On A Role

The savage persona, the war paint, the feathers and the beating drums are just some of the stereotypical images and attributes associated with Native American culture. The casting of Native Americans into villainous roles of early film and television has perpetuated a false perception of Native Americans that is still tied to their culture today. For centuries, Native Americans have been defined by stereotypical perceptions of Indian culture. These preconceived notions of Native culture are amplified if not derived from, the racially biased portrayal of Native Americans in the mass media and film throughout history. Though some of the modern depictions of Native Americans today are more positive and historically accurate, Indian culture still carries the stigma of the stereotypes and images established in early film and media.
Though historical ignorance was partially at fault for allowing society to subscribe to such immense cultural misconceptions, it was film and television that immortalized these images and made them an acceptable part of the “American way.” Preying on the public’s limited knowledge of traditional Indian culture, early filmmakers created the “Hollywood Indian,” an inaccurate depiction of Native Americans confining them to either an image of a savage warrior or that of the wise medicine man. Michael Hilger describes these representations as the development of “Noble to Savage Red Man. (1).” Hilger continues to analyze this development by pointing out that both representations were subconsciously laced with racism and miscegenation. For example, even when an Indian is portrayed as a secondary hero he is still deemed inferior to his white counter part and is usually the brunt of racist humor by providing
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comedy relief which is demeaning to his intelligence and importance in the plot. Also, any interracial romances occurring between Native and non-Native persons were never dignified with a happy ending. These relations usually ended with the Indian giving up his or her lover at the realization that their two cultures could never live together. This kind of ending only promoted discern towards miscegenation and reiterated the pretense that white civilization and Native culture could never coexist. These popular conventions placing Native Americans in confining, stereotyped roles were so accepted and unchallenged that they became society’s only idea of Native culture and thus created an endless cycle of misconceptions and racial slander
. Besides the obvious forms of degradation visible in the plots of early films and most Westerns, directors also used subtler conventions to depict Native Americans as villainous. One of these conventions was selective cinematography. A master of cinematography conventions was the prominent Western director John Ford. Examples of Ford’s heavy cinematography work can be found in his film The Searchers in which Ford uses a slew of conventions to create significant images of both the white hero and the Indian. One of the conventions Ford uses are extreme close-ups. In one of the opening scenes Ford zooms in on Chief Scar fully adorned in war paint and feathers to emphasize his savage and threatening demeanor. Ford also uses a low angle shots like the one of Scar standing over Debbie (the hero’s niece,) as she cowers in his shower. Ford uses this low-angle shot to accentuate Debbie’s sense of helplessness and extreme fear as she sits opposite to Scar’s intimidating presence (Hilger 12). Ford also heightens the suspense of his film by cross-cutting between a pending Comanche attack and a search party who have just realized they have been lured away from their homes to allow such an attack (Hilger 12). Placement and blocking can also convey attitudes towards Native Americans by
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often placing the white hero in a higher frame in more empathetic positions to imply the hero’s superior presence over the Indian’s (Hilger 10). These technical practices seem too subtle to have such heavy impacts but each angle, cut, or close-up creates a different perspective and thus receives a reaction from the audience. Hilger insists that “Long, medium and close-up shots, camera angles, composition, editing and acting are key to what the film ‘language’ says about Native American characters.”
Since the period of silent films Indians have been part of the entertainment industry Their presence in film can be traced back further than that of the cowboy revealing Native Americans to be the original star of