Native Americans in Entertainment: The “Good” and the “Bad”
With the start of Native American Heritage Month, it is important to consider ways to learn about Native American history in ways that portray Native people accurately and without bias.
From long and in-depth documentaries to culturally topical sitcoms, there is a myriad of movies and TV series that attempt to portray Indigenous culture with varying degrees of nuance.
With so many sources to choose from, it can be difficult for a non-Indigenous audience to know which are accurate and which fit Indigenous stereotypes.
To provide this insight, The State Hornet has compiled this list of films and television series that contain Native American characters or themes that are strong representations of culture or serve to perpetuate stereotypes and prejudices toward Native Americans.
“Rutherford Falls” is a sitcom series exclusively on Peacock and stars Jana Schmieding, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe.
The show follows Reagan Wells, a member of the fictional Minishonka nation, and his friendship with Nathan Rutherford, the descendant of the founder of Rutherford Fall.
Throughout the series, Wells struggles to balance his friendship with Rutherford, who comes under scrutiny for defending the placement of the statue of “Big Larry”, his Colonial ancestor, and the relationship with his tribe.
“Rutherford Falls” is fantastic for showing modern Aboriginal identity. The show also has the first Native American showrunner, Sierra Teller Ornelas, who is Navajo. It’s clear that “Rutherford Falls” does what many Native American shows fail to do: show Native Americans in a modern setting.
Overall, “Rutherford Falls” is a lighthearted treat that expresses native stories without falling into stereotypical tropes. With a dash of Native humor and showcasing Schmieding’s talents, the show is set for a second season.
“Dances With Wolves” is a 1990 historical western starring Kevin Costner as a retired Civil War soldier who chooses to give up his life and live in the wilderness with the Lakota Sioux people, who eventually befriend him.
While the film’s depiction of the Sioux people is somewhat historically accurate, its depiction of the Pawnee is largely based on a historical misconception, portraying them as the film’s overly violent and vengeful “bad guys”.
While historical evidence suggests that the Sioux and the Pawnee were regularly at war with each other at several points in American history, in reality the Sioux were larger and more powerful and would likely have been the aggressors in any major conflict between the tribes.
Historical inconsistencies aside, the film also suffers from the all-too-common “white savior” trope, which involves telling the story from the perspective of a white, usually male, protagonist who saves native people from destruction through his superior firepower and tactical knowledge. .
It’s a common trope in many American westerns and movies about Native Americans in general, and it still serves to portray white men in stories as a necessary force to keep Native people alive, as if they weren’t unable to defend themselves. .
A show narrated by Indigenous writers Sterlin Harjo and Academy Award-winning Taika Waititi, “Reservation Dogs” follows the story of four Indigenous teenagers living on an Oklahoma reservation. With dreams of escaping to California, the teenagers find themselves in many misdeeds while overcoming the difficulties of being a native youth.
Like “Rutherford Falls,” this year’s “Reservation Dogs” became a pioneer in Indigenous performance. Unlike most mainstream Indigenous programming, the show is written for Indigenous audiences. Throughout each episode, there are plenty of nods to Oklahoma’s native culture and in-jokes that a native audience understands firsthand.
For example, in episode three of the show, the teenagers visit Uncle Brownie, played by the legendary Gary Farmer, and they come across an owl statue. In this scene, the owl’s eyes are pixelated as the teenagers quickly turn away and cover their eyes. This is a reference to the fact that owls are considered harbingers of death in some indigenous cultures.
Although a show like “Reservation Dogs” is long overdue, it does manage to shine a light on Indigenous issues like mental health and the complexity of Indigenous identity.
“Reservation Dogs” features a wonderful cast debuting Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation member Paulina Alexis, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, who is Oji-Cree, and Lane Factor, who is Caddo and Seminole Creek. It also stars Devery Jacobs, who is Kanien’kehá:ka Mohawk, known for her work on the show “American Gods” and the indie film “Rhymes for Young Ghouls.”
A comedic coming-of-age story, “Reservation Dogs” is arguably one of the best shows of 2021 for its all-Native writer’s room, brilliant cast, and gripping storytelling.
“Peter Pan” (1953) contains perhaps Walt Disney Studios’ most egregious depiction of Native Americans to date.
While the film is largely based on fantasy elements like magic, pirates, mermaids and fairies, it contains a significant plot point revolving around the local natives of Neverland, who are all depicted with red skin. lively and wearing “war paint” and stereotypical headdresses. similar to prejudice against Native Americans in racist political cartoons.
The film features a song titled “What Made Red Man Red”, during which the tribe is shown speaking in guttural tones, very much in line with cultural misconceptions about Native Americans at the time.
JM Barrie, the author of the book on which the film is based, was born in 1860 and grew up in Victorian England at a time when the popular sentiment among those in the British Isles was that the British Empire was eternal and great, which has resulted in a plethora of violently racist portrayals of people deemed “inferior”, including many Indigenous peoples.
“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” is a 2007 historical drama series adapted from the true story of the Lakota and their forced exodus from their homes in the mid-1880s.
This series was groundbreaking for its depiction of the systemic suppression of Indigenous cultures and peoples by the US military, a subject that is still the subject of great sensitivity among Americans today.
The show largely focuses on the story of Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa Lakota who led his people in revolts against American imperialism for decades until his death in 1890. Sitting Bull is portrayed by Mohawk actor August Schellenberg.
“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” is a kind of reaction to the “white savior” complex of many stories depicting Native American history, showing how people fought back against overwhelming odds.
The film is a testament to the resilience of Native American heritage and features classic Indigenous talent like Adam Beach who is Anishinaabe and Duane Howard of the Mowachaht First Nations group.
“The Ridiculous Six” is a 2015 comedy starring Adam Sandler, serving as a parody of American westerns.
The film features numerous jokes about bodily functions and racial stereotypes, many of which involve black people or Native Americans.
The film portrays Native Americans in some of the most cliched ways possible, often relying on the “Hollywood Indian” trope from early American cinema, which portrayed Native Americans as “noble savages” who value nature and spirituality but enjoy killing and promiscuity towards white people.
While the film’s writers may not have intended this to be seen as an insult to Indigenous peoples, the ignorance with which they approached humor in the film is representative of the lack of knowledge and social consciousness put into many modern depictions. Native Americans in popular cinema today.
The film was the subject of outrage among the native actors cast in it, leading to a massive protest that garnered national media coverage.
How can we do better?
Films listed in the “good” category represent stories that accurately portray Native Americans while remaining true to the core beliefs and values of the Native communities in question.
In addition to letting underrepresented cultures take the place of their oppressors, it’s also important for filmmakers and writers to remember that Native Americans still exist and their stories don’t end with the days of the Wild West.
Modern filmmakers must learn that portrayals of Native Americans in film need not just be in the context of historical events or warfare.
Shows like “Reservation Dogs” on Hulu and “Rutherford Falls” on Peacock break this trend by portraying Native American characters in the modern era in settings that focus on relevant everyday aspects rather than cultural suppression.
It’s time for the rest of Hollywood to do the same.