Native Americans in film

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Lillian Margaret St. Cyr (1873–1964) Native American film actress

Portrayals of Native Americans in film have historically tended to be based in inaccurate stereotypes, notably caricatures of the Plains Indians, depicted in Hollywood Westerns. But throughout Hollywood history, images of Native Americans have alternated between violent, uncivilized villains along with positive, romantic portrayals. Early short one- and two-reel movies tended to show diverse portrayals of positive and negative images and occasionally featured stories of Indian/white interracial marriages. Negative images dominated the mid- to late-1930s until the watershed movie Broken Arrow (1950 film) appeared that many credit as the first postwar Western to depict Native American sympathetically. Starting in the 1990s, authentic films by Native American filmmakers and often independent films have focused on portraying Indigenous Peoples from their own Native American point of view.


Peter Pan is a 1953 animated 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.

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.


The War Bonnet (1914) with Mona Darkfeather

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 The 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.

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.]

Daughter of Dawn[edit]

The Daughter of Dawn is an 83-minute-long American silent film released in 1920. Between its production and restoration in 2012, it was shown only a few times — once in Los Angeles in 1920, and in Kansas City, Tulsa and a handful of other cities.

On December 18, 2013, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The film features an "all-Indian cast...shot in Indian Country", with over 300 people from the Comanche and Kiowa tribes acting in the film, including White and Wanada Parker, children of Quannah Parker. The cast wore their own clothing and brought their own personal items, including tepees.

Revisionist Western[edit]

One of the early short one-reel films was An Indian Love Story in 1911 which featured non-Native Josephine M. Workman, using the stage name, "Princess Mona Darkfeather" and a story of being Native, then later claiming adoption into the Blackfeet Nation. The film was also designed to provide an authentic background showing the way of life of Native Americans and their communities but was filmed near Los Angeles. Hundreds of other short films made by Biograph, Lubin, Selig, Pathe, Vitagraph, and Edison studios even before 1911 showed Indians in a positive light. Producers/directors D.W. Griffith and Thomas H. Ince made many short films showing sympathetic Native American images. Ince had brought a tribe of Sioux Indians from South Dakota to California to appear in his Westerns. Native American actors Lillian St. Cyr, Chief Yowlachie, and Chief Thunderbird enjoyed careers in Hollywood.[2] One of the most prominent of Native American actors was Will Rogers who starred in more than 70 movies and was the top money-making box office actor in 1934.

In films during the 1920s and 1930s, Native Americans appeared as positive and intelligent. They are the innocent victims of white settlers invasion. One example is The Vanishing American in 1925 about the effects of corrupt government agents on an Indian reservation.

Other earlier Westerns had portrayed Native Americans in a positive light. One of the most important was Broken Arrow (1950 film) about the peace agreement between Tom Jeffords and the Apache leader Cochise. The movie was directed by Delmer Daves who made several other sympathetic Indian Westerns: Drumbeat, The Last Wagon, and White Feather, a kind of sequel to Broken Arrow (1950 film).


In the 1970s, the anti-Westerns or Revisionist Westerns like Little Big Man and Soldier Blue showed Indians as victims and white people as the frontier's aggressive intruders.[2] While the studio comedy Little Big Man still centers on a white protagonist, Dustin Hoffman, the Native Americans are featured as his family, mentors and loved ones, and white people are often the butt of the jokes. The Cheyenne in the film are living harmoniously and peacefully at the start of the film, and it's the encroachment of the violent white men who are the harmful, disruptive influence on their culture and landscape. The whites are the barbarians, the Cheyenne the civilized people.[3] The film is also notable for including a Two-Spirit character, a feminine gay man who is accepted by the community, as well as showing George Armstrong Custer as a lunatic - a fool and a fop - who the white protagonist betrays for the sake of his adopted Indian family.[3]


The 1980s saw the emergence of independent films with contemporary Native content, such as Powwow Highway, a road movie and buddy film where one protaganist, an angry young activist, namechecks the American Indian Movement while the other visits sacred sites to greet the dawn, both on their way to free a friend from jail.[4]


1990's Dances with Wolves, while hailed by mainstream audiences and providing jobs for many Lakota actors, has also been cited as a return to the White savior narrative in film.[5] In the film U.S. soldiers capture John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) and take him as a prisoner. 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 are portrayed as strong and immune to the pain. However, Kevin Costner then becomes part of the tribe, leads the Sioux against their rivals the Pawnee and later helps them escape the army he once served. The final credits of the film promote the false narrative that Sioux people are now extinct (even though they are clearly alive to act in the film).[6]

Also in the 1990s, more Native Americans wrote, produced and directed their own projects, such as Chris Eyre's 1998 award-winning film, Smoke Signals, which has been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."[7] Like Powwow Highway, it is also a road movie and buddy film, that examines friendship, fatherhood, and the roles of tradition vs modernity in Indian Country.[8]


The film The New World is the largely-fictitious story of explorer John Smith and Pocahontas. John Smith arrives with the European settlers and gets captured by a Native American tribe. The Native Americans are portrayed as peaceful and gentle people. However the film continues the settler myths about this child, changing her into an adult so the film can be made into a love story. In reality, Pocahontas, real name, Matoaka, was a child of about 10 when they met, and there is serious doubt as to whether any of the events he describes ever took place.[9] 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."[10]


Reel Injun is a 2009 Canadian documentary film directed by Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond, Catherine Bainbridge, and Jeremiah Hayes that explores the portrayal of Native Americans in film. Reel Injun is illustrated with excerpts from classic and contemporary portrayals of Native people in Hollywood movies and interviews with filmmakers, actors and film historians, while director Diamond travels across the United States to visit iconic locations in motion picture as well as American Indian history.

Imagining Indians is a 1992 documentary film produced and directed by Native American filmmaker, Victor Masayesva, Jr. (Hopi). The documentary attempts to reveal the misrepresentation of Indigenous Native American culture and tradition in Classical Hollywood films by interviews with different Indigenous Native American actors and extras from various tribes throughout the United States.

Inventing the Indian is a 2012 BBC documentary first broadcast on 28 October on BBC 4, exploring the stereotypical view of Native Americans in the United States in cinema and literature

See also[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. ^ a b Aleiss, Angela (2005). Making the White Man's Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies. Praeger Publishers. pp. 1–57, 119–140.
  3. ^ a b Rollins, Peter (2011). Hollywood's Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film. University Press of Kentucky. pp. 121–136.
  4. ^ Ebert, Roger, "Powwow Highway" for the Chicago Sun-Times. 28 April 1989. Archived at Digital Chicago, Inc.
  5. ^ Goff, Keli (May 4, 2014). "Can 'Belle' End Hollywood's Obsession with the White Savior?". The Daily Beast. Retrieved May 14, 2014.
  6. ^ Dances with Wolves. Dir. Kevin Costner. Tig Productions. Orion Pictures, 1990. Film.
  7. ^ "'Jurassic Park,' 'Shining' added to National Film Registry". Associated Press. December 12, 2018. Retrieved December 12, 2018.
  8. ^ Thomas, Kevin (26 June 1998). "Smoke Signals: Stylish 'Signals' a Bittersweet Comedy About Friendship". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 11 April 2018.
  9. ^ "A Guide to Writing about Virginia Indians and Virginia Indian History" (PDF). Commonwealth of Virginia, Virginia Council on Indians. January 2012. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 24, 2012. Retrieved April 18, 2019.
  10. ^ The New World. Dir. Terrence Malick. New Line Cinema, 2006. Film.

Further reading[edit]

  • Native Americans on Network TV (2013)
  • Raheja, Michelle H. (2010). Reservation reelism : redfacing, visual sovereignty, and representations of Native Americans in film. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.