Cowboys and Indians: Native Americans and cinema

Cheyenne Autumn Native AmericanFor most of my youth, films featuring Red Indians (as we called them back then) followed a simple formula. The Indians were all bad, and attacked white settlers, wagon trains, and any soldiers sent out to discipline them. They all wore warpaint, had feathered headgear, and generally used weapons like tomahawks, and bows and arrows. They were invariably shown to be either strong and cruel, or sneaky and cowardly, with no tolerance for alcohol. This tendency to drunkenness seems to be a nod to the idea that they were not as sophisticated as their white opponents, and being unable to hold their liquor was a sure sign of this. Show them a mirror, and they would scream like frightened children, and they communicated over vast distances, with smoke signals, or drums. They could be easily bought off, with cheap trinkets, blankets, or the much-prized rifles. They even sold Manhattan (supposedly) for a few beads. 

Despite their poor treatment on celluloid, I became interested in their history, and the many Indian Wars that were fought over decades. Just by watching films, I could pick up the tribal structure, the different regional clans, and soon learned many names, both of the tribes, and their leaders. Even today, without resorting to Google, I can easily recall a substantial list.

There were Apaches, Sioux, Arapaho, Mohawk, Kiowa, Huron, Iroquois, Cheyenne, Seminole, Nez Perce, Comanches, and Flatheads. (And many more, no doubt) Some were names in their own language, others were names given to them by the settlers. Whatever their tribe, location, or demeanour, they were simple cannon-fodder for the string of B-movie companies that churned out westerns, as well as the big studio productions, from the likes of John Ford. They always stood in the way of progress.They stopped railroads, burned farms, and ambushed stagecoaches. They never wanted to stay on the reservations allotted to them, and kept running off; to make war, destroy property, steal horses, and get drunk. They had no idea how to be farmers, and wanted to roam their lands, living like nomads. For the early film-makers, the solution was simple. Find them, trap them, and kill all of them, as they rode around in circles, making strange noises.

By 1964, sensibilities were beginning to change. A new Liberalism was sweeping America, and the Civil Rights movement was in full swing. Kennedy had been assassinated, and U.S. troops were fighting in South East Asia, in a conflict not far removed from the one a century earlier, in their conquest of the peoples now being called ‘Native Americans’.

Soldier Blue Native AmericanThat year, John Ford produced and directed the film Cheyenne Autumn. This told a different story, one of the plight of badly treated Native Americans. Broken promises, corrupt Indian Agents, and an indifferent government, lead hundreds of proud Cheyenne Indians to quit the reservation they have been forced to live on, to seek a return to the hunting grounds of their forefathers. They begin an arduous trek, pursued by a reluctant Army officer, played by Richard Widmark. This was a big-budget Warner Brothers film, with a star cast. As well as Widmark, there was Edward G. Robinson, Karl Malden, James Stewart, and Carrol Baker. Leading Native American roles were played by Ricardo Montalban, and Gilbert Roland, and real Native Americans were used, as the rest of the tribe. Not unsurprisingly, a film showing the US government swindling the natives, and those same natives as dignified, misunderstood people, did not fare too well at the box office, and it was a loss-maker.

Fast forward to 1970, and we have seen the full horrors of Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as tragic ethnic conflict all over Africa. The flower power generation is well-established, and younger talent is beginning to get a foothold in Hollywood. The decade is ripe for recrimination, chest-baring, and making amends. Not one, but three sympathetic films surface that year, and all are box office hits. Soldier Blue, starring Peter Strauss and Candice Bergen, tells the (based on truth) story of the massacre of around 150 Cheyenne people, by a force of hundreds of militia, at Sand Creek, in 1864. Using very violent scenes, unusual at the time, it is the Cavalry who are shown as the heartless aggressors. Not only do they kill all the male warriors, they then ride into the camp, killing the women and children, as well as raping some of them too.

Little Big Man Native AmericanThis new slant on things proved to be immensely popular, with both film-makers and audiences alike.The same year, Dustin Hoffman starred in Little Big Man, which introduced comedy into the mix, and was directed by Arthur Penn. Told in flashback, by Jack Crabb, a character said to be over 120 years old (Hoffman), this film again gives a sympathetic view of Native Americans. Dignified and traditional people, with an ancient culture, and a rigid set of rules to live their lives by. Even the name of the tribe, as translated by Crabb, ‘The Human Beings’, suggests a spirituality that was never previously ascribed to them. Once again, the cavalry are shown as the bad guys, attacking without warning, and killing everyone within reach.

Set many years earlier, in 1825, A Man Called Horse, starring Richard Harris, and directed by Elliot Siverstein, was also released that year. This film aims to get deep under the skin of the Native American culture, and to see it from the inside. Harris plays an English Aristocrat, taken captive by the Sioux. At first, he is treated like a slave, with no more rights than the horse of the title. He starts to become interested in the ways of the tribe, and falls in love with one of the women. To be able to marry, he undergoes the painful initiation rites of a warrior, eventually turning his back on his ‘civilised’ former life, and becoming the tribe’s leader. The ultimate revelation: given the choice, the white man would sooner be one of them.

By 1990, it was well-known, and widely accepted, that the Native Americans had indeed had a bad deal. Their traditional lands were slowly being returned to them, and they were starting to be able to open casinos, on land exempt from Federal Laws. This was reflected in the epic production Dances With Wolves, produced and directed by Kevin Costner, who also starred in the lead role, of cavalry officer John Dunbar. Sent to a remote outpost, he lives a life similar to that of Robinson Crusoe, with only wolves for company. This film has it all, with the symbolism flowing like a river. The vast herds of Buffalo, soon to disappear with the arrival of the white settlers; the old ways of the local tribes, under threat from other clans, and the same white men. Dunbar befriends a wolf, who like one of his friends in the Indian camp, is also killed by white soldiers. Dunbar falls for a female white captive, but she is happy to remain with the tribe that she has become part of. When Dunbar eventually departs, she reluctantly goes with him, leaving the rest of the tribe to their ultimate fate.

No wagon trains, no whooping circles of horsemen, and definitely not a peace-pipe in sight. The Cowboy and Indian film had finally grown up.

I retired, almost two years ago, then aged 60, and moved from a busy life and work in Central London, to Beetley, in rural Norfolk. After 22 years as an Emergency Medical Technician in the London Ambulance Service, followed by 11 years working for the Metropolitan Police in Control Rooms, it is going to take some adjustment to being retired, and not working shifts. My interests include photography, local and global history, and cinema and film. I have yet to find a home for my extensive DVD collection but look forward to revisiting many favourites, and discovering new ones.

11 thoughts on “Cowboys and Indians: Native Americans and cinema

  1. Pete, thank you very much for this. To recognize both the false way that Native Americans and then recognize great works of art that show the varied peoples in the an accurate light was very good of you sir.

  2. I’m glad to see that the piece ended with Dances with Wolves. I watched that movie for the first time not too long ago, and your assessment of it is spot-on. It’s a remarkable film as it neither denounces nor fetichizes Native Americans, though I’m sure some would argue differently.

    • Thanks LV. I agree that the viewer is left to make their own conclusions about the Native Americans in ‘Dances With Wolves’, and that is probably what makes it such a thought-provoking film.
      Regards from England, Pete.

  3. Yes, Native Americans were given the shaft by our government, treated more like animals than ” human beings”. I have seen the movies you mentioned, but even before that, had read how the U.S. Government issued smallpox-infected blankets to Indians, knowing they had no immunity whatsoever to the disease. I’d call that attempted genocide.
    But I have also pondered how Indians would have fared if some other country had confiscated their lands. Better?Worse? Who knows? All I know is that occupation was bound to happen.
    Yes, a lot of our perceptions regarding Native Americans have changed down through the years, and I am proud to say–and always have been–that I am part Cherokee.

    • Thanks for your comment WK. It was nice to have someone with a family connection see this. There are lots of political issues around this subject, and I am sure you know a lot more about those that I do. This article was merely about the Hollywood treatment of those people, over the decades.
      Best wishes from England, Pete.

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