Tag Archives: Lone Ranger

On Why Hollywood’s Images of Natives are Dangerous

Producers of the Al Jazeera English show, The Stream, reached out last week to ask if I’d provide some commentary on today’s episode regarding Hollywood DEPPictions of Native Americans (that’s my pun!). It’s a neat, interactive show, and they had some good questions. However, I was given a 30-second window to comment, plus tweeting. For a topic this complicated (and controversial, especially among fellow Natives), I felt a little strangled for time. So in addition to my video on The Stream, I also wrote up this piece. By no means am I dropping anything here someone much smarter and more qualified than me hasn’t already discussed in detail. For more in-depth analysis, check out Native Appropriations and Reel Injun, just to point you in the direction of quality critiques.

@AJStream asked: “…[U]sing Tonto as an example… How do stereotypes affect the perceptions and treatment of Native Americans? And to what degree are racist depictions in mainstream media holding back progress within Native American communities?”

Following is the answer I’d have liked to have given:

Hollywood’s go-to design of a Native American character is this: The stoic Indian of bygone yesteryears, with his bow and arrow, feathers and paint, and a HUGE chip on his shoulder (and now a bird on his head – the new acronym is SMBH, shaking my bird head). The character is generally under-developed, very surface-y in his motivations, and never the title role. The character is usually male, as well. Outside of the newest Disney-generated Native bird-wearing archetype, I’m thinking of movies like Dances With Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, and The New World, among others. Then, if you’re showcasing the rare female lead character, say, someone like Pocahontas or Sacajawea, you get the over-sexualized woodland sprite communing with nature and navigation alike. In both cases, Hollywood presents us with under-developed, historically and culturally inaccurate characters depicted as noble savages fraught with need for a great white savior.

Now, critics of this line of thinking will often say, “It’s just a movie. It’s fiction. There are LOTS of fictional characters out there absolutely no one believes is how a real person acts.” Yeah, OK, but those characters are generally white, male, and heterosexual. The Privileged, if you will, because there are so many incarnations of them in media that it’s OBVIOUS there is no one mold for them. Hollywood tells us a white male can be anything he wants to be – today, yesterday, or even in the future. But a Native American male wears face paint, leathers, feathers (with or without the body of a bird – yeah, I have a big problem with avian appropriation, too), has a caring and protective white friend, and exists between the years 1492 and the late 1800s.

Therein lies a big chunk of the problem: We have no modern representations of ourselves on the silver screen. This is a big reason I supported Twilight, and I get a lot of flack for that. (Side note #1: Chaske Spencer, aka Sam Uley of the Twilight Saga, was featured on The Stream show and he was amaze-bombs.) Believe me, I get it, and I whole-heartedly agree that just as Johnny Depp donned redface for Tonto, so too did Taylor Lautner for Jacob Black. Beyond this, however, Twilight did a great job of casting several talented indigenous actors for various big roles; in addition, the story behind Jacob Black (and I’m talking the book here, to deviate a little) describes him as a lead character who just happens to be Native. His ethnic heritage (usually the only depth a Native character has) takes a backseat to the love triangle, and his character development as a son and capable leader. And I really enjoyed that this was the case for most of the wolf pack characters in the books and – to an extent – in the movies. No war paint or feathers (albeit a lot of fur) or alcoholism to be found.

This issue kinda came up during The Stream conversation, too. Chaske Spencer was asked about people seeing his role in Twilight as a sort of sellout move on his part. He had a fantastic reply, saying the franchise gave him an international platform to not only choose a more diverse range of films to act in (catch Winter in the Blood if you can!), but also to advocate for great indigenous causes. Then the host asked him something along the lines of: So, you’re using your heritage as a selling point? And Chaske Spencer was like: No, I’m not “selling” my heritage. That’s just who I am… I was proud of Chaske in that moment, because he brought to light the point I make over and over again in this post: Native Americans are relevant only when cultural byproducts (like regalia, and smudge sticks, and feathers) are involved. We are not individuals.

I’ll end the Twilight discussion here. For me, the biggest thing was it jumpstarted a new generation of readers. (Side note #2: I was introduced to The Twilight Saga by my then-15-year-old mentee, Tiffany, who recently turned 20. There were times throughout our relationship I didn’t expect this kid to graduate high school, for various reasons, so when she started telling me about this great book with a Native main character, I had to check it out. Thanks – in part – to Twilight, Tiffany and I built a stronger relationship and I have been entertained by the series – including the movies – ever since. I’d hang my head in shame if I weren’t so jazzed. *shrugs* Never said I was perfect!)

Returning to the topic at hand, even including Twilight, these Hollywood images leave us with few – if any – ways to interpret how a real, modern Native American looks, behaves, or what she desires. In our own familial and friendly circles, many of us will joke about how people ask if we really live in tipis, or ride horses all day, or if they can touch our hair. Funny, right? It happens far more often than any of us want to admit. We have to laugh to keep from crying. The frustrating reality here is this: We don’t exist as people until they actually meet one of us. And even then, developing a relationship beyond the silver screen takes a lot of time and patience on both my part and the part of the non-Native, which means true exchanges don’t often occur, because it really is just easier to live life based on assumptions (you know, like Skittle-wielding Black kids are inherently dangerous).

So where does that leave us? On one hand we have a Hollywood Indian dramatized as a paint-and-feather-wearing warrior whose people have all but disappeared from the face of the Earth. On the other hand we have the fantastical Hollywood Indian, a werewolf. And in these depictions lie the danger of the Hollywood Native Stereotype: We’re like museum artifacts from “back then,” and the imaginative creations of a white profiter; we’re fun to look at, but absent from any modern or realistic context.

That being said, you’d be hard-pressed to find either of these stereotypes in the real world today, and because those Hollywood images are what many people are working from, real Natives – and our issues – remain invisible. So when we have very real issues like crippling poverty, staggering unemployment, laundry lists of health issues, or even when we’re trying to enact positive change with protests against pipelines and predatory alcohol sales, we rate less than the latest celebrity gossip on the local news channels.

Stereotypes hold everyone back, because they don’t allow outsiders to see the human beings underneath all that black and white makeup and stupid bird hats. Stereotypes allow non-Natives to appropriate indigenous images and traditional aspects of our heritage with offensive whooping and tomahawk chopping, dancing in fringed costumes and war bonnets, Navajo panties at Urban Outfitters…

Argh! I AM NOT YOUR HIPSTER ACCESSORY, dammit!

It is so normalized and accepted in America that we see this (mis)appropriation of ourselves in music videos, fashion shows, Halloween parties, frat shindigs, and sporting events. We become obsolete pieces of art used solely for entertainment purposes. And just as Depp’s Tonto ended up as a carnival sideshow, so too do important tribal issues.

How does this all come back to harm Native people and communities? In one of my favorite books, The Lucifer Effect, Philip G. Zimbardo talks about how stereotypes and misrepresentations are classic tactics of those in power to marginalize, dehumanize and ultimately do away with specific populations:

Dehumanization is the central construct in our understanding of ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’ Dehumanization occurs whenever some human beings consider other human beings to be excluded from the moral order of being a human person. The objects of this psychological process lose their human status in the eyes of their dehumanizers. By identifying certain individuals or groups as being outside the sphere of humanity, dehumanizing agents suspend the morality that might typically govern reasoned actions toward their fellows. (Zimbardo p. 307)

Zimbardo explains how dehumanizing can trigger ‘good’ people to commit atrocious acts, i.e. the Jewish Holocaust, Rwandan genocide, and abuse by guards at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. Dehumanization allows people to redefine harmful behavior as honorable, minimizes personal responsibility, maximizes apathy, and “reconstruct(s) our perception of victims as deserving their punishment” (p. 311). <—- Sound familiar? Read through some of the comments on my blog… Or better yet, through the troll-infested comment sections of news stories about Indian mascots or Hollywood depictions of ethnic people. In case you were operating under some delusion to the contrary, let me be the first to point out how alive and thriving racism is today. Let’s stop that whole "post-racial" fantasy, mmmkay?

In the case of Hollywood whitewashing, the context behind the offensive Native imagery is at issue. In relegating Native Americans to Western or mythological roles, Hollywood perpetuates and popularizes racist trends proponents say “honor” Natives; mascots, in particular, which are the little racist brothers to Hollywood’s stereotypes.

Perhaps one of the biggest concerns regarding AI [American Indian] mascots is that, because AIs may be largely defined by (and socially represented in terms of) mascot stereotypes, AI people have ceased to be perceived as real. From the time of first contact with European explorers, AIs have been portrayed fictionally as barbaric, wild, and savage––terms that imply AI people are less than human. Thus, it could be argued that AIs have existed as mascots for the 500+ year history of this country, and one consequence of AI sports mascots is that they keep AI people allegorically fixed as a kind of ‘cultural souvenir’ preserved in the American identity. (Chaney, Burke & Burkely, 2012, p. 43)

Mascots and Hollywood stereotypes exacerbate the issues plaguing Indian Country today by making the American public complacent and indifferent to those “Indian-only” problems, in addition to totally leaving out the fact that many of these issues are because of past and current U.S. POLICIES (I’m thinking in terms of assimilation, allotment, boarding schools, ICWA, VAWA, and – most recently – the sequester)! These images further divide Us and Them, because we Natives are nothing more than ticket sales and sports jerseys. Who cares about the Indians when there are REAL issues to deal with? Dehumanizing Natives through racist imagery has been the most effective modern means of annihilating the few of us remaining.

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My Image is Not For Sale

I am a modern Lakota winyan.

No accent.

No paint.

No feathers.

I’m like no Indian you’ve ever seen.

Because I am not a mascot. Or a blockbuster archetype.

Someone dressed like a gothic taxidermist

Is trying to sell me my own culture.

“Your values and beliefs are for sale!” he proclaims in redface.

“So is your land. I’ll buy it for you [if you see my movie].”

Good trade?

Spending $5 million

On land worth $14,000

To sell a movie made for $250 million.

I’m no good at math.

But that seems

Excessive. Over the top. Not enough.

And I feel funny 😐

#greatwhitesaviorcomplex

The worst part?

Our people are so starved for attention,

That we’ll take it in whatever form it comes in.

When Racism knocks on your door,

It’ll be riding a pinto, wearing a bird, and wrapped in a Comanche flag.

But that’s OK.

Because Racism makes it RAIN.

Yes: $5 million is a lot of money the Oglalas need.

Yes: Johnny Depp is a great actor and it’s OK to be a fan.

Yes: Depp was adopted into the Comanche tribe.

Yes: Tonto is a fictional character.

But…

If the goal was to show the world a

Positive image of Native Americans,

Why not choose a Native actor for a Native role?

Why use Sattler’s weirdly mystical [false] depiction for historical reference?

And why – WHY?!? – Tonto?

So a new generation can play Cowboys & Indians. Stereotypes sell.

Why put $5 million into the pockets of a

Greedy old white man?

Why not give the $5 million directly to the tribe?

Why not consult with the people you’re hoping to impact

Before rushing out and doing what YOU think is best for them?

Who knows what’s best, anyway?

And that’s what this is really all about.

Natives don’t have control.

Of anything.

We’ve been on our backs for so long

That being on our knees and

Taking scraps from Hollywood, and Anheuser-Busch, and Congress

Seems like an improvement.

Get over it, Taté. It’s just a movie.

Outsiders tell us what we need.

How much we need.

What we can have.

Where we can have it.

Our images are not our own. They belong to those with money.

And I want to scream, “THESE IMAGES YOU CREATE HURT ME!”

You may not know it, but they hurt you, too.

Ours is

A Halloween heritage.

A logo legacy.

Slot machine sovereignty.

Tonto traditions.

Ancestry for the price of admission.

Native AmeriCAN?

Or Native AmeriCANT?

Marginalize me some more.

It’s Johnny Depp, for gootness sakes.

And the world goes on.

Here we are now. Entertain us.

I’ve been feeling very frustrated lately over this whole Tonto business, and during a time in my life I’m frustrated in general. (Final semester of grad school, people. No pressure, or anything.) Many folks – more than I’d like to admit – have told me my feelings on this issue are stupid (ironic, eh? Because, you know, Tonto means stupid, right?). There are real issues to concern myself with. It’s just a movie. Tonto is fiction. I liked that Twilight stuff, so why am I being such a hypocrite with Johnny Depp?! I LOVE Johnny! We share the same first name!

What’s more, he goes and tells someone he’s going to buy some land in South Dakota. And now I’m REALLY the bad guy. Because Depp’s not just buying land. He’s mother-effing GIVING IT BACK to the tribe. And I’m like, yeah, that’s super-awesome… He’s dropping millions on 80-omg-that-is-the-most-overpriced-land-EVER acres some crotchety old bigot is selling because 40 years ago a destructive protest made it famous.

A lot of media hype went up about this land being for sale. The land Depp is considering sits adjacent to the Wounded Knee Massacre (1890) site. It’s not the massacre site itself. Aside from its history with the Wounded Knee Occupation (1973), there’s really nothing particularly worthwhile about this property. Before Dawes laws chopped up the reservation, these 80 acres were part of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Don’t get me wrong. Land reclamation is HUGE and a very important factor in what makes us sovereign to begin with. South Dakota tribes have pushed to buy back significant properties (Pe’Sla in the Black Hills, for instance). If anything, the federal government should create a national memorial (tribally run, of course) out of Wounded Knee, as they did with Little Bighorn. But that’s another post for another day.

Depp is offering Indian Country, especially those of us in South Dakota – the poorest communities in the entire nation (cue violins) – a wonderful gift. Is it a peace offering for that terribly offensive movie? Maybe, but I’m willing to let that go. A gift is a gift. But it’s like the generic body wash set your Christmas visitors get you (“Oh, I love the smell of strawberry passion!”); if you know anything about me, you’d know NOT to get me body wash. And there’s the rub: Johnny knows nothing about Indian Country, so much so that he based his whole Tonto look off of a painting whose creator acknowledged was NOT historically accurate. Like, at all. If Depp got to know his newly adopted brothers and sisters of the Plains, he’d realize there’s a TON that could be done with $5 million. Scholarship endowments, capital-building projects, infrastructure development…

So, yes, thank you for this gesture, Mr. Depp. But, please, look into how you can really help us. Pump some funding into programs trying to dig us out of crippling poverty and unemployment; advertise and promote ventures trying to get traditional foods back into our diets; talk to the dozens of kids who contemplate suicide every day; visit our underfunded schools and hospitals. Don’t want to get too deep too fast? That’s OK. Produce a Native-led film project. Start an arts program. Protest Big Oil with us. Be #idlenomore

… [T]he motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing his as savage, hostile and evil. It’s hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children watch television, and they watch films, and when they see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.

– Marlon Brando, 1973

My closing thoughts are this: Everyone has their own opinion, and that’s fine. This is mine. Depp will do whatever he wants – obviously. This is NOT an issue worth dividing ourselves over. Debates and disagreements are fun, sometimes, but let’s keep what’s important – our children, families, and tribes – in the forefront. Pick something to be passionate about, and work hard to make things right. I may not support your cause, but I will support you. Let’s not tear each other down for having opinions.

For myself, I will always push for fair and accurate media representations of – and demand justice for – marginalized people. My feet vote, my wallet votes, and I use my voice when I have something to say.