Many thanks to Vera Marie Badertscher for today’s guest post on Native Americans in film. Along with co-author Charnell Havens, Vera wrote Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist, now available at independent book stores, art galleries, museums, and on their Quincy Tahoma Blog. The book tells the life story of Quincy Tahoma (1917-1956) and includes 260 images. Badertscher also blogs about books and movies that influence travel at A Traveler’s Library.
Quincy Tahoma, a Navajo artist who grew up in Santa Fe at the Indian boarding school in the 1930’s, loved to go to the movies. Quincy apparently particularly liked Gene Autry, one of the singing cowboys. People who knew the artist said he sang while he painted, and one family remembers him yodeling, western style.
It seems ironic to me that young Pueblo and Navajo kids saved their quarters to go to the movies on Saturday night and watch cowboys chase Indians. Not only that, but the movie Indians were rarely played by real American Indians.
These skewed views of life in the West still infect people from other countries and even from Eastern parts of the United States. So where can we find positive influences in movies about American Indians?
I believe that the movies had a definite influence on the art of Quincy Tahoma. His favorite subjects — nostalgic scenes of Navajo warriors in ancient costumes, buffalo hunts and buffalo herds — took on aspects recognizable to anyone who has wasted enough Saturdays at the kids’ matinees.
I see John Ford action sequences in Tahoma’s action-packed paintings, and I see the painter playing with angles like a film director — a scene looking down on a rider coming through a slot canyon or another scene with a herd of buffalo thundering nearly straight toward the viewer, threatening to break through the picture plane, inviting 3-D glasses.
Starting sometime in the 1960’s, the American Indian Movement raised consciousness, and earlier Hollywood practices stimulated native writers to tell their own stories and make their own movies. See the American Indian Film Festival for how much progress has been made since the 1970’s to involve native filmmakers.
“I thought they didn’t get it right, so I decided to write novels,” says Cherokee mystery writer Sara Sue Hoklotubbe . Her light bulb moment came when she saw ‘Dances with Wolves.’ “The Indians had to ask the white guy to lead them to the buffalo. I said, ‘Wait a minute. The Indians can’t find the buffalo herd?’”
Since I am one of the “white guys” and recently co-wrote a biography of a Navajo artist, largely based on oral interviews with Native Americans, I would be the last to say that you need to be enrolled in an American Indian tribe in order to get the story right. And Hoklutubbe went on to concede that some people got it right, particularly Tony Hillerman (see the Robert Redford-produced movie based on one of his books, “The Dark Wind“). But I have to agree with Hoklutubbe on her evaluation of “Dances with Wolves.” That is NOT the movie you should see if you want to learn about American Indians.
I also cannot recommend the John Woo/Nicolas Cage World War II extravaganza,”Windtalkers.” I was excited when I heard about the movie, because I have always thought someone should tell the story of the brave Navajos (and other American Indians) who invented a code based on their own impenetrable languages and saved the day in many a Pacific battle. However, this movie is all about big explosions and the bravery of the non-Indians assigned to the Indians, rather than to the intelligence and cunning of the Navajos involved.
So what is on the recommended list? I went to an expert, Paul Kaser, who happens to be my brother, because he sees a lot more movies than I do, and he made the following recommendations:
“Smoke Signals“ is one of the more recent movies made by and starring tribal members, and comes highly recommended for its honest, unsentimental view of the life of American Indian teens.
“Black Robe“, my brother says, “is a serious look at Indian culture and religion in the Northwest — with breathtaking Canadian scenery.” The film’s historical accuracy includes natives speaking in Cree, Mohawk and Algonquin.
My film-lecturer brother also set me straight on my opinion about earlier cowboys and Indians movies. While many did not use native actors, John Wayne and John Ford, in filming movies in Monument Valley, hired Navajos as extras and brought a thriving tourist industry to the area which improved the economy. Additionally, “American Indians were often shown sympathetically as proud victims of exploitation. White heroes were often seen as more truly heroic for defending the rights of Indians. This is even true of Disney’s tremendously popular Davy Crockett.”
As examples of the older movies that prove his point, he mentions ‘Fort Apache,’ ‘The Searchers,’ ‘They Died with Their Boots On,’ and of course, ‘Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier.’ But then, I take that last movie with a grain of salt, since I’m old enough to remember when the eminent movie lecturer was eight and his favorite object was a Davy Crockett coonskin hat!
Jane Recommends: ‘Miss Navajo,’ a 2007 documentary about the annual crowning of Miss Navajo, a young woman who represents the ideals of traditional values and Navajo culture. Crystal Frazier, 21, lives with her family on the reservation in Table Mesa, New Mexico. She’s a tomboy and a little shy, but something about the pageant captures her imagination and ignites a competitive spark. She begins to prepare by working on her talent, studying the language and, of course, figuring out what to wear. This film is funny and heartwarming, but at the same time tells of the struggle to hold onto a disappearing culture and strengthen the bonds across generations. See the film here.