Overview for films in First Americans
(Digital History ID 2948)

Indians have occupied an important place in American film from the medium’s earliest days. Indians appeared in kinetoscope pictures as early as 1894 and hundreds of short films featuring Indians were released during the first and second decades of the twentieth century.

In general, the images of Indians in early motion pictures were highly derogatory. Indian characters were typically played by whites and were portrayed in terms of a narrow range of stereotypes and caricatures. These included the bloodthirsty savage, the noble primitive, the violent and unstable “half-breed,” and the sexually-alluring Indian maiden. These stereotypes would persist long into the future.

Many of film’s stereotypes were formed in the literature of the colonial era and the pre-Civil War period. Captivity narratives, the novels James Fenimore Cooper and Robert Montgomery Bird, and, above all, the popular dime novels that proliferated beginning in the late 1850s, created a host of caricatures that were deeply embedded in American popular culture. The Wild West shows which ran from 1883 to 1916 reinforced these stereotypes.

Little attempt was made by early movie makers to show any complexity of character. In a 1915 book entitled Making the Movies, the author, Ernest Alfred Dench, wrote that “To act as an Indian is the easiest thing possible, for the Redskin is practically motionless.” Nor was there much concern with historical accuracy. Images of Indians were an amalgam of characteristics drawn from diverse tribes and time periods. For example, just two dozen tribes in the 1800s wore feathered headdresses. Most nineteenth century Indians were farmers or fisherman, not hunters on horseback. Most did not wear hides. But the early movies were largely insensitive to the diversity found among Indian peoples.

To be sure, images of Indians in early silent films were not uniformly negative. D.W. Griffiths’s The Broken Doll (1910) and Ramona (released the same year) offered sympathetic portraits of the hardships that Native Americans suffered as a result of white bigotry and greed. But many other of Griffiths’ other films presented more negative portraits of Indians. A Pueblo Legend (1912), offered a distorted view of Pueblo religion, and Massacre (1912), his depiction of Custer’s Last Stand, portrayed Indians in a highly unsympathetic light.

During the 1920s, Indians were rendered largely invisible in film, but in the late 1930s the number of films featuring Indians increased. Yet stereotypes dating to film’s earliest days persisted. Hollywood’s Indian rarely spoke and when they did the characters (often played by whites) spoke in brief, ungrammatical sentences and used made-up words like Tonto’s “kim-o-sabe.” Nor were the motives of Indians explained. In films such as Drums Along the Mohawk, Stagecoach, and Union Pacific (all released in 1939), there is no explanation for why the Indians would attack whites. It is simply taken for granted that Indians were naturally violent and hostile toward whites.

After World War II, many of the extreme caricatures of Indians disappeared, and sympathetic portrayals proliferated. John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950) depicted whites, not Indians, as villains, and viewed Indians through the sympathetic eyes of white characters. Especially noteworthy were two films released in 1950, Devil's Doorway and Broken Arrow, which marked the beginning of a new sensitivity toward the plight of Native Americans. Not only were most Indian characters played by Native Americans, but there was also a new concern with accuracy in names and dress, and Indian women were portrayed in greater numbers than in the past. Many of these films dealt with the difficulty of assimilating into a hostile white society.

It was not until the mid-1960s, however, that films like Cheyenne Autumn (1964) began to adopt an Indian perspective. Older stereotypes were turned on their head. The movies featured a growing number of wise Indian shamans and to portray Indians as a noble and dignified people who lived in harmony with nature and cherished spiritual values rather than material possessions. While the films’ plots often emphasize white cupidity and Indian nobility, Native Americans frequently serve as stand-ins or substitutes for some other oppressed group.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of influential films about Native Americans drew parallels between the Indian wars of the nineteenth century and the Vietnam war. Little Big Man (1970), A Man Called Horse (1970), Soldier Blue (1970), and Tell Them Willie Boy Was Here (1969), each, in its own way, served as an allegory of the Vietnam War, and depict the Indian wars as forerunners of the Vietnam War. But the motives for white attacks on Indians are unclear. Rather than focusing on issues relating to control of land and minerals, these pictures emphasize whites’ egocentrism, ethnocentrism, greed, and penchant for irrational violence. And even Dances with Wolves (1990) foregrounded the white characters.

It was not until the late 1980s that Indian movie makers had the opportunity to shape their own representation on the screen. Such movies as War Party (1988), Pow-wow Highway (1989) Medicine River (1994), The Sunchaser (1996), and Smoke Signals (1998) self-consciously deconstructed stereotypes about Native Americans. Yet these films were not widely released or viewed.

To learn more:

Jacquelyn Kilpatrick, The Celluloid Indian: Native Americans and Film (1999)

Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor, Hollywood’s Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film (2003)

Ralph E. Friar and Natasha A. Friar, The Only Good Indian: The Hollywood Gospel (1972)

Gretchen M. Bataille and Charles L. P. Silet, Pretend Indians: Images of Native Americans in the Movies (1980)

John A. Price, “The Stereotyping of North American Indians in Motion Pictures,” Ethnohistory (1973), 153-171

Raymond William Stedman, Shadows of the Indians: Stereotypes in American Culture (1982)

Recommended Film

Black Robe

Director Bruce Beresford’s film explores the clash of cultures that occurs when an early seventeenth-century French Jesuit missionary seeks to Christianize the Indians of New France.

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