After watching Skins, Dances With Wolves, Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, and drawing from our own knowledge of other similar movies, we concluded that the portrayal of American Indians in the movies has essentially undergone 3 stages.
• The first, as seen in Davy Crockett and most Westerns, portrays Indians as savages who only speak in war whoops and the greeting “How.” The medicine men are powerful, mysterious and scary. The warriors are wise in the ways of nature and fight bravely but futilely against the superior firepower of the good guys.
•The second stage in Hollywood’s portrayal of the American Indian began sometime around the late eighties and is certainly an improvement over the previous stage, although it is not without its own problems. Movies of this stage include Dances With Wolves, and the less respected but more loved Pocahontas. These movies are much more accurate in their portrayal of Native Americans and serve as a necessary acknowledgement of the harmony, humility and wisdom of the cultures white colonists all but destroyed. Although indirect and inadequate, they are a sort of cinematic apology to the American Indian. These are exactly the type of movie the American public desires. They are accurate enough in their portrayal of history that they aren’t questioned by the average American citizen. Unfortunately, they represent Indians as a fantastical and romanticized people long gone from the face of the earth. It’s as if the movie makers are saying, “Darn, it’s too bad these really cool people are all dead, we sure messed up. Sorry.” They make no acknowledgement of the fact that Native Americans are still alive today and struggling with present problems. The American public loves this second stage of movies because it is so easy to cope with. We can watch one of these movies and feel morally improved without taking on any responsibilities. All we have to do is mourn a little bit and regret our cultural history, then move on with our daily lives. Our ancestors did a horrible thing and we’re sorry about it, but there’s nothing we can do about it now.
•Thankfully, within the last decade, Hollywood (with the help of independent movie makers) has entered a third stage of the American Indian’s portrayal. Movies like Skins and Powwow Highway finally portray the struggle that Native Americans face today. With mostly Native Americans behind the films, a sense of pride, pain, honesty ans shame are conveyed sincerely for the first time. These movies portray with respectable accuracy the struggles American Indians face with surviving and maintaining their traditional ways while surrounded by alcoholism, poverty, lawlessness, disrespect, and the modern world. Unfairly but understandably, very few people want to watch these movies. They are tragic and demand responsibility. One cannot watch a film from this third stage and not feel obligated to learn more and possibly even act on a newfound sense of remorse. And what busy American has time to do that? So while the movie industry has finally reached a portrayal of Native Americans that is mostly accurate, educational, and demanding of positive social change, it seems that the public has not caught up. The tools exist, in film and elsewhere, to educate ourselves and make reparations for a wrong that began 500 years ago and continues today. When will we, as a nation, learn to use them? The time has come.
- Tim Wheeler, Thomas Downing, Pat Robinson