First Nations always come second in films

by Joseph Zordan 

The representation of Native Americans in media has been one of complicated nature, especially with movies. The way Native Americans have been included in modern, mainstream, and historical, films fall into distinguishable categories.

The first, and most common, is the secondary plot role in movies.  This is the role that happens when the presence of Native American is necessary in the time period (especially the case with Westerns).  Filmmakers know they cannot get away with omitting Indigenous American’s Existences, thus a secondary plot role is given to either an individual or small group of whatever tribe is relevant to the setting.

This individual or group can be based on real-life Native Americans of some notoriety, or just whatever name comes to the mind of the creators of film, the average American won’t be able to tell the difference.

This plot line essentially remains entirely irrelevant to the actual plot, or only intersects with the main storyline to allow the previously mentioned Native American to do one of two things.  

One storyline is to belittle the white main character and his skills.  This establishes and allows for  the main character tooutshine the indegenious group later in the film and save them. This  is based on the assumption that Indigenous people can never be as skilled or smart as the white savior selected for the plot line.

The other role is for this individual or group involves  getting  murdered.

Through the murder of whatever Native American that so graciously attend this story, the director can drive home points of genocide as well as keeping the lovely stereotype of the “Noble Savage,” still going.

This is great as it allows for white audiences to alleviate some of their white guilt, because the white main character most likely was on their side, couldn’t stop their murder, and thus “not all white people,” were responsible for the genocide of the Indigenous People of America.

This role can also be extended to entire tribes, because as, once again, our common knowledge dictates, all Native Americans are dead in our modern day and age.  

TThis plot line and character archetype leads us to another common role: the free Native Americans woman love interest.  That’s right. You, strong indigenous women of the Americas get the honor of getting saved by and then marrying the white male protagonist!  I mean who wouldn’t want to do something such as become this man’s life partner when this stranger rolls into your home and somehow outshines all the other potential bachelors in your community in literally all areas possible.  Are you part of a tribe well-known for their horseback riding? Congratulations! This white man is an expert horseback rider after only one montage, while your previous suitor has only been riding his entire life, but clearly indigenous men are just inadequate.  Bow and arrows? Psht, he has them mastered  a matter of minutes.

While this plotline is often portrayed as romantic , it is usually symbolic of the act of “civilizing” of the savage,as \ you   witness the character abandon her home, traditions, etc. for this new man.  It frequently turns tragic.  

This is especially the case if she has a child by the “white savior” of her tribe, as once you’ve reached motherhood you’ve done all essentially you can as a Native American woman  This is after the Native woman  personally saves him, often from  her own people.  Shortly after she has her son, her character becomes fodder for even MORE white man pain, as well as white guilt alleviation to some extent, because she most likely will die under similar genocidal circumstances.

A similar role to achieved through the sidekick archetype. This role we often see reserved for male outcasts of Indigenous communities.  Here his Native American experience  provides comedic relief, and might  include saving  the hero once or twice But  only because he saves the white protagonist later in the movie from much more dire circumstances.  

This is a unique role as opposed to the previously mentioned ones as when one is the sidekick, you get to not die!He simply can’t when one is in this role, he’s too lovable to the audience, and his tragic backstory doesn’t need more tragedy as the rest of his community either hates himfor some obscure reason or is dead.

It is in these roles you see the continued appropriation and perpetuation of the myth of monolithic Indigenous communities by mainstream movie producers.  The roles played by Native Americans actors , if they even are actually played by Native Americans, are limited, unimaginative, and more often than not end up like all the other representations of Native Americans’s in American Consumer culture: witha skull with a war bonnet.  

While Leonardo DiCaprio has used his position as a well known actor to comment on the importance and significance of Indigenous people in his recent nominations and acceptance, one still can’t help but be critical of the movie that got him there.  The Revenant, while noted for its cultural relevance and accuracy, still missed the mark with actual Indigenous characters in the movie.  At the end of the day, what is rewarded in the modern film industry for Native Americans is not their roles, their culture, or their abilities, but their deaths and ability to compliment the story of the white male hero. I guess, in the very least, can say how impressive it is how art imitates life.