In this documentary, Reel Injun, by Neil Diamond, the director explores how Native North Americans were treated and shown in media from the early 20th century to the present. The documentary explores the negative stereotypes and mistreatment Native North Americans faced. The amount of negative depictions and inaccurate stereotypes about Natives in film played a significant role in the hatred towards Native People, and reinforced the stigmatized views that mainstream society already had towards them. As a result, their confidence had been destroyed and their self-identity lost, as their ideas of who they truly were as people had been abandoned. This documentary is an exploration of how the portrayals and treatment of Natives, not only in film, but also in real life, progressed over time.
Neil Diamond begins his film by exploring the origins of Native stereotyping in movies. In early films, Natives were always portrayed with more of a positive image as opposed to a negative one. This was shown in films such as “The Silent Enemy,” where respect was given for the way of Native tribes and showed Natives as “noble savages, who were brave and courageous warriors that were in sync with nature.” The movie featured real Native actors such as Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, who played as a hunter in the film, and was considered one of the most noble Natives at the time. Although the film consisted of positive stereotypes, these same stereotypes were ones that portrayed Native North Americans as “less than human,” in other words, as second-class citizens. Even though Natives continued to succumb to the motives of the White man, “The Silent Enemy,” showed them as gentle individuals that continued to show respect for others, never surrendering or holding a grudge, but rather, wanting to live in a peaceful coexistence with White people. However, the film did not become a box-office success; society was uninterested in films that showed the ways Natives lived their lives, and were more fixated on comedic movies, beautiful love stories, and action packed adventure stories. People wanted to get away from their own lives, and wanted to jump into something that made them feel happy; no one wanted to pay for a film that evoked pain and showed the mistreatment of Natives, when they could pay for a movie that made them feel entertained. Before films veered off into depicting Natives as brutal savages, one could say that this movie had a major impact on the analysis of Natives throughout history.
Following these “positive” stereotypical movies, Western films became the norm. A more pronounced negative portrayal of Native North Americans arose, and people loved seeing the Natives become target practice for cowboys. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, the Great Depression had taken a toll on people; they were looking for an “enemy,” and it just so happened that Natives were their ragdolls for anger. Native people began to become severely disrespected and inaccurately depicted in films. Directors were going so far that they began to show Natives speaking a sort of “Tonto” speech, where English is played backwards, making Native people look like uneducated, uncivilized and most importantly, “brutal savages;” as opposed to the “noble savages” they were once shown as. Perhaps the biggest movie to ever destroy a total culture’s way of life and reduce it to a mere thought, would be “Stage Coach.” Released in 1939, the film shows a group of White travelers and their journey across the Wild West towards New Mexico. The travelers were very fearful of being violently ambushed by “savage” Natives, who are made out to be unethical and merciless. The film stars cowboy actor John Wayne, a very patriotic American that makes Native people not only his practice targets, but makes them seem like ruthless, brutal savages who have no regard for human life and are out to “get” the Americans. The film was so discriminatory towards Native North Americans that it made the Natives themselves think that they should distance themselves from their own culture, not only for fear of being targeted, but because they had started to believe in these falsely concocted stereotypes. Stage Coach along with many other films at the time, caused a lot of Native North Americans to lose their sense of identity, and because of this, turned them towards substance abuse and provoking fights with their societal counterparts. Nonetheless, the assassination of Native character done by Hollywood, provided the foundation for the aggressive behaviors of Natives in this time of heightened socio-economic issues.
However, after a few decades of negative depiction in film, Natives were starting to be portrayed positively again. The 1970’s for Natives was what one could call a sort of Renaissance period, as it was a major turning point in the portrayal of Native North Americans. This period started with “The Occupation of Alcatraz,” in 1969, where around one-hundred Native people occupied Alcatraz island in protest to the government and their land treaties. Alcatraz was always originally sacred Native land, and protestors wanted to buy the land back for the same amount they had been offered for it, which was just a few dollars. The occupation became infamous and people from all over the world took notice, especially the man who later became “The Voice of Alcatraz,” Lakota activist John Trudell. Trudell had started a radio show that explained the reason for the protest and describing other issues Native people faced in America and the world. He is known as one of the most influential people involved in the whole escapade, and his presence brought an energetic spark to the people’s voices. Although the occupation of Alcatraz eventually did collapse, it is still widely regarded as a “symbol of Native North American’s desires for unity and authority in a “White” America.” Following the attention that Alcatraz gained, two significant things happened, the “American Indian Movement (AIM)” which aimed to fight back against all the false identities, stereotypes and mistreatment Natives faced in film and in real life, arose; as well as the release of Billy Jack in 1971. In essence, Billy Jack “was a representation of a Native action hero, who used violence to enact justice.” The character was half-Indian, and would fight anyone who disrespected Native people or the law. He was basically an embodiment of not only hope, but all the angst and anger the 70’s brought for Native people, and was retaliating for all the negative stereotypes Native people faced by doing what they could not, that is, fight against the oppressors.
Reel Injun also mentioned a battle that took place in South Dakota, more specifically, at Wounded Knee, where hundreds of Natives were slaughtered. The government was retaliating for the Battle of the Little BigHorn in the late 19th century, and their goal was to fight against the Native Americans who had taken a town under its control, in hopes of having the government honor its previously agreed upon terrestrial treaties and rights that had went undelivered for so long. Despite the push of the United States government, the Natives continued to fight back and never surrendered, which led to the deaths of many men, women and children. During this conflict, in 1973, American actor Marlon Brando, famous for his role in The Godfather, had a Native activist named Sacheen Littlefeather boycott the Oscar ceremony by refusing Marlon’s Oscar Statuette on his behalf. This was done in hopes to protest the widespread defamation of Native North Americans in Hollywood film. Her speech in front of the public addressed the injustices Natives faced not only on the big screen, but in real life, more specifically throughout the country and the massacre occurring at Wounded Knee. People saw this speech from this “hippie” as inspirational, and her message was welcomed for the most part, by applause and open arms, which led to a newfound appreciation for Native people. Suddenly, being Native was “the thing,” as Americans liked the idea of the “free and spiritual hippie” and drew similarities with Native and “hippie” culture.
Throughout these eighty years or so, the widespread propaganda of Native North Americans in Hollywood film was an up and down struggle. As described by Neil Diamond, the director of Reel Injun, Natives were first portrayed as the “humble and noble savages,” very attached with nature and respectful in their coexistence with the “White American.” In fact, the Natives were the ones that helped these men adjust into their lives in North America in the first place, yet in later years, culturally destructive films such as Stage Coach described them as “brutal savages” who showed no mercy and were as ruthless as possible when torturing these “White folk.” Later of course, this notion came full circle as the public took notice through the constant lobbying and pushing efforts of not only Native activists like John Trudell and Sacheen Littlefeather, but Hollywood actors like Marlon Brando as well. American people learned that Natives are more than their traditional regalia, with feathers and “face-paint,” rather they are “real” human beings, and that all human beings are different and deserve to be treated equally