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W&L's Markowitz Co-edits Book on American Indians in Movies

From cartoons featuring “redskins” to the often bizarre monosyllabic dialogue to sympathetic, if paternalistic, portrayals in silent films, the depiction of American Indians in cinema has ranged far and wide.

Now, a new anthology, “Seeing Red — Hollywood’s Pixeled Skins” (Michigan State University Press, 2013) features 36 critical reviews of films that have portrayed American Indians. Harvey Markowitz, assistant professor of anthropology at Washington and Lee University, is a co-editor of the volume.

Leanne Howe, professor of American Indian studies, English and theater at the University of Illinois and Denise Cummings, associate professor of critical media and cultural studies at Rollins College co-edited the book with Markowitz.

Markowitz and Howe originated the idea of asking people who are experts in various aspects of American Indian culture to act as critics of Hollywood movies featuring American Indians, from the silent era to the present. And in order to make the book accessible to mainstream audiences as well as academics, the editors asked contributors to make their reviews personal, intimate, autobiographic and humorous when appropriate.

“One of the key figures in many American Indian oral traditions is the ‘trickster,’ a character who critiques human weaknesses and social injustice through humor and funny incidents,” explained Markowitz. “LeAnne and I thought this book should take on the role of the trickster by approaching the subject in a humorous way, rather than through the usual polemics that people might be tired of hearing.”

Regardless of whether the reviewers are Indian or non-Indian, the editors wanted them to write about their experience of seeing these movies and how they influenced their views of Indians.

For example David Martinez, the reviewer of the 1953 Disney movie “Peter Pan” wrote: “My jaw hit the ground when I heard this song and saw these ‘redskins’ hopping around and making fools of themselves. Granted it was only a cartoon, but it was one in which the animators took the liberty of demeaning an entire race in the name of entertainment.” The first verse of the song the Indians were singing?

What made the Red Man red?

When did he first say “Ugh!”

When did he first say “Ugh!”

In the Injun book it say,

When the first brave married squaw

He gave out with a big ugh

When he saw his Mother-in-Law

Markowitz pointed out that American Indians have been represented in film in a way that has been shaped to fit the needs of mainstream American culture, but that often seem ridiculous and historically and culturally inaccurate to the Indians who are being portrayed.

One movie that Markowitz reviewed is the iconic 1970 film “A Man Called Horse,” starring Richard Harris as an English aristocrat who is captured by the Lakotas in 1825. He eventually becomes not only accepted by the tribe but elevated to their leader. “This movie is focused on the white person rather than the Indians,” said Markowitz. “What makes the story most ridiculous was how this British guy comes along and saves the Indians. Despite this, it is viewed as a revisionist movie, maybe because at the time it attempted a more realistic portrayal of Indians and their customs.”

The Indians in “A Man Called Horse,” who are all played by whites, talk in single syllables and point to get across their meaning. But according to Markowitz they employed language structures that no Lakota would use: “It’s not only inaccurate, it’s silly, and Lakotas who watched the movie laughed at the way their language was spoken. Also, many Indian communities like the Lakotas don’t point with their fingers but point with their lips to be polite. I think the movie is best when it recreates what camp life would have been like, since they used Lakotas from the Rosebud reservation as consultants, which was amazing for that time.”

Another movie known for its use of Indian language is “Dances with Wolves,” made in1990 and directed and produced by Kevin Costner, who also plays the lead role. It was ground breaking in terms of movies about Indians in that it took the language seriously and had the main characters attempt to speak Lakota and use sub-titles. But the way Pawnees, traditional enemies of the Lakotas, were presented in the movie as villains versus the saintly Lakotas didn’t appeal to the film’s reviewer, James Riding In, himself a Pawnee.

According to Markowitz, silent movies and early talkies often presented Indians in a very sympathetic though paternalistic way. Then over time a basic contrast emerged between the noble savage and the evil Indian; one was the friend of the white people and one wanted to kill white people. Although this portrayal improved over the years it was never rectified, and these kinds of Indians are seen throughout Hollywood movies. One of the more recent examples is the 1992 movie “The Last of the Mohicans.”

Markowitz described the director John Ford as “a genius with the camera, there’s no denying that, but I think the presentations of Indians in his movies approximate some kind of nadir. They are used as props and not taken seriously, and are only there to drive along the story about white people by frustrating homesteaders’ attempts to ‘civilize’ the west.  ‘Drums along the Mohawk,’ ‘Fort Apache’ and ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’ are examples of really damaging views of American Indians.”

Ford’s 1956 movie “The Searchers,” stars John Wayne as a Civil War veteran who spends years searching for a young niece captured by Indians. His motivation becomes increasingly questionable and the film is probably one of the most controversial movies featuring American Indians. Markowitz acknowledged that the film’s reviewer, Susan Stebbins, a Mohawk Indian, wrote a complimentary review: “She finds that John Ford was trying to talk about miscegenation, not necessarily limited to Indians, but also whites and blacks, and that makes it a very strong movie.”

Markowitz conceded that, later in life, Ford tried to make amends for his early portrayal of Indians with the last western he directed, 1964’s “Cheyenne Autumn”, which was a very sympathetic portrayal of the Cheyenne Indians trying to escape federal captivity.

Rather than approach the subject of American Indians in Hollywood movies chronologically, the editors decided to arrange the reviews thematically. Beginning with reviews of two silent movies, the book covers Disney movies about Indians; mixed bloods; horror movies with Indians as the main characters; contemporary reservation life; younger Indians coming to grips with crises in their lives; and spaghetti Westerns.

The last chapter, “Workin’ for the Great White Father,” reviews movies where the main characters are working for the United States government. The most famous example of this kind of movie is “Windtalkers,” reviewed by Deborah Miranda, associate professor of English at Washington and Lee.  Made in 2002, it stars Nicholas Cage as a U.S. Marine in WWII assigned to protect Navajo Marines who use their native language as an unbreakable radio cipher. “The movie typically focuses on Cage at the expense of its Navajo heroes—a constant throughout Hollywood movies,” said Markowitz. “Deborah’s review hilariously lampoons the mess Hollywood made of that story.”

To emphasize that the book is also a send-up of film criticism and the weakness of people who know nothing about Indians making films about Indians, the editors introduced a rating system. For example, “Four Feathers Up” denotes a really good movie whereas “Four Tomahawks Down” is for a very bad movie.

Not all the reviews are negative. The 1929 silent movie “Redskin” receives Four Feathers Up as an interesting portrayal of an American Indian taken out of his surroundings and brought to Jim Thorpe University (named after an American Indian) where he is treated abysmally. The reviewer, Christina Stanciu, thought it was a sensitive portrayal of an Indian trying to operate in a totally alien environment and at a time when Indians were mostly shown in movies as murderous savages.

The book is described by one reviewer as “Often funny, frequently touching, always insightful, the reviews in “Seeing Red” offer readers a unique entryway for reflecting on the U.S. film industry’s representation of American Indians. A must for high school and college classes dealing with race and ethnicity, Indian-white relations and the history of movies.”

Markowitz credited Elizabeth Teaff, assistant professor and access services librarian, and Brandon Bucy, senior academic technologist, in Washington and Lee’s James G. Leyburn Library for their work on the images in the book.

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