Portrayal of Native Americans in film

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The portrayal of Native Americans in film has been fed by stereotypes, which has raised allegations of racism. Traditionally, the Native American archetype has been that of a violent, uncivilized villain, juxtaposed next to the archetypal hero: the virtuous, white Anglo-Saxon settler. However, a growing number of pictures in the latter half of the twentieth century and beyond have portrayed indigenous peoples of the Americas in a more historically accurate light.

Animated film[edit]

Peter Pan is a Disney film involving Native Americans. A major scene in Peter Pan involves the Lost Boys and Peter Pan celebrating at the Native Americans' camp after Peter rescues Tiger Lily, the daughter of the chief, from Captain Hook. While they are there they sing "What Makes the Red Man Red?"

Pocahontas is another Disney film that portrays Native Americans. The film focuses on the European's voyage to the Americas in search of gold. When they arrive, they come across a Native American tribe that is already living on that land. There is conflict between the two groups, both hating the other. The Europeans want gold and the Native Americans want their land and their livelihoods. Just before a battle between the two groups begins, Pocahontas, a young Native American woman, saves the life of a European man, and prevents the war from happening. Pocahontas portrays Native Americans and Europeans with just as much guile. One scene involves both the Europeans and the Native Americans singing "Savages" about the other group.

Negative portrayals[edit]

Traditionally, Native Americans have been portrayed as the uncivilized villains in film. According to Beverly R. Singer, "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."[1]

In most films involving Native Americans, they wear clothes made from animal skins, carry spears, and enjoy fighting with most strangers who come into their land. The warriors fight with arrowhead knives and brute strength. The settlers carry guns and weapons with them wherever they go in self-defense.

It is known from Lewis and Clark's diaries that Sacajawea was a key player in their explorations. However, Hollywood has trivialized her importance. The film Far Horizons is a fictionalized account of Sacajawea, played by Donna Reed, about the Lewis and Clark expedition. It is known that she was a strong, independent, and intelligent woman. However, Hollywood portrays Sacajawea's life centered on a love story with Clark, played by Charlton Heston. In the film, Sacajawea and Clark realize that they can never fulfill their love and be together because of racial prejudices and Clark's prominent position in white society. Sacajawea finally makes the ultimate sacrifice and returns alone to her tribe while Clark returns to white society and his white fiancée. There are in fact no records of a romantic relationship between Sacajawea and Clark.

In the sequel to Disney's Pocahontas, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, the first time Pocahontas sets foot on English soil, she is dressed in her revealing one-strap dress, while Englishmen and Englishwomen look at her with disdain and disgust while she admires everything London has to offer. She is unconsciously compared to a wild animal running amok. It is a classic scene of the inferior Native American woman doting over her white-European surrounding while Europeans view her as an excited savage enamored by their world.


Literary artists found various ways of dealing with the "culturally troublesome conclusion" that the story of Pocahontas presents (Tilton, 59). The way many artists dealt with the troublesome conclusions, though, was to change aspects of the story. Therefore, authors are continually producing their own works, but they are not original or based on solely history or fantasy. The mix of history and creativity of a story rooted in historical falsity serves to perpetuate stereotypes beyond intention. This becomes harmful when multiple detrimental intentions become more and more intertwined into the American narrative, and harder to tease out from accuracy. [Tilton, Robert S. Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative. New York: Cambridge UP, 1994. Print.]

Positive portrayals[edit]

The first film to feature Native American actors was An Indian Love Story, in 1911. The film was also designed to provide an authentic background showing the way of life of Native Americans and their communities.[2]

In some films, Native Americans are viewed as intelligent and spiritual. They are the innocent victims of what the white settlers are doing to them. One example of this can be found in the movie Dances with Wolves. One scene shows the U.S. soldiers capturing the protagonist of the film, John Dunbar, and taking him as a prisoner away from his Native American land. Out of nowhere, the Native Americans race onto the scene and kill all of the U.S. soldiers while none of the Native Americans get killed. Some of them receive injuries, but they just ignore the pain and do not seem to even realize that they have been hurt. They are portrayed as being strong and immune to the pain.

The final credits of the film explain what happens after the movie. It describes the history of the Sioux people after the film takes place:

"Thirteen years later, their homes destroyed, their buffalo gone, the last band of free Sioux submitted to white authority at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. The great horse culture of the plains was gone and the American frontier was soon to pass into history."[3]

The film The New World is another movie about Native Americans. It is the quasi-fictitious story of Pocahontas and John Smith. John Smith arrives with the European settlers and gets captured by a Native American tribe. While there, Smith is accepted by the Native Americans and falls in love with one of the young women, Pocahontas. When he is describing the Native American tribe he explains that, "They are gentle, loving, faithful, lacking in all guile and trickery. The words denoting lying, deceit, greed, envy, slander, and forgiveness have never been heard. They have no jealousy, or sense of possession."[4] The Native Americans portrayed in this film were peaceful and gentle people. They were not evil; they were just different from the white settlers.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Beverly R. Singer: Native Americans and Cinema. In: Barry Keith Grant (ed. in chief): Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film: Volume 3: Independent Film–Road Movies. Farmington Hills, MI: Schirmer Reference, 2007, pp. 211–214, here p. 212.
  2. ^ Aleiss, Angela (2005). Making the White Man's Indian: Native American and Hollywood Movies. Westport:An Imprint of Greenwood. p. 11. 
  3. ^ Dances with Wolves. Dir. Kevin Costner. Tig Productions. Orion Pictures, 1990. Film.
  4. ^ The New World. Dir. Terrence Malick. New Line Cinema, 2006. Film.

Further reading[edit]

  • Raheja, Michelle H. (2010). Reservation reelism : redfacing, visual sovereignty, and representations of Native Americans in film. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.