Essay 2: Indigenous Issues
November 12th, 2013
Stereotypes of Native Americans in Films
Native Americans in films during the 1930’s, 1940’s, and the 1950’s were usually portrayed as irrational people that were determined on attacking and pillaging the peaceful settlers of the American west. The understanding of Native Americans in films was mostly limited to a single genre, the Western. The generalization of Native Americans can be classified under a few key themes. The history of the Native Americans have been condensed and represented under a single period of time. They have a rich history and it has been categorized under the period of the Western. Over time, much of the Native cultures have been interpreted through white values. In the past, white people had a different way of doing things but it doesn’t make the Natives lifestyle wrong or primitive. Furthermore, a reoccurring theme is the grouping of the six hundred distinct Native American cultures under one general classification. Films and movies have always been influential in American life and almost every type of movie has been created. It has covered many different and popular genres and one of the most enduring genres of the film world is the Wild Wild West. Ever since the birth of the film industry, there have been approximately 2,000 dramatic films produced with "Indian themes." About another 2,500 Indian television programs were made between 1950 and 1970. Film played an important role in spreading the stereotypes of the Native Americans as riding horses, screaming war chants, and scalping people. Film reveals the culture of the people and represents the values, beliefs, and social structure by spreading their interpretation of culture to large audiences. It is evident in movies because when an Indian comes into the picture, the mood of the actors change. They start to act startled, the background music changes, and the pigeonholed “big-bad” Native Americans emerge. These stories and generalizations about Native Americans are very much alive today because media has been able to bring the misconceptions to life. More times than not, the “good” Indians portrayed in the western era was one that either assisted the white settlers or tried to adjust to the white culture. This portrayal made Indian violence a key art in western films and a focal point for the suspense and excitement necessary to selling them. Categorizing Native Americans in limited, stereotyped roles were so established and unchallenged that they turned out to be society’s only impression of Native culture. This sparked the creation of the popular misunderstandings and racial slander today. The development of natives in film has mainly been from the influences of white directors and them being oblivious to the realistic view of Native culture. In result, the progress of natives in films has been determined by the changing social views of the white Americans. A Native American author, Michael Hilger, supported this statement saying that “tracing images of the Savage and Noble Red Man through historical periods of the cinema, it will reveal little about Native American people of the past or present but a lot about the evolution of white American attitudes and values.” In western films, they were always shown with scowls and wearing war paint, making them look willing to kill at any time. They appeared inferior to the whites and that the Indians needed to be taught everything having to do with the white way of life. Quoting a scene from “The Great Sioux Massacre, ”a man said, “Cheyenne, Apache, Blackfoot, Sioux – they’re vicious killers all of them; they ain’t even human.” The film justified the slayings committed at the Sand Creek Massacre by classifying the Indians and stating that they are all ruthless and blood-thirsty. Throughout films there has been many stereotypes, one of them being the Indian woman being restrained to only two types, a princess or a squaw. The Indian princess is displayed as the Native beauty who falls in love with the white man, and becomes open to giving up her cultural heritage and wed into the "civilized" white culture. The Indian squaw is traditionally reserved and almost invisible as she tends to her husband and family, preparing hides, weaving, cooking, and taking care of the children. Even when an Indian is designated as a secondary hero, he is still believed to be inferior to his white counter part and is typically the joke of racist humor. They provide racial comedy relief, which is demeaning to his intelligence and significance in the film. Also, any multiracial affairs happening between Native and non-Native people were never blessed with a happy ending. These relationships often concluded with the Indian giving up their lover at the understanding that their cultures could never coexist. These kinds of endings and generalizations promoted the fact that white civilization and Native culture could never live together as one. All through history, many Americans have placed Native people in the lower echelon of intelligence since first interaction was made. Like any other traditional minority, Native Americans are frequently portrayed as biologically and morally lesser to the more civilized white Americans. However, while these depictions are fabricated, the audience is very naïve and sheltered from any real interaction with a Native American. The majority of people had no experience or familiarity of how an Indian looked or appeared. They had nothing to compare the imageries they saw on screen with so they believed the film was true. Movies during this time were very influential because how the movies portrayed Native Americans to the people who have never seen or been exposed to that culture. The people believed that they were seeing an authentic Native American, or the “real” Indian that they had heard all of the stories about. Television and old movies often portray the "Indian" speaking little to few words of English, and repeatedly saying "ugh." Yet anthropologists have documented the intricacy of Native American languages and at least 350 different languages were spoken in North America before first contact was made ashore in Massachusetts. As the nation has experienced changes in the way that it views people as equals, most of Hollywood has begun to change from displaying Indians as vicious savages into showing what the majority of Native Americans in fact were; a peaceful and proud people who stood up and fought for what they believed. Hollywood often ignores the historical standpoint of Indian cultures and rarely provides an informed understanding of Indian identity. Most Native Americans dislike the stereotypical image that the commercial media has created. In the past few decades, there has been a growth of Native American producers and scriptwriters, working to show audiences a new outlook on their culture. There is much truth in a book made by an intelligent author on the subject, stating that "Film must provide a face for the faceless" in a history that does not provide one (Rosenstone 36). Film provides an image of Native Americans that we were not able to see from that time and place. It generates the life and times that American society has merely heard about or studied, but never lived. Filmmakers found it easy to create a negative image of Native Americans because they are not white; so they can be whatever directors and historians want them to be seen as. Many directors were inclined to settle on the Indian's illiteracy, alcoholism, and “primitive” way of life. These traits made the red man appear like a child who needed the protection and guidance of the white father. All of these judgments live off the assumption that the Native American’s culture was "savage," white culture was "civilized," and the two societies could never peacefully harmonize. On the other hand, the nation has made many great strides and improving the relationship between both ethnicities. We are all a part of the United States and we are all equal in the law and in the eyes of the public. Directors, television, and film have been much more educated on the representation of Indians and have improved on how they are shown in media today.
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