Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond sets out in “Reel Injun” to document the evolving image of the Native American on the big screen. He aims to explore not only how Hollywood images have shaped white culture’s perceptions of Indians, but how it’s shaped perceptions among the Native Americans themselves. “I grew up playing cowboys and Indians,” he says, “and never realizing that I was the Indian.” He couches his documentary’s journey in a journey of his own, setting out in his “rez car” to visit iconic sites across North America. He visits the Pine Ridge reservation, where he rides a horse across the Great Plains, and declares “finally I feel like a real Indian!”
Early depictions of Native Americans on film were curiously academic. The Indians are viewed with a degree of respect, but also clinical detachment In films like “The Silent Enemy” (which is starvation, not the Indian,) the desire seems to be to document a dying people before they are gone forever. But in the ’30s, with the introduction of John Wayne and John Ford Westerns, the Indian became a brutal enemy. Westerns capture a certain American ideal about themselves; the rugged wanderer braving the massive, dangerous Wild West, and inside that mythology, the Indian is nothing more than the embodiment of the savage side of Nature — it’ll kill you as soon as look at you.
John Ford made almost all of his movies in Monument Valley; his Indians dressed (vaguely) like Plains Indians, but lived in the American Southwest. His movies have become so iconic that thousands of tourists visit Monument Valley every year, not because it is a beautiful, majestic place, but because it’s a place they’ve seen in the movies. I’ve been to Monument Valley, and can report back: almost none of those tourists are white Americans. They are Japanese and European. I spent a night there once and the only person I met who spoke English was the Navajo guy running the food stand. Hollywood’s idea of the Native American has been exported to the entire world.
There’s always been a legend that the Native Americans in John Ford’s films joked around by speaking in their own language; Ford never cared, as long as they “sounded Indian.” Perhaps the highlight of the documentary is a sequence in which what they actually said is finally translated. It’s pretty funny.
Things didn’t change much until the countercultural revolution of the late ’60s and ’70s; then Indians became “groovy” and “spiritual” and everyone wanted to claim some Indian heritage somewhere in their past, or past lives. Depictions of Native Americans in cinema changed as well; they became stoic, spiritual warriors; the embodiment of all that modern society had left behind. Natives became heroes and icons, but they still were little more than symbols. They weren’t real people.
Diamond interviews Lakota activist Russell Means, who was in the middle of the 1973 Wounded Knee standoff when Marlon Brando denied his Oscar for “The Godfather,” instead sending Sacheen Littlefeather to the podium to (very politely) scold Hollywood for the treatment of American Indians by the film industry — and by the government. Means recalls how those at Wounded Knee were watching the awards program on the TV at the trading post, and their spirits, almost defeated, were supremely lifted by that act of courage and defiance.
Westerns fell out of popularity in the late ’70s and ’80s, and there wasn’t much work for Native American actors, even as extras. One notable exception was the 1976 Clint Eastwood film “The Outlaw Josie Wales,” in which Chief Dan George managed, through keen comic timing, to put a slightly more human face on Native peoples.
After a brief stop to examine the problems of 1990’s “Dances With Wolves” — perhaps the biggest “Indian” film ever made– Diamond moves on to the more recent Indigenous film movement, which allows him to end the documentary on a deeply moving and hopeful note. He interviews Adam Beach, and looks at films depicting like “Smoke Signals,” “Pow Wow Highway” and “Dance Me Outside,” which depict Natives as real people with both strengths and weaknesses, not as icons or symbols. But these films are still made about Indians for the wider majority culture: Diamond, and the people he interviews, wax poetic about “The Fast Runner,” a film made by Native people, for Native people, telling a Native story. This is Native cinema.
The image in “Fast Runner” — of Atanarjuat escaping from his certain death and running naked across the ice — captures the moment of Native cinema that we are in now. After years of being beaten down and used, Natives have escaped the suffocating confines of Hollywood, and are breaking free, making, with great vulnerability, exhilarating films that tell their own stories, in their own ways. As the radio DJ in “Smoke Signals” broadcasts, “It’s a good day to be indigenous.”