American films in Hollywood have a long and fraught history with cultural subjugation and appropriation, which can be traced all the back to the budding of the cinema, with silent films. Among the most popular themes embraced by early filmmakers was of the Western genre, which often involved depictions of Native American Indians. Soon, Westerns became America’s go-to motif in 20th century films. As early as 1912 with Thomas Ince’s Heart of an Indian, all the way to the ‘70s, representations of Indians on the silver screen have been guiding audiences towards a fantasy of the “noble savage.” Recently, some efforts have been made to dispel the contrived caricature of Native Americans in Hollywood, but does comedic relief offer a meaningful message to a community who have faced such enduring hardships?
In some cases, humor can be used to lessen the blow of delivering a hard-hitting truth; conversely, it may trivialize a large and serious problem. In an episode of Family Guy, the Griffin family is on a road trip when Peter, the father/husband, stops at an Indian casino to go to the bathroom. Inside, Indian gamblers donning feathers and name tags with “Running Bear” and “Change for a Buck” on them. Later on Lowes is speaking to an Indian worker at the casino who tells her that “technically, it’s not really gambling. It’s just us trying to rebuild our shattered culture after you raped our land and defiled our women.” Loves then says, “well, as long as you’re not using it for fire water,” and proceeds to gamble away the family’s savings and car. This depiction of Indians being greedy alcoholics with nonsensical names don’t accurately reflect such a diverse group of peoples. This similarly reflects popular literature in the mid-1800s, in that it is “without regard for the distinctions of more than 2,000 different cultures, languages, and value systems” that Indians represent.
In Clan Mother, the reality is much less humorous. The short documentary featured theways.org shows how an elder woman, named Molly Miller of the Munsee tribe, is helping to rebuild her community after she loses her son to an apparent suicide. Molly struggles with the death of her 15-year-old son, like many Indian families who have lost a loved one to suicide. Through her hardship, she develops an urgency to bring her community together. This shows how much colonization has truly impacted Native Americans. Molly isn’t speaking with bitterness or coercion, but with vulnerability, pain, and determination to continue her cause and find a purpose in her life by helping her people.
Hollywood will continue to influence the world with their manufactured archetypes of other cultures, but the impact of seeing “the real thing” has an effect that’s much more powerful.
Wilson, Clint C, Félix Gutiérrez, Lena M. Chao, and Clint C. Wilson. Racism, Sexism, and the Media: The Rise of Class Communication in Multicultural America. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications, 2003. Print.