dubious at best, as if the only way the Kiowa man can own many horses is to steal them. Ben’s refusal to comply with the Kiowa’s demands instigates a savage battle (high-pitched war cries included) over Rachel, during which she kills her Kiowa brother and effectively aligns herself with the vastly superior culture of her adopted family, free to pursue her love for Ben. As in The Searchers, Rachel's personal battle is a microcosm of the larger struggle to tame the frontier and its harsh, untamed people. The overall message is that it is better to kill in defense of one's Euro-American identity than to be perceived as non-white.

The way Native Americans are depicted in these films is far from just and clearly fueled by the social context of the time, an era of social distrust of anything non-American, and consequent celebration of the American identity through nostalgic film reconstructions of Manifest Destiny. Less than a decade after The Unforgiven, however, this mode of representation underwent a drastic shift, brought about primarily by the changing social and self-construction of the producers of such films—in essence, a change in the connotations they attached to the Native American other.

The Sympathetic Other: 1970-Present

Though this era can arguably be said to have begun in the sixties, it did not reach full fruition until the 1970s, when the social climate that had affirmed the vilification of Native Americans in film was undergoing change: Although its effects weren’t truly felt until the late 1940s, the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934 (flawed though it may have been) worked to endow tribes with a greater measure of self determination through tribally mandated economic, social, property and resource management programs. Ironically, it was a combination of Dillon Myer's work leading into the Eisenhower administration's agenda to terminate the IRA (and in so doing dissolve reservations, relocate residents, and seize their property) that increased sympathy for indigenous plight, certainly counter-productive to Myer's aims. By 1960, the newly-elected Kennedy administration rescinded the Myers/Eisenhower termination plan and worked attempted to foster a sense of cultural pluralism. The forthcoming anti-authoritative, anti-Vietnam counter-culture that so resonated with the younger generation furthered this attention to new and devalued perspectives, and by 1968 aided in the birth of both the American Indian Movement (AIM), President Johnson’s National Council on Indian Opportunity, and the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) in 1970, acts that reaffirmed the solidarity among native people than had been undermined through past legislative efforts.

Near the same time, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was extended to protect the rights of Native Americans, and in 1969, Red Power, a militant political group seized Alcatraz Island in a show of anti-racist sentiment. The early 1970s bore witness to three events that finally tipped the scales: Nixon expanded on Johnson’s work to improve U.S.-Native American relations, highlighted by the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, in which an unprecedented 40 million acres of land was legally titled to indigenous Alaskans; in 1972, the Trail of Broken Treaties (protesting the 300 plus treaties made and broken by the U.S. government) resulted in the peaceful occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building in Washington; the events of the 1973 AIM Wounded Knee incident were far less passive, ending in a seventy-plus day stand-off between U.S. armed forces and protestors on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. These and other events, though controversial and often arguable in the quality of their intent, fostered a cumulative effect of national sympathy and guilt. Sympathy, however, is not action, and progress was (and continues to be) slow, but, for the first time, the veracity of the claim that Native Americans had been unjustly treated in the course of U.S. history was taken seriously. This difficult truth found expression in film, though often by no means as innocuously as it was intended.

The period of the sympathetic other in film coincides with the development of revisionist westerns beginning in the late 1960’s, in which Euro-American protagonists were less the John Wayne-esque paragons of American virtue and more the celebrated anti-heroes who scorned society; these characters were the least bad of the bad men, whose agendas more often than not played out in ways correspondent to those of the good folk (picture Clint Eastwood in films like High Plains Drifter or Pale Rider). Along with this type of experimentation, many revisionist filmmakers amended their depictions of Native Americans to a form more congruent with public sentiment, signifying a change in the collective self-construction of the Euro-American culture at large: Native Americans were still the other, but the connotative value of this identity had shifted from purely evil, to the downtrodden (interestingly, this theme had featured prominently in the Russian Oustern, or “red western” film since the late 1940s, and oddly enough was a genre favored by Stalin).

How to sympathetically represent Native Americans—groups verily defined through their alienation by the United States—presented a cinematic quandary. Their strategy is what I term “indianicity” (I borrow from Barthes conceptually), a blanket term under which fall the techniques of “angelization” and transplantation. The overall principle is based on the cultural canyon that existed between Euro-American filmmakers and indigenous people: how were they to explore the identity of cultural groups their own culture had historically alienated, and continued to do so in film and other media? The solution, indianicity, is essentially the Euro-American rendering of indigenous culture.

Angelization is rooted in the rhetoric of national sympathy that developed in the 1970s, and essentially functioned to portray Native American cultures in complete polarity to their former maleficent constructions: as utterly perfect, utopian institutions spoiled by the arrival of the white man. The prior attribution of supernatural powers carried over into this designation of native identity, but as a positive attribute--a sort of unspoiled, magical stewardship of mother nature. While the arrival of Europeans to the North American continent did in fact beget a long cycle of assimilation and subjugation of indigenous people, Native Americans, like any other people, were not perfect. In addition, while many native cultures did cultivate some form of existential and spiritual relationship with the land, it was not magic, nor the sole element of their existence. It is essential here to recall that Native American cultures, like any others, possessed imperfections. Representing them as completely perfect and magical is as harmful a representation as rendering them completely evil; it is inaccurate, untrue, and further reductive.

Transplantation is perhaps the most insidious technique, as it works to actively assuage the national guilt over the treatment indigenous people received. Transplantation involves insertion of a white protagonist or actor into the Native culture being portrayed. As the white protagonist struggles through hardship and oppression with their adopted Native American brethren, the Euro-American viewer easily identifies with the character, thereby lessening their share of the collective guilt. In this model, the native culture depicted is validated through its congruity with that of the transplanted protagonist. As a corpus of work, films from the sympathetic era combine one or more of these elements of indianicity, essentially prolonging one great cycle of textual pastiche (to again borrow from Jameson), a blank and repetitious parody of a particular style (195).

Little Big Man

More than any other, the film that ushered in this era was Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970). The film delivers the story of Jack Crabb/Little Big Man (Dustin Hoffman), a white settler raised by a band of kindly Cheyenne when his own family is killed. Though he is raised as a member of the band, Crabb is continuously pulled back into the white man’s world, finding employment as a snake oil salesman, gun slinger, and army scout. Through it all, though, Crabb always returns intermittently to his home with Old Lodge Skins (Squamish elder Dan George), eventually marrying Sunshine, a Cheyenne woman. His marital bliss is cut short, however, when many of his people are killed in a U.S. army massacre along the banks of the Washita River. Crabb responds by scouting for the army, getting close to their ranking field officer, George Armstrong Custer in order to exact revenge. The film comes to a tumultuous close with the Battle of Little Bighorn, in which Crabb is saved by one of his Cheyenne relations with whom he has a long history of mutual enmity.

Little Big Man is well researched with regard to history and several of the customs depicted in the film, for example, the sequence detailing the intentionally reversed series of actions by Younger Bear (Cal Bellini), a contrary. It also featured many large speaking roles for the supporting indigenous cast, a first amid the Hollywood practice of placing white actors in red face (somewhere around 350 actors up to this point). Overall, the film does endeavor to portray the Cheyenne in a favorable light.

Though the film does employ angelization in its rendering of Cheyenne life as perfect pre-U.S. army (a product of the social climate of both indigenous sympathy and anti-vietnam sentiment), its real inequity comes from its use of transplantation: this is not the story of the Cheyenne, but Jack Crabb’s story as a Cheyenne. From its very opening, Little Big Man delivers an ancient Crabb sharing his recollections with an interviewer. The film both opens and closes with close-ups of the centurian Crabb, though by the end, he is shot as a solitary old man in a dark room, his head in his hands. This perspective only serves to heighten a sense of sympathy for, and identification with, an “indianized” white man, at once familiar and strange. This serves as a stark counterppoint to the era of the vilified other, in which Crabb himself would have been adversely constructed as a non-American entity. At no point in the film are both the audience’s sympathy and Crabb’s status as a white-indian more overtly employed than in a scene preceding the Washita massacre, when a young and happy Crabb is voiced by his aged future self:

Crabb: I reckon right there I come purty close to turnin’ pure injun

and I probly would’a spent the rest ‘o my days with Sunshine and

her sisters. But sometimes, grass don’t grow, wind don’t blow, and

the sky ain’t blue.

As viewers we are called upon to pity this man's loss, and the essence of both his appeal and the audiences’ pity lies in his Euro-American origins as he suffers with Native Americans (clip below).

Dances With Wolves

Less than two decades later, Kevin Costner began production on what would become his academy award-winning picture, Dances With Wolves (1990). Rather than an orphan adopted by Native Americans, Costner’s film centers on a grown man’s choice to become part of a culture. Costner both directs and plays the part of John Dunbar, a Civil War veteran awarded his choice of assignments due to his uncommon valor on the battlefield. His choice is the remote Fort Sedgwick, a one-man post on the boundary of the settled United States (the Mid-west). While there, Dunbar manages to befriend a band of local Sioux, and among their number dwells Stands With Fists (Mary McDonell), a white woman taken in as an infant when her birth-parents were slaughtered by hostile Pawnee. Dunbar slowly learns the language and customs, eventually abandoning his Euro-American heritage to become a Sioux, Dances With Wolves, and marry Stands With Fists. The film closes with a theme that Dunbar alludes to throughout: the impending doom of Manifest Destiny and the accompanying settlers that will destroy the perfection he has come to love.

Dances With Wolves is very similar to Little Big Man: it employs a supporting cast of indigenous actors, and vilifies the army. Likewise, though it attempts accuracy (going so far as to use English subtitle for brief Sioux dialogues), Costner’s film also exhibits the same Eurocentric point of view: this is a story of Native Americans delivered through a white man come to live among them, because he sees the perfection in their way of life, a perfection conspicously absent in the film's treatment of the Pawnee (an essentialist perspective that harks back to the vilified era). It is also noteworthy that Dunbar manages to master and seemlessly blend into Sioux culture (language, dress, custom, spirituality) in a scant two or three years, as if it were some simplified club to be joined. Costner departs from his congruity with Little Big Man in his emphasis on the mystic nature of the Sioux. At one point in the film, Dunbar is leaving his fort to visit his newfound Sioux friends. Eventually, he stops and engages in a playful game of tag with a wolf that lives near the fort. Unknown to Dunbar, several of his friends witness the playful exchange, and thus dub him Dances With Wolves. The same wolf follows Dunbar later in the film, at great risk from soldiers, and at the close of the film, a lone wolf cries mournfully, along with a Sioux friend of Dunbar’s, to mark the departure of the white man from the band. It is as if in becoming one of the Sioux, Dunbar has established a magical relationship with nature, which nature reciprocates with a supernatural lupine fellowship (viewed below).


Ten years after Dances With Wolves, Joe Johnston began work on Hidalgo (2004). Very loosely based on the life of Frank T. Hopkins (there was a great deal of controversy over the film’s veracity), Hidalgo tracks Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen)—the son of a Sioux woman and a U.S. cavalry officer—through his adventures as a dispatch rider, witness to the Wounded Knee massacre, stunt rider with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and finally as participant in the Ocean of Fire, a long distance horse race through the deserts of Syria and Iran. As in many prior films, Hopkins’s status as a tortured man from two worlds is heavily emphasized. His own indigenous identity is paralleled by that of the indigenous people who populate the desert through which he races. Through the hardships he endures with the desert people, Hopkins comes to accept himself for who he is—Blue Child, a member of the Sioux. He wins the race, returns home and uses the prize money to procure the freedom of several hundred Sioux mustangs slated for destruction by the U.S. government. In a final moment, Hopkins allows his own mustang, Hidalgo, to run free with the herd.

Painfully evident here is the emphasis on a white man struggling to find his way in the Native world. In addition, Johnston also stresses the mystic element of Native Americans in a scene late in the film when Hopkins, suffering with his horse in the scorching sun, decides to kill his horse. At the last moment, however, he sings a Sioux prayer and essentially enacts an adapted version of the Sioux Ghost Dance rite, an intensely spiritual ceremony intended to honor ancestor spirits. In the film, however, at the behest of a blaringly Euro-American actor, actual ephemeral figures appear in an overall reductive and sacrilegious deployment of a very important ceremony. Had an actual Sioux actor been cast, this scene and this movie may have carried the power it was intended to convey (clip below).

One of the primary questions to be extrapolated from Little Big Man, Dances With Wolves, and Hidalgo is easy to envision: can a director conditioned by a life of the privileges that come with being a white American male accurately deliver the story of a people oppressed by that very group? I argue that it is unlikely, as the power of identity in this situation is completely in the hands of the filmmakers; the fact that filmmakers continue to try is less a question of cinema and more one of hegemony. U.S.-Native American relations rests on a foundation of oppression, and over time, as outright physical force waned, the dominance of Euro-American culture was internalized by Native Americans, who, conditioned by their inferior status, became complicit in perpetuating it. As political and social non-entities they continued to fill the subjugated roles that had been carved for them throughout U.S. history; the benefits of doing so far outweighed the costs. Film provides the evidence, where supporting casts of native actors continue to people the films that perpetuate inaccurate representations. Moreover, in hegemonic fashion, these types of films are at times even lauded by many in the native community.

The Missing

Ron Howard’s 2003 film The Missing is a case-in-point: the film details the theft and sale of white women into prostitution and slavery by murderous Apache led by a brujo, or witch (Eric Schweig), complete with supernatural cursing abilities. One young girl, Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood) is pursued by her mother, Maggie (Cate Blanchett) and grandfather, Chaa-duu-ba-its-iidan (Tommy Lee Jones), who is very familiar as a white man turned Native American. While the film does briefly attempt to portray two “good” native people, and accurately utilizes the Apache language, overall it feels very much like a 1950s representation of indigenous people as the vilified other. Yet, on the Mescalero Apache Reservation the film was highly regarded for its use of the Apache language, in spite of the reductive and damaging way the Apache were constructed (Benke).

Because white filmmakers deigned to accurately use their language, the viewers on the Mescalero reservation felt some small sense of empowerment amid the one-sided and often violent behavior of Apache people in the film. In this case, the shift to sympathetic representations in film, then, is less about equity and more about the continuity of an unequal distribution of power with a sense of principle thrown in: filmmakers present images of Euro-Americans who have become Native Americans, who, together, are celestially innocent and supernaturally harmonious with nature; this attempt at innocence and optimism justifies filmmakers' position as the dominant entity in a hegemony. It’s hegemony with a conscience.

A New Paradigm: Native American Films By Native Americans

Antanarjuat: The Fast Runner and Smoke Signals

Although representations of Native Americans have undergone change since the 1950s, it is not necessarily positive change: they remain the constant other, a position that simultaneously perpetuates and sanitizes filmmakers’—and by extension their majority cultures’—position of dominance in a centuries-long hegemony. Yet there is potential for optimism in this dismal situation: Zacharias Kunuk’s Antanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001), and Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals (1998). Each of these films was produced, directed, and released by native people. That it depicts the story of Native Canadian people is irrelevant, as the international release and acclaim for
Antanarjuat attracts attenention to Native film makers as group. Delivered in the Inuit language with English subtitles, Antanarjuat tells the Inuit legend of an evil spirit who causes misfortune for the protagonist, Antanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq). He alienates his wife, Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu) by taking a second wife. At one point, he is attacked in his shelter while asleep after a long day’s hunt and forced to run naked across pack ice for miles, pursued by his enemies. Antanarjuat is healed by sympathizers and eventually returns home and banishes the evil spirit through mental, physical, and spiritual fortitude (link below).

Smoke Signals is a film adaptation of the short story “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona," taken from Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto: Fistfight in Heaven. The film follows Victor (Adam Beach) and Thomas (Evan Adams), a ridiculed storyteller, as they venture to carry out the last wishes of the deceased Arnold (Gary Farmer), Victor’s father. Through the travels of the two men, the film explores the theme of culture disinheritance among contemporary Native Americans, and questions if and how their culture can be preserved. In particular, Thomas's closing monologue, along with Victor's act of scattering his father's ashes from the bridge convey this sense of struggle between the past and the present (clip below).

By no means was either film a large-scale release (though Miramax did purchase Smoke Signals), yet they accomplished something important: the rendering of Native American themes and characters by Native American/Canadian artists. Of his own initial viewing of Smoke Signals, University of Oklahoma's Robert Warrior notes: "I became just as interested in watching the audience watching the film as I was in the film itself. The young people I saw the film with were enthralled, seeing reasonable facsimiles of themselves and their lives on the big screen--most of them, for the first time ( Singer vii). Clearly, such films exist outside the realm of social and cinematic hegemony and create new paradigms of accurate and honest representation all their own. Serving as stark historical counterpoint to the depiction of native identity in popular film through the lens of film makers' own cultures, Smoke Signals and films like it explore, cinematically, the realities of contemporary Native American life from the perspective of native people.

Hopefully it is evident by this time that representations of Native Americans in popular film are a direct reflection of the historical treatment of indigenous people, and often represent changes in how they are cognitively and emotionally constructed by the majority culture. Today, some strides have been made: as sovereign nations within the U.S., many tribes (though not all) have a previously unheard of degree of self-determination (resource management, tribal corporations, gaming, etc), and continue the struggle to balance tradition with modernity. Yet, ironically, they are not sovereign nations until acknowledged by the U.S. government; their existence is defined through another's, and this does not guarantee them cooperation or assistance, only existence. It is only those sovereign nations officially cited in legislation that are allowed federally restricted discretion over tribal trust lands (those lands the U.S. government has, in paternal fashion, held in trust for many Native American cultures). Among those sovereign nations who paticipate in tribal gaming, the types of games are, in many instances, dictated by state legislation. Thus, current tribal sovereignty, while often preferable to the historic treatment of many tribes, possesses an undercurrent of contradiction: it purports to grant the power of autonomy, but within pre-determined limits.

In many places (despite sovereignty with limits) the present situation is dismal: life expectancy among the nearly two million Native Americans living on reservations or in rural areas is nearly three years shorter than any other group in the U.S.; Native Americans die at higher rates than other Americans from tuberculosis (600% higher), alcoholism (510% higher), motor vehicle crashes (229% higher), diabetes (189% higher), unintentional injuries (152% higher), homicide (61% higher) and suicide (62% higher); safe and adequate water supply and waste disposal facilities are lacking in approximately 12% of Native American homes, compared to 1% of homes for the U.S. in general; and for every 1,000 live births in Native American homes, 8.5 infants die, compared to 6.8 for the entire national population (Indian Health Service 2006). Reservations are a Euro-American invention, in essence historically engineered; their squalid conditions persist because they are allowed to do so, and the supposed conscientiousness of representation in sympathetic other films only serves to distract people from approaching these issues. Bolstered by a feeling of innocence and fairplay as they leave the theater, Euro-American audiences leave the theater with, as a minimum, further misconceptions of the realities of Native American life, and often with the significantly more severe impulse to "bootstrap" indigenous people and problems, rationalizing the conditions on many reservations as solely the residents' failure to pull themselves up and improve their situation in rugged, western American style.

One can only hope that the release of Smoke Signals, Antanarjuat, and similar films by Native Americans in the last few years (Eyre’s 2002 Skins and Alexie’s 2002 The Business of FancyDancing) signal a large-scale shift to newer, less reductive portrayals of Native Americans in film; and perhaps the production of those films signals an impending improvement in the social agency of Native Americans, granting them more of the power and respect to which all people are entitled.

Works Consulted

-Aleiss, Angela. Making the White Man's Indian:
Americans and Hollywood Movies. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005.

-Alexie, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto
Fistfight in Heaven.
N.Y.: Atlantic Monthly, 1993.

-Antanarjuat. Dir. Zacharias Kunuk. Perf. Natar Ungalaaq and Sylvia
Ivalu. Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, 2001.

-Benke, Richard. “Apaches Savor Language OnceMissing.”
Associated Press. 16 Dec. 2003.

-Barthes, Roland. "The Rhetoric of the Image." Gray, Ann and
Jim McGuigan, eds. Studying Culture: An
Introductory Reader
. N.Y.: Oxford, 1997.

-Berkhofer, Robert. The White Man’s Indian:
Images of the American
Indian from Columbus to the Present. N.Y.: Vintage, 1979.

-Dances With Wolves. Dir. Kevin Costner. Perf. Kevin Costner and
Mary McDonell. Tig Productions, 1990.

-“Facts on Indian Health Disparities.” 20 Oct. 2007. Indian Health

-Hidalgo. Dir. Joe Johnston. Perf. Viggo
Mortensen and Omar
Sharif. Touchstone, 2004.

-High Plains Drifter. Dir. Clint Eastwood. Perf. Clint Eastwood
and Geoffrey Lewis.Malpaso, 1973.

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Little Big Man
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