I recently watched the 1998 movie Smoke Signals, which is about a Native American’s road trip with a nerdy friend to collect the ashes of his deceased, estranged father. It was a little bit cheesy, but it was also interesting because it was about modern-day Native Americans living on a reservation, something I realized that I rarely ever see in a movie. So I started digging for more (and there are actually plenty), and then stumbled across Reel Injun, an award-winning 2009 documentary on the portrayal of Native Americans (or American Indians, as is used in the film) in Hollywood.
Reel Injun was directed by Cree Indian Neil Diamond, whose “rez car” trip across the American heartland is intercut with clips from movies and interviews. Diamond points out that while playing cowboys and Indians as a child, he and his friends never quite realized that they were the ‘enemy’; they always played the cowboys in the story, without seeing the irony. As a Cree from Canada, he was also surprised by how many non-Indians asked him if he lived in teepees and wore headdresses, the way all Indians do on TV. These contradictions brought him to the decision to examine the way Indians have been presented on film throughout history.
Diamond discusses the early silent films in which, surprisingly, American Indians were often portrayed positively, and then how later, during the Depression Era, they morphed into villains for the heroes needed by audiences in such difficult times. The clips of white actors playing Indians are definitely funny in their own way, but as comedian Charlie Hill says: “Chuck Connors as Geronimo! That’s like Adam Sandler as Malcolm X!”
Diamond’s research uncovers interesting (and irritating) facts such as the matter of the headbands that Plains Indians wear in nearly all movies, which were never a part of their culture – they were actually just helpful for keeping long wigs on the actors. There is one great scene from a 60s movie, where the Indian actors made up their own lines in their tribal language, which no one bothered to translate. Consequently, the chief is actually telling the cowboy, “You are a snake crawling through shit…Of course you don’t understand, you’re just a snake in shit!”
The interviewees in the film include Smoke Signals director Chris Eyre (Skinwalkers, Law & Order, Friday Night Lights), activists John Trudell and Russell Means, and actress/activist Sacheen Littlefeather, who famously accepted Marlon Brando’s Oscar in 1973, with a plea for help for the Indians involved in the protest at Wounded Knee. Also included are Jim Jarmusch and Clint Eastwood as well as actors Adam Beach (Smoke Signals, Cowboys & Aliens), Wes Studi (Last of The Mohicans), Graham Greene (Dances With Wolves) and actor/stunt-rider Rod Rondeaux (Meek’s Cutoff).
Their insights are fascinating, especially into the 1960s American Indian Movement, and the problems they see in even more recent films. They also praise the movies with roles that busted stereotypes like the stoic Indian: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Little Big Man and The Outlaw Josey Wales, for example. The ending is positive, discussing newer movies made by American Indians themselves, such as Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), which is now on my list to see.
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