To what extent does Smoke Signals’ challenge pejorative stereotypical images of Native Americans results in viable Native self-representation? When a guide in Ocmulgee National Monument Park asked a troop of Brownies what they knew about Indians, the answers were familiar to him, but also disappointing. Some of the children stated that Indians wore feathers and paint; others said that Indians attacked white people.1 These ideas that the Brownies had about Native Americans came straight from the western movies that have been popular since the inception of the film industry.
The Western film has been popular with audiences in movie theatres since the early twentieth century. The film industry took over from the tradition of the Wild West Show.Indians as Entertainment The Wild West show brought Indians out of myth and legend into the towns and cities near the population at large. These shows not only toured America but Europe as well bringing the Indian to a worldwide audience. PT Barnum and Bill Cody are two names synonymous with the Wild West show and Barnum in his biography claimed that he had envisioned gathering together theIn all their glory of paint and feathers, beads and bright blankets, riding on their ponies, followed by tame buffaloes, elks and antelopes: then an exhibition on a lot large enough to admit of a display of all the Indian games and dances, their method of hunting, their style of cooking, living, etc. The Wild West show was very popular with audiences and they made a lot of money rein acting the battles that were occurring in the mid west or that had been reported in dime store novels.One of the biggest and well known Wild West Shows was run by Bill Cody who later became a favourite topic of the film industry as much as the Indians he claimed he had killed. But in all these shows and books the Indians were only a back drop to accentuate the hero, such as Buffalo Bill or Wild Bill Hickock; the Indians were only paid a cursory sum to perform while the cheers and most of the profits went to Wild Bill and the white performers.
The Indians were used as a sideshow that gave the stories they acted out authenticity even though the stories distorted the truth.The Indians feelings and thoughts about their part in these shows have not been recorded but they acted their parts, possibly because the alternative that was living on a reservation would not have been acceptable. The Wild West shows never highlighted the abuses against the Indians by the Whites and the government; they never explored treaty violations, stealing of land, rape or massacres of women and children.Indians in Film At the turn of the century a new medium was coming to the fore for entertaining the masses, the movie industry. According to Raymond Stedman the “Indian was ensnared, then filmically embalmed”3. The start of the film industry coincided with the end of the Indian wars and this gave the film industry a vast amount of subject matter for their new medium.
The hostile and savage Indian against the white men who had a manifest destiny to go out and develop this vast new world, was a theme that would be repeated over and over again for decades within the film industry.According to Jacquelyn Kilpatrick over One hundred movies about Indians were made each year between 1910 and 1913 and almost as many in each of the remaining years of the silent screen. Although the long-standing stereotypes of noble and bloody savage were always present, in the early films the noble image prevailed, whereas the bloodthirsty image became more popular toward the end of the silent film era.The Indians in these movies where stereotyped by theses early images from the very first films. The silent movie had to distinguish the persona of the Indian from a visual aspect; the sight of the Indian in silent film did much to perpetuate the ingrained popular mythology of Indians in feathers and paint that had started with the Wild West Shows.
The film industry however reached an even bigger audience than the Wild West Shows, as by the middle of the twentieth century there was a cinema theatre in every town and village in America and most parts of Europe. The cinema provided an instant image for the audience to pick up on and remember that this was an Indian, especially for those in Europe and indeed the bigger cities of America who had never seen an Indian up close.The fact that from the beginning of the film industry Indians were generally not played by Indians gives an indication of how the industry itself viewed the Native peoples. Indians with major parts where generally played by White men or if they were played by Indians they were not billed even if the movie itself was named after the Indian involved such as Geronimo played by Chief Thundercloud in 1939 yet he was never given billing on the Movie posters.
In most films of the 1930s and 40s Indians were played by white actors or other ethnic actors such as Anthony Quinn who was an Indian in the film the Plainsman. In other films such as Allegheny Uprising the Indians are out Indianed by the white characters in the film until those Indians in the film are subdued at and dealt with.In all these films up until the late 1960s Indians were savage and devious and served as a foil for the adventurous heroic white man on a mission from God to develop a land that was going to waste under the savage, devious native. To say this trend ended in the 1950s and 60s is incongruous with the movies that were produced at this period. The Indian was still not played by an Indian actor but the main change in Hollywood was that the Indian was know no longer a foil to the white man but rather the White man liked playing at being an Indian and further more was better at being an Indian than the Indian, such as Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man, being one of the few people to survive the massacre that played out in the film. Films from the 1960s on began to have a differing view of the Native American and went back to being the paternalistic view of the Indian that Griffiths had cultivated in the silent era.
Films such, as One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest where the Indian played by Native Will Sampson is a role of “a silent presence”5. When Chief Bromden in the film does speak he uses poetic language of the stoic Indian again we have the movie industry reverting back to stereotypes in order to sell films but move with the times and keep up to date with popular feeling that of sympathies for their own campaign for rights.The novel that the Oscar winning film was based on is actually written from the perspective of the Indian who narrates the whole story. The film relegates the narrator to a significant background role, the lead goes to Jack Nicholson and therefore the movie industry has relegated the Indian voice as insignificant, because Indians have nothing to say and are not intelligent enough to comment on the lives or the mental state of white people.Other films of the late 60s and 70s such as Man called Horse right up until the 1980s and 90s had still not put Native Americans in lead roles but rather had White actors playing the Indian such as Dances with Wolves and Last of the Mohicans.
At no time in the film industry had the Native American been given a voice to refute such pejorative stereotypes that had been built up over centuries of European and Euro American involvement with Indians.