Since the early days of cinema, Native Americans have been strongly associated with Westerns. The urtext, John Ford’s trope-establishing Stagecoach, presented them as wild warriors connected to the land – another obstacle for "civilised" white people to overcome on the frontier. But over time, Hollywood has gradually, if reluctantly, come closer to presenting “Injuns” less as a faceless horde and more as actual human beings belonging to specific tribes, with complex personalities beyond stoic or bloodthirsty.
Some heroism and humanity
Some of the very first movies depicted Native Americans. And while none of them championed Indigenous culture, these portrayals sometimes featured more complexity than what would come in later films. The Silent Enemy presented Native Americans as heroes battling against the eternal threat of starvation. Pre-Depression white audiences were fascinated by the Indigenous peoples of America – the actual Wild West was still within living memory, after all – and flocked to see footage of them performing ceremonies or dances for the newly invented cameras (including Thomas Edison’s offering).
On top of that, the very first feature film made in Hollywood was Cecil B DeMille’s The Squaw Man, which featured a fatal romance between a Brit and an Ute woman, played by Native American Lillian St Cyr (or Red Wing). Of course, "squaw" is a highly offensive term for a Native American woman but this kind of interracial romance was, at the time, considered groundbreaking.
Villains, redface and the "noble savage"
As mentioned above, Stagecoach ushered in the era of Indians as the villanous counterpoint to cowboys, peppering brave pioneers with deadly accurate arrows. Ojibwe critic Jesse Wente has called it “the most damaging movie for native people in history”. For decades, Native Americans would become a necessary addition to almost every story set in the Wild West, albeit generally played by white actors in redface.
There’s a laundry list of big names who played "noble savages" - wild natives uncorrupted by civilisation - across from lantern-jawed cowboys: Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Anthony Quinn, Burt Reynolds and Elvis Presley, for starters. It was also in this era that the standard “look” was established – over-exaggerated feathered headdress, beads, warpaint, tepees – stereotypes based on a Hollywood interpretation of Plains Indians.
In response to real-world societal shifts, Native Americans moved from faceless evil to nuanced neutrality from the 1970s onward. They were more downtrodden than villainous, and their pre-Columbian lives were portrayed as Arcadian and pure, if not literally magical. From Sacheen Littlefeather’s Oscar speech to John Trudell and the Indians of All Tribes’ occupation of Alcatraz to the Wounded Knee battle between the American Indian Movement and the FBI – all these things increased the visibility of modern-day Native Americans and their ongoing struggles in a way that made the traditional cinematic depictions seem tasteless at best.
On-screen, Chief Dan George was turning in an Oscar-nominated performance in Little Big Man and bringing a rare levity to the role of an old Cherokee in Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales. Slowly, our conception of who Native Americans could be was changing.
It’s far from flawless, but 1990’s Dances With Wolves ushered in a whole new era when it came to presenting Native American culture on film. Russell Means may have (rightly) fumed about his Lakota people – the only army to defeat the US military on US soil – being “taught to fight by a white man”. And John Trudell might have been spot-on when he said, “It’s a story about a white guy – Indians are just the T&A.” But for a big Hollywood film, the attempts at authenticity in costumes and language represented a long overdue step towards respect.
From there, we got movies like Last of the Mohicans, Legends of the Fall and Dead Man, helping Hollywood move beyond headbands and moccasins. Of course, there was still Pocahontas to promulgate historical untruths about how Native Americans welcomed and/or wed British invaders for a new generation...
Even in the 21st century, we are in a far from ideal place.
Can you think of a Native American character in Deadwood that wasn’t a head in a box?
Can you believe Johnny Depp was considered the best option to play Tonto in a Lone Ranger remake?
Can you believe The Ridiculous Six contained a character named Never Wears Bra?
Can you remember a single line of dialogue delivered by a Native American host in the Westworld series?
Indigenous filmmakers are telling their own stories on film, of course, but Westerns aren’t at the top of their favourite genres in which to work. As Chris Eyre, director of Smoke Signals, says, “We’re not asking to be noble or righteous or good all the time... We’re asking to be human.”
Watch Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian at SBS On Demand:
Robert Redford's The West airs Sundays at 8:30pm on SBS. Watch the latest episode at SBS On Demand: