Let’s talk about American Indians!
Better yet, let’s talk about Indians in the movies!
You ever notice how many movies about Indians are really movies about white people? More specifically, many stories about Indians are actually about white people who live among them. Such characters are often called “white Indians” in the literature. They are certainly a worthy subject in their own right, but Hollywood seems quite dependent on these characters in its treatment of Native American subjects. The white character provides a lens through which non-natives can observe native culture. It is a role that we can identify with, even as we are shown a world perhaps foreign to us (assuming the film actually does attempt to show us something about the lives of Native Americans, which is not always the case).
It’s an old cliché, often tiresome, and in some respects outright pernicious, but I must admit that a couple of these characters actually resonate for me. At other times, it tempts my lunch to return to the free air about me. At the very least, I think one ought to be clear about the subject matter. All too often these films about non-natives are pitched to the public as films about the lives and customs of Native Americans. Even if this is just a difference in emphasis, the emphasis is often highly significant.
So, let’s see a few examples, shall we?
We shall begin with an old favorite of mine, LITTLE BIG MAN. This is the story of Jack Crabb, supposedly the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn. We meet jack in an old folks home as a man well over a hundred years old. Visited by an anthropologist, Jack is angered at the suggestion that was an old Indian fighter and proceeds to tell his life story with a tape recorder rolling.
It turns out that Jack had been adopted by Cheyenne (whom he refers to as “Human Beings” throughout the narrative) after his family was slaughtered by Pawnee. During the course of his life, Jack returns to white society for a time and experiences life as a religious youth, a con artist, a “gun fighter,” a drunkard, and even a mule skinner. But Jack returns to the Human Beings several times during the course of the movie, even taking a wife (eventually four) and living among them. Jack explains that he reckoned he would stay there and live among Human Beings for the rest of his life, right there on the Washita River.
And for those that know a little about the history of Indian-white relations, the appearance of Custer will be no surprise. For me at least, the scenes that follow are quite difficult to watch. It is in revenge for this attack, that Jack Crabb ultimately plots to lead Custer into a trap, tricking him as it were into attacking the Indian village at Little Bighorn.
Little Big man was the first major motion picture in decades to take an explicitly pro-Indian stance on the history of the west. It is almost too late to capture the full shock value of its portrayal. The movie and television audiences of the 1970s had seen many depictions of Indian savagery. To see the U.S. cavalry shooting women and children in cold blood was a straight-forward reversal of the prevailing expectations of the time.
More than that, Little Big Man is filled with vibrant Cheyenne characters, not least of them being Old Medicine Lodge (played by chief Dan George). The characters are even allowed to occupy social roles defined at least partly by Cheyenne cultural patterns. (We are for example introduced to a contrary and a hee-man-eh.) Crabb himself manages to occupy the role of the White Indian without crowding the Native American characters into the background. He is accepted among the Human Beings, not because he is a great warrior (not really, at any rate), but because he has a knack for survival. Crabb bumbles his way through life, understanding a lot about what goes on around him, but without ever really taking control of his own fate.
But what has always struck me as the true genius of this movie is that having done far more than normal for the times, it makes no real claims to historical accuracy. Jack Crabb is essentially telling us a tall tale, and his own biases provide the filter through which each event is portrayed. One gets the impression that Crabb’s story must approximate the actual truth (he simply knows too much to have made everything up), but if we believe him a number of the particulars, we have certainly gone well beyond the boundaries of fact when he takes credit for the slaughter of Custer.
But who could fault Crabb for stretching the truth. We can only love him for somehow surviving the real events of his life whatever they may have been, and for sharing a perspective on events which was at that time completely novel to the motion picture industry of that day.
Did you know that Paul Newman once played an Apache? …well, sort of. In HOMBRE, Newman plays John Russell, a white man raised among the Apache. Old pictures of Apaches fill the screen during the opening credits, and soon we are treated to an image of Newman dressed as an Apache.
Russel and two Apache companions have been earning a living by capturing wild horses to be sold to the stage-coach line. They learn that a railroad will soon replace the stage-coach line, and horses will no longer be needed.
Russell learns that he has inherited a boarding house from his original family. He returns to civilization and sells the house before heading back west aboard a stage-coach.
When the stage-coach is robbed, it is Russell (with his superior survival instincts) who keeps the other passengers alive, their prejudice against him notwithstanding. In time, Russell learns that the robbers are after money meant for the San Carlos Apache reservation. It had been stolen by a fellow passenger. Russell’s treatment of his companions is harsh, bordering on cruel. In the end, Russell will sacrifice himself to save a woman who would not share the stage-coach with him. He asks only that the money should be taken to the people for whom it was intended.
The movie ends with a vintage photograph. It contains the image of a white boy surrounded by Apache children of his own age.
DANCE ME OUTSIDE: This movie is not on the whole about a white Indian. I include it in this list, because it has an absolutely wonderful scene which serves to comment on the whole phenomenon. For reasons which we need not get into here, the main characters, Silas crow and Frank Fencepost (both Anishinabe), are asked to keep Robert McVey a white in-law busy while his wife is off doing something important. Unable to think of anything else to do, and really unhappy about spending the night in his company, Silas and Frank decide to initiate him into the tribe. What follows is a hilariously improvised ceremony. The scene could easily have been painful to watch, but there is something about the way the white character embraces the ceremony which comes across as endearing. It is as though he has simply chosen to accept the ritual for whatever it is, and he throws himself into it whole-heartedly. In the end, he earns a grudging respect from Silas and Frank, not for being a natural-born tribesman, but for simply being human, foibles and all.
What I particularly like about this scene is the sense of compassion behind the treatment of this subject. This movie takes the piss out the old white Indian cliché as well as anyone has, but it does it without rancor. The white character. Dance me outside is an obscure movie, and I must say that it has a kind of after-school special quality to it. Still it’s a wonderful tale well told.
That’s it for now. There will be two more volumes in this one.
Okay, no I can’t let my readers off that easy. These movies are actually pretty good, so I’m afraid you haven’t got the full cringe-worthyness of this subject. So, let’s have a listen shall we?
…okay, I know. That was unnecessary. I’m a bad man, and I’m sorry.