The Hollywood Indian:
The Portrayal of Native Americans in
John Ford’s The Searchers and
Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man
November 30, 2005
The depictions of Native American in film have changed little over the history of the motion picture. The stories told hold fast to the dream of manifest destiny, the conquering of the unknown, and the great American spirit of adventure—which ironically, are ideals that have also changed little over the centuries. What initially began as overtly racist images evolved (devolved?) into subtle messages, playing silently between the lines of the dialogue, plot, and editing technique. Two films, The Searchers (1956) directed by John Ford, and Little Big Man (1970) directed by Arthur Penn, can be used as examples of a shift in how Indians have been portrayed in film. In the fifteen years between the releases of these two films, both set during the same time period, little progress was made in depicting Indians accurately—both give into stereotypical myths and images about Native American history, culture, and everyday life. The difference however, is how it is done and the change from a negative stereotype of the scalping savages played by whites, to the peaceful, sexually open and non-violent, Indians, played by some Native American actors of different tribes, and often Latino and Asian actors. The essential questions are: is this shift positive or just as debilitating to Native Americans? How does the depiction of Indians in these two films reflect the social environment in which they are made? What is being done by Native and non-Native directors and actors today to counteract the damage done by the hundreds of films made in this genre? Exploration Ensues.
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