Contrasting films made by native peoples with those produced by mainstream white American studios provides the basis for discussion and analysis. Cinematic techniques can also be introduced and applied.
Static images of Native Americans remain unchanged for centuries and develop into racial/cultural stereotypes that affect all segments of society. Thanksgiving celebrations in elementary schools, for instance, still use the cardboard cut-out feathered headdress popular in the 1950s. Movie productions from the silent film era such as Squaw Man to the 1990s production of Dances with Wolves utilize the same script and character formulas of "good Indian" versus "bad Indian." Walt Disney Studios' animated film effort Pocahontas repeats a story line that researchers at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History have seriously questioned in the past decade. Such limited perspectives concerning Native Americans are stultifying and reinforce stereotyping.
Darcy McNickle's classic Western novel, The Surrounded, is an example of a Native American writer's approach to the Western genre. Written in the 1930s, the novel has all the elements of the traditional Western story or film: cowboys and Indians, a bureaucratic sheriff, an Indian agent, a love story, a sweet "bad" girl, a mystery, and a stand-off scene. McNickle uses a cliched form of dialogue for the Western sections of the novel. The Surrounded incorporates four distinct voices or styles of writing to reflect the forces pulling the bicultural hero in four different directions. Archilde's Flathead/Salish mother tells him stories of Coyote and Flint, urging him to listen to his dreams and his Indian blood. His Spanish father tries to raise him as a rancher, a wealthy landowner in the model of the conquistadors. The Catholic Church, represented by the Jesuit mission school Archilde attends, condemns the native rituals as "barbaric" and teaches him a dualistic notion of sin. The higher education to which he has been exposed introduces him to the notions of Transcendentalism, Puritanism, and mainstream American identity. All of these forces speak in conflicting voices within Archilde, reflected stylistically in the linguistic shifts in the text: the mythic tone of the mother, the dialect of the rancher, the reading of the Jesuit diaries and the sermons of the priest, the laws of the sheriff, and Archilde's own nearly mute inner voice. Similarly, the novel is constructed in the form of a genre Western but with allusions to mainstream classics such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Death Comes for the Archbishop. Discussion of this novel provides a contrast between the stereotypical Western and one told from a Native American point of view.
Victor Masayesva's (Hopi) films and works of film criticism juxtapose positive and negative images of Native Americans. Readings from the text Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema and the Colonization of American Indians provide examples of stereotypes in the films made by mainstream producers. Discussion of Masayesva's film Imagining Indians provides the basis for contrast of films made by Native Americans about their own cultures and those made by commercial, white producers. Shadows of the Indian: Stereotypes in American Culture is an excellent text for comparative analysis.
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