It is time for another trip through the world of the white Indian. In today’s installment we will meet three very different white Indians with three very different stories and three very different fates.
Let us begin this installment with the quintessential white Indian of the 1970s. In A MAN CALLED HORSE (1970), Richard Harris plays an Englishman named John Morgan. Captured by a Sioux-speaking tribe known as the Yellow Hand, he is humiliated and used as a horse (hence the name). But Morgan proves himself an able warrior, and quickly gains the respect of his captors. More than that, he becomes a war chief, leading them to victory against the Shoshone.
The movie seems to take its portrayal of Native American culture quite seriously, perhaps a little too seriously. The film wants desperately to show us how things really were, but its portrayal is far too filled with sensationalism to provide any real insight into anything Native American customs. In fact, of all the white Indians of movie history, this one seems to irk people the most.
In the most striking scene of the movie, Morgan is initiated into the Yellow Hand by means of a sun-vow. His chest is pierced, talons are fastened to the wounds, and he is suspended from the top of a Medicine Lodge. Upon waking, Morgan will soon make-love to the daughter of the chief (thus playing out yet another cliché – Pocahontas anybody?).
Loosely based on a Mandan variant of the Sun Dance ceremony, this scene was sufficiently close to home that many found its portrayal on the big screen quite offensive. In A man Called Horse, the logic of the ritual does less to tell us about the lives of the people with whom Morgan is living than it does to signal his great triumph, his transition from a mere beast of burden to a full member of the community (…one who is eligible to make love to the beautiful Indian princess. …yes, I said ‘princess,’ …and yes, I know how ridiculous that is.)
We must also account for THE RETURN OF A MAN CALLED HORSE (1976). Yes, that’s right. This movie has a sequel (two of them in fact, but I will spare you an account of the third; it isn’t even interesting in a disgusting way). In The Return of a Man Called Horse we find Morgan back at home in England, …and hating it. Surrounded by artifacts of his time among the Sioux, Morgan longs to rejoin the Yellow Hand.
When Morgan does return to his adopted people, he quickly discovers that they have fallen on hard times. Under attack from white trappers with Indian allies of their own, the Yellow hand are in sore need of great leadership. Luckily, Morgan is there to aid them. With their very own great white Indian now back among them, Morgan’s friends now find their courage. Naturally, the revival begins with a sun dance.
I have to confess that when I first saw these movies I enjoyed them a great deal. Mind you, I was a teenager. It took a few years before the arrogance of the message sunk in. Unable to fend for themselves, the Yellow Hand must have a white man come and rally them to perform one of the most sacred of their own ceremonies. That’s right; in this movie Lakota need a white guy to perform their own sacred rituals. I would say that it gets worse from there, but ‘pathetic’ is probably a better word for it.
Back when I was teaching in Navajo country, one of my classes swore up and down that GREY OWL (1998) was a good movie. I went to a video store (yes kids, that’s how we used to do it) and looked at this, and looked at it some more, and …just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I mean Pierce Brosnan as an Indian? I just could not wrap my mind around it. But my dear reader, I realized as soon as I started this blog series that I would have to venture onto that dangerous terrain. And last night, I finally watched this movie.
Just for you.
Okay, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I really should have trusted my students. It was at least entertaining. I must give it that much.
This movie is about a real historical personage, Archie Grey Owl (1888-1938). When we first meet him, Grey Owl is entertaining tourists with Indian dances and serving as a hunting guide in the Canadian wilderness. His skills in trapping and hunting are unmatched, and his presentation of Indian customs comes across as both authentic and entertaining.
When Archie falls for a young Mohawk woman named Pony, his life begins to change dramatically. He gives up trapping after she adopts two beaver orphaned by his own traps and the tough old trapper finds himself unable to resist their charms. Facing ruin, Archie opts to write a book about the forests and the need for conservation. This becomes the first of many publications and speaking engagements. All seems to be going well.
…except that Grey Owl seems a little testy at times. He is nervous when told that newspaper reporters are looking to write stories about him, and inconsistencies begin to creep into his story. Why does he dye his hair? And was it his father that was Scottish and his mother Apache, or was it the reverse? Pressed on details, he becomes angry. No-one questions his adoption by a local Ojibwa community, but it becomes increasingly clear that something is wrong when Grey Owl reluctantly sets out for a 3 month tour of England. It is the chance of a lifetime. Why the hesitation?
We soon learn the answer.
While in England, amidst all the hoopla of a speaking tour which includes a performance for the King, Archie Grey Owl takes a small side-trip to a residential neighborhood he seems to know well. It turns out that he is actually Archibald Belaney, an Englishman himself. …a full-blooded Englishman, as it were, with no Apache relatives at all. Archie has a tense but pleasant meeting with the two aunts that raised him and takes a quick look in his old room where it immediately becomes apparent that his love of all things Indian had been well established as a young child.
When Archie returns home, he is invited to a great powwow where he is asked to meet with a gathering of chiefs. Only then does he confess his origins to Pony. Naturally, she forgives him.
Which leaves the gathering of chiefs…
Unable to back out of meeting them, Grey Owl enters the gathering of chiefs to a rather awkward and tense moment. Can he fool them? Well it turns out the answer is ‘no’. Everybody in the whole lodge laughs at Grey Owl’s deception. But all is not lost, and a Sioux chief finally explains; “Men become what they dream. You have dreamed well.”
And so the white Indian of this story receives the ultimate stamp of native approval. Even his fraudulence is blessed by the old Sioux chief.
And then of course there are white Eskimos, even black ones. WHITE DAWN (1974) begins with a maritime disaster leaving a whaling crew stranded on the ice flows off Eastern Canada. Three survivors (Louis Gosset Jr. as ‘Portagee’, Timothy Bottoms as ‘Daggett’, and Warren Oates as ‘Billy’) will eventually be rescued by Inuit who take them in, nurture them, feed them, and accept them as part of the community.
One might expect people in such a position to show gratitude. Well they don’t, at least not all of them. Billy (Warrent Oates) is particularly contemptuous of his benefactors, insulting and exploiting them at every opportunity. Daggett (Timothy Bottoms) appears to accept his new community. In time, he has essentially gone native, or at least he tries to. If there is a definite white Indian in his story, it is Daggett. Portagee (Louis Gossett Jr.) seems content to follow the path of least resistance, and given Billy’s aggressiveness, that means Portagee will often serve as an accomplice in destructive activities. Daggett may mean well, but he simply does not put up enough of a fight to reign in his companions.
The generosity of the Inuit people plays a key role in this movie. Not only do the Inuit share their food and lodging with these desperate strangers, the men also share their wives. This allusion to yet another cliché (“Eskimo hospitality”) receives a lot of screen time in the movie. I would hardly suggest that the movie portrays the actual customs of spousal exchange accurately (it doesn’t), but for purposes of plot development it is perhaps more important to note that the three castaways misinterpret the custom as it is understood by the Inuit characters of the movie.
The Inuit men of this movie share their wives as a gesture of hospitality; they do not mean to give their wives up. In time, Billy and Portagee come to see the women as theirs for the taking. For his own part, Daggett falls in love with a beautiful young wife of community elder (yes, there is that Pocahontas theme again). As the story unfolds, each of the three men becomes more presumptuous in their approach to the women of the community.
And I suppose I should say here that the movie does very little to shed any light on the motives of the women themselves for having sex with any of thee men. Daggett’s love interest appears responsive. The women are otherwise little more than pawns in a game that takes little notice of their own preferences.
Billy is the driving force for much of the movie’s action, initiating one after another disruptive scheme. He is greedy, malicious, and completely unprincipled. Most importantly, Billy convinces both Daggett and Portagee to steal the community stores of fish and set sail in a small native boat. When this attempt to get home ends in yet another crash, the Inuit will once again come to the rescue. And all three must now live with the community made hungry by their theft of food supplies.
When Billy’s shenanigans finally result in the accidental death of a young woman, the community takes action. Tricked into accepting mittens with no thumbs from the remaining young women of the village, Billy and Portagee are unable to defend themselves when attacked by the men of the village. There is a moment when it seems that Daggett will be spared, but that ends abruptly with an arrow to the belly.
And of course it is the death of Daggett which is most interesting here. He is the white Indian of the bunch. …or the white Eskimo as the case may be. It would be easy to think the Inuit had killed him unnecessarily. After all, he was a decent guy. Absent Billy and Portagee, one cannot help but to hope that Daggett would immerse himself in the community and live as they do. Who knows? perhaps he would even get the girl!
But of course that girl is why Daggett must die. Where Billy and Portagee use the Inuit women in the cheapest sense of the word, Daggett has claimed the love of another man’s wife. For all its sincerity, Daggett’s presumption reaches a scale well beyond that of his companions. He wants to keep the girl, but of course she is not his for the taking.
And thus ends the white Indian of White Dawn!