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This Weekend's Film Festival Contemplates Native Americans on Film

On Monday in the U.S., we had the Columbus Day holiday. For many, non-religious holidays are just another day off from work; the meaning is inconsequential. However, Columbus Day is not one — except for government workers and a few happy school children — that many people get off from work for. This makes the holiday even less significant to many Americans. However, there is a segment of the population that find the holiday offensive, which is quite counter to the spirit of a holiday. We set aside one day a year to celebrate a man who really didn't discover the Americas, who was a tyrannical religious fanatic that heard "divine voices," and who died insisting that he was not exploring the West Indies, but the east coast of Asia. For the many indigenous and African-American people of the U.S., he also represents the beginning of the decimation of their ancestors through murder and slavery.

Some have called for the abolishment of the holiday, replacing it with a holiday celebrating indigenous people. So in that spirit, I have decided to look at the portrayal of Native Americans on film. I've selected a wide-ranging lineup of films, most with balanced portrayals and some with more traditional Hollywood clichés. I hope This Weekend's Film Festival allows viewers to see the changing portrayal of Native Americans on film, as well as entertains with five excellent productions.

Kicking off the lineup is Robert Altman's BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS, OR SITTING BULL’S HISTORY LESSON. This devilish satire of the Western myth paints a very positive view of Sitting Bull and others Indians. The white folk look like buffoons, propagating false stories about their Wild West heroics. Performed by Frank Kaquitts, Sitting Bull is a laconic figure in the film, demanding his equal rights from showman Buffalo Bill Cody, played wonderfully by Paul Newman. Cody doesn't know how to deal with the famed chief. He even fires him when Sitting Bull asks for fair wages, only to hire him back when his top act Annie Oakley threatens to quit. Sitting Bull's spokesman is played by ONE FLEW OVER A CUCKOO'S Will Sampson. He's portrayed as a smart negotiator. The only reason Sitting Bull has even joined Cody's Wild West Show is to give a message to President Grover Cleveland. The sadly satirical ending is a poignant exclamation point to how the legends of the Wild West have been warped to put the Native Americans under the heel of the white man. You can learn more about this underrated Altman film in my original review.

John Ford is best known for his Westerns, so I've made up the Saturday lineup of his films. Because of his close association with Westerns, he is also a key figure in how Native American were portrayed on screen. Our first film, RIO GRANDE, is an example of the very typical image of Indians in the Golden Age of cinema. They are nameless raiders, which the white man must conquer. With Ford's leading leading man John Wayne in the starring role, the film focuses on Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke's relationship with his son Jeff (Claude Jarman Jr.) and his estranged wife Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara). The Indians are given no point of view, guiding the story from a more Manifest Destiny version of the U.S. Cavalry's dealing with the Indians. Now, unlike some more egregious productions, this film doesn't make the Indians mindless savages. Most Westerns just painted them in broad clichés from the way they dress to how they talk to their warring nature. This is a good film that displays the typical image of the Native American without being offensive. Underdevelopment does not necessarily speak racism. It's a view that one has to apply to all early Westerns. For more on the real center of the film check out my original review.

For our second Ford film, we have THE SEARCHERS. This film is considered by many as Ford's premiere masterpiece. I disagree, finding it flawed in its attempts at comedy, but that information is all in my original review. The brilliant part is Wayne's portrayal of Ethan Edwards and his dogged search for Comanche chief Scar (played by the very non-Indian Henry Brandon), who scalped his secret love and kidnapped his niece Debbie (played as an adult by Natalie Wood). Scar is a savage, but he has his reasons, which are no bloodier than Ethan's. The central theme is that a circle of violence has surrounded white and Native American relations. For many, this film represents Ford's attempt to deal with the image of Native Americans that he crafted in his years of making Westerns. Here, he presents a racist central character who is motivated by bloodlust. In his presentation of Scar, he creates a killer, but one with a personality. In many ways, it's a bold characterization in that it allows Scar to be a rounded human being with real motivations. In many modern portrayals of races that were poorly represented previously, the race is deified. It's actually more progressive to be fair and honest by creating characters that are flawed. It's in that essence that THE SEARCHERS was before its time.

On Sunday, we have two recent films that present wonderfully layered presentations of various Native American cultures. First up is THE FAST RUNNER (or ATANARJUAT). I won't go into the lengthy plot of the film, which I outlined in my original review, but will address the original depiction of the Inuktitut tribe. As the first film in the native language, it contains a unique authenticity. Based on Inuktitut legends, the film has an epic, Shakespearian quality with lots of melodramatic developments. The melodrama is wonderful told, but it’s the cultural detail that makes this film so original. We get a firsthand glimpse into a world we have never really seen depicted on the screen before. All the actors are Inuktitut. Even 95% of the crew was Inuktitut. Though it may be flawed, there is an undeniable passion for the material that bleeds through. Additionally, we get a beautifully filmed portrait of the stark, icy Canadian landscape. It also broadens the scope of the indigenous experience. Native American doesn't just mean the original residents of what is now the United States. As I said in my original review, "the film captures a lifestyle that is so alien, but the story of love and betrayal is very universal."

The closing film, THE NEW WORLD, takes the legend of Pocahontas and tells it in a powerfully poetic way. In some ways, director Terrence Malick also deifies the Indians, but it's mostly done so in comparison to the plundering attitudes of the explorers versus the peaceful, simple and free lifestyle of the Indians. In the story of Pocahontas, Malick used the tale of her first true love with John Smith (played wonderfully by Colin Farrell) as a metaphor for indigenous-English relations. As I said in my original review, "in setting a fairly familiar “first love-mature love” tale against the dawning of America, the film finds a core metaphor that is completely organic, hauntingly emotional and perfectly executed." The Native Americans are portrayed as cautious, but curious, about their first interactions with the Europeans. The chief even states that if they want swampland they can have it, but if they start moving into their land then they will be killed. The Indians are intelligent, forming strategies on how to deal with the new inhabitants. As the story progresses, Pocahontas will become trapped between the two worlds. Malick portrays this struggle not in black and white terms, but as a real conflict in the character. She has a split identity, which is common in this modern age for anyone trying to balance ethnic traditions with American culture. This gorgeous, lushly photographed production makes the U.S. look beautiful, which only goes to highlight the ugliness that happened along the way in its creation.

Well, I hope This Weekend's Film Festival is as enjoyable as it is thought provoking. I welcome all comments about my choices and thoughts. So it's time again to head to the rental store, update the Netflix queue or check your local listings on

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Rick DeMott
Animation World Network
Creator of Rick's Flicks Picks