Native Faces and the Silver Screen

by Nathan Stephany

By Ray Ramsey - Self, from material in my possession., Public Domain,

When making a list of the greatest movies of all time, someone is inevitably going to bring up “The Searchers”. A classic western of the 50’s starring John Wayne in one of his most famous roles, it’s beloved by members of the film industry, as well as the generations of people who caught it in theatres or on cable in the years since. It’s described as a classic for a reason, a classic movie and a classic western. It’s also considered a problematic movie that borders on racist at times and villainizes an entire culture of Native Americans in the old west.

None of this is meant as slander or attack on the movie, which is exceptionally well made and performed. Those involved with it have even said the problematic elements came from history, which was racist and unkind to the Native American people. Their defense is ultimately meant to mean they did not wish to attack Native American people and only meant to portray the west as it was, while still fitting their story.

The problems this narrative creates is that this is the only narrative that was getting shown for a massive period of time in Hollywood: Native Americans as villains.

Even worse, these Native American villains weren’t even betrayed by Native American actors, also managing to take away work from them, doubling down on the insult.

Hollywood and the media at large have had a massive problem with Native Americans. This isn’t surprising or revelatory; most of the country and all its branches have had problems with Native Americans. Why should Hollywood be any different?

It’d be nice to say that in the modern day, things have changed. We consider ourselves a much more progressive society, especially Hollywood which has taken strides in recent years to fix its problems with portrayals of other cultures and to include diverse voices in their storytelling. Progress has been made there. And yet, progress still needs to be made further.

Hollywood loves stereotypes and there’s a good reason for that: why challenge what everyone knows?

Native Americans have been told to live only in that stereotype for years when they actually do get shown in film. You know the one: buckskin, feathers, tee pees. The problem here comes when this is all they are allowed to be on screen.

It goes past the physicality. Native Americans are not main characters in movies or television. When they are, there is conveniently a white actor or actress who is within the culture who can play the protagonist themselves; think “Last of the Mohicans” or “Dances With Wolves”. When they are portrayed, it’s almost always in the past, a period western, and they are not the villain, then an interesting flavor of the west, something meant to portray period accuracy and attitudes but not tied to their existence in the modern day. They are still here. They are not only the past.

Native American actors are working. Simply that act of getting work in an industry that does not feel inclined to acknowledge them is progress. Names like Gil Birmingham, Wes Studi, Zahn McClarnon, and more have starred in critically acclaimed projects of the last few years, works like Best Picture nominee “Hell or High Water” or the acclaimed tv series “Fargo”.

By having their faces on the screen, that is a win. But there is the hope that someday they won’t be the only Native American face in their project; they can be joined by many more.

For more information:

Nathan Stephany is the Editor for Simplex Stories. Originally from Huxley, IA he has four years of experience in videography, directing, news reporting and scriptwriting.

17 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All