Native American Heritage Month

How the world sees you depends on who tells your story. The very history of the millions of people who have lived on these continents have been written by people foreign to them. The continents themselves were named for an Italian. They acquired the name Indian out of pure error which was never rectified. Their attempts to defend themselves and their territory earned them the label of savages.

One of our most powerful forms of story telling is the movie. The early silent movie glomed onto the native American as a fascinating exotic feathered character riding horses and shooting arrows. This image was that of the Planes Indians. Most tribes never saw a horse or wore a feather. But the image stayed and was celebrated as the noble savage.

By the 1930s the movie western became perhaps the popular genre. Cowboys and Indians were the favorite children’s game. No one wanted to be the Indian, they were the losers. White actors played Indian parts. Caricatures and stereotypes were the rule and the Cavalry always came in at the end to save the day.

Came the sixties when American culture was turned on it’s ear. There was the occupation of Alcatraz on 1969 and the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. Films began to change. Native Americans were more realistically depicted and not always as the villain. But the victories still most often went to the Europeans.

The best is yet to come and has been coming: cinema made by Native Americans in their own voice. There are already many. Among my favorites ‘Smoke Signals’ 1998 and the Hulu series ‘Reservation Dogs’ 2021. These are people telling their own stories and doing it well.

–Linda Carothers

‘Reel Injun’ Documentary, On the trail of the Hollywood Indian.

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