What’s the big deal? 

Native American imagery in pop culture

“What’s the big deal?”

That’s the question that comes up most frequently when talking about Native American imagery and its role in greater society. Take the easy target recently dominating the news: the National Football League’s Washington Redskins. I could say the logo and name are racist. You could argue the team is an institution, and its name and logo have become sources of pride for many since the franchise was rebranded in 1933. Nothing’s changed in all that time and only recently has the debate resurfaced. So, what’s the big deal now?

Adding to that dismissive side of the debate is the fact that some Native Americans have come out in support of Washington, or at least shrugged off the entire issue. There are too many other things to fix in “Indian Country,” and the name of a football team should be the least of Native Americans’ worries. Drugs, alcoholism, political corruption, extreme rates of violence against Native American women, suicide, poverty, crime—the list goes on, nearly ad infinitum. That’s where the attention should be focused. And again the question gets asked: What’s the big deal?

The answer is that Native American imagery and those who control it only help to reinforce that long list of problems.

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  • Pumpernickel Stewart

I was 7 years old when I moved from a predominantly Native American neighborhood in south Minneapolis to a town called Bemidji in Minnesota’s north woods. It’s four hours north of the Twin Cities, surrounded by three very large American Indian reservations, state parks, forests, lakes and not much else. In the summer, you can walk through the woods, fish, swim and drink beer. In the winter, there’s cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, ice fishing and more beer drinking. It’s like if Missoula had a little brother that was raised by Spokane, but way less exciting.

The move north was prompted by the fact that our tiny Minneapolis neighborhood was getting a little rough. Crime was spiking, and my parents needed a new place to raise me and my two sisters. Since my mother had grown up in northern Minnesota, we had family and friends there. Plus, we’d spent time in Bemidji and Red Lake, the reservation from which my family hails, so it wasn’t a tough change. It was more like going home than moving someplace new.

I spent that summer with my auntie, as my mom and dad handled the logistics of the transition from big city to small town. On one beautiful day, my cousin and I were kicked out of the house and told to go play in the yard. At my auntie’s house, “the yard” meant a giant chunk of lawn that spread out into a dense piece of forest, perfect for two kids with wild imaginations. In between pretending to be Batman, He-Man, and G.I. Joe, my cousin and I got into a game of “Cowboys and Indians.”

We involved a few other kids from the neighborhood, and started shooting each other with Nerf and imaginary finger guns. While dying in slow motion for the millionth time, I got sick of losing. I told my cousin it was time to switch it up. Our side was now going to be the cowboys and calvary.

When I told my cousin that his side would be the Indians, and that he should practice falling over dead, my cousin declared he didn’t want to be on the Indian team. This sparked an argument among all of the kids, none of whom wanted to be the Indians. It grew into a yelling match that lasted all the way back to my auntie’s house. As we got closer, my auntie stepped outside, hearing the ruckus.

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  • Pumpernickel Stewart
  • Professional sports teams like the Atlanta Braves, Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians, clockwise from top left, are some of the highest profile Native images in popular culture.

“You’re all Indians,” she said, “and you should be proud of it.”

“But Indians always lose!”

“Only in the movies,” she said. “In real life, Indians are the toughest people in the world.”

We all hung our heads, shamed by that awful nagging that comes with a good talking-to. But once we got back to the woods, our argument reversed itself. Suddenly, we all wanted to be Indians, and we fought over who got to wield hatchets or bows and arrows as opposed to guns and sabers.

That fall I turned 8 and started school in the northern Minnesota area. While living in both Minneapolis and Bemidji, I attended private schools for Native American students. The Red School House in St. Paul and Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School in Cass Lake had Native American history, culture and spiritual studies integrated with modern academic classes. In theory, we were all just Indian kids, being Indian, but with a solid western education beneath it all. In reality, and as I learned when I started school at Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig, there are myriad Native American identity dynamics, all at constant play.

On my first day at Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig I was constantly called a “city Indian,” with the implication that I was somehow soft or weak. I didn’t come from the reservation, or rez, and therefore was not a “real” Indian. Classmates called into question the legitimacy of my Nativeness, and teased me relentlessly. These “rez kids” knew each other from infancy. Many were related. The school was situated on the Leech Lake Reservation, whereas my extended family hailed from the other two reservations in the area: Red Lake and White Earth. It didn’t help that I was from Minneapolis/St. Paul, known simply as “the cities.”

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After a particulary loud and obnoxious taunting call of “city Indian,” I did one of the two things children usually do when heckled by classmates. I didn’t cry and seek an adult, though I probably should have. Instead, I punched the taunter in the face. When the poor kid hit the ground, I was immediately pounced upon and beaten by his cousin. I didn’t have a chance. Of course, the next day, having beaten each other foolish, that kid became my best friend. Suddenly, with one act, I was looked at with a modicum of respect.

I don’t remember the names of certain teachers from that school. I couldn’t tell you exactly how to get to the science room or where the bathrooms were, exactly. But I do remember those schoolyard lessons. The experiences helped define what “Native American” means to me, then and now. Combine those experiences with the fact that my parents are indigenous rights activists, and you’ve got a kid who knows that he’s “Indian,” and never really had to explain it to anyone.

My cultural and social background was pretty full, and I grew up with an intact awareness of the strength of my culture and a general understanding of the societal problems plaguing many Native people. These understandings are rare things. Surety of self is not something that flourishes in Native America. You couldn’t say that every person who is from a given Indian community has the luck of good parents, good friends or good family. Rather, their idea of what it means to be “Indian” is informed by the same disjointed information that most others have.

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.

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  • Pumpernickel Stewart
  • Critics accused Victoria’s Secret of “making a mockery of Native identity” after dressing one of its models in a full headdress during a 2012 fashion show. The lingerie maker later apologized.

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.

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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.

So here we are, 14 years into the new millennium, and it’s an age of hashtags and viral videos. There has never been a media outlet like the Internet. Native Americans can, for the first time ever, tell authentic, diverse stories to a global audience without being vetted, tampered with, or Indianed up. I find it empowering. It’s the first time since Columbus’s first contact that Indian people have been wholly in control of their own imagery on such a scale. Now any kid feeling like the cowboys always win can surf over to YouTube or Facebook and see a true and modern portrayal of his or her people out there in the world. This is a massive change from when I was a kid. And it’s 180 degrees from the start of America.

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  • Dances with Wolves

In some of the first notes written about Native Americans, Columbus talked about how easy it would be to enslave such an innocent and childlike people. But if any Indian broke that narrative and stepped up to Columbus and the extraordinary atrocities he and his men committed, that was savagery. The women were free and innocent, and could be taken on a whim with the right amount of coercion or force. A noble, a savage, a maiden—three concepts as erroneous and one-dimensional as the old myth that Columbus thought he’d landed in India, but they make the bloody history of this Land of the Free a little easier to teach to elementary schools, and justify my people receiving just a paragraph in a Minnesota textbook.

These images are the blueprint for every John Wayne Western and the same stereotypes Native Americans face today. They have evolved of course, with different aspects informing each modern incarnation. These include how everyone’s grandmother seems to have been a Cherokee princess, how TV’s Indian good guys are often still the stoic noble, and of course, the NFL’s favorite “Redskin,” another word for “savage.”

The truth is, with all the lenses through which the world can now view Native America, it’s a thrill for me to think that somewhere a kid is watching YouTube videos on a Saturday morning, the way I used to crowd in front of my TV. If you want to, you can see examples of every tribe out there, for better or worse. It’s work created by those tribes, and not some studio executive who’s afraid that without feathers, you won’t know these people are Indian. For example, if you type the word “Ojibwe” into YouTube, the first video is about my tribe’s native language, and you can hear what it sounds like. That’s the first hit, and that’s an amazing achievement.

I can clearly see that kid in front of YouTube, processing and internalizing a different definition of Indian than the definitions I had. This kid will have a different concept of authenticity, popular culture be damned. No matter what you call the Washington football team, or how many bad or inaccurate movies Hollywood churns out, or how long it takes the rest of the country to catch up, that kid will understand that the only definition of “Indian” that matters is the one that comes from his or her own experience.

Hopefully, this kid will go outside to play, and when someone brings up playing cowboys and Indians, that kid will be excited to show John Wayne a thing or two. Because the validation of Native Americans and their stories and imagery as a people is the validation of Native Americans as individuals, real, modern, vital. That solidified sense of self can go a long way toward solving the long list of problems facing Natives today.

And that’s the “big deal.”

Migizi Pensoneau is a filmmaker, writer and founding member of the Native American artist collective The 1491s. He also writes film reviews for the Independent.

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