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Redface in Film and TV

In early films, American Indians were almost always depicted as half-clothed savages, screaming war cries as they got shot off their horses by the white heroes. It's almost comical now, but that was the only Hollywood image of American Indians until the mid- to late-1970s; and it was exported to the entire world.

Thomas Ince's Heart of an Indian (1912) showed Indians as sensitive people but DW Griffith's The Battle of Elderbrush Gulch (1914) presented the Indians as absolute savages. The Vanishing American (1925) and Broken Arrow (1950) present a "noble savage" stereotype.

The White Squaw

The Indian woman of early films was depicted in only two categories. She was either a princess or a squaw. Either she was a dangerous and seductive threat to the white frontiersman, or she was the faceless, dutiful figure tagging along behind her buck with papoose in tow. Her only utterance was "Ugh." The word "squaw" means wife, but only through a very rough interpretation and in only one of the hundreds of Native American languages. The princesses of celluloid fame generally served the white man, fell in love with him, and died tragically. Early white male stars who played Indian roles in western film pantomimed their Indian-ness in braided wigs and make-up; likewise, established white actresses always played Indian princesses. Some of those seen bathing in the streams and in chic haute couture doeskin dresses were Yvonne de Carlo (The Deerslayer, 1943), Elsa Martinelli (Indian Fighter, 1955), Linda Darnell (Buffalo Bill, 1943), Debra Paget (Broken Arrow, 1950).

In early Hollywood Westerns, most of the background Indians were real Navajo people. There was a colony of Navajo Indians living traditionally in a camp in Malibu who were on studio pay. When Indians of any tribe were needed for a western, a bus would pull up and load up for their background work. That is why in all those films, most of the time the language you hear spoken is "Dine," one of the Athapascan dialects of the Navajo and Apache people. The major speaking roles for American Indians would still go to non-Native actors like Burt Lancaster and Charles Bronson. 

Burt Lancaster -- Apache

Progress has been gradual, but somewhat steady. Jay Silverheels -- a native of the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve near Ontario, Canada -- was perhaps the first legitimate Native American television star. From 1949 to 1957, he entertained TV audiences as Tonto, the Lone Ranger's dependable -- albeit stereotypical -- Indian sidekick. The real Silverheels, though, was not limited by the stereotype. He recognized that fellow Native American actors needed to truly be masters of their craft in order to compete in the unforgiving film industry, so he founded the American Indian Actors Workshop in Echo Park, Calif., as a place where they could do that. In 1979, Jay Silverheels was the first native American actor to be awarded a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

In 1956, John Ford's film, The Searchers, earned praise for its more balanced depiction of American Indians. But "balanced" had a different meaning back then. In "The Searchers" Indians are portrayed only as savages who kill innocent settlers and kidnap and rape their women. The hero, John Wayne, is someone who hates Indians so much that he thinks that white women who are raped by them, should be killed. Stagecoach is another John Ford/John Wayne film where Native Americans are nothing but vile savages who deserve to be shot. These films are considered classic Westerns by film critics who ignore the blatant racism in them.

The Navajos in Monument Valley who worked on The Searchers -- as extras, consultants or other staff -- were paid less than their white counterparts. At that time, too, they were not even allowed to leave the reservation without written permission from the government; so the fact that they were happy to have the work must be viewed in that light. But Ford's efforts were progressive for his day and laid the groundwork for some of the more truly balanced movies to come. 

Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man

It was in the 1970s that Indians began to be portrayed more authentically and more prominently in film story lines. In Little Big Man with Dustin Hoffman the native Americans are actually shown laughing and crying, like real human beings rather than the stereotypical stoic and unemotional Indians normally seen in Hollywood features. The Indians were depicted just like any other people -- some good, some not so good. Chief Dan George was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, making him the first Native American to receive the honor.

In 1975, Will Sampson delivered an uncanny performance as Chief Bromden, one of the most pivotal characters in One Flew Over Cuckoo's Nest. But instead of crediting Sampson's acting skill and talent for his indelible depiction of the character, whom he made absolutely unforgettable while having almost no lines. The Hollywood press diminished his skill and talent to simply "acting Indian." Explaining why Will Sampson was overlooked for an Academy Award nomination, one director was even quoted as saying, "Why should an Indian receive an award for playing an Indian?"

That is how, in the eyes of many directors, Sampson's performance became a pattern for the big silent Indian. Sampson was typecast and did not have access to a wider range of roles that would have demonstrated his talents. But Will Sampson was determined to make change, one way or another. He went on to be one of the founders of the American Indian Film Institute, producers of the American Indian Film Festival. 

There were other noteworthy films in the 1970s, like A Man Called Horse. But then we had to wait until the early 1990s for Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves, that had a modern take on American Indian people and how the Lakota people of the plains might have lived. Some claim Costner's story showed the Indians as too uniformly benevolent and white folks as simply evil. After all, though in real life Indian nations suffered much ill treatment at the hands of the government, not all real white people were bad and not all real Indians were angelic. But the overall message of the movie was a good one. Graham Greene, with his brilliant performance as Kicking Bird, joined the ranks of Oscar nominees with a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Iron Eyes Cody

Hollywood also had Iron Eyes Cody. His ancestry became the center of some controversy when it became known that he was actually Italian by birth. But he did not just work as an Indian in Hollywood in the 1950s and '60s; he truly lived his life as an Indian. He can be credited as the most famous Indian in the world during that time. Even though he was not born an Indian, we should not forget that Iron Eyes Cody raised awareness for the American Indian people and also of the importance of environmentalism (Keep America Beautiful Public Service ad campaign) in a way that no one else was able to do at that time.

Whether the noble Indian is shedding a tear for a 1960s' environmental public service commercial or being saved by the great white hope Captain John Smith in the recent Disney movie Pocahontas, hints of self-pity and romanticism continue to haunt American Indians in film. While Hollywood no longer portrays American Indians as painted and uncivilized savages, waving tomahawks and scalping the innocent European settlers, contemporary movies maintain the stoic `Indian' image smothered with sentimentality.

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 infighting about who should get the available roles in Hollywood A-list films.

There have been mixed reactions to Johnny Depp playing the lead role of Tonto in the upcoming Lone Ranger movie; some people insist they must know, does he have Indian blood, and is it enough? The beautiful Q'Orianka Kilcher landed the lead role of Pocahontas in Terrence Malick's The New World, but some in the Native community were not pleased that she was of Peruvian and German descent. Rudy Youngblood, aka Gonzales, endured the same intense scrutiny when he got the lead role in Mel Gibson's film Apacalypto. But we don't hear much fuss about Jake Gyllynhall playing the Prince of Persia, Mel Gibson playing a Scot in Brave Heart or Anthony Quinn playing Zobra the Greek when In fact he was one hundred percent Mexican. 

Russell Means, an American Indian activist who has played high profile parts in several movies including The Last of the Mohicans, Natural Born Killers, and Wagons East!, stated that " Americans we have faced up to many social ills. Anti-Semitism, racism against blacks, oppression of women, and now it's time to face up to the Indian issue."

The American Indian Film Institute (AIFI) is a non-profit media arts center founded in 1979 to foster understanding of the culture, traditions and issues of contemporary Native Americans. In 1992 the Native American Producer's Alliance was created. 


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Redface! -- Contents

Racist Indian Stereotypes

History of Indian Stereotypes

Redface in Film and TV

Indian Myths vs Reality

Indian Stereotypes in Sports

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Black Stereotypes

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Asian Stereotypes

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Hispanic Stereotypes

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Indian Stereotypes

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Arab Stereotypes

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Jewish Stereotypes


Racial and Racist Stereotypes in Media


Ken Padgett