Reel Injun: How Filmmakers See Native Americans in 4000 Films

Reel Injun

When I originally wrote about the treatment of American Indians in film, I had not seen the documentary, “Reel Injun.” After viewing it, I invited Bill Kaser, who contributed to the earlier article, to join me in discussing it here.

We wanted readers of Reel Life With Jane to get a look at how some North American filmmakers (and non-Indian filmmakers) view the treatment of “Injuns” on screen and also encourage more discussion.

Vera says: In the documentary “Reel Injun,” Neil Diamond, a Cree, shows clips of some of the 4,000 films that focus on the indigenous people of North America. He also interviews a wide range of directors, actors and critics, both Indian and non-Indian. Examples include filmmakers Jim Jarmusch (“Dead Man”), Clint Eastwood,  and Chris Eyre (“Smoke Signals”), and Native actors Graham Greene (“Dances With Wolves,” “Thunderheart”) and Adam Beach (“Smoke Signals,” Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of our Fathers“).

I thought it was rather interesting that the documentary “Reel Injun” was a Canadian creation rather than an American film. It has always seemed to me that the Canadian understanding of native people is much deeper and more sensitive than the American view. I am not sure why that is, but suspect, at least in part, that it’s due to the fact that Canada’s population is spread over vast tracts of land, and it was not necessary to decimate the native population in order to “make room” for the European settlers.

Bill says: In the plus column for “Reel Injun” (2009) is its examination of how American Indians often bought into the same myths and misinterpretations as did many whites who grew up seeing films that either denigrated “native Americans” as “red savages” or elevated them to wise, noble, and tragic children of nature.

Another plus is how the documentary reviews decadal shifts in these film portrayals. It may surprise some viewers to learn that in the first couple of decades in the last century, Indians were more often than not portrayed as noble victims of the “settling” of the West.

Because I like to watch good horsemanship, I rate as another plus the rare training scenes with Crow stuntman Rob Rondeaux. Rondeaux gives his take on the Indians’ response to the technology and spirit of the horse, and avoids sounding like some of the film’s wordy propagandists (John Trudell, for instance).

Reel Injun discusses The Fast RunnerVera: One of my own favorite scenes takes place in the far north of Canada with  contemporary Indian film maker Zacharias Kunuk (“The Fast Runner”), who shares a kind of life that most of us cannot imagine.

But I learned the most from the interviews with Sacheen Littlefeather, the model who achieved fame in 1973 when she stood in for Marlon Brando in refusing his Oscar for “The Godfather” as a show of solidarity with American Indians.

At the time, I thought it was a bunch of grandstanding by Brando, but I have a greater sympathy for his gesture now. The bottom line is it doesn’t matter what I thought about the American Indian Movement — what matters is that the protests of the time injected American Indians with a new pride and self-determination.

Reel Injun's Sacheen Little Feather
Sacheen Little Feather representing Marlon Brando at the Oscars

Plus, it was fascinating to learn the history of Littlefeather, who is definitely not just another pretty face in a buckskin dress — but rather a protestor active in the occupation of Alcatraz after the siege at Wounded Knee. This documentary refreshed my memory of those key moments in changes in American Indian self image.

Bill: Another positive of the documentary is its ultimate condemnation of the ahistorical nonsense of “Dances with Wolves” (1990), yet another film focusing on a white hero walking tall against a background of the useful tribesmen playing saintly cardboard icons.

And the documentary’s salute to “Smoke Signals” (1998) is certainly justified. It’s praiseworthy for the Indian actors’ convincing and varied performances and for daring to show serio-comic elements of current reservation life, while avoiding projecting the clichéd humorless “children of nature” seen in so many of white-made films.

Reel Injun discusses John Ford
John Ford’s “The Searchers” | Warner Bros.

In the negative column, there is the poorly researched, blanket condemnation of John Ford and his films. Ford is criticized in particular for “The Searchers” (1956) and its portrayal of the Indian fighter (John Wayne).

In fact, Ford often showed sympathy for the plight of the Indians, even in his famous Indian/cavalry trilogy, and he is clearly condemning Wayne’s character Ethan in “The Searchers” as a pathologically obsessed racist. Ford’s “Cheyenne Autumn” (1964) goes further, serving as a propaganda vehicle for the abused Cheyenne.

Reel Injuns discusses John Ford Films like Cheyenne Autumn
A scene from John Ford’s film “Cheyenne Autumn” | Warner Bros.

Vera: Oh yeah? Why are those Cheyennes in Monument Valley — Navajo territory? While it is true that Ford brought tourists swarming to Monument Valley and that he provided some employment for Navajos,  his understanding of American Indians is skin deep. In this case, “skin deep” seems an apt metaphor, since his movies lump all American Indians into one amorphous group, united only by the fact that they are native to the American continent and have dark skin. In fact, they are separate nations with separate cultures, physical characteristics, dress and customs.

The dressing of Navajo Indian extras in the showy headdresses of Plains Indians is only the most obvious clue that nobody making the Ford films particularly cared to learn about the real culture of the individual tribes who are different as non-Indians who hail from Iceland are from those who come from southern Spain.

Bill: By the end of this documentary, it becomes obvious that the filmmakers have simply taken on too broad a topic to handle coherently in an hour-and-a-half documentary. So varied were the films made around and about Indians, so numerous and subtle were differences among the tribes of America, and so complex were the individual Indian’s relations with the whites, that they can’t be summed up well in such a relatively short film (nor even in an 8-part PC public TV series like Ken Burns’ “The West [1996]).

Vera: I certainly have to agree with this conclusion — 100 years of 4000 films cannot be adequately combined in one film. We need more, and in four years since the film was made, we are still waiting for someone to take up the challenge.

And I should add, that while this is a serious discussion — the film is full of laugh out loud moments — what passes for Indian language; Burt Reynolds, Rock Hudson, Sylvester Stallone as Indians; cultural misunderstandings galore. Watch it for entertainment value as well as the thought-provoking discussion.

Download “Reel Injun” here. Other viewing options:

Vera Marie Badertscher and Bill Kaser are regular contributors to Reel Life With Jane. Read Vera’s stories here and Bill’s stories here


5 responses to “Reel Injun: How Filmmakers See Native Americans in 4000 Films”

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  3. Helen F Abshire Avatar
    Helen F Abshire

    I would like information on how to audition for native american movies.I do have some experience and would like to be in more movies.I am a light skinned Choctaw-Atakapa Ishak woman.I am smart,outgoing,can become the person I want to be and would do a great job.Please send information to me and allow me to make my dream continue to come true.Tol yil wi pen.wi lem konish.

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