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Daniel A. Brown

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Sending a Voice: Native Americans in the Movies
By Daniel A. Brown
Saturday, January 02, 2010

Rated "PG13" by the Author.

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A review of all movies concerning Native Americans that reached the big screen between 1964-1998.


Sending a Voice
©2008 Daniel A. Brown
Like many Anglos who grew up in the 1950’s, it’s not surprising that my only understanding of Native American culture was shaped by that great mass communicator, the movies. And that image was uniformly negative, provoking frightening nightmares of yelping, scalping, bloodthirsty Indians. While this stereotype began to unravel a decade later, it was not until the classic, “Dances with Wolves” that the mainstream moviegoer was officially allowed to see indigenous Americans portrayed with a certain amount of clarity and sympathy.
But while the 1990’s has featured the most films with native themes, the past forty years have also provided viewers with movies offering new perspectives as to how the West was conquered and how those supposedly vanquished people are fairing today. Some of these attempts have been successful while others were well-intentioned failures. A few were real howlers. None of these are John Wayne westerns with the Indians as the faceless foe or those lifeless school documentaries with the mournful flute music in the background. Instead, what follows are critiques of twelve of the best-known movies featuring Native Americans offered on the big screen during this era. All are available on DVD through Netflix, Amazon and Blockbuster. 
CHEYENNE AUTUMN: 1964: John Ford, director. Richard Widmark, Karl Malden, Ricardo Montalban, Sal Mineo. From the book by Mari Sandoz. (Unrated, in the PG range) Summary: In 1878, a small band of Cheyenne led by chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf flee an Oklahoma reservation to return to their ancestral homeland. Struggling against overwhelming odds, their epic odyssey ends in the bloody snows of northern Nebraska, surrounded by U.S cavalry. Plus: Based on a true account, this is Hollywood's first conscious attempt to portray Indians as the victims, not the aggressors. The basic storyline stays close to historical fact. Some scenes, like the winter escape from Fort Robinson, still retain their power over the years. Great cameo by Karl Malden. Minus: The "Indians" are mostly Italian actors who speak in wooden clichés and bang on Polynesian log drums. Oklahoma looks suspiciously like Arizona and the Cheyenne wear Apache headbands. The Cheyenne are further saddled with a ludicrous subplot which reduces them to soap-opera dialogue. The conclusion of the film suggests a fair resolution between them and the government; in fact, there was none. Verdict: Maybe a breakthrough for its era, but embarrassing to watch today. Read the book.
A MAN CALLED HORSE: 1969: Eliot Silverstein, director. Richard Harris. (PG) Summary: In the 1830's an English nobleman is captured and enslaved by the Lakota. He slowly earns their trust, participates in their rituals and eventually fights to defend them. The two sequels follow his return from Europe to reunite with the Sioux and the exploits of his son. Plus: For mainstream moviegoers, this was their cinematic introduction to a sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans. There are a few memorable scenes, especially the Sun Dance ritual in “Return of a Man Called Horse” (1976). Minus: The plots are mired in the basic Hollywood package of gratuitous violence. Somewhat exploitative, especially the dreadful “Triumphs of a Man Called Horse” (1983) which featured starlets in buckskin bikinis! Verdict: Not necessary to watch, especially with better Native American portrayals in video.
SOLDIER BLUE: 1970: Ralph Nelson, director. Peter Strauss, Candice Bergen. Rated (R) Summary: Fictional western adventure derived from the infamous Sand Creek Massacre that took place in Colorado in 1864. In one of the most sordid events in American history, a unit of Colorado militia (led by a Methodist minister) surrounded and destroyed a Cheyenne village camping peacefully under an American flag. Several hundred women and children were murdered and subsequently mutilated. The My Lai of the Indian Wars. Plus: Truer to history in that it is the Indians who are being massacred this time. Minus: Considering the potential of the subject matter, the screenplay and acting are uniformly awful. The future “Murphy Brown" is unbearable to watch and the Indians are still treated as stereotypical savages. The final massacre scene, instead of instilling horror, has all the gravity of a fraternity toga party. Verdict: Read "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" or see “Little Big Man” (below). 
LITTLE BIG MAN: 1970: Arthur Penn, director. Dustin Hoffman, Chief Dan George, Faye Dunaway, Martin Balsam. From the story by Thomas Berger (PG). Summary: The fictional saga of 121 year-old Jack Crabb who spends his life ricocheting between the Cheyenne, his adoptive people (who name him "Little Big Man") and the Americans, his people by blood. As the West is conquered, the Cheyenne fight bravely, but futilely against extinction. Climaxes with Custer at Little Big Horn. Plus: In my opinion, the true "breakthrough" film about Native Americans which portrays them as real people. As Old Lodge Skins, the aged chief who adopts Crabb as his grandson, Chief Dan George gives an Oscar-nominated performance that has yet to be equaled. His choices of words tell more about the Plains Indians' world-view than anything yet set to celluloid (including “Dances With Wolves” {below}). The diversity of individuals within the Cheyenne is also well represented. Drawing from an actual event, the most harrowing scene in this movie is the 1869 "Battle" of the Washita, where Custer attacked a peaceful Cheyenne village populated by the same unlucky survivors of Sand Creek! This is the movie “Soldier Blue” could have been. Hoffman is excellent as he dances through a lifetime identity crisis with conviction and confusion. Minus: Not as many Native American performers as could be possible and some of the Cheyenne women have hippie names like "Sunshine". The overlong plot could have done without some silly sequences that lower the integrity of the story. Verdict: Still, a must-see. A great rainy afternoon flick (although rated PG, the Washita massacre scene is too graphic and disturbing for children).  
WINDWALKER: 1981: Keith Merrill, director. Trevor Howard, Nick Ramus. (PG) Summary: A Cheyenne grandfather is laid out on his funeral scaffold and left by his family. The old man, however, is not quite as dead as he seems for he awakes to confront the world alone. Reuniting with his clan, he saves them from a marauding Crow band that is bent on their destruction. A surprise ending. Plus: A simple but potent story, almost mystical in its telling. The first movie spoken in the indigenous languages (with subtitles). An excellent performance by Trevor Howard who transmits an ethereal quality as the aged chief. Most of the performers are of Native American descent, and the sets and costuming are authentically reproduced. Minus: A Native American actor would have been more appropriate for the leading role, although the conviction of Howard's acting makes this a debatable point. Verdict: Worth seeing. Not as grandiose as other films available, but one that treats its subjects with dignity.  
POWWOW HIGHWAY: 1989: Jonathan Wacks, director. Gary Farmer, A. Martinez. (PG-13) Summary: A road movie about two contemporary Cheyenne traveling down to New Mexico to spring a relative from prison. Buddy Red Bow is a young militant activist with a quick, angry temper. His gargantuan friend, Philbert, is a portrait of inner peace with an unlimited appetite to match. Together they mirror the political and spiritual aspects of modern Indian life. Buddy wants to protect his people from the forces of greed surrounding them (his sister is framed on a phony drug charge to lure him off the rez during a crucial tribal council vote). Philbert wants to find his soul-power as a Cheyenne warrior would have done in the old days (his battered auto is christened "Protector"). The pragmatism of the former and the dreaminess of the other first clash but eventually compliment. The foundation of this story is as much about their past and present relationship as the adventure of getting to their destination and home again in one piece. Plus: The first mainstream movie that deals intelligently with current issues facing native peoples, “Powwow” got over-shadowed by the “Dances With Wolves” hoopla that followed on the heels of its release. A pity, too, because this is a far superior movie that achieved cult status for a time. Both leads portray three-dimensional characters that play off each other with humor and irony, never dissolving into caricature. Includes an effective soundtrack by Robbie Robertson which set him on his current path of working with contemporary native musicians. Minus: None - a perfectly realized film that was (and still is) very popular in contemporary native circles. Verdict: A must-see.
DANCES WITH WOLVES: 1990: Kevin Costner, director. Kevin Coster, Graham Greene, Mary McDonnell, Rodney A. Grant. (PG-13) Summary: The landmark movie about Native Americans that became the comparison gauge for years to come. In 1863, Lt. John Dunbar is given a deserted outpost on the western frontier. He is befriended by a nearby band of Lakota and gradually changes from a wary visitor to a fully accepted member of their community. Like Little Big Man, he is forced in the end to choose between the people of his blood and those of his heart. Plus: For once in a big budget film, all the Indians are portrayed by native actors who also speak the authentic languages (with subtitles). The sets that portray the pre-reservation encampment are faithfully researched and recreated. Some scenes, like the buffalo hunt, are unforgettable. An instant classic with its heart in the right place. Although three hours long, it is never uninvolving. Minus: Coster's character is unrealistic for any 19th Century Anglo, no matter how enlightened. It is doubtful that the Lakota needed some white guy to find a buffalo herd for them and the scene of Dunbar dancing around a bonfire to African drums is more Robert Bly than Crazy Horse. Despite its attempt to end negative stereotyping (the Lakota are shown as noble and pure), the Pawnee are portrayed as bloodthirsty, scalping savages. The Sioux loved Dances. The Pawnee were not amused. Verdict: Still a film worth seeing several times, especially to grasp subtle details and nuances.  
 THE BLACK ROBE: 1991: Bruce Beresford, director. Lothaire Bluteau,
August Schellenberg, Tantoo Cardinal. (R) Summary: In 1634, the Jesuit priest Father LaForgue travels down the Saint Lawrence River from Quebec to bring the Word of God to the Hurons. LaForgue's Algonquin guides call him "Black Robe" and debate whether he is a demon and should be killed. For his part, LaForgue's insufferable piety alienates him from both the Indians and the forces of nature that surround them. Ambushed by the Mohawk, LaForge and his protectors suffer torture, but escape to eventually reach the Hurons who are dying from fever (another gift from the civilizing French). In the end, these Hurons accept baptism, not out of belief but from desperation. Plus: A graphically uncompromising film that is not for the squeamish. There is no glossy nobility to be found in any of the characters. The French and Indians are equally earthy, superstitious and believable individuals. The true majesty is found in nature; the huge cliffs that dwarf the convoy of canoes, the morning sun dancing off the river, the ice and blizzards that reduce all color to white. The acting is engaging and the cinematography breathtaking. Minus: Beresford got in some hot water from Indian-rights groups who objected to a film showing Indians brutalizing each other. This goes against the current political-correctness that states that all native peoples on North America lived together harmoniously until the white folk came. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Animosities existed and, in fact, made it easier for the Europeans to divide and conquer as they spread across North America. Verdict: Not a pleasant movie to watch but worth seeing nevertheless. 
THUNDERHEART: 1992: Michael Apted, director. Val Kilmer, Sam Shepard, Graham Greene, John Trudell, Fred Ward. (R). Summary: Ray Lavoie, a FBI agent of Lakota ancestry is sent to investigate a homicide on the Pine Ridge reservation where open warfare has broken out between the militant traditionalist group "ARM" and pro-government Sioux led by a sinister character named Jack Milton. While appearing impartial, the FBI is, in fact, arming Milton's men to cover up some nasty happenings on the rez. While solving the murder, Lavoie undergoes a visionary transformation as he comes to terms with his true heritage. Plus: You could call this movie, “Dances With Wolves -The Next Generation”, which indeed it is, right down to the locale (and some of the actors). Based on several true incidents, this movie gives viewers an in-your-face look at present day reservation life. Pine Ridge is shown in all its Third-World poverty, the victim of toxic-waste dumping and illegal uranium drilling. "Jack Milton" is based on real-life Dick Wilson, a corrupt Lakota official whose terror tactics led to the 1973 standoff between the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the FBI at Wounded Knee (and the later dubious conviction of activist, Leonard Peltier). Excellent acting by the Indian cast, especially Graham Greene as a caustic tribal cop and Chief Ted Thin Elk as medicine man, Grandpa Reaches. The image of Thin Elk praying to the Creator while surrounded by rusting, derelict autos is both inspiring and heartbreaking. Minus: The movie is deflated by a contrived Hollywood Happy Ending which gives the impression that the disturbing (and continuing) issues raised by the film have all been neatly settled. Verdict: Though flawed, worth seeing for its uncompromising view of reservation reality and the excellent acting of the Native American cast.
LAST OF THE MOHICANS: 1992: Michael Mann, director. Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Russell Means, Wes Studi. (R). Summary: In 1757, Hawkeye, a white man raised by the Mohicans, becomes embroiled in the French and Indian wars ravaging upstate New York. During the siege of Fort William Henry, he falls in love with Cora, the lovely daughter of Munro, the English commander. Little does he know that the vengeful Huron, Magua, has plotted her death in retaliation for the murder of his family by the English. Lots of bosom-heaving romance, hand-to-hand combat, and derring-do. From the classic tale by James Fenimore Cooper. Plus: If anything, this is a vital piece of overlooked American history. The French and Indian Wars not only decided which European power would control North America, it was also a watershed moment for Native Americans who were too busy trying to out-maneuver everyone to see the fate about to befall them. The film does amplify the differing cultural perspectives of the combatants. While the French and British generals bow to each other like courtiers, their Indians allies would prefer to bury their hatchets into each other's skulls. Minus: Hawkeye is portrayed as a buckskin Indiana Jones who is constantly running up mountains, jumping off waterfalls, dispatching hundreds of Bad Guys (all Indians) and firing a magic musket that never misses. Despite the action, the characters and dialogue are one-dimensional and the cinematography is dark and brooding. Verdict: A star-vehicle for Daniel Day-Lewis. Worth seeing if nothing else is available. 
GERONIMO: 1994: Walter Hill, director. Wes Studi, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Jason Patric. (PG-13) Summary: In 1884, the Apache chieftain Geronimo surrenders to General George Crook and is settled on an Arizona reservation. But tensions between him and suspicious whites cause him and his band to flee, pursued by the U.S. Army with the help of their mercenary Apache Scouts. Finally he surrenders again, but this time to Lieutenant Charles Gatewood, a sympathetic officer who had earlier gained Geronimo’s trust. The story ends with Geronimo sent in chains to Florida along with the betrayed members of the Apache Scouts and Gatewood being transferred to a remote post as punishment for his friendship with the Apache. The story is narrated by Sergeant Britton Davis (played by a then-unknown Matt Damon). Plus: Overall, the acting is quite good, from Hackman’s portrayal of a tough, yet just General Crook to Patric’s cool-headed Lt. Gatewood. This film is also an attempt to give Wes Studi top billing - and a chance to play a Good Indian for a change (he portrayed the Pawnee scalp artist, The Toughest, in “Dances” and Magua in “Mohicans”). The story also documents how Army officers who treated native peoples fairly had their careers ruined as a result. Minus: The first of several movies riding the “Dances With Wolves”-inspired crest of Indian-Chic, this is a curiously flat movie emotionally. Studi does well but is somehow lost behind the screen time given to the Big Hollywood Names. The Apaches are portrayed as stoically muttering clichés, albeit more politically-correct ones. Overall, "Geronimo"  follows the now-familiar screenplay format of “Doomed Heroic Indians helped by A Nice White Man” without veering into any new territory. One humorous note: Although Patric’s Gatewood is a handsome Tinseltown hunk, historically, he was known by the Apache as the “Big-Nose Captain”! Verdict: Worth seeing only if the history of the Apache and Geronimo are particularly fascinating. 
SMOKE SIGNALS: 1998: Chris Eyre, director. Adam Beach, Evan Adams, Tantoo Cardinal, Gary Farmer, Irene Bedard. (PG-13) Adapted from the story “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” by Sherman Alexie (who also wrote the screenplay). Summary: On the Coeur D’Alene reservation in Idaho, not much seems to be happening, as witnessed by the deadpan “traffic” and “weather” reports of local radio KREZ. But for two young men, Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, their lives became entwined when as babies, Victor’s father, Arnold, saved Thomas’s life in a fire that consumed his parents. Arnold, an abusive alcoholic who was traumatized by the tragedy, deserts his family and eventually dies in his trailer in the Arizona desert. The two boys, who have a grating love-hate relationship, travel down to retrieve his remains. Victor is all bottled rage behind his set smile. Thomas is like a tactless Jiminy Cricket, forcing his friend to face his currently unbearable reality. Meeting Suzy Song, a neighbor (and surrogate daughter) of Arnold’s, the circle of all their lives comes into completion. Plus: This film is not so much an “Indian” movie as it is a fable about such universal themes of family, betrayal, forgiveness, and redemption seen through Native American eyes. As such, it crosses all ethnic barriers. What makes “Smoke Signals” special is how easily it works on several levels, not only past and present, but physical and ethereal as well. All the main characters seem to have two identities that are constantly shifting, their frail humanity giving way to a deep and potent spirit. In particular, Evan Adams’s Thomas, all nerdy glasses and geek manner, is revealed as an Old Man Coyote storyteller, whose brazenly outlandish tales carry wisdom and power. The ending scene on a nameless Spokane bridge reaches a level of emotional intensity that mainstream movies are unable (or unwilling) to touch. The first film ever produced, directed, and acted by Native Americans, it won various awards at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. The poignant soundtrack includes native acappella group Ulali and the hilarious chant, "John Wayne's Teeth". Minus: None, like “Powwow Highway”, a complete and enriching tale. Verdict: A must-see, especially with close friends and a box of Kleenex. 
After 1998, movies about Native Americans began to recede in both number and quality. “Windtalkers”, about the WWII Navajo code-talkers, is your basic platoon buddy flick and Chris Eyre’s second offering, “Skins”, suffered from the lack of a Sherman Alexie screenplay. The only 21st Century offering worth viewing so far is the excellent TNT miniseries “Into the West”, produced by Steven Spielberg. Still, the future of Native Americans in the movies mirrors the future of Native Americans themselves. No other group has been so torn between those who wish to retain their traditions and others who desire admittance to what is called the "American Dream". Their choice of future movie roles will reflect this dichotomy. Should American Indian performers be relegated to beads and buckskin (how many times can one rehash “Dances With Wolves”?) or can they play mainstream characters such as rock musicians, doctors, and bartenders regardless of heritage. And when will a Native American woman (such as the dignified Tantoo Cardinal) finally appear in a headlining role?
There is also a danger of Hollywood creating newer (although more positive) stereotypes. Too many movies from the 1990’s (“Free Willy”, “Legends of the Fall,” and “Iron Will”, as examples) had, as a mandated supporting character, a genuine Indian Elder (often played by August Schellenberg) who banged a drum at a decisive moment and offered some sort of enlightened "We-Are-One-With-the-Earth"-ism. While sympathetic, it continued to relegate Native Americans as a people apart, respectable, yet still quaint and mysterious. One wonders who will be the Native American counterpart of Bill Cosby or Spike Lee, an individual with the ability to break down the Buckskin Curtain once and for all.
These questions will not be easily answered. Hollywood has begun a process of treating native people with dignity, partially redeeming itself from the racism of the past. A finer development is that, as a people who traditionally have been the greatest story-tellers on the North American continent, American Indians have begun to appear from behind the camera, sending their voices as screenwriters, producers and directors as well as performers. As this process continues, perhaps true r appreciation for Native American culture will begin to flourish in the mainstream. After 500-plus years of traumatic and flawed contact, one could hope for no less.                          
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Reviewed by Cindy Van Lerberg 5/19/2012
A great idea to put this out there, only as a Cherokee, I wish MORE people could see this. Also, did you leave out the Johnny Crawford one on purpose, or like me, forget the dang title? It was about the Arikara, and I found it delightful. But of course the wooden dialogue inflicted on EVERY character in it... But positive movies about my people, from that era, well, beggars can't be choosers, can we? I will return and use this to select movies to watch and books to read.

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Return of the Canoe Societies: Second Edition by Rosemary Patterson

A riveting Literary History and adventure novel that celebrates the cultural resurgence of Coastal First Nations peoples...  
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