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Much of what people learn about Native culture is footnote, at best. In our Minnesota history textbooks at Bemidji High School, there was a whole paragraph about the Ojibwes and Dakotas (the two tribes in Minnesota). That was it.
Usually, mainstream portrayals of Native Americans take place in the past. Those caricatures, so far from the truth, are one-dimensional enemies of Westward Expansion, opponents of Manifest Destiny. Native Americans, as portrayed on film, are just one of the many obstacles of settling the West. They’re often relegated to grunting, yelling primitives, fit only for death, or at their pinnacle, a formidable terror to which John Wayne can affix his stare. If they’re one of the “good guys,” then they’re stoic or mystic stereotypes, men who look into the distance with a thousand-yard stare, gazing back across generations with dreamcatcher eyes and buckskin-fringed wistfulness, until they have to magically and precisely throw a Bowie knife.
My stepdad is a big ol’ Navajo. When I was 12, I remember watching Young Guns II for the umpteenth time. My stepdad stomped by when, onscreen, Lou Diamond Phillips said something about “ancient Navajo word…” My stepdad gave a small laugh and said, “Yeah. Ancient Navajo word, that’s a good one.”
I was struck: I never considered that Lou Diamond Phillips was representing any particular tribe, much less my stepdad’s. There was a huge disconnect between what I was seeing onscreen and what I was seeing at home.
In the mid-’90s, a movie called Smoke Signals hit limited release in movie theaters. A Native American tale that takes place in modern day, it’s a road trip movie about a troubled young man who travels across the country, dealing with his alcoholic father’s death. The protagonist has a quirky sidekick who spouts Indian wisdom at him through the whole thing. A friend of mine once asked me if that’s an accurate depiction of modern Native America. At the time, I shook my head, and could only muster an unsure response. I didn’t really know how to describe Smoke Signals. What I did know is that it gave me a charge seeing Indians in truly modern context. That was a very different and valuable thing.
Only two or three other widely known American films come to mind in which a modern Native portrayal was even attempted, and only one of those was in earnest. Billy Jack is a ’70s Indiansploitation/kung fu film. (If you’ve never seen it, go rent it right now. The guy can’t fight the bad guys without taking his shoes off first. Traditional Indian ways, I’m sure. Go watch it, seriously. I’ll wait.) Thunderheart, released in 1992 and starring Val Kilmer, suffers from the fatal flaw of having a Caucasian protagonist who is better at being Indian than the Indians. (See also Dances with Wolves and Last of the Mohicans.) Also, Thunderheart takes place in the ’70s, a generation previous to mine. To a teenage me, that didn’t count as modern. Twenty years was so long ago, and it didn’t even matter that I looked a lot like Val Kilmer as a kid. As a result, while some of it was relatable, much of that movie buzzed right over my head.
The third film that immediately comes to mind as a decent attempt at capturing Indian Country is 1989’s Powwow Highway. But Powwow Highway falls into the same trap as Smoke Signals. Both are films that take some true swings at portrayals of reservation life and the mindset of modern Indians. They both tackle tough issues like alcoholism and poverty, and they showcase the humor found in what might otherwise seem like hopeless places. But they replace what’s truly funny with quirky, and confuse genuine emotion with quaintness. The biggest misstep for both of these films is that the characters are all hyper aware that they are Indian, and it comes through in everything they do.
I’m aware of my culture, for sure. But not everything I do and say comes from the fact that I happen to be an Indian. Just as not every person comments constantly on how they’re Scottish, or French, or German, not every Native American sits around commenting on what a curiosity they are, how different they are from the rest of the world. At least, I hope not. That would be as insufferable as those two films tend to be.
Movies and television have fascinated me since childhood. I used to reenact scenes from Mel Brooks classics with my brother, and terrorize my mother with movie quotes. I’ve worked in film since 2004, and until only recently, I’ve struggled with that industry’s expectations and ideas of what makes an Indian authentic. Most of those ideas are informed by the same Westerns and antiquated portrayals that had my cousin and I fighting over who was going to be a cowboy all those years ago. Even worse, the relative success of some of the films I just described has served to encourage many that to make an Authentic Indian Movie, you have to set it in a bizarre alternate universe where Indian identity is a curiosity of paramount concern to Indians themselves.
The few exceptions to this rule are the fantastic independent films by the likes of Zacharias Kunuk, Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi. Kunuk made the excellent Atarnajuat: The Fast Runner, which I consider the only truly indigenous feature film out there, as its story structure is based on a traditional Inuit story, passed down for generations. But other than that, if you’re working in Hollywood, you’re stuck in the same old formula of Native American as a novel quirk.
A studio once hired me to write four drafts of an action movie. A producer gave me a basic outline of a road movie about a Native American detective chasing a serial killer across the country. As the notes started coming in, they got increasingly ridiculous.
“Could you have the detective have long hair? Maybe with a feather in it?”
“He should be dealing with the legacy of his father’s alcoholism, don’t you think?”
“He should have a quirky guy with him when he goes across country. Maybe a cousin or an uncle who rides in a sidecar, who gives him Indian wisdom as they travel?”
They basically wanted me to write Smoke Signals With Guns. That movie was never made. I can’t imagine why.