Cowboys and Indians are of course the central characters in our noble genre. There’s a very basic problem of nomenclature, though. Most heroes, or very occasionally heroines, of Western movies never worked with a cow and weren’t boys, and Indians certainly didn’t come from India. As far as the latter go, the fashionable appellation for some time has been ‘Native Americans’, but I must say that Native Americans I have met detest the term, and it is rather absurd – as if all those of distant Polish or Italian or Chinese (or whatever) origin who were born in the US somehow aren’t native Americans. When I was young (admittedly long, long ago) ‘Red Indians’ was the most common usage or even, though it wouldn’t do nowadays, ‘redskins’, and movie titles used the word, Last of the Redskins, When the Redskins Rode, and so on. This notion of redness, although Native Americans (let’s call them that for the moment) don’t seem very red-skinned to me, was deep seated, and ‘the red man’ was used as much as ‘the black man’ to define ethnicity. A more jocular usage, but common, was Injuns. The whole notion of ‘Indian’ was of course a major Doh! moment, when Columbus, arriving on our shores in the 1490s, thought he had found a westward passage to the Indies and called the inhabitants Indios.
The United Nations uses the term ‘Indigenous’ to refer to tribal peoples with long-established cultures, languages and heritage. ‘Indigenous’ is defined by Webster’s as produced, growing, living, or occurring natively or naturally in a particular region or environment. I’m not sure that covers it. ‘Aboriginal’ has something to recommend it but has become closely associated with the indigenous peoples of Australia. ‘American Indian’, which was in 1977 adopted as the preferred term by the American Indian Movement (AIM) does not eliminate Columbus’s booboo, though if that is what many of such people prefer I am more than happy to go along with that. In fact the name ‘Indian’ is one that many older Native Americans have known all their lives, and their families may continue to use the familiar term.
Another problem is referring to all the richly varied indigenous cultures and language groups with one umbrella term, as if they were all alike. The same applies to ‘whites’ or ‘blacks’.
It isn’t easy. We don’t want to be offensive, certainly not, and we don’t want to be too politically correct either, which can lead to silliness. But I’m going for American Indian. Please be indulgent if you disagree, especially if you are a member of these peoples.
Probably the first contacts between Europeans and American Indians, then, was when Vikings from Iceland and Greenland landed in what they called Vinland, described the people they found there as “small and treacherous looking” and duly set about killing them. Things didn’t change much for the next millennium. Spanish conquerors enslaved them, New England Puritans massacred them (both were doing God’s work, naturally) and the whole notion of the ‘Indian menace’ was established. These people had the temerity to inhabit the land which was clearly intended, by both divine and Caucasian design, for the use of the new arrivals.
Parallel to this ‘red menace’ idea there was a more romantic and even sentimental perception of American Indians, at least on the part of those in Europe who were less invested, economically and emotionally, in the ‘New World’, as they called it (less so by those on the frontier dealing with the daily reality). Readers of Rousseau saw these peoples as Noble Savages, and idealized their life and culture. Sometimes their ‘innocence’ and existence in touch with Nature was used as a stick to beat corruption and decadence in European societies.
With the eighteenth-century colonial wars between the French and British, both of which used American Indian allies, grew an American literary genre, gothic frontier romances written by, especially, James Fenimore Cooper, and these became enormously popular. The composer Franz Schubert asked for a Leatherstocking tale to be read to him on his deathbed (personally, that would have finished me off and I would have died from boredom). Cooper and his like used both stereotypes of the American Indian: there were ‘good’ ones and ‘bad’ ones, Noble Savages and deadly foes, personified by decent, loyal Chingachgook and drunken, bloodthirsty Magua.
It didn’t take motion pictures long to jump on the Fenimore Cooper bandwagon. DW Griffith made Leather Stocking in 1909, there were two silent versions of The Last of the Mohicans in 1911, and Wallace Beery was Magua in another, the biggest so far, in 1920. When talkies came in Harry Carey was Hawkeye in Mascot’s serial version (1932), while a young Randolph Scott took the role (with Bruce Cabot as Magua) in the Edward Small production The Last of the Mohicans released by United Artists in 1936 (still the best in my view). Since then, version has succeeded version, and, like Zorro, Robin Hood and the Three Musketeers, it seems that each generation must produce its own attempt at the story. It has become fixed in our collective imagination, especially the ‘captivity narrative’ of the bold hero rescuing the fair maiden from the clutches of the wild red man. American Indians were binary figures, noble people in touch with Nature or cruel barbarians, and there was little or nothing in the huge gulf between.
Luckily, most film versions just gave us a brief digest of the novels’ action and cut out all Cooper’s incredibly dreary pages and pages of waffle in between. These pictures weren’t really Westerns, as such, I suppose, being too early in time and too Eastern, but they were frontier tales, and Hollywood treated them pretty well as Westerns.
In fact, though, many early silent Westerns, or semi-Westerns, gave viewers a quite positive, if patronizing view of ‘the red man’. If you take The Squaw Man as an example (the term squaw being considered less offensive then) the first version, in 1914, directed and written by a young Cecil B DeMille and Oscar Apfel (Apfel used because DeMille was completely new to the business), and based on a 1905 Broadway play by Edwin M Royle, was remade in 1918 by DeMille alone, and DeMille would make the picture yet again as a talkie in 1931, with Warner Baxter in the lead. In this tale, the hero marries a Ute woman and although at first the justice of the peace refuses to carry out such a ceremony, the hero’s friends oblige him to.
The Ute maiden, Nat-u-rich, actually played by an American Indian, Red Wing (of Winnebago parentage), saves the hero’s life, and she is a ‘princess’. This was often to be the case: by saving a white man, the American Indian’s value is enhanced, according to the (perhaps unconscious) prejudice of the white film-makers, and by having ‘royal’ blood her status is also higher, and so she is more worthy of the white man. This lasted right through the Western genre. Even a relatively pro-Indian movie such as Broken Arrow in 1950, written and directed by Delmer Daves, who had spent some time in his youth with the Hopi and Navajo, featured the fictional Sonseerhray (played by the unIndian Debra Paget) as an Apache ‘princess’ (there was of course no such thing) who is in love with the hero Tom Jeffords (James Stewart). She is beautiful, but is doomed to die, because it wouldn’t do, in 1950, for the white hero to marry a ‘redskin’. I mean, think of the children, my dears!
In this regard anyway, The Squaw Man, all those years before, was more progressive. The couple have a young son who is clearly loved by all – by both parents, the ranch hands and the townsfolk.
This notion, that the Western hero could fall in love with and even marry an American Indian, what you might call the Pocohontas syndrome, was quite a staple of the genre. Think of Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin both falling for Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt) in The Big Sky (1952), Clark Gable loving Kamiah (Maria Elena Marqués) in Across the Wide Missouri in 1951 (though she too must perish and their son will be educated in the East as a white man), or Debra Paget again in 1956 as ‘Indian girl’, someone for Stewart Granger and Robert Taylor to fight over in The Last Hunt. There were very many more.
Miscegenation (Webster’s: marriage, cohabitation, or sexual intercourse between a white person and a member of another race) is a word you hardly even hear these days, but it was big in the first half of the last century. Children of such unions would be ‘half-breeds’ and half-breeds were often the worst of villains in movies, even worse than out-and-out Indians. William S Hart often cast a person of mixed race as the despicable bad guy (Mexicans, referred to as Greasers, would often do as well). Sometimes, though, the status of half-breed could be used to ‘soften’ the Indianness of a character. Joan Taylor in Apache Woman (1955) was not full-blood Apache, despite the title, but half-white, and thus could have saving graces, you see. There were many versions of The Half-Breed, from 1908 on, most famously with Douglas Fairbanks in the role in the 1922 silent. A Cherokee ‘princess’ is betrayed by a white man and gives birth to a mixed-race baby, which she entrusts to an old white hermit before committing suicide by jumping off a cliff. “I give him back. Make of him a white man,” she says. This child will grow up to be Fairbanks and many of the title cards stress the nobility of the half-breed (it’s a Rousseau-esque noble savage agenda) and refer ironically to the ‘superior’ and ‘civilized’ whites, portraying them as rogues and lowlifes.They made a different version of The Half-Breed as late as 1952, with Jack Buetel as Charlie Wolf, the half-Apache who, though Indian, was on the side of the (white) angels.
While it was (just about) OK for a white man to woo and even wed an American Indian, it was quite another story the otherway round. The idea, conscious or not, was that a pure white woman being ‘taken’ by an Indian man was deeply shocking. In a way, Anthony Mann’s first Western, Devil’s Doorway, which was shot before Broken Arrow but released two months after, was more powerful and more powerfully anti-racist in its message because in it the Shoshone hero (Robert Taylor in a tan) falls for the white lady-lawyer (Paula Raymond) who acts for him. Once again, though, death will prevent too much awkwardness: Taylor will die heroically.
In other Westerns even the idea of an Indian wooing a white woman was a non-starter. Jay Silverheels was Tecumseh in Brave Warrior (1952) and loved the fair Laura (Christine Larson) but he hasn’t got a chance. Bourgeois 1950s family audiences, it was judged, could not be shown such a shocking thing.
But again, go back to silent Westerns and we see a (slightly) more progressive approach. Ramona, one of the most durable and long-lasting examples of the Western genre, started life as a romantic novel by Helen Hunt Jackson (1830 to 1885), first published in 1884. Jackson was an American poet and writer who became an activist on behalf of improved treatment of American Indians by the United States government. The story was made five times into a film, first by DW Griffith in 1910; it became a Mexican telenovela; it is an outdoor stage play performed annually, the ‘official state play’ of California; and it was made into a musical in 2018.
The Griffith film was subtitled The Story of the White Man’s Injustice to the Indian and starred Mary Pickford, then only 18, as Ramona, who falls in love with a lute-playing American Indian named Alessandro (Henry B Walthall). However, Ramona learns that she too has some Indian blood in her veins. Thus, it’s isn’t so shocking to white audiences that she might go off with an Indian and have a baby. You might call that a cop-out but it’s true to the novel. The couple and their infant child (who has suddenly appeared between scenes) are driven off by white settlers who insist that this is “our land”. In the wilderness, only tragedy awaits them. The baby dies. A white man with a gun even drives them from the grave. Alessandro goes crazy and is then murdered by another white. At last the rich Don Felipe turns up again while Ramona is tending the corpse. The film suddenly stops.
In 1922 Zane Grey started a serialized novel in the Ladies’ Home Journal titled The Vanishing American. It offered an unusually harsh picture of the treatment of American Indians by US government agencies. Grey described missionaries who preyed upon a subordinate race, bullying them into converting to Christianity and polluting their culture. According to Zane Grey’s biographer, Thomas Pauly, “The magazine was deluged with angry letters from religious groups, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs vehemently denounced his depiction of their efforts.” Jesse Lasky received an invitation from Grey to visit Navajo Mountain and Rainbow Bridge in northern Arizona, and decided on a movie version, but in the light of the protests asked Grey to tone down the negative portrayal of missionary and government attitudes to the Navajo. Grey agreed. The blame was concentrated on one character, the Indian Agent Booker.
The Paramount silent movie, directed by George B Seitz, came out in 1925, with Richard Dix as the Navajo hero Nophaie and perennial villain Noah Beery Sr as the evil Booker. Interestingly, Nophaie is allowed to fall in love with the white schoolteacher in the Navajo school, Marian (Lois Wilson as Marion in the movie) but he will die in her arms, so that’s alright, phew. The movie presented stereotype American Indians and there is a pro-white agenda: Nophaie and his people ultimately come to realize that their traditional way of life is coming to an end but that there is an equal place for them within white America. But the book especially, and up to a point the movie (remade by Republic with Scott Brady in the lead in 1955) did basically present a pro-American Indian viewpoint and was a useful corrective to the ‘red menace’ kind of Hollywood ‘Injun’.
At the time there was a renewed interest in the American Indian. The Covered Wagon in 1923, a huge hit, elevated the American Indian in the eyes of viewers and tapped into a new pride in American’s ethnic history. In 1924 of the 228 Westerns produced, fully 13% had Indians in a leading role. The same year Congress granted American citizenship to these peoples and rarely has an archaeological disocovery aroused such interest in the general public as did the so-called Folsom point arrowhead in 1926. ‘Indian’ music (in inverted commas becaus it wasn’t really) was all the rage, and much was played at sceenings of these films.
When sound came in Paramount made a major picture, Redskin, with Richard Dix again. Reels of this film were even n color, a real novelty, shot by the great Edward Cronjager. The 82-minute picture was released with an accompanying soundtrack on nine Vitaphone gramophone records, to be played in theaters. Click here for our review.
The corrupt Indian Agent, was a standard Hollywood Western character from the silents all thru. Think of the loathsome Meacham (Grant Withers) in John Ford’s 1948 picture Fort Apache, selling whiskey and guns to the Indians. When he protests that he has the permission to do so, John Wayne’s character Capt. York retorts that he has been given it by “the Indian Ring, the dirtiest, most corrupt political group in our history”. He had a point. The role re-appeared in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon the following year and in dozens of other Westerns, The Law West of Tombstone (1938), Ulzana’s Raid (1972) and many more. There was even one in 1948, a Tim Holt oater, titled Indian Agent, with Harry Woods as the corrupt official bested by the hero.
Before we get the impression that silent movies had a wonderful pro-American Indian agenda, let us not forget that the likes of Ramona and The Vanishing American were the exceptions, not the rule, and the vast majority of motion pictures portrayed American Indians as nameless hordes standing in the way of European-Americans’ ‘manifest destiny’ to conquer and settle the continent, a barbarous and cruel foe that was barely human and perfectly OK to mow down in large numbers. In 1913 Griffith made The Battle of Elderbush Gulch in which just such an American Indian is shown. In the short span of the action, written by Griffith with Henry Albert Philips, puppies (they were almost obligatory in early Westerns) are saved from Indians who want to eat them, a baby is saved too (it’s Lillian Gish’s) and there is a great deal of (silent) shooting and gunsmoke. The picture used what was already the established cliché of the US Cavalry arriving at the last moment (Buffalo Bill had made much of it). To 1913 audiences, the fate of the settlers in the cabin as the Indians closed in was doubtless truly frightening and the arrival of the soldiers would have brought a cheer from the watchers.
In their book The Only Good Indian authors Ralph and Natasha Friar counted 112 movies like Elderbush Gulch with attacks by American Indians on peaceful settlements of whites, 72 on wagon trains, as in The Covered Wagon (1923), 32 on stagecoaches, such as Stagecoach (1939), 14 on railroads, as in The Iron Horse (1924) and 45 on forts, usually wooden palisades, such as in The Indian Fighter (1955).
As far as the use of American Indians as actors goes, in this respect silent movies were also ahead of talkies, but as a general rule Hollywood has preferred European-Americans to take the parts of American Indians, and certain (white) actors made a specialty of the roles. Eduard Franz, for one, had a craggy face that got him such parts. He was Chief Broken Hand in White Feather (1955) and Red Cloud in The Indian Fighter, for example. Michael Ansara was Cochise in the TV series spun off from the movie Broken Arrow and took several other American Indian oles. Australian-born Michael Pate was Vittorio in Hondo (1953), Geronimo in a Zane Grey Theatre episode, Running Horse in a Rawhide one and Chato in a Cheyenne one, Chief Four Horns in The Canadians (1961), Watanka in Sergeants 3 (1962), and Sierra Charriba in Major Dundee (1965), to name but a few. Jeff Chandler was Cochise three times, in Broken Arrow, The Battle at Apache Pass (1952) and Taza, Son of Cochise (1954). Some especially unconvincing actors were Victor Mature as Chief Crazy Horse (1955) and Morris Ankrum as Red Cloud in the same picture, Donna Reed as Sacagawea in the Lewis & Clark picture The Far Horizons (1955) and Chuck Connors as Geronimo (1962) but there were many others. Often it was the script and direction to blame rather than outright bad acting.
In one way this casting was understandable because there was no line of American Indians waiting in the wings for such parts. Drama and acting were not part of most American Indian cultures. But you also feel that movie producers and casting directors (and maybe directors too) were happier and felt safer with bankable white names.
There were also actors who were not American Indian but who adopted ‘Indian’ sounding names specifically in order to take such parts. Iron Eyes Cody was born Espera DeCorti, the son of two first-generation immigrants from Italy, and the background of Chief Thundercloud, who claimed Cherokee heritage, is vague. He seems to have been born Victor Daniels or Victor Vazquez in Arizona.
And often Mexican actors were used in such roles – suitably dark-skinned and ‘ethnic’ looking, I suppose. Rodolfo Acosta, for instance, was Chato and Satanta (twice), as well as more fictional characters in a whole variety of big- and small-screen efforts.
Hollywood had its Rolodex of actors for these parts and knew who to call.
There was too a perhaps unconscious but insidious racism in the casting of white actors as ‘good Indians’ (i.e. those amenable to whites) but American Indian actors as the militant firebrands who want the warpath. In Broken Arrow, noble, statesmanlike Cochise (Brooklyn-born Jeff Chandler) has to deal with a recalcitrant, unreasonable and bellicose Geronimo (Jay Silverheels, born on Canada’s Six Nations Reserve).
In the latter part of the twentieth century this began to change as certain actors of American Indian heritage came to the fore. One thinks of Will Sampson, Chief Dan George, Graham Greene, Eric Schweig, Rodney A Grant and Wes Studi, just as examples (there are many more). They are fine actors and raise any movie they are in.
Several of them appeared in Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves in 1990 and by then there was almost a reverse process in place: apart from Costner’s character, all the whites are low-down and cruel polluters and all the American Indians are noble, decent family people who respect the environment. There only Goody Indians and Baddy Whites.
But for most of Hollywood history this was far from the case.
And using American Indian actors did not guarantee a fair or accurate portrayal. There are, for example, sixteen (that I know of) screen appearances of the Mescalero-Chiricahua Goyaałé usually known as Geronimo, and he was played by a variety of white actors but also by such as Jay Silverheels, Chief Yowlachie and John War Eagle, the best in my view being Jimmy Herman as an elderly Goyaałé in TNT’s Geronimo in 1993. That did not prevent his often being characterized as a treacherous villain.
Maybe it isn’t only a sprinkling of American Indian actors we need but control over production, direction, screenplay writing, casting and such.
Of course even before Hollywood, Buffalo Bill and other Wild West show managers loved to use ‘real’ Sioux and Cheyenne who would provide a frisson to the paying audiences by acting out attacks on wagon trains, taking captives and scalps, burning and torturing, as well as performing barbaric war dances.
This also had the effect of making the feather-bonneted, buckskin-clad, moccasin-wearing Plains Indian the standard, immediately adopted by Western motion pictures when they arrived. And it
lasted. Look at the costumes in Seminole Uprising (1955), for instance: the distinctive and colorful clothes of the Seminole, which some movie makers tried to reproduce, has been replaced by the standard fringed buckskins and war bonnets, probably in order that old film stock could be re-used.
Language was another issue. Linguists number about 200 mutually unintelligible tongues in North America alone, belonging to perhaps nine large language groups. This hugely rich linguistic diversity was habitually reduced to what I call Ug-speak in Western movies, as American Indians, even addressing each other, talked in a “Ug, me big chief” sort of way. It was an ungrammatical even childish ‘Indianlect’ that could be easily mocked. In fact, of course, many different American Indian groups were polyglot, mastering Spanish, French and English, the languages of the interlopers, with great skill, as well as several of their own. It always got my goat when Tonto, given some menial task to do by his master the Lone Ranger, meekly responded, “Me do.”
Alcohol was another bugbear. Friar and Friar found 53 examples of drunken American Indians appearing in Westerns between 1908 and 1970. There are instances in movies of American Indians being shot at or driven out of they dared tried to enter a saloon, and selling liquor to them was one of the worst crimes renegade whites could commit, on a par with providing them with firearms.
As for military strategy and tactics, ‘Indians’ were often shown to be hopelessly bad at it. Time and again, for example, the wagons of settlers would be circled while the red foe galloped round and round, allowing the whites inside the ring to take pot shots. White movie-makers also applied their own preconceptions to military matters, showing an all-powerful chief such as Sitting Bull who would deploy his troops as a US Army commander might, commanding battalions to move hither and yon. Nine times out of ten it wasn’t like that at all. American Indian attacks were much more collaborative and often individual, the object being, often, to ‘count coup’ and show personal courage and skill.
General Sherman is purported to have said “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Though he denied ever having made the remark and there is no written documentation of it, it was widely believed that he had, and also widely believed to be true. There is more evidence for Minnesota representative James Cavanaugh, who on May 28, 1868, stated in the House of Representatives, “I like an Indian better dead than living. I have never in my life seen a good Indian – and I have seen thousands – except when I have seen a dead Indian.” The ‘belligerence’ of certain American Indians was reflected in Hollywood movies. Friar and Friar list 81 films which deal with the Sioux, 43 with the Apache, 25 with the Comanche and 20 with the Cheyenne, whereas ‘friendlies’ such as Crow and Pawnee got only four each. The thrills were to be had in the Indian fighting.
Military lack of success, in particular the defeat of Custer at Little Bighorn by allied American Indian peoples a week before the United States celebrated its Centennial and the great difficulties encountered in subduing different groupings in the Apache Wars between the 1860s and 1880s, especially the inability to find and capture Geronimo, was an embarrassment to governments and the Army establishment and left scars on American ‘cultural chauvinism’.
Sometimes history was rewritten with breathtaking effrontery. Delmer Daves, who had made the ‘pro-Indian’ Broken Arrow in 1950, directed and wrote Drum Beat in 1954 (a much weaker picture) about an ‘Indian fighter’ (Alan Ladd) in conflict with the Modoc leader Kintpuash, called by the whites and in the movie Captain Jack (Charles Bronson, playing the Modoc in a “Me want fight bluecoats” kind of way), in which he has Ladd’s character say, “We could have saved a lot of lives, Jack, if you hadn’t grabbed country that wasn’t yours.” Such an amazing statement could be accepted without qualm by 1950s audiences.
Back in 1939 Henry Fonda in Ford’s Drums along the Mohawk said, “I don’t think we’ll have any trouble from the Indians. We’ve always treated them fair.” There wasn’t a hint or irony in this speech; it was delivered straight. Audiences didn’t bat an eyelid.
Because Westerns had a strong element of morality tale about them, the ‘bad Indians’, that is the ones who resisted being ‘civilized’ and had the sheer gall to hold to their own cultures, were often shown to be architects of their own destruction. They perished at the hands of the whiter hero or fell victim to their own over-aggressiveness, drunkenness or whatever. The subtext was that this was the judgment of God or white civilization, and the two were conflated.
Although 1950s Westerns such as Devil’s Doorway and Broken Arrow had started to treat American Indians as actual people, and this tendency was continued with the likes of Tomahawk (1951), with Van Heflin as a wise Jim Bridger who understood the Sioux and did everything possible to help them in the face of the corrupt and/or dumb white men, Robert Aldrich’s picture Apache (1954) with blue-eyed Burt Lancaster as the American Indian hero and Jean Peters as his lady-love, and the excellent anti-racist Flaming Star (1960) in which Don Siegel directed Elvis Presley, the old-school Western did not die out overnight. There were plenty of 50s pictures in which American Indians were still nameless enemies to be exterminated, preferably, or at the very least driven from their lands onto ‘reservations’ (which would sometimes also be taken away later if the white authorities found a use for that land too). Take Paramount’s Arrowhead (1953) as an example, a particularly noxious Western directed and written by Charles Marquis Warren and starring Charlton Heston. The picture purports to be a screen version of the life of Al Sieber (1843 or 44 – 1907) and on-screen text announces:
In the 1960s there were worthy attempts to confront the old cowboys-and-Indians stereotype. Indian Paint (1965), for one, didn’t feature ‘cowboys’ at all, only American Indians.
At the dog-end of the 1960s and as that unloved decade of the 70s dawned, revisionism was all the rage in Westerns. Former heroes were debunked with very unflattering portraits of the likes of Custer (Little Big Man), Wyatt Earp (Doc) and Billy the Kid (Dirty Little Billy). As for American Indians, things changed there too. Dee Brown’s impassioned history of American Indians in the American West Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (made into a movie of the same title by HBO in 2007) came out in 1970 and was enormously influential. Suddenly now the US Cavalry were the bad guys, slaughtering innocents in appalling raids on villages. Soldier Blue, released in August 1970 and heavily influenced by the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, news of which became public knowledge in November 1969, was actually a rancid film but it certainly pulled no punches in showing the US military wreaking its murderous wrath on innocent women and children. A Man Called Horse the same year, with that ham Richard Harris, was also a bad movie but at least it contained 80% Lakota dialogue and does attempt some anthropological accuracy. But the largest pan-Indian newspaper in the US, the Akwesasne Notes, commented dismissively, “Same old savage stereotype. White actors playing cigar-store Indians.”
Winterhawk in 1975, a long and earnest pro-Indian picture, featured American Indian actress Sacheen Littlefeather, the person who had been entrusted with Marlon Brando’s speech refusing to accept his Academy Award in 1973 because of the “poor treatment of Native Americans in the film industry”. The same year a TV movie, I Will Fight No More for Ever, told the story of Hinmatóowyalahtq̓it, better known as Chief Joseph (1840 – 1904), leader of the Wal-lam-wat-kain (Wallowa) band of Nez Perce.
But just as the old stereotypes marched on regardless after Devil’s Doorway and Broken Arrow in the 1950s, so too in the 70s the old idea of American Indians was perhaps too deeply rooted in the white American psyche to be abandoned overnight. What you might call ‘savagism’ and also ‘Tontoism’ continued, even if the Indians portrayed became more ‘authentic’. Brit director Michael Winner, who did not understand the Western at all (or if he did just exploited it cynically) made the disgracefully bad ‘brutalo’ picture Chato’s Land (1970) in Spain which had Charles Bronson as a half-breed cruel avenger/loving father. The White Buffalo (1977) as another example, a dire movie, used a superficially realistic Sioux setting and a real American Indian actor, Will Sampson, but was still an absurd and sensational rehash of Jaws in a Western setting, with Charles Bronson again, this time as Wild Bill Hickok! The Mystic Warrior, a TV movie of 1984, which also featured Will Sampson, was based on Ruth Beebe Hill’s Hanta Yo (1979), a book detested by American Indian groups, such that Warner Bros found not a single reservation willing to have the picture shot on its territory and had to film in Mexico.
A more recent Western that gave us a much more interesting American Indian was Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995). In that, Gary Farmer, according to Wikipedia born in Ohsweken, Ontario into the Cayuga Nation and Wolf Clan of the Haudenosaunee/Iroquois Confederacy, plays Nobody (they have another go-round of that joke which is at least as old as Odysseus), who is in fact the leader of the white man/Indian duo, the other 50% of which is played by Johnny Depp as William Blake. Previous ‘Indians’ may have been quite sympathetic, such as, say, Chief Dan George in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) but he was still clearly the subordinate. Clint Eastwood’s Josey was the leader. But in Dead Man Blake is entirely passive; it is Nobody who guides their path and helps Blake survive as long as he does (for he is a dead man). Farmer’s Nobody is a complex character, a philosopher, an outcast, a person, not just an ‘Indian’ or representative of a race. Nobody is the name he has chosen, in preference to what people called him, which was Xebeche, ‘He who talks loud and says nothing.’
Of course there are very many Westerns which deal with American Indians and I can’t possibly mention them all. Sorry if one of your favorites isn’t here. The record of portrayal of America’s indigenous peoples isn’t good, to say the least, but I do think it’s getting better. I certainly hope so anyway.