- The very phrase cowboys and Indians conjures up an automatic image of Native Americans being, first, “the Other” and, second, “the Enemy.” For most of the United States’ history, the wordIndian has carried negative connotations. Only recently has there been any significant effort in American culture to accept that whites deliberately planned and attempted genocide against Native Americans in the 19th century. Remember General Philip Sheridan’s reputed assertion: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” The blindness to or denial of this genocide dominates the way silent Westerns and classic Westerns have depicted Native Americans. The dawning of recognition affects the way Native Americans are depicted in alternative and postmodern Westerns. Indians as characters hardly exist in most 20th-century Westerns. Instead, they exist as a faceless group or as stereotypes. As a group, Indians nearly always represent the savage enemy. “We”—the assumed viewer as well as the normative characters in the film—exist in towns, civilization. “They” exist somewhere out there in the wilderness. We are civilized; we are normal. They are savage; they are the Other. We revile them as the red menace. They exist as something to be mastered and conquered. They exist as an impediment to Manifest Destiny and savage war is essential to purify the plains. Thus, they are not seen as human. For example, when the Apaches attack the stage in Stagecoach (1939), they are not humans attacking but savages. None has individuality. In fact, the Indians in the movie are subhuman. Real Native Americans would have simply shot the horses out from under the stagecoach and taken their time with the slaughter. Then again, real Native Americans rarely attacked stagecoaches for the pleasure of attacking them. When Indians are depicted individually, as in The Searchers (1956), they are either monsters (the Comanche chief, Scar) or buffoonish (Martin’s squaw, Look). Only occasionally, as with Hondo’s (1953) Apache chief Vittorio, is there a possibility of individualizing and humanizing the Indian character, although one could argue instead that the white boy adopted by Vittorio is becoming dehumanized instead of the Indian becoming more human. Thus, stereotypes of Indians abound in 20th-century Westerns. At the fort there are always a few serving as props, hunched over in their blankets. As the whites down below make their way across the valley, the camera pans up to the ridge where we see a whole line of Indians poised for the attack. They sit on their horses, immobile. A camera moves in to a close-up of a motionless face streaked with war paint, a cruel glint in the eye. Asudden movement of the chief’s pony, and the horde descends on the hapless settlers. Even when most 20th-century filmmakers attempted to portray Native Americans positively, they inevitably resorted to harmful stereotypes. For example, there is the Indian as noble savage, a creature from a simpler time, a more innocent time, who can commune directly with basic nature in ways civilized humanity cannot. There is also the vanishing American, the Indian at the end of the trail looking nostalgically backward. There is the Indian princess, the beautiful maiden who longs for the white hero but who can never be approached because of racial differences. Or there is the squaw, the Indian woman condemned to a life of servitude in ways white women have shed. All such stereotypes dehumanize Native Americans. In the world of the film, such dehumanization justifies whatever cruelties the normative characters wish to inflict. For the audience, such dehumanization justifies the figurative erasure of a significant subculture in the United States. The issues for recent filmmakers, then, are many when it comes to dealing with Native American themes. Little Big Man(1970) was one of the earliest Westerns to challenge previous assumptions about Native Americans and U.S. actions toward them, including the activities of General George Armstrong Custerin his Indian campaigns. The turning point in the history of cinema Westerns, however, probably came with Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990). This film not only portrayed Indians sympathetically, but it portrayed Indians as normative and the oncoming white hordes as the Other, the savage. This film was a tremendous box office success as well as a runaway winner at the Academy Awards. Its influence cannot be overestimated. Geronimo:An American Legend (1993) continued the trend of presenting an alternative view of the Western myth and is generally considered the best Native American film to date. Another important issue that has affected the filming of Westerns is the casting of white actors in Native American roles. Jeff Chandler made a career playing Cochise, and Burt Lancaster once played Masai, the Apache warrior. In fact, prior to the 1960s, it was very rare to have Native Americans portray significant roles in films. They were often used as extras but rarely in speaking roles. Today it is unthinkable to portray a Native American with a white actor in the same way that it is no longer acceptable for a white actor to dress up in blackface and portray an African American the way Gene Autry did early in his career.See also RACIAL OTHERS AS THREATS TO WHITE WOMEN; THE VANISHING AMERICAN.
Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. Paul Varner. 2012.
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