As I worked on constructing this website, I found myself drawn into issues I had never intended to negotiate. I really meant to deliver an entertaining montage of Hollywood movies that would reflect what is commonly known of the historical foundations of the human race. But as I began in Africa and moved to Australia, then to the South Pacific, I found that each place had a story to tell about how its indigenous population had been decimated by European colonizers. These were the stories that wanted to be told and they laid like awakening reptiles under the surface of most of the movies I collected in my archives. They were, it could be said, the under-stories.
Starting my North America movie search in the northernmost corners of the continent, I began to work my way down the trails first tamped by the Asiatic nomads that populated the two Americas thousands of years ago. To my amazement, I found some films that captured intimations of their ancient world. The most recent of them was called The Fast Runner: Atanarjuat (2002) – see Movies of Indigenous North America. Later, I found a documentary film, called Reel Injuns, that built on the success of Atanarjuat to follow the paths of Indian cinematic identity all the way to Los Angeles. It is a Canadian movie and like many of its kind, it likes to look down on the United States on the one hand and marvel at its achievements on the other. I feel I can say this because I am a halfbreed: half Canadian and half American with pride in both sides.
Reel Injun (2009) – Documentary
This Canadian documentary was produced in the wake of The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) (2002). It begins at an isolated reservation in the Arctic and follows the director, Neil Diamond, on his vision quest to Hollywood in search of the truth of Indian identity. He repeats the common perception stating that most of the world still thinks of Indians wearing feathers and war paint. Along the way he stops his beat-up old “rez car” at iconic spots, including the Black Hills, site of Little Bighorn and the Pine Ridge Reservation, forever associated with the Wounded Knee Massacre. This was the territory of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Clips from the movie, They Died With Their Boots On (1941), show Anthony Quinn as Crazy Horse killing General Custer (Errol Flynn). This is invented history. Today tourists come to this place in South Dakota to see the huge statue of Crazy Horse, still in progress. Pine Ridge is the poorest Indian reservation in America. Brief scenes from Into the West (2005), a Spielberg produced television miniseries, are shown. There are some powerful representations of the massacre at Wounded Knee. The episode from Reel Injun that has stayed in my mind more than any other is the one where Diamond visits an elementary school classroom on an Indian reservation where the teacher is showing the massacre scenes from Little Big Man on a TV screen. The camera dwells on the faces of the children as they watch the slaughter of their recent ancestors in their peaceful encampment. To be fair, no mention is made of Indian slaughter of white settlers.
A stop at Monument Valley occasions a discussion of John Ford films. Stagecoach (1939), says a commentator, is the iconic American Western, and most damaging to the Indians. Civilization is encapsulated in the small bouncing coach, like a ship on dry land, while the forces of barbarism rage around it. There are also clips from Ford’s The Searchers and Cheyenne Autumn. In the first, there is a scene where John Wayne shoots the eyes out of an unearthed Indian corpse, and the second shows some of Ford’s backhanded efforts to atone with the Indians that he had maligned for most of his career. In contrast, The Silent Enemy (1930) is presented as a rare example of authenticity in the depiction of Indian life. The title refers to starvation. Chief Long Lance, who was featured in the film, later committed suicide when it was revealed that he was tri-racial (part black).
Female stereotyping of Indian maidens focuses on Pocahontas, using footage from Captain John Smith and Pocahontas (1953), and the Disney animation. Conversely, there are scenes from Geronimo (1962) with Chuck Connors. Signs of Indian resistance are shown in A Distant Trumpet (1964), which features obscene Indian dialogue unbeknownst to the filmmakers. This is a source of Indian hilarity. Indeed, filmmaker Diamond makes most of his points through almost painless snakebites of humor.
This movie changed my thinking and made me aware of misconceptions that I brought to this project of reconstructing the history of the world in movie clips. It also gave me a feeling of solidarity with all the other moviegoers who find their search for entertainment disrupted by lightning bolts of reality. Like so many others, I felt I understood John Ford as the master storyteller of the American West. It never registered with me, even though I had seen his landmark movies in my youth, that he would have John Wayne shoot the eyes from the corpse of an Indian man that he had never met. The trailer for the movie features a surprising report on Iron Eyes Cody, famous as the Indian with the tear in his eye. The voiceover pronounces his name, “I-ron-ize.” I liked the irony.
Most of the movies mentioned above are discussed in the posts listed under the four sub-destinations in North America. John Ford’s Classic Westerns can be found in Mounds & Plains. They Died With Their Boots On, along with other films on Custer and Wounded Knee, can be found in Movies: Final Battles on the American Plains. Other movies directly related to General Custer and the Wounded Knee Massacre can be found in Revisionist Westerns. The Silent Enemy can be found in Indigenous Canada. Movies about Pocahontas are in The East Coast Colonies.
Further research on indigenous Americans yielded other ambitious documentaries that covered the span of Indian life up to the 20th century. The best and most comprehensive of these, for my purposes, were 500 Nations, (1995) and We Shall Remain – PBS, April 2009. Adding a 21st-century view on this subject was TCM’s Race and Hollywood: Native American Images on Film, which premiered in 2010.
Each of these programs applies its own lens to the re-telling of the Native American experience. Almost always, the Indian point of view is overlooked. In broad brushstrokes, the story begins with the arrival of the Spanish ships and first contact. The trails of those who were pushed off their lands toward the southwest are dutifully followed. The last of the Indian wars is generally put at 1886 with the surrender of Geronimo in Arizona. The iconic epilog, almost always, is the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.
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