Seeing Red--Hollywood's Pixeled Skins: American Indians and Film

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At once informative, comic, and plaintive, Seeing Red—Hollywood’s Pixeled Skins is an anthology of critical reviews that reexamines the ways in which American Indians have traditionally been portrayed in film. From George B. Seitz’s 1925 The Vanishing American to Rick Schroder’s 2004 Black Cloud, these 36 reviews by prominent scholars of American Indian Studies are accessible, personal, intimate, and oftentimes autobiographic. Seeing Red—Hollywood’s Pixeled Skins offers indispensible perspectives from American ...

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At once informative, comic, and plaintive, Seeing Red—Hollywood’s Pixeled Skins is an anthology of critical reviews that reexamines the ways in which American Indians have traditionally been portrayed in film. From George B. Seitz’s 1925 The Vanishing American to Rick Schroder’s 2004 Black Cloud, these 36 reviews by prominent scholars of American Indian Studies are accessible, personal, intimate, and oftentimes autobiographic. Seeing Red—Hollywood’s Pixeled Skins offers indispensible perspectives from American Indian cultures to foreground the dramatic, frequently ridiculous difference between the experiences of Native peoples and their depiction in film. By pointing out and poking fun at the dominant ideologies and perpetuation of stereotypes of Native Americans in Hollywood, the book gives readers the ability to recognize both good filmmaking and the dangers of misrepresenting aboriginal peoples. The anthology offers a method to historicize and contextualize cinematic representations spanning the blatantly racist, to the well-intentioned, to more recent independent productions. Seeing Red is a unique collaboration by scholars in American Indian Studies that draws on the stereotypical representations of the past to suggest ways of seeing American Indians and indigenous peoples more clearly in the twenty-first century.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Often funny, frequently touching, always insightful, the reviews in Seeing Red offer readers a unique entryway for reflecting on the U.S. film industry's representation of American Indians.  A must for high school and college classes dealing with race and ethnicity, Indian-white relations, and the history of movies.

—Craig Howe, Director, Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781611860818
  • Publisher: Michigan State University Press
  • Publication date: 3/1/2013
  • Series: American Indian Studies Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 180
  • Sales rank: 796,600
  • Product dimensions: 6.90 (w) x 9.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

LeAnne Howe (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma) is Professor of English and American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and winner of an American Book Award. Harvey Markowitz is Professor in the Department of Sociology-Anthropology at Washington and Lee University. Denise K. Cummings is Associate Professor of Critical Media and Cultural Studies at Rollins College, where she teaches film history, theory, and criticism, media and cultural studies, and American and Indigenous literature, culture, and film.

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Read an Excerpt


Hollywood's Pixeled Skins: American Indians And Film

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2013 Michigan State University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61186-081-8

Chapter One

The Silent Red Man

Dear Diary:

By the time I get through with Richard Dix, every woman in America will wish she were sharing her tipi with this hot-blooded Redman. Can anyone spell fetishized? But dear me, his next role as a redskin is going to cost us plenty of wampum. Must kissy-kissy with the bankers. After all, the show must go on.

Love ya, Dix, Hollywood

The Vanishing American

Jill Doerfler

So, what can you expect from The Vanishing American? Well, it was originally a silent film made in 1925, and as you might guess by the title, it's based on Zane Grey's popular novel of the same name. The film has been described as an "epic scale historic melodrama." Of course, "epic scale" had quite a different meaning in 1925 than it does today, so don't expect the visual impact of films like 300—although the historical accuracy might be about the same. However, some of the scenes were filmed in Monument Valley and are quite beautiful.

The film was originally considered "sympathetic" in its portrayal of American Indians, but offers only fleeting moments of positive portrayals of American Indians. It reflects early twentieth-century anthropological views of race and human development. While physical anthropology was challenged early on by several anthropologists, including Franz Boas, it fully emerged as a field in the United States during the 1920s. Biological determinism is a major underlying theme reflected throughout the film. The characters fulfill their predetermined destinies based on their race. As you might guess, the American Indians will be doing the "vanishing" and the European Americans will be assuming control of our lands.

It becomes clear right away that there is an obsession with "race" in this film. Vanishing begins with a lengthy prologue that ambitiously covers thousands of years of history, where we learn about the natural rise and fall of a variety of "races." First we are introduced to the race of "basket weavers." A man comes over a rocky hillside followed by a woman carrying a baby. They walk off, and soon another "race" emerges: these are the "slab-house people," who are "more strongly developed." They don't really have to tell you this since it is clearly evident by their ability to stand completely upright and their more fashionable clothing choices. However, they, too, simply fade away, and then come the "cliff dwellers," who happen to be the first "race" that there is "definite knowledge of." These are "indolent, harmless people" who are also lazy and not very devout in their religion (this mistake will come back to haunt them).

The life of the "cliff dwellers" seems to be going along just fine; the children happily bathe in mud, and adults spend their time napping. Suddenly a priest criticizes the lazy behavior of a man, and his mother—one of only two women who are allowed to "speak" in the film—comes to his defense by calling out, "Blame not my son! Blame those idle hussies, yonder!" It would seem that women are the ones who have caused the problems for this "race." Yet, another cause is soon revealed to the audience in the intertitles. Sadly, "long years of peace had dulled the religious sense of the people." Clearly, if the men had not been so distracted by "idle hussies" they could have been busy killing each other—after all, there's nothing like a good war to rally a people back to religion!

Anyway, as you might guess, a stronger "race"—who happen to be the first of the "race" known as Indians—came in and destroyed the "cliff dwellers," but not before a priest was able to prognosticate the future: "May Paya the Father drive you into darkness as you have driven us! May he send a stronger race to grind you in the dust and scatter you through the Four Worlds of Lamentation!"

Yikes, you can guess what happens later ... but meanwhile the Indians prevail: "And so the conquerors dwelt for ages in the land. They raided far and wide. Their numbers grew. They believed no race could be their equal." Those Indians sure were a confident bunch, but don't worry, it won't be long before they will be driven into the darkness by a stronger race.

Lo and behold! The Spanish arrive on their "fire-breathing monsters" (aka horses), and it only takes about two minutes for the Indians to realize that the Spanish are really "gods," and surrender. There is no real conflict, because the hierarchy of the "races" prevails naturally. God's will is done. Thankfully, the Spanish and other Europeans are just the most recent in a long line of colonizers, so no need for all you Catholics to feel guilty.

Just when you think the story is basically over—I mean they have covered several centuries of history in a matter of minutes, not to mention the development of several races, the film jumps to the then–present day of World War I. Richard Dix plays Nophaie, the noble tribal leader. Dix was born Ernest Carlton Brimmer in St. Paul, Minnesota, and became an actor after dropping out of the University of Minnesota. He went on to act in many films, both silent and early talkies. Nophaie was not his only Indian role—he also played Wing Foot in Redskin (1929). Perhaps they were unable to find any real Indian actors to play Nophaie; this is understandable when one considers that so many Natives had already vanished by the 1920s. Lois Wilson is the young, pretty, and white schoolteacher, Marian Warner.

The film continues when Kit Carson is forced to attack the Indians because they're not smart enough to surrender. If only they had realized the Americans were gods like the Spanish this could have all been avoided. Carson laments, "I'm afraid there is no other way—these Indians are my friends ... but I must send them to their death." It is always heartbreaking when someone is forced to kill their friends, but what was he supposed to do? Allow them to go back to their conquering ways? Leave them alone to live on the lands they had reserved in treaties with the U.S. government?

Apparently, Carson was not able to send all of them to their death, because by the early twentieth century the Indians are living on a barren reservation where children tend the flocks of sheep and goats. The Indian agent, Amos Halliday, is focused on filing paperwork (boy, those whites sure do love paper), and his corrupt assistant, Henry Brooker, is really in charge. Brooker is the primary villain in the film and is involved in a horse-stealing scheme. His men even steal a horse from an Indian child. The negative portrayal of Brooker as a European American is surprising, but fits with a kind of sophisticated image.

Soon "the Indian Love Moon cast its spell over the hearts of the primitive desert children." Nophaie visits Marian, who he calls "White Desert Rose," and inquires about the Bible. (And I bet you thought the romance would never begin.) Marian is enthusiastic about sharing the "word of God" with Nophaie. However, to Nophaie's disappointment, Brooker interrupts under the pretense of school business, and he must leave. Brooker clearly wants to date Marian, but she shows no interest in him.

The next day, Brooker enters the school after the children have left and embraces Marian despite her resistance. Even though she is European, Marian is still a woman and, therefore, unable to defend herself or express her own opinions and desires. Luckily, Nophaie sees what is happening through a window and comes to her rescue. Nophaie is cast as the hero here, upsetting the natural order of the races. At this point, several other white men come in and attack Nophaie (an attempt to bring back the "natural" order), but ironically, he is able to escape on a horse.

Marian runs to Halliday, but Brooker claims that he found Marian and Nophaie together and that it was Nophaie who attacked him. Halliday instructs Brooker and his men to "bring in" Nophaie. Meanwhile, Nophaie has made it to the Valley of Marching Rocks, where Brooker and his men will never find him. Days pass and Nophaie remains safely hidden.

Unexpectedly, an army general comes to the reservation to get horses for World War I. When it becomes known that the Indians will not bring in their horses because of Brooker's previous actions, Marian suggests that if Nophaie instructs the Indians to bring in their horses, they will. With the help of a young child, Marian goes to talk with Nophaie. She explains that the government needs the horses for war: "Oh, I know—you have been unjustly treated. But Brooker and his men did that—not the Government. This is still your country. You are an American as much as any of us." Nophaie (and anyone watching the film) is quite surprised by Marian's suggestion that he is an American. Marian continues: "Yes, Nophaie! And this is a war for freedom, for the right. For oppressed people everywhere. Out of it will grow a new order ... a new justice." Just when you thought you knew where the film was going, there is an acknowledgment that the Indians have been oppressed; the only catch is that it is not the government that has oppressed Indians, it has been "white men." I bet you thought that white men were in charge of the U.S. government; nope, two totally different groups of people. They should teach this stuff in school.

Not surprisingly the Indians do indeed bring in their horses, and many, including Nophaie, decide to enlist, with the hope that the United States will treat them with respect. Nophaie goes to say goodbye to Marian, but sees her with the general and decides not to approach her. A few minutes later Marian sees that Nophaie is about to leave, so she brings him a copy of the New Testament. As the Indians ride off, the general comments: "Pitiful—and tremendous! Riding away to fight for the whiteman!" Oh wait, maybe the "whiteman" does have some kind of correlation with the U.S. government after all. Hmm.

Even though they're constructed as "primitive," in the film the Indians are good soldiers. Nophaie even becomes a sergeant. For added drama, these scenes have a red tint. The war ends, and Nophaie and the other Indians return home. To everyone's shock and surprise they find Brooker in charge, and he tells Nophaie that Marian and the general are married. Distraught, Nophaie goes out to the countryside and begins to pray to his God, but then realizes that he should pray to the Christian God. See, war does bring people back to religion.

Meanwhile, the other Indians are very angry because Brooker has taken much of their land and turned it into an experimental farm for the government. The Indians devise a plan to kill Brooker and burn out the other white men. Could this be the new order and justice Marian was talking about? Nope. Nophaie heads out to warn the whites.

In the meantime Marian has returned and tells Nophaie that she's not married. At this point, I was starting to think maybe Nophaie and Marian would actually end up together. But, alas, it was not to be. Nophaie is accidently shot by another Indian while trying to stop a fight. So, the "good" Indian actually isn't killed by a member of the "superior" race, but by his own kind. This, of course, serves to absolve whites and the U.S. government from any responsibility, while reinforcing the idea that the "superior" race will naturally prevail. Everyone stops fighting and gathers around Nophaie after they realize he's been shot.

Clearly clinging to a last few minutes of life, Nophaie asks Marian to read to him from the New Testament. She does, and his last words are, "I think ... think ... I understand." Here we're treated to a surprising turn: Nophaie has the ability to "understand"—maybe he does have the same mental abilities as "the white man"? Alas, it cannot be, because this dangerous challenge to the natural hierarchy of races is quickly resolved through his death. Bart Wilson, a white man who is respected by the Indians, is hired as the new agent. This move emphasizes that it's irrelevant who the agent is, because the natural hierarchy of the races and the authority of the U.S. government will ultimately prevail.

In the last scene, Nophaie's body is carried off and the screen reads: "—for the races of men come—and go. But the mighty stage remains." The final shot shows an empty landscape and then a shadowed "end of the trail" silhouette. As promised in the title, the Indians vanish. The landscape remains and is under control of the "white man" or the U.S. government. What's the difference? Sigh, "The End."

Dear Diary:

This is our last silent picture, and thank heaven for that. I was bored witless by those deaf and dumb Indians. From now on it's gonna be "shoot 'em up, wipe 'em out" with noisy Gatling guns ablazing as we conquer the West, Vitaphone-style.

Ya-ta-hey everybody! Hollywood


Cristina Stanciu

Enthusiasts of the Washington Redskins and other mascot worshippers will be disappointed in this early silent feature film from 1929. It's not about sports—well, not entirely—although the Indian protagonist, white actor Richard Dix, is briefly recruited with an athletic scholarship to a fictional Thorpe University on the East Coast. Thorpe University is a nod to the famous Sac and Fox Jim Thorpe, winner of the 1912 Olympic Games decathlon and pentathlon competitions. Students of film may be surprised to learn that American Indians appeared in films before Dances with Wolves (1990). As early as the beginning of what would become "Hollywood," there were Indian directors and actors, such as Winnebago actors James Youngdeer and his wife, Lillian St. Cyr (aka Princess Redwing), long before the John Wayne Westerns took hold of the market and audience imagination. Yet, in the first decade of the twentieth century, silent Indian-themed films were in high demand, and their subjects ranged from failed Indian-white relations, cross-racial romances, or indictments of white civilization. Although many Indian actors worked for Hollywood, the filmmakers' assumption was that anybody could play Indian.

Redskin, one of Paramount's last silent films, has a predominantly white cast. Richard Dix plays the leading role, Navajo Wing Foot or Yat-tay, and Gladys Belmont plays his Pueblo love interest, Corn Blossom. Jane Novak appears in the role of the white teacher named Judith Stearns, and a thin-mustached Larry Steers plays the boarding-school disciplinarian, John Walton. Because of its fascinating look at American frontier racism, the National Film Preservation Foundation reissued Redskin in 2007 as part of volume 4 in its "Social Issues in American Film, 1900–1934" collection.

The sentimental plot line follows Wing Foot from his peaceful childhood on the Navajo reservation as Chief Notani's son, to his boarding-school days at the U.S. Indian Boarding School on the Chaco reservation. Later, we follow Wing Foot to the U.S. Albuquerque Indian College and Thorpe University, until his return home. "Go with the white man! But come to me—an Indian," his father urges him reluctantly as the son is taken to boarding school by force. In the process, Wing Foot meets Corn Blossom, his Acoma Pueblo love interest, and love does blossom.

Corn Blossom is called back home before the romance can really get going. Things fall apart for the two lovers: he is banished from his own tribe for defying his elders, for refusing the honor of becoming the new medicine man, and for criticizing his tribe for "dying through ignorance." Wing Foot has a heavy heart, as this is a difficult episode in his life, but the film's narrative doesn't develop his character through backstory. Banished from both worlds, he returns "to his only refuge, the wilderness of burning sand and thirst-stricken mountains," as the intertitle informs us. It seems for Wing Foot you really can go home again. He discovers oil on his land claim, shares half of it with the Pueblos (thus ending the long-standing feud between the tribes), and weds Corn Blossom in a brief traditional ceremony. Wing Foot orchestrates a reconciliation between the tribes, which brings forth "the greatest gift of heaven—tolerance," as the last intertitle reads. "Indian problem" solved.

The film is based on a novel written by a Navajo enthusiast, Elizabeth Pickett. Initially titled Navajo, the novel was published as Redskin shortly after the film's premiere in 1929, with illustrations from the film, perhaps fulfilling larger marketing agendas than its author had anticipated. Pickett also wrote the screenplay for the film, her last script for Hollywood, following a series of documentaries about the Pueblos she did in 1925. The studio employed hundreds of Native people as extras to give the film its aura of authenticity, and to render the sense of rivalry between Navajos and Pueblos. Although almost completely silent throughout this silent film, the voicelessness of the Native people in their casual or ceremonial dress speaks volumes through their body language and inquisitive glances at the camera, perhaps eschewing directorial instructions. Filmed in both black-and-white and two-color Technicolor, Redskin combines the black-and-white scenes (in the white man's world) with the two-color scenes filmed on tribal lands (mostly in Arizona and New Mexico). Produced by Paramount and directed by a Paramount house name, Victor Schertzinger, Redskin arguably falls into the category of other Hollywood racist films—or, films with racist titles like Justice of the Redskin (1908), Romantic Redskins (1910), The Trapper and the Redskins (1910). Unlike these earlier films, Redskin wants to be more sympathetic to Indian representation, and is really "pretty"; as early reviews of the film in major national newspapers put it, Redskin is a "triumph of color!" In other words, racism—but in Technicolor!


Excerpted from SEEING RED Copyright © 2013 by Michigan State University. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents



1.   The Silent Red Man

The Vanishing American (1925), by Jill Doerfler

Redskin (1929), by Cristina Stanciu

2.   John Ford and “The Duke” on the Warpath

Drums along the Mohawk (1939), by Joseph Bauerkemper

Fort Apache (1948), by Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), by Gwen N. Westerman

The Searchers (1956), by Susan Stebbins

3.   The Disney Version

Peter Pan (1953), by David Martínez

Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955), by Clifford E. Trafzer

Pocahontas (1995), by Jeff Berglund

4.   Mixed-Bloods in Distress

Duel in the Sun (1946), by Gary Harrington

The Unforgiven (1960), by LeAnne Howe

The Last of the Mohicans (1992), by Philip J. Deloria

Hidalgo (2004), by Jim Wilson

5.   You Mean, I’m a White Guy?

Broken Arrow (1950), by Dean Rader

Little Big Man (1970), by Rebecca Kugel

A Man Called Horse (1970), by Harvey Markowitz

Dances with Wolves (1990), by James Riding In

6.   Indians with Fangs

The Manitou (1978), by Harvey Markowitz             
Wolfen (1981), by Carter Meland

7.   Walk a Mile in My Moccasins

Medicine River (1993), by Jacki Rand
Smoke Signals (1998), by LeAnne Howe
The Business of Fancydancing (2002), by Dean Rader

8.   NDNS: The Young and the Restless

The Indian in the Cupboard (1995), by Pauline Turner Strong

The Education of Little Tree (1997), by Daniel Heath Justice

The Doe Boy (2001), by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke

Black Cloud (2004), by Maureen Trudelle Schwarz

9.   Death Wish, Indian-Style

Navajo Joe (1966), by Theo. Van Alst

Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), Clifford E. Trafzer

Billy Jack (1971), by Scott Richard Lyons

10. Love, Indigenous-Style

Waikiki Wedding (1937), by Jodi A. Byrd

The Savage Innocents (1960), by Theo. Van Alst

Big Eden (2000), by P. Jane Hafen

11. Workin’ for the Great White Father

Distant Drums (1951), by Denise K. Cummings

The Far Horizons (1955), by Frederick Hoxie

Thunderheart (1992), by Paul Robertson

Windtalkers (2002), by Deborah Miranda

12. What the Critics Said. . .

The Contributors

Ratings Sheet

Further Reading

Roll Credits

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