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Presenting a different picture: Program sheds light on portrayal of Native Americans in cinema

University of Washington film scholar Lance Rhoades, in conjunction with Humanites Washington and the King County Library System, will present a conversation on the portrayal of American Indians in film, Feb. 21 at the Auburn Library. - Shawn Skager/Reporter
University of Washington film scholar Lance Rhoades, in conjunction with Humanites Washington and the King County Library System, will present a conversation on the portrayal of American Indians in film, Feb. 21 at the Auburn Library.
— image credit: Shawn Skager/Reporter

Much of what we think we know we learn from movies.

This includes pervasive impressions and prejudices about Native Americans.

“Indians have been more defined in the eyes of other people by their portrayal in the movies,” said Lance Rhoades, a University of Washington film scholar.

Rhoades, in conjunction with Humanities Washington and the King County Library System, will present “American Indians in Cinema: Portrayals and Participation, Onscreen and Behind the Scene” 7 p.m. Feb. 21 at the Auburn Library. The program is a conversation on how movies have shaped the public’s views on Native Americans.

“This talk emerged from work I did in the American Indian studies department at the University of Washington,” Rhoades explained. “I teach film from the silent era all the way to the present, and what I’ve noticed is the presence of Indians throughout the history of film. And we see the pendulum swing from one stereotype to another. Very rarely do we see something closer to the truth.”

In the first 50 years of filmmaking in America, beginning with the first silent movies, more than 25 percent of all films made were Westerns.

During that time two main stereotypes pervaded the portrayal of Native Americans in movies.

“One was the noble savage, the gentle wise man close to nature who admires or respects one or two of the white people he encounters and shares his wisdom with them and often becomes somewhat subservient to them,” Rhoades said.

The other common stereotype is the vicious bloodthirsty savage, an obstacle to the progress of white pioneers as they move west, Rhoades said.

Once sound was added to movies in the 1920s, the stereotypes become even more embedded in Hollywood, Rhoades said.

“Once people on the screen begin to talk, the Indian becomes a comical, guttural, pidgin English-speaking person, or someone who is screaming and yelling horrible war cries all the time,” he said.

Rhoades added that until the 1960s Native Americans didn’t even portray themselves in most Westerns.

“By the 1940s the practice of white actors wearing blackface (to portray African Americans) became distasteful,” he said. “But the practice of white actors portraying Indians remained. We don’t find Indians playing themselves until the 1960s and ’70s.”

In the ’60s and ’70s a new wrinkle in Native American stereotypes in films begins to emerge as well.

“Then you have the ‘going native fantasy,’” Rhoades said. “With movies like ‘Little Big Man’ and later “Dances With Wolves’.”

It isn’t until the independent film boom of the 1990s that contemporary portrayals of Native Americans in movies such as “Smoke Signals” – written by Northwest Native American Sherman Alexie and directed by another American Indian, Chris Eyre – begin to peel back the mask of the stereotypes.

“These movies begin to feature Indians not only onscreen, but also behind the camera, presenting stories with authenticity lacking up until this point,” Rhoades said. “And it’s changing still as more and more Indians get behind the camera.”

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