Hollywood’s Native Americans
August 23, 2002
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This summer's major studio release of the film Windtalkers told a tale inspired by a real story of World War II's Navajo Indian Code-Talkers whose native language was employed as a code that the Japanese never did crack. Now Windtalkers' place in the history of Hollywood's depictions of Native Americans is being weighed against other independent releases in which Indians tell their own stories. OTM's Paul Ingles reports. [SOUNDTRACK FROM FILM WINDTALKERS PLAYS]
ADAM BEACH AS PVT. BEN YAHZEE: Listen, Enders. I'm a Code-Talker. It takes me 2 and a half minutes to do what used to take an hour.
NICHOLAS CAGE AS SGT. JOE ENDERS: Remind me to tell me [sic] when you got bullets flying over your head.
PAUL INGLES: In Windtalkers, Nicholas Cage's character Sgt. Joe Enders struggles with his secret orders to kill Navajo Code-Talker Pvt. Ben Yahzee played by Adam Beach if it appears Yahzee could be captured by the Japanese. Historians say in reality such orders were never given, and only a few bodyguards were assigned to code-talkers to protect the Indians from being mistaken for the enemy by their own troops. Most film critics were dismayed with this fictional plot device that places another white man in front with an Indian on his hip. This of course wasn't the first time that's happened in the movies. [SOUNDTRACK/THE LONE RANGER & TONTO PLAYS]
THE LONE RANGER: [MUSIC UNDER] [SHOUTING] Hi-yo Silver! [HORSE, SILVER, NEIGHS]
DREW LACAPA: I wonder if he ever fell off, trying to act all bad... Whoa! [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]
PAUL INGLES: While a clip from The Lone Ranger & Tonto plays on the screen above them, comedian Drew Lacapa and filmmaker Chris Eyre, both Native Americans, provide a running commentary from a couch on stage, an audience packed into this warehouse theater in Santa Fe, New Mexico is witnessing a work in progress called The Talking Couch.
CHRIS EYRE: Come on, Tonto. We'll stay at that KOA we love so much. [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]
PAUL INGLES: Not unlike Cable TV's Mystery Science Theater, Lacapa and Eyre lampoon a series of film clips typical of how Hollywood has stereotyped American Indians as either faithful sidekick to the white man, wild savage threatening the white man or noble spiritual being inspiring the white man. This performance was part of last week's second annual Native Cinema Showcase that in part considered the history of Native American portrayals on the big screen.
JASON SILVERMAN: I think they were largely caricatures that replicated themselves.
PAUL INGLES: Jason Silverman is the showcase director who along with Eyre and Lacapa created this Talking Couch event.
JASON SILVERMAN: Someone saw one western and thought that's how Native Americans behaved and so they made another western where they similarly. And all of this was fed by pulp fiction in, you know, through the late 19th Century too, so there's this whole continuum of how we envisioned the west or re-imagined the west, and Native Americans have been central to that -- figures in it -- but not central in terms of creating it.
DUSTIN HOFFMAN AS LITTLE BIG MAN: But why do you want to die, grandfather?
CHIEF DAN GEORGE AS GRANDFATHER: Because there's no other way to deal with the white man, my son.
PAUL INGLES: When 1970's Little Big man comes on the screen at the end of the Talking Couch event, LaCapa and Eyre leave the stage. There's nothing for them to joke about in this sympathetic, sensitive portrayal of Indians by director Arthur Penn. It stars Dustin Hoffman as a white frontier boy adopted by the Cheyenne, referred to throughout the film as "the human beings." The film depicts the advance of white civilization ravaging a compassionate native culture personified by actor Chief Dan George.
CHIEF DAN GEORGE AS GRANDFATHER: Whatever else you can say about them, it must be admitted, you cannot get rid of 'em. There is an endless supply of white men. But there always has been a limited number of human beings. We won today. We won't win tomorrow.
PAUL INGLES: Writing in a special edition of the journal Film & History in 1993, a host of scholars noted several films that moved away from hurtful portrayals of Native Americans, from the 1950 Broken Arrow starring Jimmy Stewart to 1990's Dances with Wolves with Kevin Costner, the cited films replaced the "savage" stereotype with the "noble redman" stereotype. All still are written and produced by whites, leading those scholars to all hope for a future when Native American writers and directors would tell their own stories, get Indians out of just westerns and into today's world. In the 10 years since, it's started to happen.
CHRIS EYRE: The stories I feel passionate about bringing to the screen are stories about contemporary Native America and they aren't using Indians as vehicles for politics or spirituality.
PAUL INGLES: Cheyenne-Arapaho filmmaker Chris Eyre who in recent years doesn't seem to have spent much time on any couch. His 1998 feature, Smoke Signals, that won awards at Sundance is about two Coeur D'Alene Indians who take a road trip to retrieve the ashes of one character's father. [SOUNDTRACK FROM THE FILM SMOKE SIGNALS PLAYS]
ADAM BEACH: Don't you even know how to be a real Indian?
EVAN ADAMS: I guess not.
ADAM BEACH: You gotta look like a warrior. You gotta look like you just came back from killing a buffalo.
EVAN ADAMS: But our tribe never hunted buffalo! We were fishermen!
ADAM BEACH: What?! You want to look like you just came back from catching a fish?! This ain't Dances with Salmon you know!
PAUL INGLES: From a story by Native American writer Sherman Alexie and with a Native cast, Smoke Signals has done about 6 million dollars worth of business since its release -- not huge when compared with blockbusters, but a successful landmark in a burgeoning Native filmmaking movement. At the Santa Fe Showcase, filmgoers could see many Native American-driven films including Chris Eyre's latest, Skins, set to open nationally this fall; the story of brothers on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Eric Schweig plays a tribal policeman. Graham Greene plays his older brother, an alcoholic. [SOUNDTRACK FROM SKINS PLAYS]
ERIC SCHWEIG: Give us the ball Mo.
GRAHAM GREENE: Okay. Make me.
ERIC SCHWEIG: Quit screwing around, Mogie.
GRAHAM GREENE: Yeah, how come you always gotta act like such a big man every time your friends are around? Showing off is not a Lakota virtue.
PAUL INGLES: Chris Eyre is clearly leading a creative surge among Native filmmakers, but getting wide distribution to theaters is another challenge all thing.
CHRIS EYRE: It's either American audiences don't really care about contemporary Native American movies or the movies aren't that good. I don't know which it is. You can't generalize. You know? Some of the movies are great and don't have distributors; some of the movies I don't think are very good and don't deserve to have distributors.
PAUL INGLES: One of this year's biggest Native film surprises seems to have the quality, a distributor and a buzz that's getting it more screens every week including a run here in Santa Fe. It's 3 hours long, shot on digital video in the Canadian Arctic by a first time director with a cast and crew made up almost entirely of Inuit Indians speaking only their native tongue. [CLIP FROM THE FILM THE FAST RUNNER PLAYS] [DIALOGUE BETWEEN A MAN & A WOMAN IN INUIT]
PAUL INGLES: It's The Fast Runner, an epic tale of an ancient native community's struggle with an evil spell by Inuit director Zac Kanuk. It's won international awards and has been universally praised. Elizabeth Weatherford who heads the film and video division of the Smithsonian Institute's Museum of the American Indian points out that The Fast Runner didn't just come out of the frozen north by itself.
ELIZABETH WEATHERFORD: It's made possible in a way because in Canada there have been some dedications, specific dedication of funds to indigenous or, or Native American production. There is a television system in Canada that it has a broadcast studio, a television studio that's run by aboriginals, Aboriginal Public Television. So the sense of where you can get support to continue is very serious.
PAUL INGLES: At a panel discussion during the Santa Fe Showcase, the idea of tapping Indian gaming tribes for film funds came up, and while director Chris Eyre said he wouldn't mind getting a half million dollars from an indian casino for a film, others cautioned that issues like creative control, profitability, cooperation among tribes and lack of good scripts could still bog things down out on the reservation, just like they do inside Hollywood. For On the Media, I'm Paul Ingles in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, the consequences of journalism, three case studies -- the good, the bad and--the ugly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from NPR.