The savage persona, the war paint, the feathers and the beating drums are just some of the stereotypical images and attributes associated with Native American culture. The casting of Native Americans into villainous roles of early film and television has perpetuated a false perception of Native Americans that is still tied to their culture today. For centuries, Native Americans have been defined by stereotypical perceptions of Indian culture. These preconceived notions of Native culture are amplified if not derived from, the racially biased portrayal of Native Americans in the mass media and film throughout history.
Though some of the modern depictions of Native Americans today are more positive and historically accurate, Indian culture still carries the stigma of the stereotypes and images established in early film and media. Though historical ignorance was partially at fault for allowing society to subscribe to such immense cultural misconceptions, it was film and television that immortalized these images and made them an acceptable part of the American way.
Preying on the publics limited knowledge of traditional Indian culture, early filmmakers created the Hollywood Indian, an inaccurate depiction of Native Americans confining them to either an image of a savage warrior or that of the wise medicine man. Michael Hilger describes these representations as the development of Noble to Savage Red Man. (1). Hilger continues to analyze this development by pointing out that both representations were subconsciously laced with racism and miscegenation.
For example, even when an Indian is portrayed as a secondary hero he is still deemed inferior to his white counter part and is usually the brunt of racist humor by providing comedy relief which is demeaning to his intelligence and importance in the plot. Also, any interracial romances occurring between Native and non-Native persons were never dignified with a happy ending. These relations usually ended with the Indian giving up his or her lover at the realization that their two cultures could never live together.
This kind of ending only promoted discern towards miscegenation and reiterated the pretense that white civilization and Native culture could never coexist. These popular conventions placing Native Americans in confining, stereotyped roles were so accepted and unchallenged that they became societys only idea of Native culture and thus created an endless cycle of misconceptions and racial slander . Besides the obvious forms of degradation visible in the plots of early films and most Westerns, directors also used subtler conventions to depict Native Americans as villainous. One of these conventions was selective cinematography.
A master of cinematography conventions was the prominent Western director John Ford. Examples of Fords heavy cinematography work can be found in his film The Searchers in which Ford uses a slew of conventions to create significant images of both the white hero and the Indian. One of the conventions Ford uses are extreme close-ups. In one of the opening scenes Ford zooms in on Chief Scar fully adorned in war paint and feathers to emphasize his savage and threatening demeanor. Ford also uses a low angle shots like the one of Scar standing over Debbie (the heros niece,) as she cowers in his shower.
Ford uses this low-angle shot to accentuate Debbies sense of helplessness and extreme fear as she sits opposite to Scars intimidating presence (Hilger 12). Ford also heightens the suspense of his film by cross-cutting between a pending Comanche attack and a search party who have just realized they have been lured away from their homes to allow such an attack (Hilger 12). Placement and blocking can also convey attitudes towards Native Americans by often placing the white hero in a higher frame in more empathetic positions to imply the heros superior presence over the Indians (Hilger 10).
These technical practices seem too subtle to have such heavy impacts but each angle, cut, or close-up creates a different perspective and thus receives a reaction from the audience. Hilger insists that Long, medium and close-up shots, camera angles, composition, editing and acting are key to what the film language says about Native American characters. Since the period of silent films Indians have been part of the entertainment industry Their presence in film can be traced back further than that of the cowboy revealing Native Americans to be the original star of the silent Westerns (Indians 1).
However, this is not a stardom that is extremely flattering to Indian culture. Though silent films prompted the use of Native Americans as pillars of early narratives, it wasnt until the end of the silent era that Indians were portrayed as savage menaces (Hilger 17). Most silent films placing Indians in lead roles were idyllic love stories focusing on life within Indian communities or what white directors perceived this life to be (Indians 1). The silent era sustained the image of the Noble Red Man and exhibited more sympathetic portrayal of Indians in their interactions with whites (Indians 1).
William Everson feels that during this period the Indian became accepted as a symbol of integrity, stoicism and reliability. Film reviews in 1912-1913 striking out against the liberal portrayal of Native Americans as victims in the realm of silent film reveals the Noble Red Man to be the dominant perception of the time (Hilger 18). Though there were films sticking to the Savage Red Man image in the silent era, they were not the popular view and were in contrast to the early attempts to raise social consciousness (Hilger 18). The dominance of the Indian friendly films came to an end with the beginning of sound films.
From 1931-1949 the image of the Noble Red Man lost its popularity to that of the Savage (Hilger 64). Ironically the perception of Indians took a giant step backwards as they became the eternal obstacle of pioneers, raping and pillaging without motive and ultimately wreaking havoc on innocent settlers. This depiction made Indian violence a staple in Western films and a basis for the suspense and excitement required to sell them. Often the only good Indian depicted in this era was one either aided white settlers or attempted to embrace white civilization.
Hilger reiterates this by stating that the early era of Western sound films Always measure[d] the goodness of the Noble Red Man and the badness of the Savage by the way these character types react to the superior white characters, never by their intrinsic nature as Native Americans or as members of different tribes and bands. The noble characters are good because they are friends with the whites and realize they must adapt to white culture or face extinction (3). This establishment of good Indian/ bad Indian is a distinction that is still visible in contemporary films.
One of the only advances Native American made in film from 1939-1941 was the increase in Native actors casts in Indian roles as opposed to white actors playing the parts of Indians in previous films. Unfortunately, when Native Americans won roles in these films they were first asked to betray their culture by adhering and promoting violent stereotypes about their culture and then discriminated against by receiving no credit for their presence in these films (Churchhill 36). One of the only Native actors escaping this fate was the legendary Will Rogers.
This Cherokee entertainer began as a rope artist and reached stardom as a respected humorist, actor, and news commentator avoiding stereotypes by generally avoiding heavy association with Indian issues (Churchhill 39). The 1950s brought the height of Western popularity and through the release of Broken Arrow it also resurrected the Noble Red Man (Hilger 98). Although the Savage is still very visible in these films, hostile warriors now have a motive and are acting in retaliation to violent acts of white settlers (Hilger 111).
This portrayal of Native Americans continues through the early sixties though Western film popularity is declining (Stereotypes 1). By the late sixties social activism put a hold on the production of any films portraying Native American stereotypes and gave birth to a Native American literature such as Vine Deloria Jr. s Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (1969) and Dee Browns Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (Wilson 216).
This revolution of Native press gave readers access Native American information free from false representation and racist stigmas. Films such as Little Big Man, Soldier Blue, and A Man Called Horse glorifying Indian culture followed the literary revolution of the late sixties in an attempt to stamp out previously established stereotypes. The most modern of the new Westerns is the critically acclaimed Dances With Wolves. While this film is a sympathetic portrayal of the vanishing Native culture, its setting reaffirms the Noble Red Man.
By making the Noble Red Man a popular icon in todays society it prevents Native Americans from being seen as modern people by drawing more attention to their past rather than recognizing their present. The inability to view Native Americans in a modern light is the prime reason Native culture is still branded with stereotypical images. The development of Native in film has largely been in the hands of white directors insensitive to a realistic view of Native culture. Thus the development has been determined by the changing social views of the white American.
Michael Hilger supports this claim stating that tracing images of the Savage and Noble Red Man through historical periods of the cinema, it will reaveal little about Native American people of the past of present but a lot about the evolution of white American attitudes and values (2). Though great advances have been made to erase the stereotypes established by early Western film and television, the damage these false images are responsible for are far from erasable. Hopefully with the growing popularity of Native filmmakers and directors, society may finally be able to distinguish fact from fiction.