Redface!: Native American Stereotypes in Film and Television

Bethany Herold

THTR 3611 E01 “Drama of Diversity”

Professor Kent Homchick

12 September 2015

Redface!: Native American Stereotypes in Film and Television

The phrase “history is written by the winners” is one often coined, and it wouldn’t take long to guess which side won the Indian vs. Cowboy battle by watching an American Western or two. Frequently overlooked because of more recent racial strains with the African-American and Latin-American populations, Native American discrimination is all but a story neglected on the proverbial museum wall of American history. Americans love to watch their John-Wayne-style icons battle it out with the blood-thirsty savages, saving the day just in time for a good ol’ lynching and beer on tap at the all-white saloon downtown. Native Americans are briefly tossed in and out of the films, and commonly only meant to represent the obdurate antagonists. Not to mention many of the so-called Indians themselves are actually portrayed by Caucasian actors on-screen. When authentic Indians are shown, they are more often than not background characters, and you hardly witness them outside of a historical setting.

Caucasian actor portraying an Indian

It’s an effortless and oblivious process to form a mental distance from characters-or in this case races-that are never fully developed and diversified, and over the last one hundred years more than four thousand movies and television episodes have been made depicting Native Americans in this light (How Hollywood Stereotyped the Native Americans). According to the Redface website, the term “refers to the creation and propagation of racist American Indian stereotypes and caricatures.” Removing the blinders to watch just about any Western or Historical film reveals an onslaught of Native Americans stereotypes that stick with numerous people to this day. These stereotypes not only contort the view of the historical Indian culture, they also inhibit the modern-day realization that these people still flourish and exists. Native Americans are a people of the present too, and should be treated as such with respect.

A stoic Tiger Lily from Disney’s Peter Pan

One film stereotype example would be that of the Stoic Indian. Men, women, and even children are delineated to be these stone faced individuals, capable of conveying no more emotion than a Romulan from Star Trek. It spans from realistic films like Stagecoach all the way down to animated characters from beloved childhood classics like Peter Pan. This creates a very flat character and can often imply lack of intelligence, which brings up another common stereotype: Native Americans generally are shown as a savage people with little to no intellect. The term “injun” was created with much correlation to the rudimentary intelligence and animal-esque tendencies deemed accurate by naive settlers, and Hollywood in its Golden Age was quick to jump on that bandwagon in its representation of the race.

Another pigeonhole, offensive to both Indians and feminists alike, is the categorization of Native Americans women as either princesses or squaws. The former, this idea of an Indian princess, is all but folklore (Redface!). Unfortunately, many have Disney to thank for this false premise as Native American tribes had little to no caste system, as well as no mentions of royalty. Even though some leadership rights in tribes did follow a bloodline, hence the position of Pocahontas as the chief’s daughter, any implications towards actual royalty labels is a reach. It is a common held belief that this stereotype was created to make Indian women more White and civilized, thereby making them more sexually attractive and suitable for Caucasian men. Even today, Native American females are overly sexualized as icons for advertisements or cheap Halloween costumes. The latter term is very loosely derived from one of many Native American languages to mean “wife.” This is the less romanticized woman, and she is generally shown performing laborious tasks and caring for children. The squaws are often ugly and plain, while the maidens and/or princesses are made to be exceedingly beautiful. There is very little middle ground, and the two extremes are over dramatized in both physical features and day-to-day routines and activities.

Stereotypical Indian Maiden used in modern-day advertising

Another stereotype suggest that most Indian males are violent and blood-thirsty. This warrior, or buck, character is perhaps the most dominant in visual adaptations of American History. Keep in mind that the young warrior is almost always bested by a superior white man of the same capabilities on screen. The cowboy is the better shot, the better one in hand-to-hand combat, and ultimately, the better warrior. This alone raises some red flags, but when the white hero is nowhere to be seen, the Indian warrior reverts to his bestial instincts and attacks innocent families on the plains. He is often shown wielding a tomahawk and unleashing random attacks on defenseless White settlers. The warriors will find any reason to scalp the White men and violate the White women, and typically leave the homestead a flame, chanting and making war cries as they ride off bareback into the sunset. Not to say this type of scenario never happened, because “while warfare and conflict did exist among Native Americans, the majority of tribes were peaceful and only attacked in self defense,” the ADL reports. “Just like European nations, American Indian tribes had complex histories and relationships with one another that sometimes involved combat, but also included alliances, trade, intermarriage and the full spectrum of human ventures” (Nittle). It’s just unfortunate that it took until the 1970s for Hollywood to break away from that stereotype.

Popular image of Indians attacking white settlers

As Hollywood matured and time progressed, movies in the latter part of the twentieth century began to diversify their perspective of the Native American culture. A broader range of stereotypes were introduced, such as the Noble Savage who obeyed the laws of the Whites and lived in harmony on the reservation, the peacekeeping Chiefs (although highly fictionalized as it was a common name given to Native American leaders by Whites), and the Magical Medicine men and women who could heal anything with the rattle of a filled turtle shell and some plant-based suave. Modern Indians are often portrayed in a negative light, shown as drunken gamblers that have nothing better to do with their government-commissioned money than corrupt the lives of well-meaning White men with their casinos. Finally, there’s little differentiation between the numerous cultures and tribes throughout the Native American populous in film adaptations to this day. Tribal traditions and languages are often mixed, or shown to only reflect one tribe at best. The Redface! website explains that “nowadays, most producers do their best to hire actors that are from American Indian descent, or at least to some degree. But the issue is still a sensitive one. There is much bickering and fighting about who should get the available roles in Hollywood A-list films.”

Perhaps this issue is not recent enough in history to demand the respect of today’s populous infatuated with more pressing matters like marriage rights and welfare requirements. Many would argue that Indians are a thing of the past. They’re not making current headlines, picketing, or moving up in political and economic positions. Does that make ignorance right, intentional or not? As a society, people are trying to steer away from racial slurs and stereotypes related to many races, but very few individuals will bat an eye when Native Americans are mocked or portrayed historically inaccurate on-screen. The Redface website raised a wonderful question: “Is the childhood game of Cowboys and Indians the cultural equivalent of Germans playing a similar game that might be called Nazis and Jews? Why would we tolerate one and not the other?” Perhaps people should be required to reflect on such occurrences more frequently. Not all Germans were Nazis, and not all White settlers were arrogant and entitled peoples. However, does that excuse piteous reenactments, whether child’s play or on-screen entertainment? May society not forget the past when assessing its present, and may the people of the present not forget the Native Americans of the past are still here today.

References

“How Hollywood Stereotyped the Native Americans.”YouTube. Framesinmotion2007, 31 Oct. 2007. Web. 11 Sept. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_hJFi7SRH7Q&gt;.

“Identity and Assimilation.” PBS. Native American Public Telecommunications, 2 Sept. 2006. Web. 10 Sept. 2015. <http://www.pbs.org/indiancountry/challenges/stereotypes.html&gt;.

“Native Americans Stereotypes in Movies – Firstamericans.org.”Firstamericansorg. Web. 10 Sept. 2015. <http://www.firstamericans.org/native-americans-stereotypes-movies.html&gt;.

Nittle, Nadra. “Native American Stereotypes in Film and Television.”About.com. About News. Web. 11 Sept. 2015. <http://racerelations.about.com/od/hollywood/a/Five-Common-Native-American- Stereotypes-In-Film-And-Television.htm>.

“Redface! – The History of Racist American Indian Stereotypes.”Redface! – The History of Racist American Indian Stereotypes. Web. 9 Sept. 2015. <http://www.red-face.us/&gt;.

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