Hollywood’s shocking reel Indians

A new documentary chronicles the absurd misrepresentation of native people onscreen

Hollywood’s shocking reel Indians

As Avatar completes its quest for world domination, critics are still circling the wagons, asking if James Cameron’s visionary epic is revolutionary or retrograde, or both. The Vatican frets about its creed of nature worship. U.S. Conservatives condemn it as anti-military eco-liberalism. And the rest of us wonder how the characters in this 3-D marvel can be so flat. But there are Aboriginal people who have a more personal gripe. The Na’vi aliens on Pandora are clearly patterned on North American natives, or more specifically their Hollywood stereotype—noble savages in braids riding bareback with bows and arrows. And as in Dances With Wolves, their messiah is a white man who goes native. “Avatar angered me,” says CBC film critic Jesse Wente, an Ojibwa. “You have blue aliens with tails—why do you have to put feathers in their hair? The Na’vi even do the war whoop, which is a sound completely manufactured by Hollywood.”

Those persistent Indian clichés are the subject of a new documentary called Reel Injun, directed by Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond. By turns funny and shocking, it’s a chronicle of how native people have been absurdly misrepresented onscreen from the days of silent film to the present. Growing up on a reserve in the James Bay community of Waskaganish, Diamond, now 41, remembers watching old movies as a kid in a church basement. “Raised on cowboys and Indians, we cheered for the cowboys,” he says, “never realizing that we were the Indians.” When he moved south, his new classmates asked this Cree from the Subarctic if he lived in a teepee and rode horses, because that was the image of Hollywood’s all-purpose Plains Indian.

With a mix of movie clips and talking heads, Reel Injun unearths some fascinating examples of inauthenticity. The Indian headband, it seems, was largely a Hollywood invention—for an actor doing stunts and falling off horses, it kept his wig in place. Indian dialogue was often just as fake. In one vintage western, it’s just English played backwards. In A Distant Trumpet (1964), Navajo speak their own language, but after Diamond heard stories of improv mischief, he had the dialogue translated and found them saying things like “You are snakes crawling in your own shit!” Some clips are more sobering. In The Searchers, cowboys uncover an Indian grave and John Wayne shoots out the eyes of the corpse, saying, “Ain’t got no eyes, he can’t enter the spirit land.” Talk about rough justice.

When not portraying Indians as bloodthirsty savages, Hollywood idealized them as unreal icons of a vanishing breed. Traditionally they were white actors in bronze body paint, such as Anthony Quinn (The Plainsman), Burt Lancaster (Apache) and Chuck Connors (Geronimo). But even some of Hollywood’s most famous “real” Indians had a fake pedigree. Buffalo Child Long Lance, star of The Silent Enemy (1930), claimed full native heritage, but was in fact part-white and part-black; he committed suicide once the secret got out. Iron Eyes Cody, who played Indians in some 200 films, from Sitting Bull (1954) to A Man Called Horse (1970), was in fact Sicilian, yet he married an Aboriginal and believed he was one by the time he died.

Reel Injun also chronicles some of the real Indians who finally fleshed out the Hollywood stereotype—from Coast Salish Chief Dan George in Little Big Man to Oneida actor Graham Greene in Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. The authenticity of Costner’s epic marked a genuine breakthrough, but a number of native critics, including Wente, view it as a colonial fantasy, a Lakota Lawrence of Arabia, in which Indians still need a white messiah to set them straight. Only with groundbreaking Aboriginal productions, like Atanarjuat (2001), do natives finally get to tell their own stories from the inside.

The Hollywood injun may be passé, but he keeps re-emerging in other guises. In the Twilight movies, the war between white vampires and native werewolves is a twist on cowboys and Indians. Avatar, Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds lead the Oscar race with 26 nominations combined, and they’re all westerns at heart. Hurt Locker’s hero is another desert cowboy, walking into Iraq’s badlands surrounded by hostiles. Brad Pitt’s posse of Nazi hunters in Inglourious Basterds take no prisoners, but in a brutal mix of genocide metaphors, they do take scalps. And as Pocahontas meets Dances with Wolves in the thin air of Pandora, Hollywood’s palefaces have re-engineered the reel Injun as the strangest avatar of all—a red man in blueface.