Native Americans have been portrayed in films stereotypically since the beginning, which led to racism. Native Americans were and still are in some cases considered violent, uncivilized, barbarians, they represent the villains in the many movies, while the white Anglo-Saxon men are the heroes. However, from the second half of the 20th century, Native Americans are portrayed more accurately. So, in this paper, I am going to analyze how Indians are represented in films and pop culture.
First, I am going to focus on how the first stereotypes evolved, and how it led to the negative images of Native Americans. In the second part, I am going to take a look at the negative influence of the Western film genre on society, since it established cruel images of Natives. Native Americans were portrayed as bloodthirsty and cruel warriors. I am going to analyze two films, The Searchers (1956) and Dances with Wolves (1990) concentrating on the scenes in which Natives are stereotyped.
“Long before the white man set foot on American soil, the Native Americans had been living on this land. When the Europeans came here, there were probably 10 million Native Americans who had been living north of present – day Mexico” (Two-Hawks). This quote shows that before Christofer Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, the so called “New World” had already been inhabited by Natives. First, the Natives tried to help the new settlers in agriculture and to build the first villages, but later, conflicts started between them, since the whites were greedy, they wanted more territories and even power.
“As a result, the arriving Europeans cut down woods for timber and hunted down countless animals for their pelts.” (Radman) Native Americans were exploited, they were viewed as uncivilized barbarians, and whites wished to tame them. They forced their religion and culture on the Natives, and even their language, English. But of course, Natives had their own religion, culture and language, so they were not uncivilized at all. So, these negative statements contributed to the first stereotypes of the Indians.
The conflicts became more and more serious, and the Europeans used their own religion, Christianity, to kill the Natives. They said that Native Americans were not humans, and Natives became animals “that can be hunted down, thus justifying their own destruction of the indigenous civilizations” (Radman). Natives were considered to be savages, wild, devilish creatures mainly because Natives were unknown to them, and these stereotypes have become accepted by people for centuries, and later these became even more widespread.
The Searchers (1956) was directed by John Ford. The beginning of the film shows the power of music, since we can hear very violent, dark music with drum beating, which foreshadows something bad. The use of this kind of music indicates that “Hollywood associated the Native Americans and their traditional drum beatings with something that is bad, dangerous and frightening” (Radman). This results that the audience links Native Americans to something negative.
The next scene is in the house, where the family is having dinner. Martin Powley joins the dinner, and the friendly atmosphere becomes colder. Martin is Welsh, but his parents were killed by Native Americans, and an Indian tribe brought him up as their child. We can see that although Martin is a family member, Ethan do not like him. This scene “represents the Native Americans as bloodthirsty savages in an indirect way through the character Martin Powley” (Radman). We assume from this scene that everyone is one of the Natives even if they are kidnapped as a kid and brought up in a Native community.
There is a scene where the characters believe that the Comanche tribe is killing their cattle, not because of food, but to get them far away from their homes in order to attack the farms. After finding it out, the characters hurry home, but they find that everybody has been slaughtered. Moreover, the little girl Debby and her sister Lucy have been kidnapped.
Ethan and ranger Clayton start to search for the girls. Here, we can see that Natives are portrayed as villains who are killing and kidnapping children without mercy. Interestingly, the leader of the Comanche, Scar, is not played by a Native American, but by Henry Brandon, American actor, who played Native Americans in many other films, as well.
In the next scene, the searchers find a Comanche grave and they open it. One of the searchers keeps smiling at the sight of the dead Comanche and throws a rock at the dead Indian. Also, Ethan holds his gun and says: “Why don’t you finish the job?” (The Searchers) and shoots two times in the buried Comanche’s face. This is not just a negative, but a very racist act, as well.
I totally agree with Radman when she writes that “The Searchers, Hollywood and finally the American people who made this film have clearly shown that the life of a Native American is worthless, even in death, and that they do not deserve any respect whether they be alive or dead.” (Radman)
In a scene, Martin and Ethan are selling some goods to the Comanche, but Martin does not know that he has bought a wife, as it is the tradition in the Old West. They want to get close to the Comanche to find Scar. It represents the old times, when the whites fooled, tricked, and used Native Americans for their own benefit. Furthermore, in the following scene, we see that a Comanche tribe, men, women and children, were slaughtered by the American Cavalry, showing that no one is considered as a human being. They find some women who were raped and abused by the Comanche, illustrating that Native Americans are cruel and rapists.
Eventually, they find Scar’s camp, where Comanche are living in tepees, and wearing moccasins. They once again deceive the Natives to find the girls. They are surprised that Scar can speak English, and one of them says negatively that: “You speak pretty good American, for a Comanche” (The Searchers). Native Americans are considered to be unintelligent and not able to learn new things.
During the years Debbie became Scar’s wife, and the searchers cannot save her because Debbie says that now she is a Comanche and she is not going to leave with them. Ethan becomes very angry and tries to shoot Debbie because he would see her dead than as a Native American. Debbie is saved by Martin. According to Hollywood, it is an unforgettable sin to become and live as an Indian.
In the last scene, we can see that American forces attack Scar’s camp, and the whites kill the Natives. Martin is the one who kills Scar and “saves” Debbie from the savage man. Furthermore, Ethan takes the scalp of the dead body of Scar. White men show no respect for the dead Native Americans.
Dances with Wolves (1990) was directed by Kevin Costner, and it is a film from the end of the 20th century. This film marked “one of the more sympathetic portraits of Native American life ever shown in American cinema, and introduced the American public to Lakota Sioux folklore, traditions and language” (National Film Registry).
Also, there was a shift between the portrayal of Native Americans as bad and the portrayal of Natives as good. The Sioux tribe is represented as friendly people, and the cast consist of many Native American actors. The main character do not deceive or use Natives, his only aim is to understand them.
Interestingly, Radman writes that the audience lost interest in the making of Indian movies because they considered the negative image of Native Americans boring. So, a shift was needed in the Hollywood film industry.
The first scene of the movie shows that Lieutenant John Dunbar is in a hospital where the doctors are thinking about the amputation of Dunbar’s leg. The film is set during the American Civil War, and John wants to decide over his life, so he goes to the Western Frontier. When he arrives to Fort Hays, he is asked whether he is an Indian fighter, which suggests that when people associate the Frontier with Indians. John is sent to Fort Sedgwick during the way, he finds a wagon and a skeleton. This wagon was attacked by savage Indians.
Another stereotypical scene is when John asks his mate, Timmons, whether there are Indians nearby, and the answer is that: “Indians? Goddamn Indians! You just as soon not see them unless they’re dead. They’re nothing but thieves and beggars!” (Dances with Wolves). It implies that since Indians are thieves and beggars, they do not deserve to live and they should all die.
When they arrive to Fort Sedgwick, they see that it is abandoned because everybody has been killed by Indians, or people went away because of Indians. John decides to rebuild it. In the next scene, Timmons is killed by an Indian, and he also takes his scalp , wagon, and horses. It shows how brutal Natives are, and it reflects the barbarian side of Native Americans who are protecting their land from the white settlers.
After John saves his horse from a Sioux man, we can see the Sioux tribe, where there is two types of Native American representations: one of them is the usual stereotypical image of Indians, they are savages and bloodthirsty, they want John off their territory, and the other is the “reasonable, wise, calm and noble” (Radman) image represented by Kicking Bird who “wants to establish friendly contact” (Radman) with John. This is the first case in film history, where a Native is represented as a human and not as a savage animal. Also, the conversation in the tribe is in their mother tongue with English subtitle.
In the next scene, we see John trying to make a contact with the Sioux tribe. During his journey, he finds a white woman, Stands with a Fist, in Indian clothes who is badly injured. He helps her, and he finds out that her parents were killed by a savage tribe and Kicking Bird brought her up as his daughter.
From this scene, the audience finds out that Native American tribes fought not only with whites, but also with other Native tribes, as well. When he arrives to a Sioux village, a woman calls him “Wasichu”, which means “a greedy or dishonorable person, because many Sioux perceive white people as being rather greedy and dishonorable” (“Setting the Record Straight about Native Languages”) It is important because here white people are represented as bad, since in the past, whites tricked Native Americans into selling their lands to the settlers.
Kicking Bird sees John good because he saved his daughter’s life. He is open to a friendly relationship with John, who starts liking Kicking Bird, as well. John writes into his journal that: “Nothing I’ve been told about these people is correct.
They are not beggars and thieves or the bogeymen they’ve been made out to be. They are polite guests with a familiar humor I enjoy” (Dances with Wolves). This also portrays Native Americans kind and friendly. He gets more and more accustomed to their culture, and Stands with a Fist teaches him the language. Eventually, John and Stands with a Fist get married.
By saving a young Native American during the buffalo hunt, John is more welcomed in the tribe and in the village. He is asked to tell the story of his buffalo hunt, which shows that storytelling is very important in the life of Indians.
In the next scene, the Sioux are preparing for a war against another Indian tribe, and John wants to join them, but Kicking Bird wants him to protect his family in the village. It is important because John, who is a white man, is protecting Native Americans, and is not killing them.
Later John is captured by whites, he is beaten and asked to tell the location is the Sioux tribe, but he refuses. This is also stereotypical because now on John is considered an Indian, and whites have no mercy for him. Later, some Natives arrive and help escape John from the whites. In the last scene, we can see that John leaves the Natives with his wife, since the whites are looking for him. He wants to protect the tribe. Finally, we can see that Union soldiers find the camp, but it is empty, there is nobody there.
To conclude, we see that in both film, the Native Americans are depicted as savages, but in the Dances with Wolves Indians are portrayed more humanely and not as animals. So, Hollywood and the film industry have a great part in establishing the negative images and stereotypes of Indians as they are considered to be less intelligent, cruel, barbarians, savages, scalp collectors, rapists, kidnappers, and thieves.
The Searchers is a good example for the idea that Native Americans do not deserve to live, and they had to be killed. I believe that it is a mistake to suggest that killing people is acceptable.
Dances with Wolves, on the other hand, shows that Indians can also be friendly, kind, wise, who have feelings.
So, Dances with Wolves shows the shift from the negative representation to the more positive one, but of course, some stereotypes remained or changed a little, but the representation of Native Americans has radically changed in film industry.