"There’s just this sad truth that most people don’t really understand or realize that Native Americans are even still alive," Erica Tremblay, a queer/two-spirit Seneca Cayuga filmmaker from Oklahoma, tells Teen Vogue. She grapples with this complexity in her latest short film, Little Chief, which premiered earlier this year as part of the shorts selection at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Filmed on a rural reservation in Oklahoma with an all-Indigenous cast, Little Chief tells the story of a weary teacher struggling to keep her school and herself afloat and the connection she forms in the face of their shared traumas with an unraveling 11-year-old, Bear.
For nearly a century, since the era of silent film, Hollywood has provided the primary avenue for Indigenous images and stories to be displayed to non-Native audiences. While historically, films have played a highly influential role in shaping deeply flawed perceptions of Indigenous peoples, for example, as extinct cultures trapped in the past, contemporary filmmakers and artists like Tremblay are working to combat these dominant, largely negative narratives. In this way, contributions like hers are an attempt to reflect the complex and vibrant experiences of Native peoples and communities.
“All of the representation that you find is stuck in this era and stuck in this specific part of our history," Tremblay says. "But the reality is that there are so many thriving indigenous communities in North America that are beautiful for all sorts of different reasons despite the specific struggles that they have."
The earliest depictions of Native Americans, crafted by white filmmakers, existed largely in a perversion of reality through the Western, and gave way for the birth of the “Hollywood Indian” in modern imagination. Films like D.W. Griffith’s The Battle at Elderbush Gulch and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Squaw Man, one of the first full-length feature films produced in Hollywood, told stories of American dominance over both untamed natural elements and Native American peoples, served as a convenient stand-in for more complex character development, and allowed white characters both a backdrop for and a context in which to behave. In this wild, western playground, Native American characters were reduced to a powerfully simple, yet paradoxical dichotomy of the spiritually inspired innocence of the “noble savage” versus the brutality and hypersexualization of the “bloodthirsty bavage.”
Appearing directly opposite, the “American cowboy” trope provided a convenient proxy for audiences across the country, creating a heroic symbol for the imagined process of colonization of lands and the people in them. The success of these films, upheld by an audience that enjoyed viewing themselves as the benevolent victors in the battle for manmade Western expansion during a time of American exceptionalism and growth, simultaneously created such pervasive misrepresentation of Native Americans that the stereotypes, plots, and ideals depicted within these films persist today in ongoing, corrosive ways more than a century later.
The glamorization of Western expansion, of manifest destiny, of the inherent goodness of the American cowboy and his pursuits rests on a premise of erasure of Native American genocide, one which excludes narratives of violent forced displacement, rape, genocide, and the removal of children from their families and cultural heritage to become indoctrinated in white, Christian boarding schools.
As insidiously, the complexity of culture and individuality that exists across more than 500 federally recognized Native American tribes and beyond has, in popular imagination, also been flattened to largely inaccurate symbols sloppily stitched together from fragments of a handful of tribes. This is evident from the very inception of film at the turn of the century, from the silent film era in the 1910s through to the 1920s and ’30s, a period when these characters were especially popular. John Ford’s 1939 Western, Stagecoach, is a landmark of this time, garnering two Oscars and cementing John Wayne as the quintessential cowboy, and perhaps American, for the first half of the 20th century. It is a level of cultural immortality few entertainers can boast, but one which inherently furthers this destructive imagery. The popularity of Westerns waned as the 1960s closed and the antagonists in American action-adventure films shifted to other, international cultures, shockingly inaccurate depictions of Native Americans never wholly left American storytelling.
There are some notable exceptions, brought about in part by an Indian Actors Guild, which was formed in Los Angeles in 1966 “to promote the use of Native people in Native roles, to promote the training of Indians in trick riding and other horseman skills, and to promote the teaching of dramatic skills to Indians,” as explained by a 1973 academic paper titled “The Stereotyping of North American Indians in Motion Pictures.” Mohawk actor Jay Silverheels, most notably known for his role as Tonto in the long-running American Western television series The Lone Ranger, was a leader in this movement and helped to form an Indian Actor's Workshop at the Los Angeles Indian Center together with Indigenous artists such as Buffy Sainte-Marie. Until the 2020 Oscars, Sainte-Marie, an Indigenous Canadian activist, singer-songwriter, and composer remained the only Indigenous person to have ever won a competitive Academy Award, which she won for her songwriting work on the soundtrack for 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman.
The 1970s and beyond gave way to a wave of so-called “revisionist Westerns,” in which the classic Western tropes were complicated by the introduction of anti-heroes, questionable morals, and sympathetic villains. Conspicuously missing from these films were more nuanced depictions of Native Americans; the 1990s films Dances With Wolves, The Last of the Mohicans, and the animated Pocahontas were widely successful financially, yet, despite being hailed as some of the most influential depictions of Native Americans in the last 30 years, the films relied largely on white savior tropes, and centered depictions of white men “going Native,” that is, in derogatory terminology, a reversion to stereotypes of uncivilized society in search of self-realization and heroism. By nature of their cultural dominance, these blockbuster movies created by white filmmakers for largely white audiences were as much a continuation of the rhetoric and violence of colonization as the earliest silent films.
Around the turn of the 21st century, there was an influx of Indigenous talent in film, beginning with Smoke Signals, arguably the first film written, directed, and acted by Native Americans to see mainstream critical success. But the present moment is a complex one. The time of stereotypical, reductive depictions of Native Americans is not in the past; it now exists in parallel to more authentically representational filmmaking. This is a time in which Native American actors walked off the set in protest of 2015’s The Ridiculous Six and just one year later Disney appeared to attempt righting some of its Pocahontas wrongs with the more culturally contextualized Māori-inspired tale of Moana. Yalitza Aparicio’s 2018 turn in the Oscar-nominated Roma offered an exceedingly rare view of the Indigenous Mexican experience. Still, despite a growing interest for international films depicting Indigenous stories, films which center specific Native American experiences created by and for Native Americans have yet to break through to consistent mainstream success.
In the face of this staggering, insidious historical context, contemporary Native American and Indigenous filmmakers and actors have not given up efforts to correct a century of deeply flawed storytelling. Filmmakers across North America attempt to engage in what University of Chicago professor Michelle Raheja calls a “visual sovereignty” for Indigenous peoples, “a creative act of self-representation that has the potential to both undermine stereotypes of Indigenous peoples and to strengthen the ‘intellectual health’ of communities in the wake of genocide and colonialism.”
Films such as Tremblay’s Little Chief, present an attempt to push this work further. For her, growing up in a reservation community in northeastern Oklahoma, she realized that the specificity of stories she has to tell are lost in pop culture portrayals of Indigenous and Native Americans, which are often flattened to stereotypes she calls poverty porn, where nuance of experience is limited to a uniform life on reservations where no one has running water and no one is employed.
“There’s so much we haven’t even touched upon, there’s so many cultures and so many creation stories and worldviews and we have this very limited, pan-Indian view, that is based only in about 300 years of history,” she says. “The reality is that there’s some really specific and horrific challenges but there’s also this beauty and this light. We love and we laugh and we have experiences just like anyone else. For Little Chief, what I really wanted to have a discussion around is [what’s] underneath the daily hum of direct trauma, of intergenerational trauma, under all of those complicated layers or the casinos and the tobacco factories and the ill-stocked schools. I wanted to have a conversation about how these two people transcended all of that and have a moment of connection.”
Nineteen-year-old actress and artist Sivan Alyra Rose is also a prime example of the power of self-representation, making history as the first Native American woman to lead a television series, with her role on Netflix’s teen horror series Chambers. The actress, who grew up on the San Carlos Apache reservation in Arizona, experienced firsthand the impact of simply having access to create authentic portrayals of Native Americans.
“There is a huge responsibility with the access to make films in the Indigenous community. We don’t really have Native American–owned studios, or casting houses or many agencies to help Native American actors,” Rose tells Teen Vogue. The avenues for Native Americans to create this type of content, and networks which provide access to resources, she says, don’t exist. It’s telling that the historic milestone she achieved in cinematic history happened only last year in 2019. “There’s just so many connections that aren’t made within Indigenous communities that I feel like is preventing that from happening.”
Still, she sees independent filmmaking and content made for YouTube to be a seeding ground for more representational storytelling, and possibly an indicator of the future of Native American filmmaking. From riveting short films to pilots, she notes that these projects embody where she wants the movement to go next — Native people producing these stories and having the access to distribute it through channels with wide reach. She also hopes to create something with the lighthearted writing and pop culture impact of Clueless, but with an all-Native cast, written and directed by Native people. For Rose, while revisionist histories and alternate imagined realities can’t rewrite the past, they may hold a key to drawing attention to the real, lived experience of present-day Native Americans.
“If we did go back and we did re-create Pocahontas, how would it look? How would everyone in the theater feel knowing that actual history didn’t go that way?” she says. “And then today in 2020, the Native Americans of 2020 are still experiencing incredible oppression and injustice. They would be forced to see a veil lifted completely.”
She points to Black Panther as an example of the impact of this type of futurism and hopes to similarly see complete casts of Native people, creating a Native version of Wakanda. Looking toward the future, Rose has been discussing potential projects with her tribal leaders back on the San Carlos Apache reservation.
“Maybe I’ll develop films and movies one day for Natives to feel confident in their ‘Nativeness’ and to take that [confidence] into the world and not feel the need to assimilate for the benefit of what they want,” she says. “You don’t have to do things you’re uncomfortable with for this opportunity. That’s a world I would like to see.”
In a chaotic awards show that largely shut Black films and actors out of the nominations, and in which no women were nominated in the directing category, but which also saw historic wins for international films such as Parasite, Māori director Taika Waititi did not let his presence as an Indigenous person go unseen at the 2020 Oscars. Before presenting the Academy’s honorary awards, (including one for celebrated Cherokee actor Wes Studi), he began with a recognition of the Indigenous people upon whose land Hollywood sits on. It was a fleeting moment of visibility for the Native American experience and context predating American colonization.
“The Academy would like to acknowledge that tonight we have gathered on the ancestral lands of the Tongva, the Tataviam, and the Chumash,” he said. “We acknowledge them as the first peoples of this land on which the motion pictures community lives and works.”
Waititi reached a historic milestone himself, winning an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for his film Jojo Rabbit, a revisionist film imbued with his signature point of view and specific Jewish Māori sensibility. Joining Buffy Sainte-Marie as only the second Indigenous person to ever win a competitive award, he dedicated his win to those that will continue the shift.
“[To] all the Indigenous kids throughout the world who want to do art and dance and write stories,” he said. “We are the original storytellers and we can make it here as well.”
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue