Despite the fact that a diversity of indigenous peoples had a legal and historical significance in the formation of every new country founded in the western hemisphere, in the United States and Canada the term "Indians" became a hegemonic designation implying that they were all the same in regards to culture, behavior, language, and social organization. The view of Indians as savage and uncivilized was repeated in early films and crystallized the image of "Indians" as dangerous and unacceptable to the normative lives of European immigrants whose lives appeared in films to be more valuable than those of the indigenous people they were colonizing. Mainstream films featuring Indians have been glacially slow in changing any part of this running narrative of conquest. Native Americans today seek to rectify and balance the one-sided, stock image of Indians as ignorant, distrustful, and undesirable through continued work in the film industry.
The availability of acting roles for Native Americans to portray "Indians" in films was essentially limited to westerns, which came complete with stock accoutrements of feathers and buckskin dress that accommodated at least four distinct Indian tribes: Apache, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Sioux. In the 1950s and into the 1960s, western films featured more sympathetic native characters, but even here Indians were played by white actors, including Jeff Chandler, who received an Academy Award ® for his portrayal of Apache leader Cochise in Broken Arrow (1950).
By 1970, divided social opinion about the Vietnam War gave further impetus to this trend in films such as Little Big Man (1970). The film featured Native American chief Dan George (1899–1981), an Aboriginal Squamish from Canada, as one of the main characters. Directed by Arthur Penn, Little Big Man received high acclaim for Chief George, but it was the white actor Dustin Hoffman who received the most attention as the film's primary protagonist, Jack Crabb. However, Little Big Man was a breakthrough in that it was a major film with a Native American in a major speaking role. In the 1960s, the political upheavals in the United States resulting from both antiwar protests and civil rights issues set a precedent for agitated Native Americans who became involved in open resistance in an effort to call attention to the social consequences of colonial policies that left many Native Americans destitute and impoverished on Indian reservations. The American Indian Movement (AIM) held protests in front of theaters showing films about Indians they felt glamorized the demise of Indians, such as A Man Called Horse (1970). Also, during the early 1970s, other commercial films that capitalized on the social climate of the times involved a retelling of a historical massacre of the Cheyenne in Soldier Blue (1970), and the story of a half-blood Indian Vietnam War veteran named Billy Jack (1971).
In the 1990s Dances with Wolves (1990), directed by and starring Kevin Costner, was perhaps the most popular western of the decade that featured Indians. Costner's film changed the shooting location of earlier westerns, using some one thousand buffalo, five hundred Indians, and as many horses in the high plains of South Dakota, the homeland of the Sioux, rather than Monument Valley. The film used native actors to speak Lakota, the indigenous language of the Sioux, and often positioned the camera inside Indian tipi lodges and in the encampment where a white female, captured as a child, was now fluently speaking and behaving as an Indian; these features added to the film's feeling of authenticity. The film almost romanticizes the ending scene where the Lakota are hiding out in the mountains, trying to escape their inevitable fate at the hands of Manifest Destiny as the US Cavalry pursues them, the last free Sioux Indians on the Plains. Dances with Wolves signaled to Native Americans that no major change had actually taken place in films, as the basic tenets of white domination and colonization were still shown as inevitable, even if tragic, and Indians forever resigned to defeat on reservations set aside for them by a colonial power.
In the early 1970s the anthropologists Sol Worth and John Adair taught a group of Navajo youths how to shoot and edit films, and left to their own approach, they produced a series of seven films described in the book, Through Navajo Eyes , originally published in 1972. In the 1990s young, educated, and highly motivated Native Americans were encouraged by the success of Dances with Wolves to seek to produce their own successes. However, the opportunities to work in mainstream films were limited to working as "Indian extras"; thus, few chances to actually produce or direct their own films did not materialize. However, the desire by individual Native Americans to make their own films became stronger. Between 1990 and 2000, a Native American film movement was born, with numerous Native Americans enrolled in film schools while others strived to complete college degrees in all fields of study, with particular emphasis in law, medicine, and the sciences.
The director Chris Eyre and the writer-producer Sherman Alexie embarked on a film project that could have only happened after many previous and unsuccessful attempts by other Native Americans to produce a feature film backed by a major studio or production company. Eyre graduated from New York University's film program, and Alexie received a degree from Washington State University and became a writer. His critically acclaimed serial novel, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven (1993), provided the groundwork for Eyre to collaborate with Alexie on Smoke Signals (1998), about a contemporary native community with a mostly native cast. The film was purchased by Miramax Films distribution after its debut at the Sundance Film Festival and released in mainstream theaters. Since its success, Eyre and Alexie have continued to produce films independently. Eyre's subsequent films include Skins (2002) and Skinwalkers (2002), and Alexie directed The Business of Fancydancing (2002). Hopefully, these and subsequent native-made films will in time help reframe the historical misperception of indigenous peoples.
Aleiss, Angela. Making the White Man's Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies . Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005.
Alexie, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven . New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993.
Bataille, Gretchen M., and Charles L. P. Silet, eds. The Pretend Indians: Images of Native Americans in the Movies . Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1980.
Brownlow, Kevin. The War, the West, and the Wilderness . New York: Knopf, 1979.
Hearne, Joanna. "'The Cross-Heart People': Race and Inheritance in the Silent Western." Journal of Popular Film and Television 30 (Winter 2003): 181–196.
Marsden, Michael T., and Jack Nachbar. "The Indian in the Movies." In Handbook of North American Indians , edited by William C. Sturtevant, et al. Vol. 4: History of Indian–White Relations , edited by William E. Washburn. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1988.
Place, J. A. The Western Films of John Ford . Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1974.
Prats, Armando José. Invisible Natives: Myth and Identity in the American Western . Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.
Singer, Beverly R. Wiping the War Paint Off the Lens: Native American Film and Video . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.
West, Dennis, and Joan M. West. "Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie." Cineaste 23, no. 4 (Fall 1998): 28–31, 37.
Wicazo Sa Review: Journal of Native American Studies 16, no. 2. Special issue on Film and Video.
Worth, Sol. Through Navajo Eyes . Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.
Beverly R. Singer