Stereotyping Indians in Film
By Clay Upton
Since 1895 when Louis Luimére was credited with the invention of the motion picture camera, and later in 1896 when Thomas Edison's company invented the first motion picture projector, movies have become part of the American lifestyle. Almost every type of movie has been made, and one of the most popular genres of motion pictures is the "Western". One of the most popular types of Western is the Cowboys and Indians genre and these have been made pretty much since the beginning of the motion picture revolution. One of the main problems with the earlier Westerns is that they painted the Native Americans into the stereotypical savage who was only out to rape, pillage, and murder the white man. However, over time the image of Native Americans in films has changed from the bloodthirsty crazies of the stereotypical American West into what the Indians really were: a proud group of people. It is these stereotypes that have been placed on Indians and the subsequent reversal, particularly with the release of 1954's Sitting Bull, has changed these stereotypes of portraying Indians as the typical bloodthirsty savages. As the country has undergone changes in the way that it views its people as more or less equals of each other, so most of Hollywood began to change from portraying Indians as bloodthirsty savages into portraying what the vast majority of the Indians in fact were: a peaceful but proud people who would, when necessary, stand up and fight for what they thought was right.
Before the movies added sound, the Native Americans in films were stereotyped. They were always shown with scowls, while wearing war paint, showing that they were ready to kill at any time, or that they were less than the whites and that the Indians had need to be helped with everything having to do with the white way of life. It is through these early silent films and short stories, such as Sioux Ghost Dance (1894), Buck Dance (1898) and many others just like them that the stereotypes of Indians were shown to the rest of the nation. The people who were going to the movies, mainly the poor, immigrants, and rural dwellers, were going mainly to escape their own lives, to jump into a world that was completely outside of their own comfort zone and to experience things that they more than likely would never be able to experience in their lifetimes. These people mostly had no experience or knowledge of how an Indian looked or acted so they had nothing to compare the images that they were seeing on the screen with; they just accepted the image as true. Movies during this time were very influential social agents because the movies were being shown on the same screens that the new reels of the time were being shown on; therefore, through the way that these early movies portrayed Native Americans, people believed that they were seeing an authentic Native American, or the "real" Indian that they had heard all of the stories about.
One of the most influential and successful moviemakers of the time was William Cody, more commonly known as Buffalo Bill. Cody opened his own film company called the Col. Wm. F. Cody Historical Picture Company and began making his own movies, which were usually about himself and his life. The movies that Cody made garnered huge support all across the nation. One of Cody's more successful movies, Indian Wars, which depicts the story about the battles that Cody fought against the Indians, got an unprecedented amount of support from the United State government. Cody had made sure that the movie's battle scenes were shot to show the America soldiers as the heroes and that the Indians were shown as typical for Indians of the day: bloodthirsty, and crazy. Troops and equipment were sent by the secretary of state in order to help in filming the movie, and General Miles, who had played a large role during the Indian wars, himself agreed to be in the film. The Pine Ridge Sioux were also put at Cody's disposal for the film by the War Department. One of the main reasons that Cody and the movie garnered so much support from the government was that the United States was about to enter into World War I, and it was important for the nation to bolster morale and to put the military into a noble light in order to promote the recruitment of new soldiers. The movie was first shown to congressmen and other dignitaries from Washington D.C. An interesting and disturbing fact is that they had such a positive reaction to the movie that they made the movie an official government document because the producers had diligently shot the battle scenes in a way that painted the U.S. soldiers in a proud and noble light.
One of the features of the silent films of the 1910's and 1902's which allowed for the portrayal of Indians as caricatures of themselves was the fact that there was no sound in the movies. The fact that there was no sound in the movies at this time made it important for the actors to show a lot of emotion through their facial expression and body languages.This is why the Indians always had a hard look or scowl and war paint on, to show that the Indians were hardened individuals who would kill and rape at any given moment. It is these techniques of shooting Indians in films that have ingrained even more so the stereotypical view that the rest of the nation had about Indians. This can be seen in almost every single movie dealing with cowboys and Indians that had been made during the silent film era. With the advent of sound in the movies, the Indians, who had played major characters in the movies of the silent film era, became part of backdrop to the hero of the film. The Indians had become more a part of the landscape, a ferocious enemy for the hero and his men to kill in a heroic manner or a hidden enemy. Another problem with this is the fact that many of these movies were made with the actual history of the events being twisted around to show that the whites were the heroes, or that the history of the attacks was ignored completely.
This is apparent in the 1941 film They Died with Their Boots On. The central issue for this movie was that the heroes of the film had to brace themselves, and later fight off an Indian attack. The movie, directed by Raoul Walsh, tells the story of Gen. George Custer, starting with his days at West Point Military Academy all the way to his ill-fated attack and death at the Battle of Little Big Horn. The Indians who were in the movie were mainly used as part of the background as a set piece, while the only one with a significant role in the film was Crazy Horse, played by Anthony Quinn - another problem because of the fact that Quinn was not even an Indian. Another of the typical things that happened in this movie, beside the fact that most Indians were just part of the background, was the fact that when making his movie, Walsh pretty much threw the history books out the window and rewrote the story as he saw fit. A great example of this was in the scene in which Custer and Crazy Horse meet for the first time, and in the end, Custer kicks Crazy Horse off his horse. Even though this was enthusiastically received by the viewing public, it never actually happened in real life. During the climactic scenes of the battle at Little Big Horn, Custer and his men are filmed in a way as to show that they are the victims of a vicious Indian attack instead of victims of an over confident leader who led his men into a slaughter. When Crazy Horse finally kills Custer in the movie, Custer is shown to be above his men, fighting until the very end.
Native Americans in films during the 1930's, 1940's, and the 1950's were always shown as crazed individuals that were always hell-bent on raping, pillaging, and killing the terrified settlers of the American move west. Movies such as Stagecoach starring John Wayne, Drums along the Mohawk starring Henry Fonda, and many others have at the centers of their movies attacks or kidnappings by the local blood thirsty Indian tribes. In Stagecoach, the slant against the Native Americans is apparent from the opening credits all the way to the end of the movie. During the opening credits of the movie, in the background, there is a wagon being driven to a happy, trail riding song and there is not a care in the world. Once the scene switches from the wagon to the Indians, however, the tone and feel of the movie changes from a happy, trail riding song to the thunderous beating of war drums, beating the viewers’ eardrums into submission and warning the audience of what’s to come. This theme is continued throughout the entire film, whether or not the Indians are even on the screen. Anytime that the Indians are even discussed, the mood of the actors changes: they start acting scared; the music changes from a uplifting song back to the beat of war drums instilling fear in the audience. Geronimo and his band of Apaches are on the warpath; later in the movie; the group of Indians burned down the ferry crossing and killed the people who were at the ferry crossing. Once the groups of travelers cross the river, they are then chased by the horrible Apaches, who are shooting both rifles and bows at them, doing their best to kill the travelers. It is only when the U.S. Calvary shows up that the Indians break off from their attack.
Something that had been noteworthy in both the silent films and the films of the 1930's through the early 1950's was the fact that most of the Indians in the films were played by white actors in makeup. It had been believed that the Indians would not have the necessary skills to be able to perform well enough for the required speaking roles in the movies. This was one of many reasons that white actors typically played the head Indians in the films covered in dark makeup to give them the look of being an Indian. A prime example of this was Anthony Quinn’s portrayal of Crazy Horse in the 1941 film They Died with Their Boots On. Quinn, who was half Mexican and half Irish, was the quintessential actor to play Indian or Mexican roles. Quinn had the right "dark" skin to play almost any Indian role. Quinn was just one of many non-Indian actors that were playing the roles of Indians in films, although most of the other white actors would have to wear dark makeup to have the appearance of an Indian.
As time went on, however, many in the film industry began to change the way that they portrayed Indians in their films from the (as mentioned before) blood thirsty savages that had been becoming less and less common in the movies to a more proud people who has been abused and massacred by men such as Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn. One of the first movies that did this was the film Sitting Bull made in 1954 and directed by Sidney Salkow. Sitting Bull tells the story of the war between Chief Sitting Bull and the United States Army and the events leading up to the Battle of Little Big Horn and Custer's Last Stand. In this movie, it shows the Indians as a central part of the movie, with a decent dialogue without the standard grunts that were the precursors of the Indians's native tongue. In the first scene in the movie that shows Indians, the Sioux are conducting a raid on a wagon train, but the raid is for food, not just to kill the men of the train. The prospectors who were running the train demand that the local Cavalry go and fight the Indians, but instead the leader of the Cavalry unit berates the prospector for violating the Indian treaties and going onto Sioux land.
The movie also portrays Col. Custer as a pretentious man who was just looking to pick a fight, which is more like the way actual Gen. Custer was. It also shows Crazy Horse as the one calling for war and Sitting Bull trying to avoid the war that was to come. Throughout the whole movie the white man and his soldiers show the Indians as the ones who are being downtrodden and abused. As stated earlier, this film does an excellent job of dispelling the stereotypes that had been ingrained in the minds of the American people. The film also is one of the most historically accurate Indian films ever made, because it shows that Sitting Bull really did not want to go to war until his son was killed by being shot in the back. This was also one of the first movies to have the main characters played by Native Americans, with the character of Crazy Horse being played by Iron Eyes Cody.
Another film that does an excellent job in dispelling the stereotypes and prejudices about Indians that had been built up since the 1920's was the 1970 film Little Big Man, directed by Arthur Penn. The film tells the fictional story of twenty-one year old Jack Crabb, who had been raised by Old Lodge Skin's tribe and tells about fighting General Custer and his men at the battle of Little Big Horn. As a child, Jack and his sister survive the massacre of their wagon train and they are later taken back to a Cheyenne Indian village. After living with the Cheyenne for a while, he was captured by the Cavalry and placed into the care of Reverend Pendrake, whose wife tries to convince Jack to be her lover, so he leaves. Throughout the film, Jack does many things ranging from being a snake oil salesman apprentice to an attempted gunslinger, to a general store owner, to being Wild Bill Hickok's partner. In one part of the movie, Gen. Custer and his men attack the Cheyenne village that Crabb and his family are living in. Jack survives the attack, but his wife and child do not and because of this, Jack becomes the town drunk. As General Custer and his men are marching towards the Little Big Horn, Crabb becomes their scout who truthfully tells Custer about the thousands of warriors that are gathered waiting to fight Custer. Custer, who does not believe a word that Crabb says, tells his men to continue on and goes into a fight in which he has no chance of winning, or even surviving. This is telling how arrogant Custer was in real life: not listening to sound advice and going ahead anyway. During the battle of Little Big Horn, Custer is about to kill the unconscious Crabb, but is killed by Crabb’s adopted Indian brother, Younger Bear, who removes Crabb from the battle field. While the film is not entirely accurate in its portrayals of the battle scenes, it follows the actual history of most of the events pretty closely. This film does an excellent job in showing that the way that Indians are shown in film has dramatically changed over the times.
Another movie that does an excellent job in transforming the ways the Indians are depicted in films was 1990's award winning movie, Dances with Wolves. It was directed by and starred Kevin Costner as U.S. Army Lieutenant John Dunbar. Dunbar is given his choice of assignment after an attempted suicide ride onto the battlefield is viewed by the commanders as a brave attempt to inspire the troops. Dunbar chooses to go out into the American frontier to stem the Indian problem. Along the way, however Dunbar befriends a local Sioux Indian tribe, led by Kicking Bird. Dunbar becomes attached to the Indian tribe and becomes part of it, and because of this, he abandons his military post. Dunbar is taken prisoner by the Army, and a battle ensues between the Sioux tribe and the U.S. Cavalry to get Dunbar back. The rest of the movie shows the Sioux tribe and Dunbar trying to evade capture by the Cavalry. In this movie, Costner almost completely flips the traditional roles of the cowboys and Indians to the point that the Indians become almost the heroes of the movie, having been beaten down and finally rising up to defend themselves only when it is necessary. The Cavalry in the movie are portrayed during the 1940's and 1950's. The movie, even though it was a work of fiction, follows the historically accurate truth that the Indians were usually the ones that were being persecuted by the settlers who were coming onto Indian lands and the U.S. Cavalry, who usually helped the settlers more than they did anything for the Indians. They had become part of the background, a silent enemy for the Indians to triumph over the defeat. This is one of the best examples of how far the motion picture industry has come from its beginnings.
These later films like Sitting Bull from 1954, Little Big Man from 1970, and Dances with Wolves from 1990 do an excellent job of showing just how much the ideas of what an Indian is have changed throughout the nation. Indians are no longer shown in films as the evil menace to the safety of the white race that must be purged from society by any means, but are shown in a completely different light as the downtrodden, beaten and oppressed people that they really were. Indians in film have made a complete one hundred and eighty degree turn around in how they are shown in the movies. They now play in their own roles and are in the forefront of their movies.
In conclusion, these films and many others show just how far the motion picture industry has come in the way it has stereotyped the subjects of their movies, particularly Indians. Once it was commonplace for the Indians in a film to not even be played by Indians, but by other, white actors, because it was viewed that they could not handle the work. Even when Indians started playing Indians in films, they were always shown with their war paint on and always ready to fight and kill the white man, only to be defeated by the heroic United States Cavalry or some other group, which is what happened in movies such as Stagecoach (1939) and They Died with Their Boots On (1941). As the decades passed, movies such as Sitting Bull (1954) and Dances with Wolves (1990) began to change the way that Indians had been shown in the movies. They became more than just set pieces so that the white soldiers could look heroic, but became an integral part of the movie and they were portrayed more as they were in the real world, a peaceful but proud group. Today, most of the stereotypes that progressed throughout the decades have all but died out in film.