Native Americans in Film: Are They Portrayed Well?

Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo ArtistMany 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.

Smoke Signals Movie
Victor Joseph (left, Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) journey to Phoenix in ‘Smoke Signals.’ | Miramax Films

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.

The Searchers, John Wayne
John Wayne in ‘The Searchers’ | Warner Bros., 1956

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.



36 responses to “Native Americans in Film: Are They Portrayed Well?”

  1. Jennifer Woodard Avatar


    i don’t think that Native Americans are portrayed in moved very well at all, if at all. I probably is better now then it was a long time ago, but that really isn’t say much. It reminds me of the way that they used to portray African Americans in movies. The sad part that many people do not have many relationships with people of other cultures so we tend to get out belief system about other cultures from movies and television. Many people believe what they see in movies and television about other cultures without bothering to question the authenticity of what they are seeing.

    Great post,
    Happy blogging,

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      So true, Jenn, and thanks for the comment. I think it really speaks to the fact that people DO believe what they see on screen, whether it’s accurate or not. It really puts a burden on the filmmaker to tell the correct story and not Hollywood-ize it for the sake of ratings.

      Then there’s the fact that the film’s bottom line is tied to the box office numbers, and (some) moviegoers are more apt to go see a fast-paced action thrill ride than an accurate depiction of the truth.

      Sometimes filmmakers get it right, though. Sometimes it’s a great film AND an accurate story. And thanks to filmmakers like Michael Moore and Ken Burns, documentaries are becoming much more mainstream just in the past ten years. So there’s hope for the film industry.

  2. Vera Marie Badertscher Avatar

    Jane: Thanks for letting me talk about American Indians in the movies. I agree that Miss Navajo was a great film. It is not available on Netflix–do you know where I might find it?
    I’m glad to see more native film makers telling their own story, too.

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      Thank YOU for a great post and discussion, Vera. I don’t think ‘Miss Navajo’ is available on DVD yet, but I’m keeping an eye out for it.

  3. Kristin Ohlson Avatar

    Interesting subject matter. I very much liked Smoke Signals. Seems like there’s another good one stuck in the back of my mind….

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      Thanks for the rec, Kris. I haven’t seen ‘Smoke Signals’ or ‘Black Robe,’ so I’ll definitely be checking them out.

  4. TB Avatar

    VMB’s observation that Tahoma used the cinematographer’s eye to achieve interesting perspective for his pictures is insightful. This is part of what makes his action paintings so striking. We all see the West through the eyes of directors like Ford and his cameramen as well as through the visions of fine artists like Quincy Tahoma and Frederick Remington. TB

  5. Charnell and Vera ( Avatar

    Navajo Artist Quincy Tahoma loved movies.How has Hollywood treated American Indians? #wsbr #Navajo

  6. Vera Marie Badertscher Avatar

    Thanks TB–If you all would like to see some of Tahoma’s cinematic paintings, check out the Tahoma Blog (linked in the intro). We regularly post Tahoma paintings there.
    There’s something circular going on here. Tahoma, a Navajo, did not grow up on the reservation, although he traveled there in later life. But early on he was painting Monument Valley backgrounds. Suppose he got them from John Ford?? In other words, even the Navajo may get their notions of Navajo Land from the movies.

  7. tim Avatar

    In Dead Man Walking native Americans are the only sane ones.

  8. Melanie Avatar

    I loved Smoked Signals- it was hilariously poignant. I also enjoyed Black Robes, in a darker sort of way. Thanks for this thoughtful and unusual post!

  9. Donna Hull Avatar

    Thanks Jane and Vera Marie for educating me today. It’s interesting how movies and television have colored our understanding of not only the American Indian but other cultures, as well. Smoke Signals and Miss Navajo are on my list to see.

  10. Vera Marie Badertscher Avatar

    Although I saw Miss Navajo on PBS, I have not yet seen Smoke Signals, and am looking forward to getting a copy of it.

  11. Alexandra Avatar

    Really interesting post. Will check out a couple of these movies. My dad, growing up in St. Petersburg, used to go see cowboys and Indians in movies from the time he was 8, so, at 18, when he came to the USA, he headed west to experience the same landscape.

  12. Jane Boursaw ( Avatar

    Native Americans in #Film – Portrayed Well? #wsbr #nativeamericans #documentaries #indian #tahoma

  13. Jane Boursaw ( Avatar

    Native Americans in #Film – Portrayed Well? #wsbr #nativeamericans #documentaries #indian #tahoma

  14. Roxanne Avatar

    It is great to get insights into how mass media impacts perceptions of other cultures. I often crack up while watching reruns of shows like Bonanza (while I eat lunch) … so often white actors play people of other races (with just bad makeup and back accents). I think, “Really … you couldn’t find a Chinese actress or a Native American actor for that role?”

  15. Ruth Pennebaker Avatar

    I’m one-quarter Indian (Chickasaw) and grew up with awful portrayals of Indians on TV and in movies. That’s why Smoke Signals was such a revelation to me, featuring Indians as real and complex human beings with a great sense of humor. “Oh, didn’t you know Indians were famous for their humor?” one of my cousins asked me later. No, I had no idea.

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      Now I’m wondering if the Natives in ‘Northern Exposure’ were portrayed accurately. They always seemed really funny – in a low-key, understated way.

  16. Vera Marie Badertscher Avatar

    Roxanne: I’m with you. I get really irritated with that, but it is changing–not entirely, but partly.
    Alexandra: I wonder if your dad expected Indians to come riding out of the hills wearing breech cloths?
    This discussion reminds me of the sometimes subtle, sometimes not at all portrayal of Germans and Japanese during WWII. Not that I was there–just watch the reruns. Even the cartoons were full of propaganda.

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      If you guys haven’t seen Clint Eastwood’s ‘Letters From Iwo Jima,’ check it out. It’s an interesting, thoughtful film about that part of the war as told from the perspective of the Japanese who fought it. I wasn’t around then, but it seems like Eastwood really got it right and portrayed the Japanese accurately. His ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ told the same story from the U.S. perspective. Both excellent films.

  17. Kris Avatar

    I’ve got a problem with Hollywood’s portrayal of native cultures, so this was interesting. Smoke signals sounds like a movie to add to my queue.

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      Ok, I’m totally finding ‘Smoke Signals’ and writing a review of it! I can’t believe I’d never heard of this movie until this thread. Good grief.

      1. Kerry Avatar

        be sure to listen to the soundtrack too. don’t have the cd right to hand, but remember reviewing it when the film came out.

  18. MyKidsEatSquid Avatar

    Interesting discussion I was just watching McClintock last night and to see the Indians portrayed in that film, well it just seemed so out-of-date, granted there were plenty of other dynamics in the film that seemed outdated too (still like the movie, tho)

  19. Vera Marie Badertscher Avatar

    Ruth: I just wrote another guest post about the Navajo guides at Canyon de Chelly. They have a great sense of humor, but it is so deadpan, that they fool a lot of the tourists, who solemnly believe everything they are told.
    MKES: When I started this article, I just assumed that all older movies had outdated notions of Indians, so my brother’s statements about Johh Ford and others caught me by surprise. In other words, just because the movie is OLD doesn’t mean it HAD to be insensitive.

  20. Rocelle Avatar

    On this very subject, a Canadian docu that also showed on PBS Independent Lens and recently won a Peabody Award:
    And I know this thread is about Hollywood, but don’t forget indie documentaries. During the just-ended Arizona International Film Festival, we showed three that looked at aspects of present-day Native American life. One filmmaker was Dine, another was Irish and another Asian American. But all three played to reasonable audience numbers and at least one request for encore showings. The films were NOKOTA HEART (about a white guy trying to keep alive the bloodline of Sitting Bull’s horses), COLUMBUS DAY LEGACY (the racial clash over a seemingly innocuous parade) and RUN TO THE EAST. The last one is particularly inspiring, looking at three Native American high schoolers running track to get college scholarships. It’s doing well at festivals, and just won an Independent Spirit Award.

  21. Susan Avatar

    Vera, love how you tied in movies and the topic of your book. In general, it seems like a lot of movies portray stereotypes of Native Americans, rather than striving for historical accuracy. Did you ever watch Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman? I loved that TV show when it aired in the nineties and I recently watched some of the episodes I’d missed on Netflix. I’d be interested in your thoughts on the portrayal on Native Americans on Dr. Quinn.

  22. Vera Marie Badertscher Avatar

    Susan. Can’t answer off the top of my head. I don’t remember much about it. I guess I’ll net to Netflix it before I can answer you.
    Anybody else have opinions on that particular questions?


  23. Sheryl Avatar

    This was so interesting to read, Vera and Jane. Like the others, Smoke Signals is something I am so curious about and will check out, as is Miss Navajo.

  24. Henry Lu Avatar

    Thanks Rocelle for mentioning our film.
    It was very important for us to let the subjects in our film (navajo and zia pueblo Native Americans) tell their own story without any narration or commentary on their lives. We really wanted to give our audience an honest depiction of what it’s like to be a Native American high school senior right now. For those that don’t know our story please go to, look at the trailer, our journey and pass this great conversation going. Thanks for the great topic discussion!

    1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

      Thanks for the note, Henry! If you have any screener copies available, I’d love to review it: Jane Boursaw, 12875 Bluff Rd., Traverse City, MI 49686.

  25. Gail Albert Avatar
    Gail Albert

    We all see the West through the eyes of directors like Ford and his cameramen as well as through the visions of fine artists like Quincy Tahoma and Frederick Remington. Thanks Rocelle for mentioning our film. I think it really speaks to the fact that people DO believe what they see on screen, whether it’s accurate or not.

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