Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Malleable Metaphor: Portrayals of the American Indian in American Cinema from 1950 – 1970

     At a certain point within Arthur Penn’s 1970 film Little Big Man, the audience watches what is historically known (largely depending on your outlook) as either the Battle at Washita River or the Washita Massacre.  However it is described, historically what occurred at Washita River on November 27, 1868, was that Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Cavalry rode into a peaceful band of Southern Cheyenne, led by Black Kettle, who were on their way to a reservation encampment.  On that day, 105 peaceful men, women, and children were brutally killed in the name of Manifest Destiny and westward American expansion.  As shot by Penn, the sequence is shocking in its brutality and depiction of violence, and absolutely heartbreaking when viewed by American Indian audiences (as witnessed in Niles Diamond’s documentary Reel Injun).  However, as viewed by audiences at the time the film was released, the sequence is less of a depiction of an actual massacre of American Indians at the hands of the American government, and more of an indictment against American presence and military actions during the Vietnam War.  Similarly, the sequence was compared to the shootings at Kent State University in June of 1970, in which the Ohio State Guard opened fire on unarmed students.  Penn’s Little Big Man is a great example of the way that the American Indian was utilized as a sort of metaphor.  The American Indian, as portrayed in American cinema and other hegemonic forms of American media, has long been used as a metaphor.  The Indian has been cast as the vanishing American, or the enemy Other in order to build ideals of American nationalism.  The Indian has been utilized as a metaphor for other races or groups, such as the persecuted artists or Communists during McCarthyism in the 1950s, African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s through the 1970s, and also, finally, as a metaphor for various youth movements (such as the hippie movement) during the 1960s and 1970s.  While the American Indian in reality has long been marginalized and oppressed by the very society and government of the country from which they have originated, the image of the American Indian has stood as a form of malleable metaphor for American cinema throughout different social epochs.
            In her book “Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film,” Jacquelyn Kilpatrick discusses American Indian stereotypes and how they came about.  Kilpatrick cites four primary sources: James Fenimore Cooper and his collection of stories titled The Leatherstocking Tales, the dime novel of the American west, a growing sense of nationalism connected to the post-Civil War reconstruction and development of the west, and the Buffalo Bill Wild West show.  American Indians have always suffered from a precarious situation in regards to representation in American media.  The inherent problem with Indian representation in American media lies within authorship and influence.  Early representations of Indian people and culture were entirely authored by white culture.  These white-authored representations can be broken down into two distinct stereotypes: the bloodthirsty savage and the noble savage.  The bloodthirsty savage was made popular by the dime novel of the American west.  Here, the Indian was simply an obstacle to manifest destiny and white ownership of land and wealth.  The noble savage, popularized by James Fenimore Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Tales is equally damaging.  Here, the representation, often thought to be sympathetic, helps to build “an American nationalist mythology through identification with the natural landscape and its original inhabitants…thereby gaining psychic as well as physical control.”[1]
            Films produced featuring stories of the American west continued to perpetuate American Indian stereotypes for decades after The Indian Wars; films such as John Ford’s 1939 film Stagecoach or William Seiter’s 1939 film Allegheny Uprising are prime examples of the complete and utter lack of authenticity and cultural awareness involved in Indian portrayal. The Indians in these films are often unseen until it is necessary for the villainous attack on white settlers or school children.  They are not especially skilled fighters, and seem to communicate only through screaming and whooping. At no point in these films is the audience ever asked to identify with the American Indian.  Identification with the Indians in these films may even be considered an impossibility as the Indians are never truly fleshed out characters, but are instead often unseen by the viewer until the narrative demands a villain.  This lack of Indian presence is in itself a type of stereotype.  “The Hollywood Western never produced an Indian antagonist more memorable, or more familiar, than the one whom we never quite see.  He can be formidable enough, this near-invisible Indian foe, in the great mythic tale of ‘winning the west…’”[2] Until approximately 1950, the Indian of American cinema was most often utilized as a metaphor for the obstacles overcome in discovering, settling, and owning the land that would be the United States of America. 
            The representation of the American Indian, and the first change in how the Indian was utilized as a metaphor, took place within a western genre film released in 1950.  Delmer Daves’ 1950 film Broken Arrow tells the story of Tom Jeffords (James Stewart), and to a lesser but surprising extent, the Apache chief Cochise (Jeff Chandler).  As the film begins, Jeffords saves the life of a young Apache boy.  The boy’s tribesmen therefore spare him when they come upon him and the boy together.  When he tells other white settlers in town of the event, they are either incredulous or suspicious of Jeffords’ racial purity and loyalty to the white race.  Jeffords eventually meets with Cochise in an attempt to parley for safer crossings for United States postal carriers, whom Jeffords has recently been put in charge of.  Impressed with Jeffords bravery (having simply ridden into the hostile Apache camp), Cochise becomes close with him and eventually becomes blood brothers.  Through his friendly integration with the tribe, Jeffords comes to view them as human beings instead of as simply the enemy or the Other.  He even takes an Apache wife, Sonseeahray, with whom he falls in love with (and vice versa).  While Jeffords and Cochise learn tolerance from within their friendship, and through tolerance a more in-depth understanding of one another, groups on the outside and to the extreme of Jeffords and Cochise infringe on this general understanding.  These groups are hostile white settlers, who want no peace and generally discriminate even Jeffords for his “racial disloyalty,” and a faction of bloodthirsty Apaches led by Geronimo who simply want to kill the white settlers.  Eventually, the tropes and characteristics of the western genre come into play, and the film is somewhat resolved in a shootout between these two groups, Geronimo’s faction and Jeffords and Cochise.  While Jeffords and Cochise both survive, Sonseeahray is murdered and both sides acting in hatred must recognize what their actions have brought unto others and themselves. 
            The film takes a largely positive and sympathetic view of the American Indian, and is famous as the first post World War II western film to take such a view.  Cochise is portrayed incredibly sympathetically.  Within the spectrum of representation, the image is far more sympathetic than Stagecoach or Allegheny Uprising.  Cochise is portrayed as high intelligent, and a benevolent and kind leader who speaks in English instead of the indiscriminate whooping and hollering that so many Indians had spoken for decades in mainstream Hollywood films.  Even a white military figure, General Oliver Howard, speaks about the fact that God and the Bible say nothing about the “pigmentation of skin,” and is generally sympathetic to and admiring of Cochise’s military strategy and plight.  However, though the film is consistently sited as the beginning of a cultural awareness in Hollywood, “Broken Arrow was prompted in part by resistance to McCarthyism.”[3] The Indian is used as a sort of metaphor in order to explore stereotypes and social normatives.  After World War II, when life once again became “good,” the fear that non-Christian Communists were making headway into the country and provoking nuclear war was palpable, and Senator Joe McCarthy pounced upon this fear.  Congressional committees were developed, and soon many Hollywood leftists found themselves on blacklists and unable to work for fear that they were espousing Communist values to American cinema audiences.  “One result of the blacklists in Hollywood was the shock of suddenly finding oneself among the oppressed…In order to make a point about other types of humanity and their equality to those in power, the filmmakers turned once more to American Indians.”[4]            
            This is especially seen to be true when one takes into account the concurrent events surrounding American Indian affairs in the 1950s.  Shortly after the release of Broken Arrow in 1950, the American government enacted the House Concurrent Resolution 108 on August 1, 1953.  The resolution enacted an extreme and fundamental change in Indian policy through this resolution.  The perceived paternalism toward the American Indian by those in power caused them to pass the resolution, which “declared it to be the policy of the United States to abolish federal supervision over the tribes as soon as possible and to subject the Indians to the same laws, privileges, and responsibilities as other citizens in the United States.”[5] While that does not sound immediately threatening, the reality is that House Concurrent Resolution 108 laid the groundwork for the process of “termination,” in which Indians would be removed from their tribal reservations and properties and placed within urban cities such as New York City and Los Angeles.  Additionally, it would terminate the federal government’s recognition of the sovereignty of tribes and the trusteeship of Indian reservations.  Children were removed from their families on poorer reservations and placed with white foster parents, and adults were lured from the reservations to large cities under the pretense of housing aid and jobs that simply did not exist.  The irony of Broken Arrow is that while the film espouses the need to understand a marginalized or oppressed minority, the American government and society were both ignorant to and not understanding of Indian needs.  So, though the film uses the Indian as a sort of metaphor for the increasingly sympathetic views of American society toward oppressed f, the fact that the film was conceived and released in the era of McCarthyism, as well as the era that would lead to the American Civil Rights Movement, is especially enlightening in how the Indian was utilized as a metaphor in the 1950s.
            The American Civil Rights Movement (also commonly referred to as the African-American Civil Rights Movement) refers to a number of movements by different groups throughout America (predominantly in the south) that utilized civil disobedience and largely non-violent protests with the desired outcome of winning civil rights for minorities and ending racial discrimination.  The movement had precursors since before the Civil War, but eh Civil Rights Movement is commonly assigned approximately thirteen years, from 1955 – 1968.  A number of events led up to it, and simplifying something as complex as the long history of the fight for equal rights for minorities in the United States is sure to leave much out.  However, racial prejudices throughout the country began to be called into question en masse post-World War II.  Black GI’s who had served overseas began to question the prejudicial treatment of their lives after their service.  Having been good enough to serve and die for their country, it stood to reason that they deserved the same rights as all white men.  Likewise, a number of court cases, such as Sipuel v Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma (stating that the university could not discriminate based upon race) and President Truman’s Executive Order #9981 (ending segregation within the armed services) began opening doors to the movement while simultaneously providing legal precedence.  Events taking place within 1954 and 1955, however, really solidify and bring to light the beginning of the American Civil Rights Movement.  The year of 1954 saw the important court case Brown v Board of Education in which the Supreme Court struck down segregation laws within public schools.  The next year, 1955, saw important civil disobedience of Rose Parks, which led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, in which Rose Parks (a secretary for the NAACP) quietly yet resolutely refused to give up her bus seat to make room for a white passenger.  Her subsequent arrest led to the massive boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama’s busses, leading to an 80% loss of revenue.             
            The American Civil Rights Movement was an incredibly complex movement with many different facets.  However, by and large, it has widely been looked upon as the struggle for black American’s equal rights.  “However, since much of America in the late sixties and early seventies was apparently not yet willing to pay to see a film about an oppressed African American, one way to tell the story of society oppressing a minority was to make a movie about a Native American.”[6] This growing attitude toward the dangers and evils of racism are especially apparent within John Ford’s 1956 film The Searchers.  The film is arguably one o the most influential films ever made.  It has admirers that range from Jean-Luc Godard to George Lucas.  The film tells the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) who has just returned home from the Civil War, having fought the war on the side of the Confederacy.  The day after he returns home, a Comanche raiding party murders his brother, sister-in-law (within whom he was in love), and number of his other family members.  Two of his nieces, meanwhile, are taken as captives.  Together with Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a man of mixed white and Indian blood who has been adopted by the family, Ethan hunts for his two nieces.  Finding one (possibly) already dead, the search turns into a quest to find the youngest niece: Debbie (Natalie Wood).  After a number of years spent searching for her, the two men find the camp of the Indian chief Scar, who was the Comanche responsible for leading the raid that killed Ethan and Martin’s family.  Upon finding the camp, the two men discover that Scar has taken a grown up Debbie as one of his wives.  Ethan is disgusted, and decides that it is better to kill Debbie, as she has “been taken by a buck.” As the movie comes to its conclusion, a gunfight ensues between the American military and the Comanche camp.  Ethan runs through the confusion, looking for Debbie so that he can murder her as Martin attempts to stop him.  Finally catching Debbie, Ethan lifts her up and is immediately reminded of how he lifted her as a child.  Instead of killing her, he says, “Let’s go home” and returns her to the family homestead.  As the surviving family members carry Debbie into her home, Ethan watches from the doorway and then turns his back on them…walking into the desert and away from the homestead.
            The film is incredibly dense, and problematic in a number of ways.  However, what is interesting in context to the Indian used as a metaphor is how the film is really the story of a single man: Ethan Edwards.  It is important to note that Ethan is an incredible racist.  Ford first begins to underline his racial prejudice by making Ethan a veteran of the Confederacy.  Though other films have portrayed sympathetic views of Confederate soldiers (Buster Keaton in The General, for instance), Ethan is also imbued with other negative character traits.  For instance, there is a hint that Ethan has been gone for a number of years due to some nebulous illegality, as he is flush with gold pieces and a Mexican Revolutionary War medal.  He also refuses to admit any sort of familial ties to Martin due to Martin’s mixed white and Indian blood, and is openly scornful to Martin in front of the family who appears very much to accept and love Martin.  “What makes this film particularly disturbing is the attitude of Wayne’s character.  He treats the ‘half-breed’ with disdain for most of the movie, and his goal throughout the film is not to bring the girls back but to save them from their dishonor by killing them.”[7] Ethan’s hatred and racism ultimately ends up making John Wayne, the “hero,” the single most frightening character within the film.  As the ending shootout scene occurs, it is Martin Pawley who kills the Comanche Scar by shooting him, and yet it is Ethan who drops to his knees and cuts Scar’s scalp from his skull.  Through doing this, Ethan is immediately linked to the enemy Other through the action of the scalping.  His hatred and racism is made manifest through his linking to Scar’s barbarism.  Only through his sudden refusal to murder his white niece is he somewhat redeemed.  However, upon returning her and realizing how racism and hatred nearly brought him to murdering his last remaining niece (and only connection to her mother with whom he was in love), Ethan leaves the civilized society of family and home to return only to the desert wilderness.  It is as if Ford is claiming that this sort of racism and hatred have no place in modern society. 
            However, as Ford was espousing a liberal view on racism during the beginning of the fight for civil rights during the American Civil Rights Movement, the American government was continuing its extermination policy.  June 17, 1954 saw the Termination of the Menominee Indians of Wisconsin.  They were one of the first tribes to feel the effects of the termination policy, and “in 1954 Congress provided for the withdrawal of federal jurisdiction from the tribe…”[8] Though there was a tremendous outcry against the termination policy, the Menominee action was not reversed until 1973.  The relocation programs also continued, resulting in a detrimental paternalism wherein Senator Watkins, the principal congressional promoter of the termination policy, stated that, “Now, doing away with restrictive federal supervision over Indians, as such, does not affect the retention of those cultural and racial qualities which people of Indian descent would wish to retain…”[9] However, that is exactly what the termination policy era was bringing about.  “The Congressional policy of termination, advanced in 1954 and pushed vigorously for nearly a decade, was a combination of the old systematic hunt and the deprivation of services.  Yet this policy was not conceived as a policy of murder.  Rather it was thought that it would provide that elusive ‘answer’ to the Indian problem.  An when it proved to be no answer at all, Congress continued its policy, having found a new weapon in the ancient battle for Indian land.”[10] So while Ford was espousing a liberal view of racism and racial hatred, Indian policy continued to oppress the Indian.  Indeed, Indian policy did not do away with the termination policy for a number of years.  It was not until March 6, 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson delivered a special message to Congress “of a new direction in Indian policy which recognized Indian self-determination.”[11] Thought the Civil Rights Act of 1968 followed only a month later (April 11, 1968), issues concerning American Indian freedom of religion, tribal sovereignty, and equal rights status would not be granted until later in the 1970s and 1980s.  Indeed, some tribes to this day are still fighting for tribal recognition from the American government.
            As the eras of McCarthyism and the American Civil Rights Movement began to move into the era of the late-1960s and the 1970s, the American Indian portrayed in cinema once again went through a drastic change.  Having been first portrayed as a human being while being used as a metaphor for the oppressed in 1950 with Broken Arrow, and then used as a tool to explore racism in the era that saw the beginning of the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1956 film The Searchers, the Indian once again became another metaphor in 1970 within Arthur Penn’s film Little Big Man. Based upon the 1964 novel by Thomas Berger, the film tells the story of Little Big Man/Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), a white man who was raised by the Cheyenne.  The film seems primarily concerned with following Little Big Man/Jack Crabb as he oscillates between living life within the white world and the Cheyenne world.  Having been raised among the Cheyenne, he is eventually captured and placed in a religious foster home.  Running away from his foster home after realizing the hypocritical way in which his foster mother lives her life, he makes a living as a con man, then a gunslinger, and then as a shop owner.  He eventually returns to the Cheyenne, takes a wife, and lives as a Cheyenne (even having a child with his wife while also taking her sisters as his other wives).  However, his family is slaughtered in the Washita Massacre (save for his adopted father Old Lodge Skins), and he lives a hollow existence until he decides to extract revenge upon George Armstrong Custer, who led the attack at Washita.  He becomes a scout for Custer, and watches as Custer dies at the Battle of Little Big Horn.  The film ends abruptly.  Having been relating his life story to a historian, Little Big Man/Jack Crabb suddenly throws him out and looks blankly and sadly into the distance. 
            Within Little Big Man, the viewer is introduced to the single most interesting change American Indian portrayal since the cinema began.  As the film “is a search for identity,” the Indian becomes a metaphor for hegemonic white America, and more specifically the youth generation, and those that would come to be described as the Baby Boomer generation. Having lived through the tumultuous years of the American Civil Rights Movement, and coming of age during the Vietnam War, the generation of this era saw a number of youth movements such as protests of the Vietnam War, the free love movement, and the formation of the hippie subculture.  There are many instances within the film that stand as metaphors for these social groups, such as the aforementioned Washita Massacre.  Parallels can easily be drawn to images of woman and children being gunned down during the Vietnam War.  “No one watching the film could miss the obvious connections being drawn – the greedy, violent white men, the heartless and murderous military, even the Asian look of Little Big Man’s wife.”[12] However, parallels can also be drawn between the Indians and the protestors of the war, such as what occurred at Kent State University in Ohio earlier that year.  Additionally, when Little Big Man/Jack Crabb is living as a Cheyenne and takes on his wife’s sisters as additional wives, this is much more representative of the concurrent (to the time of the film’s release) youth attitude toward free love and the openness or outright rejection of the marriage institution than it was an honest portrayal of the complexities of the Cheyenne belief in marriage.  Finally, the hippie subculture came to romanticize the Indian and subsequently came to utilize fashion styles reminiscent of Indians while espousing a romanticized conception of living together with man and nature, effectively becoming Indians much in the same way that Little Big Man/Jack Crabb has.  A much more in-depth study of the Indian as a metaphor for the hippie subculture is necessary, but one need look no further than to compare the images of the American Indian as portrayed in American cinema to pictures of the hair and clothing styles of the hippie, as well as the communal attitude they espouse, in the 1960s and 1970s to see the very clear parallels between the hippie subculture and the Hollywood Indian.
            However, Indian issues at the time of the release of Little Big Man were actively attempting to refute these romanticized images.  The late 1960s and the early 1970s saw the most active resistance to dominant hegemonic society and government by the Red Power movement.  The Indians of All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz from 1968 – 1971, the seven day occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building that was the result of the Trail of Broken Treaties March on Washington D.C., and most famously the 1973 Occupation of Wounded Knee.  Each occupation ended poorly for the occupants, as they faced armed government removal in all three instances.  Perhaps most important to the issue of how the Indian were looked at as a sort of historical or romanticized metaphor is the Wounded Knee occupation.  While there was an outpouring of community support for the American Indian at the time, their status as a romanticized metaphor effectively ended any support for the movement with an event that surrounded the slaughter of a cow at Wounded Knee.  Having been effectively blockaded by the FBI, the Indians at Wounded Knee were hungry and attempted to slaughter a cow.  “Reporters and photographers gathered to watch.  Nothing happened.  None of the Indians – some urban activists, some from Sioux reservations – actually knew how to butcher cattle.” Fortunately for the hungry Indians, some of the reporters did indeed know how to do so and butchered the cow for them.  “The most common reading of this was that basically we were fakes.  Indians clueless about butchering livestock were not really Indians.”[13] While dominant young white society began to see itself in the historically romanticized image of the American Indian, the Indian himself/herself was desperately attempting to fight for their rights and recognition.
            The American Indian has historically been utilized by dominant white society as a metaphor for a number of things.  As explained here, the Indian has been used to represent oppressed minorities and groups, as a symbolic tool to explore racism and hatred, and finally as a romantic version of the Other that the baby boomer generation could identify themselves as in order to separate themselves from the previous generation.  Even today the Indian has continued to be used a metaphor or as a symbol for dominant society.  The Indian can be seen in sports team mascots.  Indian tribal names have been claimed in also naming anything from gum to helicopters and sports utility vehicles.  Additionally, the cinema has continued to provide romanticized or inflammatory images of the American Indian as metaphors for the past (Dances with Wolves, 1990), for the sexualized and romantic Other (Last of the Mohicans, 1992), and as the romanticized naturalist or ecologist (Avatar, 2010).  While these images have graced movie screens across the nation for decades however, the American Indian has largely been marginalized and ignored.  However, the recent growth of an American Indian cinema (seen in examples such as Smoke Signals in 1998, Barking Water in 2009, and On the Ice in 2011) have begun the process of placing the American Indian in a current temporality and doing away with the use of the Indian, or themselves, as a metaphor.  One may hope that this burgeoning cinema will in fact do its part in ending the use of the Indian as a metaphor, and bringing a sense of temporal presence to the culture that has not been assigned to them in the form of being a metaphor for something or someone else.

[1] Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn. Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film (Lincoln and London: University of Lincoln Press, 1999).  P. 3.
[2] Prats, Armando Jose. Invisible Natives: Myth and Identity in the American Western (Itchaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2002). P. 23.
[3] Kilpatrick, P. 58.
[4] Ibid, P. 57 – 58.
[5] Prucha, Francis Paul, ed. Documents of United States Indian Policy (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1990).  P. 233.
[6] Kilpatrick, 71.
[7] Ibid.  P. 60 – 61.
[8] Prucha.  P. 234.
[9] Ibid.  P. 239.
[10] Deloria, Vine.  Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (New York: Avon, 1969). P. 60.
[11] Prucha.  P. 248
[12] Kilpatrick. P. 93.
[13] Smith, Paul Chaat.  Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). P. 11.

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