Under-representation of Native Americans in the Mainstream Media

by Franki Webb [frankiwebb AT live.com]


From the beginning of cinema, Native American culture has been represented stereotypically: Indians are portrayed as proud, independent and honourable peoples or as blood thirsty savages. Hollywood tends to ignore the historical perspective of Indian cultures and rarely offers a well-grounded understanding of Indian identity. Many Native Americans dislike this stereotypical representation that the commercial media has produced. Indian actors have had a choice of portraying unflattering portraits of the culture and history or abandoning their hopes of making a living through acting.

As Hollywood developed in the 1960s, there was a noticeable decline in Western genre films. Therefore the depiction of the stereotypical "Indian" was reduced. There were a few exceptions such as the film Windwalker (1980). Indian actors nearly vanished entirely from audience screens. If not for Kevin Costner's multi-Oscar winner Dances with Wolves (1990) they may have disappeared altogether. The film featured prominent Indian actors and provided audiences with a sensitive and developed Indian cultural representation. The Last of The Mohicans (1992) also renewed audiences interest in Native American culture. The film gave more of an understanding of Native customs, a feature which Dances with Wolves noticeably lacked.

While Indians were gathering more opportunities in Hollywood, they still faced limitations. There were many smaller roles for Indian actors, but few starring roles available. Tokala Clifford, an actor who acted performed in Dreamworks' Into the West (2006) recalls his own limitations when facing the Hollywood system: "It is difficult to be an actor regardless of who you are. But as far as facing adversity based on racial bias, I don't think there is any doubt that actors of a Native American ethnicity have faced an uphill struggle. We still face that uphill struggle."

In recent years there has been a rise of Native American producers and scriptwriters, working to offer audiences a new perspective on Indian culture . Now it's the job of Native Americans to challenge the racial stereotypes which Hollywood filmmakers have established. Chris Eyre achieved this with his 1998 film Smoke Signals, which was directed and written by and starred only Native Americans. The film tells the story of Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) who must come to terms with his feelings after the recent death of his alcoholic and abusive father Arthur. The film set a benchmark for its existence in western dominated Hollywood, as one of the few widely distributed films in which Indians have formed their own narrative.

Powwow Highway (1988), a film set in the 1970s, follows the journey of protagonist Philbert as he struggles to rediscover his Indian identity. The film performs the task of following the conventional Hollywood pattern and accepting non-Native views, making Powwow Highway equally enjoyable for all viewers.

Further changes in film developed in the 1990s. Disney produced the animation Pocahontas (1995) with the titular protagonist being voiced by Native Irene Bedard. The movie also served the purpose of demonstrating the unexplored savagery of the English as they prepared to attack the Powatan people.

However the same can not be said for television. Apart from a few TV movies, such as Stolen Women Captured Hearts (1997), presence of Indians on the small screen was considerably lacking. During this time, many pro-Native American groups campaigned against the use of white actors playing Indians, such as Trevor Howard as a Cheyenne and their fight against their enemy, The Crow, in Windwalker (1980). Such casting displayed how little assurance Hollywood had in Native talent.

This discrimination continues today, in 2009. When the highly popular Twilight series received the Hollywood treatment, Taylor Laurtner played the Native American character Jacob Black and his casting became steeped in controversy. Laurtner's presence seemed out of sync with Hollywood's recent pro-Indian stance. Laurtner claimed to have discovered his Indian ancestry after being cast. Actions like this show film producers' hesitance to hire an actor in spite of the character's ethnicity. Rick Mora, an actor who resides in California, who plays a Native American in Twilight disagrees with the casting of Taylor: "There is plenty of Native talent in town (Hollywood) to play that role. I have to be somewhat impartial because the same person who cast Taylor also put me in the film." The movie could be applauded for representing Natives as more than simply a dying race, instead appearing onscreen as people with their own unique personalities. For some younger viewers this may be their first contact with Native American culture, so acknowledging Indians as Americans on screen was an achievement on the part of Hollywood.

This summer sees the release of X-men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and the highly popular character Silver Fox makes her first appearance in the movie series. In the original comics, Silver Fox is described as a Native Canadian Black Foot. The character is to be played by Caucasian actress Lynn Collins, and the decision to cast a white actress has upset many fans of the comics. Hollywood producers have also decided to change her name to the more American-sounding Kayla Silverfox. Clearly, not only does Hollywood still find it difficult to include a Native American in a blockbuster, but they even refuse to leave the traditional ethnic names intact. Is there more to this insensitivity towards Native Americans on the part of Hollywood?

Films such as Smoke Signals showed audiences that Indian cultures have not entirely disappeared, but are still amongst the people of America. Film is a powerful informing medium and as most Native Americans have a restricted access to the Hollywood circuit, how will more films like Smoke Signals be produced? How will Native Americans be portrayed as film develops in the future? The existence of films such as Smoke Signals made the concept of Indians producing their own stories a reality. Will self-represenation by Native Americans within Hollywood eventually happen again?

Amanda J. Cobb, author of a chapter on Smoke Signals in the book Hollywood's Indian (University Press of Kentucky), believes it's only a matter of time before Smoke Signals' success is repeated. She says, "American Indians occupy a critical place in the Hollywood Imagination. They are part of America's original myth." This myth seems to be turning into a reality. The last decade has seen more Indian-themed films released with the involvement of authentic Indian actors than ever before. Films such as Terrence Malick's The New World (2005) and John Woo's Windtalkers (2003) are examples of Hollywood's changing attitudes towards stereotyped preconceptions of Indians. Whether modern Indian films like Powwow Highway and Smoke Signals are exceptional occurrences is still debatable. Only time will tell if actors of Native American ancestry will finally be given the starring roles to which they are rightfully entitled.