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Coyote Goes Hollywood

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  • Robert V. Schmidt
    http://www.nativepeoples.com/article/articles/174/1/COYOTE-GOES-HOLLYWOOD The media--radio, television, film--is powerful. The messages dominate our thinking,
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 17, 2006

      The media--radio, television, film--is powerful. The messages dominate our
      thinking, particularly when the viewer has little or no opportunity for
      firsthand observation. How many Americans see "Indians" anywhere but on the
      screen? And either way, who is able to distinguish fact from fiction?



      The media—radio, television, film—is powerful. The messages dominate our
      thinking, particularly when the viewer has little or no opportunity for
      firsthand observation. How many Americans see "Indians" anywhere but on the
      screen? And either way, who is able to distinguish fact from fiction? There
      is a story told about the shooting in Monument Valley of one of the epic
      Westerns directed by the renowned John Ford. The cameras stop. The Navajo
      actors dismount and take off their Sioux war bonnets. One of the film crew
      says to the Indians, "That was wonderful, you did it just right." An Indian
      actor replies, "Yeah, we did it just like we saw it in the movies."

      What would we think the Native American was like if we had only the
      celluloid Indian from which to reconstruct history; if our data came
      exclusively from motion picture archives? On one had we would see the noble
      "Red Man," the faithful Tonto-like companion. On the other side we would
      see the "Indian" as a savage pillager. We would see his primary occupation
      as plunder; his principal recreation as overpowering and torturing the
      innocent, particularly women and children. We would see him as the devil
      incarnate, as strange, romantic, dangerous, and deceptive; as a virile
      barbarian. Paradoxically, the Savage Sinner portrayal is contrasted with
      the Native American as a misunderstood but well-meaning child, or as a
      Tonto figure, serving his white master in the preordained task of westward
      expansion—the savage giving up his life for a new and better world for us
      all. Another image shows the "Indian" as the first ecologist, crying over
      our destruction of the Universe, or an all-knowing woodsy Christ figure:
      the red-skinned redeemer.

      If Native American ethnography were based only on the Hollywood studios'
      presentation, we would believe that the Apaches were the largest tribe in
      the United States.

      We would think, if we relied on "Indian films," that there were no tribes
      east of the Mississippi except perhaps the Mohawk, and that North America
      was unoccupied through the entire Great Lakes and central region but for an
      occasional savage remnant—perhaps a stray Yaqui or two who had wandered in
      from the Southwest. We almost never have a Pueblo Indian or Hopi on the
      screen. Real danger comes from the Plains: the Cheyenne, the Kiowa and, of
      course, there are the Comanche who, according to screen legend, "killed
      more whites than any tribe of history."

      In addition, movies would inculcate a bizarre sense of geography and Native
      American cultures. We would see the Florida Everglades-dwelling-Seminoles
      battling U.S. Army cavalry on desert buttes, as well as Oglala Sioux of the
      Great Plains fighting their way through infested tropical swamps and
      Spanish moss. The high-fashion film "Indians" in Captain John Smith and
      Pocahontas (1953) appear for us in velveteen and rickrack in a kind of
      mod-proto-Spanish G-string. Native American dress is almost never accurate.
      Film Mohawks of the northeast can be seen wearing Navajo blankets—a
      mid-nineteenth century southwestern garment-as early as the American

      If our knowledge of Native Americans were indeed limited to film
      information, there would appear to be few if any living Native Americans.
      "Indian films" are almost always set in earlier historic times, mostly the
      eighteenth or late nineteenth century. With few exceptions, the Indian of
      the movies is the Indian of the frontier wars—one of a dying people, or at
      least on the road to disappearance.

      These sinister portrayals and historic distortions date from the very
      beginning of the motion picture industry.

      Film gave light and motion to longstanding images of deeply entrenched
      stereotypes. The Indian in film is rooted in almost five-hundred years of
      white portrayals of Native Americans. The screen Indian is, with few
      exceptions, directly out of the Indian captivity, travel and exploration
      narratives and such stalwart literary traditions as James Fenimore Cooper
      and the dime novel. Movie-makers took the advertising posters off the
      barroom wall and flickered them through the nickelodeon. Gruesome and
      heroic images inspired by the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Co.'s "Custer's Last
      Stand" advertising poster (1896) were seen again and again in climaxes to
      the many screen versions of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

      In 1982, the Maidu Indian artist, Harry Fonseca, created in a painting,
      "Movie Star Coyote." This work presents a rich distillation of the bizarre
      relationship between Hollywood and the American Indian. Fonseca's trademark
      Coyote—a contemporary Indian character with many witty aspects in the
      artist's current work-prances here before a pueblo, the sky bright with
      theatrical searchlights.

      The film Indian symbolized and parodied by Fonseca's bedecked and dancing
      Coyote is a significant image for Native Americans.

      Why should we be concerned that the Indian of the mass media is someone or
      something the Native American is not? If it is nothing more than a night's
      adventure or a laugh or two, who cares? Howdy Doody's Princess Summerfall
      Winterspring meant well, and his Chief Thunderthud never said anything but
      "Kowabunga." After all, it is only radio or television or the movies! But
      the cinema "Red Man" transcends entertainment—for this media stereotype
      profoundly affects both contemporary American Indian policy and Native
      American self-image.

      The film Indian is pervasive. No Indian reservation is too distant, no
      native community too traditional to escape the impact of the movie
      stereotypes. The ramifications of motion pictures—social and cultural—are
      everywhere. Indian-authored tales tell of childhoods spent playing cowboy
      and resenting that the Indians never seem to win. The effect of film can be
      seen from the smallest details of a child's everyday game of "cowboys and
      Indians" to the international arena where the movie star President of the
      United States gives Hollywood-rooted answers to Soviet student's questions
      about Native Americans.

      It is the repetitive regularity of the image in movies that refines and
      reinforces the societal stereotypes. Hollywood provides an endless parade
      in which we have "good Indians and bad Indians." In the thousands of
      individual films and the millions of frames in those films, we have few, if
      any, "real Indians" who have individuality or humanity; who have families;
      who lead real lives that differ in marked degree from the lives of other
      "Indians." Hollywood has tried to squeeze all of these people into these
      two basic molds. Almost five hundred tribes, bands, and villages are thus
      reduced to the homogenized film Indian stereotypes.

      Of all the "Indian figures" in the history of film, the most widely known
      is Tonto. So, "come with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear," as
      we tune in to the familiar strains of the William Tell overture, which
      signal that the daring and resourceful masked rider of the Plains and his
      faithful "Indian" companion Tonto are just one commercial away from the
      night's adventure.

      Today, the Lone Ranger and Tonto seem mythic, ageless—part of a feudal
      past. In truth, they go back only to radio's pioneer days, having premiered
      on Detroit's WXYZ on January 30, 1933, and lasted on radio until 1954, with
      another 180 episodes on television, and rebirth in a couple of
      feature-length films.

      Tonto is the very model of the screen's faithful "Indian" companion,
      smarter than Steppin' Fetchit and almost as clever as Charlie Chan without
      being inclined to spout so much ancient wisdom. Faithful companions, like
      other ethnic stereotypes, come in all shapes and sizes. Tonto represents
      the Native American as a good and noble helper, descendant of the
      cornbearing Red Man in grade-school Thanksgiving pageants. There are
      others-where would Red Ryder be without Little Beaver? Or Pa Kettle without
      the faithful Crowbar and Geoduck?

      The reality of the contemporary Native American's world is very different
      from the life ascribed to Tonto or to the menacing savage. As the British
      lawyer and poet, A.P. Herbert, wrote, "Life ain't like in the movies."

      We know, for example, that Native Americans are far from vanishing. The
      rates of population increase among Native Americans is significantly higher
      than the national average. On the 1980 census rolls, more than a million
      and a half people declared themselves to be Native Americans. Half of the
      Native American population is under twenty-one years of age. Native
      Americans are alive and well. They are not on the road to disappearance but
      in fact, are the fastest growing minority group in the United States.

      If there is one constant in the history of this group's screen portrayal,
      it is that rarely was the "Indian" an Indian. Today, however, the Native
      American is making a concentrated assault on film and filmmaking,
      responding to almost a century of Hollywood Indians. Talented and
      aggressive Native American filmmakers are producing film and videos that
      portray Native Americans in real-world situations, using "real Indians" to
      play realistic parts. The Native American is very much alive in the film
      industry. Coyote has come to Hollywood and is making serious professional
      strides. The Native-American operated American Indian Registry of the
      Performing Arts in Los Angeles has published a new directory of Native
      American professionals in the performing arts. A handbook for non-Indian
      producers has also been published to locate Native Americans to work in
      Hollywood films and achieve an accurate portrayal of their peoples' lives
      as opposed to the cardboard-cutout characters and homogenized depictions of
      the past.

      The reality for contemporary Native Americans working in motion pictures is
      that in the most recent film year there were only two major motion pictures
      about "Indians" under production, a far cry from hundreds produced in
      earlier years. Today, Native Americans who wish to portray their people
      accurately on the screen must create their own opportunities. And from New
      York City to Minneapolis to Tulsa to Tucson to Los Angeles, they are doing
      just that. For example, workshops are held on reservations to help tribes
      become involved in filmmaking. The Institute for American Indian Art in
      Santa Fe has begun to develop a film study curriculum. All across the
      country, Native Americans are beginning to seize the moment to reshape
      their cinematic image.
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