|WHERE TO LOOK
Given Michael White suggests researching the human side of Indian peoples rather than making sure you have their war bonnets right, the Internet becomes a tricky place to research. Sure, there’s always Wikipedia, but when it comes to Native American-generated content, “tribal Web sites, especially the official ones, are very reverent and they’re not very revealing,” explains White. “They’re okay for contacting people, but I’ve seen very few tribal Web sites that offer more than basic information.”
Of course there are some resources, such as the Native American Times Web site, a news site featuring current events from a Native American perspective. But White suggests a better way to research is to listen to the voices of the Indian peoples.
If you want to do this online, there are several forums worth investigating, including The Village of First Nations and Native American Netroots.
Offline, modern native fiction is also a good place to look, including authors such as James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Tom King. King also hosted a show on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) for many years called the Red Dog Café Radio Hour. “It’s these American Cherokee doing these little riffs of 15 minutes, and it’s absolutely hilarious,” White says. “It’s the best introduction to Native American humor that I know of.”
The show is off the air, but you can still purchase CDs through Amazon.
Written by Denis Faye
Professor Richard White knows enough about Native Americans not to call them Native Americans.
As much as most of us believe the term is key to cultural sensitivity, the Stanford American History Professor and Pulitzer Prize finalist doesn’t agree. He’s been working closely with “Indian peoples,” as he calls them, for over 30 years, and the words “Native American” just don’t come up that often.
“The only time I’ve ever heard Native Americans used by Indians is when they’re talking to white people,” claims White, whose books include The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region and The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change Among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos. “Usually, when they’re around themselves, they’ll use their tribal name or they’ll say Indian peoples. I just use the language they use.”
Professor White talked with Technically Speaking recently about Indians (or Native Americans) and how they’re reflected in the cinema. Over the years, Hollywood has gotten pretty good at making them look accurate onscreen. Unfortunately, we also tend to forget that, under all the feathers and war paint, Indian peoples just as human as anyone else.
What does Hollywood get right about Indian peoples?
The odd thing is, what they get right are the details. They’ve become almost fanatical about the details. So when you go see a film like Thunderheart [Written by John Fusco], that’s pretty much Pine Ridge. They get the trailers. They get the old cars. They get the TV sets with the old people watching Mr. Magoo. Those kinds of details they get right and when they make historic films, more and more, starting with Dances With Wolves [Written by Michael Blake], there’s this incredible attention to detail. The Pawnees look like Pawnees. The Lakotas look like Lakotas. They spend an awful lot of time making sure things appear as closely as they can to the period they’re representing. Again, they didn’t pay that kind of attention to detail earlier, but recent films do.
And what do they get wrong?
They’re not Indians!
I mean, that’s not totally true, but take a film like Black Robe where Brian Moore actually wrote the screenplay and wrote the book. The book is wonderful, but by the time it gets to a screenplay, even though Moore’s getting the credit for writing it, something’s gone wrong. All the Iroquois, it’s like a men’s club gone bad. It’s a bunch of guys and their slut wives thinking up horrible things to do. The ritual context of why the Iroquois act the way they do is totally stripped away even though, in fact, the detail in how they do it is correct.
It’s interesting to me because it’s not that Moore didn’t know how they act. He really did recreate that in the book. He has one character, I forget his name, but his whole family is slaughtered, and he comes across as a real complicated human being. The odd thing is that, while most of the Indian peoples aren’t recognizable as full characters, usually in these films you can find one or two who are. There’s the old man, the old medicine person in Thunderheart, now that scene, where he asks to trade for the sunglasses and he’s sitting in the trailer watching Mr. Magoo, and the conversation is sort of weaving around and never gets to the point. There, you have a sense of a fully observed Indian character coming out. But a lot of these films, what they feel are that Indians are too exotic, so usually what you have is a white guy becoming an Indian, like Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves. Most of the Indians in there are symbolic. They stand for something, but every now and then they do pull out a real character. It’s not that they can’t do it, it’s that they don’t do it very well.
I was going to ask you about Dances With Wolves. A white guy comes in, and he finds the only white woman around, and they go off together to do something that the Indians can’t…
Well, I always cut movies a lot of slack, movies about history. Dances With Wolves ends before the really bad things happen to the Lakotas. He goes to save them, but we know they’re not going to be saved. The thing is that in most of these movies, white people learn to be better Indians than Indians. That’s what happens in Dances With Wolves. That’s what happens with Thunderheart. That’s what happens with a lot of them.
Do you think that Hollywood has a responsibility to get it right? I mean, they screwed up cowboys too, so why would it be any different with Indians?
I cut them a lot of slack. Movies get most of history wrong; why should Indians be any different? Hollywood has an obligation to entertain and to tell a story. The problem that complicates that is that once Hollywood tries to make everything appear, which they’re very good at, as it might have appeared, then they seem to be saying, ”We’re also getting these characters the way they really were, and that’s how things really happened.” It’s not true, but the pretension is there.
The other thing, which is really interesting, is that you would think that all of AIM (the American Indian Movement) moved to Hollywood. All of AIM did move to Hollywood! Hollywood sort of bought off a lot of Indian protests by putting Russell Means, Dennis Banks, and John Trudell in some of these things. A whole set of old AIM characters shows up in these films over and over. And Russell Means, of course, becomes the one to say Hollywood is getting it right with, like Pocahontas, which is probably the worst Indian film of all time. Russell Means says it really captures Native Americans! That was an interesting trend.
Are there any movies you’re fond of?
Oh yeah, I’m fond of a lot of them. I like them as movies… One movie that I really love that’s an Indian movie that’s not bad is Little Big Man [Screenplay by Calder Willingham]. What they did is take Thomas Berger’s book, which I really liked too, and they didn’t cut out all the parts that Berger closely observed. Chief Dan George did a wonderful job. One of my favorite scenes of all time is when he walks up the hill to die and… he doesn’t die. He comes back down and says, “It’s not today,” and he starts talking about his Crow wife, and he says, “She fornicated with horses, you know. She always denied it, but I knew she did.” It’s how the movie ends. It’s a wonderful moment. The Indians in that movie are funny. They say things that are wrong. They really are much more fully realized human beings, even if it doesn’t quite get all the details. Little Big Man is a wonderful movie, even though I realize it’s not about Indians. It’s about the Vietnam War.
So it’s more important to portray them as three dimensional human beings than to get their feathers right?
Yes, I think that’s it. It doesn’t have to be totally accurate, but it has to have some sense that you recognize them as human beings who are different than you but captures the humanity.
All the Indian peoples I’ve worked with over the years have been very, very funny. But with Hollywood, even through they got Indian actors in there, they tended to be stoic, spiritual, and romantic. If you represent Indians symbolically, and you don’t really care what they’re really like, and you want them to stand for something, then The Searchers [Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent] pretty much has it down. I mean, it has nothing to do with Comanches, but that’s probably the best American Western about racism because it pulls no punches.
A lot of my students hate it because it’s so racist, but that was the point.
Are there any movies that don’t sit well with you?
Well, yes, but it’s not like they’re evil movies. Pocahontas is just silly. The Last of Mohicans [Screenplay by Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe] might have been the silliest Indian movie of all time. I read a review that summarized the plot like it was out of Soap Opera Digest. There are all these twists and turns, and the Indians are all spiritual and they run a lot – always running. And in the end, everybody’s brave, and they die and it’s tragic.
What about the old cowboys and Indians movies?
In a lot of those old movies, there really is a sympathy for Indians, although they’re not very sophisticated productions, and there’s no attempt at realism.
What we forget is that there’s not necessarily a long history of anti-Indian bias in Hollywood. I had a Cherokee Indian student who went through about eight years of B-Westerns in Hollywood and classified them and got all the information about them. [Liza Elizabeth Black, "Looking at Indians: American Indians in Movies" University of Washington, 1999.] It’s really interesting. The vast majority were sympathetic to Indians. Of course, you have the savage Indians attacking the wagon train, but that’s really not the vast majority of the films. They were usually very sympathetic.
What would you like to see in a movie about Indians peoples just once?
I’d like to see just one where the main character isn’t a white guy who learns to be an Indian but is an Indian man or woman who isn’t a cartoon character like Pocahontas. That would be a big step. You’ve seen that step for African Americans. For Indians, maybe some minor ones, but not a big, Hollywood production that focuses on Indians as the central characters and not the supporting cast.
What advice would you give a writer embarking on a script about Indian peoples?
I’m not against getting the details right, but you should get some sense of the period you’re writing about, about how people acted. And if you can make people different without being exotic, it might be a big step. Indians, at different times, do think and act differently than whites, but they live in a common world with whites. I would also have them keep in mind is that I know virtually no Indian peoples on the continent who have not been in touch with non-Indians for at least 250-300 years. They know a lot about us, and it might be useful to know at least half as much about them before we start writing about them. It’s not that hard to find out.
Remember there are a lot of different kinds of Indians in America and a lot of Indians don’t like other Indians. It’s not like there’s this one thing: Indians. There are deep tribal divisions, and someone is always going to come out behind. You can see it in Dances With Wolves. If there were a Pawnee anti-defamation league, they would have been all over Kevin Costner because the Pawnees become the villains, whereas in an outsider view of history, the Lakota were attacking the Pawnees.
If you’re going to be writing about Indian peoples, meet some, talk to some, go to some reservations – but don’t think that everyone is going to open up to you and don’t believe everything they tell you.
Of course not! Who in the world have you ever met who you believed everything they told you? Why would Indians be any different?