The Hollywood Indian is a fictitious stock character, a stereotype and representation of Native Americans used in television and movies, especially in the Western genre. The image of the Hollywood Indian reflects contemporary and historical Native American popular culture. Closely connected to myths and images created about Native Americans and the Wild West, the stereotype has undergone significant changes from the beginning of cinema to the present day.
Wild West shows also influenced larger audiences. Some individual Natives were made famous by non-Natives, who then promoted the idea that certain western tribes might represent all Native Americans. The mainstream image of Natives underwent a major change in the 19th century. While in the centuries before, European depictions of Native Americans had been characterized by a certain nakedness, from mid-century on the naked or partly naked "demi-god or cannibal" was replaced by the mounted, be-feathered, and 'decently' dressed warrior. Many characteristics of latter stereotypical Native Americans were taken from various tribal groups of the Great Plains and the far West as they appeared in the 19th century – including the war bonnet, the teepee, the pipe, and the riding skills. Apparently, Buffalo Bill picked the Sioux as his favourite "tribe" due to their riding skills and outer appearance.
In the context of the Western movies, images ranged from 'the savage warrior' who took the shape of the noble savage – the heroic and noble hunter/warrior who is most often stoic, in touch with nature, and peace-loving but willing to fight when necessary. Furthermore, images of the drunken Indian and the shaman character, who was depicted as mysterious and deeply religious, exist.
Jacquelyn Kilpatrick names three classes of these offensive stereotypes: mental, sexual, and spiritual. She attributes most meaning to the first class, which characterizes Native Americans as being inferior to Euro-Americans in terms of intellect, leading to a "dumb, dirty, and stupid" image of Native Americans. The second class portrays especially male Native Americans as intensely sexual beings who are more "creature than human", run around half-naked, and do little more than lusting after white maidens. The last category views the Native American as a spiritual being. Although this spirituality is perceived as an inherent closeness to nature and especially the earth, which gives Native peoples a "certain nature-based nobility", it is also regarded as simple and heathen.
Hollywood Indians are often based on stereotypes of the Plains Indians or the far West, such as the Lakota, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Apache as a part of the cultural diversity of the many tribes in North America. Although the film industry "is (mostly) far from purposeful distortion", technical and business-related production decisions affect the Native American screen image.
A few scholars argue that audiences have certain expectations for characteristic representation – such as easy comprehensibility of the storyline and the morality – which they value over authenticity, and the same holds true for stereotypes. While most of the above features also apply to literature or other media, specific business-related decisions influence film in a way that might advance the stereotypical depiction of Native Americans. The impact of the resulting images in film can be considered in different terms than that of other media. While novels certainly reach a broad public, the worldwide distribution of films allows for a number of spectators on a totally different scale – not only in numbers, but also emotionally by using filmic devices such as light, music, and camera angles.
As the dominant carrier of filmic misrepresentations of Native Americans, the Western genre emerged in the early days of cinema and remained popular through much of the 20th century. Crucial to the frontier myth, the settlement of the West, and the founding of white civilization are the antagonists, and the indigenous population, which could serve as a basis for romantic stories of Indian/Indian and Indian/white relationships as well as an opposition to the white Western hero personifying the "agent of civilization". Some of these antagonists were in form of a fictional, homogenized celluloid Indians. But greedy frontiersmen and villainous railroad owners also existed as antagonists in these stories.
Stuart Hall explains how cinema and cultural identity go hand in hand. Identity is not a static fact, but rather something that can be continually reproduced. Identities are portrayed in film are typically not the same as in reality. The interpretation of an identity in film is determined both by the filmmakers and the audience. Since the majority of films in the United States featuring Native Americans were made by Euro-American filmmakers, Native Americans were not always represented from an authentic perspective.
Early depictions of Native Americans in film are surprisingly diverse. Although the Indian as the villain, antagonist, or simple-minded savage was present, a complex array of characters populated the silent screens between 1909 and 1913, a period when Indian characters where especially popular: the villain could be white as well as Indian; lasting white–Indian relationships emerged; and mixed-blood Indians could be villainous as well as sympathetic. Edwin Carewe (real name Jay Fox), a Chickasaw filmmaker from that era, made more than 60 feature films and directed the 1928 version of Ramona starring Delores Del Rio and Waner Baxter. By the late teens, the popularity of Indian movies and cowboy-and-Indian movies decreased, and even though Indian movies continued to be produced in moderate numbers, they only became popular again by the mid 1930s. One of the most notable directors from 1924's The Iron Horse to 1964's Cheyenne Autumn was John Ford, often working with John Wayne as his male protagonist. Ford's depiction of Native Americans actually showed both hostile and sympathetic Indians such as in Stagecoach (1939), but also in Fort Apache (1948) and Wagon Master (1950). The first two movies in the cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) feature sympathetic Indians with speaking roles and the conflict is mostly the fault of white prejudice rather than the inherently bad nature of the typical screen Indians. Not all Indian portrayals were savage; by 1950, Delmer Daves' Broken Arrow had set the stage for a new era of Indian/white peaceful coexistence.
A gradual change in the American Indian's screen image did occur from the 1940s and 1950s onwards, at the height of the Western's popularity, when a turn towards "the gradual elimination of the stereotypes in big budget movies " is noticeable. The social and political consequences of the World War II paved the way, as Native Americans were no longer the principal antagonists and World War II supplied America with new enemies, namely, the Germans, Italians, and Japanese. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a decline in the production of Western films, thus also diminishing the representation of Native Americans. Influenced heavily by the experiences of the Vietnam War, Native Americans symbolically came to signify any indigenous population threatened by annihilation at the hands of the United States. In this way, though the typical savage disappeared almost entirely from the big screen, Native Americans in motion pictures were reduced to a vehicle of criticism of contemporary politics.
The 1970s and especially the late 1980s saw the emergence of independent films outside the Western genre depicted contemporary Native life. The decisive difference was that "Native American characters become significant in and of themselves". At a time when the Western was nearly extinct, this new image marked an important step towards a greater variety of Native American images on screen. By the mere fact that it involved Native Americans in the production process more than ever before – by employing Native actors for Native parts, for telling stories from a Native perspective, sometimes basing them on Native novels – these films contributed to the visibility of Native peoples. Some examples are House Made of Dawn (1972), Spirit of the Wind (1979), and Powwow Highway (1989), although none of these films attracted a large, mainstream audience. More accurate film representations were now being made, but they were reaching nowhere near the exposure of the earlier, stereotypical images in Westerns.
The release of Dances with Wolves (1990) unexpectedly revived the Western genre. Arguably the most influential Native American-themed film of the last few decades, it paid reasonably careful attention to the depiction of Lakota life, traditions and clothing, at least compared to earlier efforts. However, the basic formula of the Hollywood stereotypes – at its heart the idea of the white lead 'going Native', the arrival of the 'White Saviour' – was not transcended, and there were still cultural errors in the film. Thus, the evaluation of scholarly criticism boiled down to granting the film good intentions, but at the same time classifying the movie as a revisionist Western simply replaying the romantic Noble Savage with the white as the hero. Dances with Wolves was followed by other sympathetic or revisionist Western blockbusters such as The Last of the Mohicans (1992), and Geronimo: An American Legend (1993) and caused mainstream media to put American Indians on their agenda, at least for a short while. One of the few Hollywood movies that portrays Native life outside the Old West and instead sets its story in contemporary times is Thunderheart.
In the past two decades, a striving Native American independent cinema has developed. Native Americans have formed their own production companies and political organizations to influence their own representations and to counter negative stereotypes. What distinguishes Native American cinema from Hollywood productions is the involvement of American Indians as directors, writers, and producers, such as Sherman Alexie, Chris Eyre, Sterlin Harjo, Hanay Geiogamah, and Greg Sarris. Two of the most characteristic features are the casting of Native actors for Native roles, and the setting of the stories in contemporary America as opposed to the 19th-century West. Lakota Woman (TV 1994), Skinwalkers (TV 2002), Smoke Signals (1998), The Business of Fancydancing (2002), Grand Avenue (TV 1996), and Edge of America (TV 2003) are some best-known examples. Additionally, new media is providing a platform for short films and videos by independent producers, comedians, and other content-creators.
Filmmakers such as Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie, Shelley Niro, and Sherman Alexie have incorporated the stereotypical images of Native Americans into their films and worked to reshape the meaning that has often been historically ascribed to them in cinema. These images include wildlife, beadwork, feathers, smoke, and nature. The stereotypes associated with these images are largely derived from a colonized, Euro-American perspective and are still fueled today by tourism and commercialism.
While the stereotypical representations have not accurately portrayed Native American culture, the fact that the images exist and are historically preserved allow filmmakers to reference well-known aspects of their cultural heritage and then reshape the meaning associated with the images. The stereotypical images represent a piece of Native American heritage that was not assimilated or eliminated. From here, contemporary Native American artists have begun to claim visual sovereignty over the images circulated in media. Visual sovereignty provides Native Americans the authority to authentically portray that which belongs to them—the images of their cultural heritage. This is a step towards retelling the legacy of colonization from a Native American perspective instead of the Euro-American perspective, and is also an opportunity to break the mold of stereotypes still around today that are largely driven by consumerism.
Many of contemporary films include themes about identity. Often, at least one of the characters grapples with honoring and acknowledging their cultural heritage while also living in a colonized society. The films also use various rhetorical devices to convey other cultural beliefs, including spirituality, life and death, time and space.
A short, but powerful representation of contemporary Native American film is Aboriginal World View (2003) by Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie. The film was produced while the political climate was tense between the Middle East and the United States. The film shows a woman wrapped in a burqa made of American flags, looking out at the Navajo reservation. Powwow music plays in the background, which eventually transitions into the sound of the waves of the Pacific Ocean. Tsinhnahjinnie took the opportunity to create a piece from an indigenous person's perspective that spoke to the recurring history of war, land, diaspora, violence, oppression, and dispossession.
The film It Started With a Whisper (1993) by Shelley Niro is another example of contemporary Native American cinema reshaping the semiotic system behind Native American stereotypes. The film has an all-Native cast and was filmed in the Six Nations/Brantford area of Canada. The protagonist in the film, Shanna Sabbath, is an 18-year-old girl who grew up on the reservation, leaves to establish herself in an urban life, and returns to tend to family matters. The opening scene is a compilation of shots that show beadwork, hands throwing dirt in the air, and smoke rising into the air, all while the narrator speaks in the past tense—indicating something that has passed or been lost. The brief shots then give glimpses of a woman walking in the forest. The stereotypical images are heavily used, yet the film uses them to confront many misrepresentations of Native American people. From the opening scene, the film continues with rich, metaphorical images juxtaposed with urban lifestyle, interracial relationships, and allusions to other Native American cultural beliefs about time, space, and death.
Perhaps a more popular film amongst a mainstream audience is The Business of Fancydancing (2002) by Sherman Alexie. The film is about a young Native American man who grew up on a reservation and eventually lives his adult life as a gay poet in Spokane. The stark contrast between life on a reservation and life in a city open a more authentic glimpse into a modern experience of grappling with identity when one is part of both settings. Alexie chose to make a low-budget, independent film in order to maintain all financial and creative control over the film. The cast and crew are predominantly Native American. Alexie has stated that the primary audience is for the film is Native Americans. In an interview with Joelle Fraser in Iowa Review, he explained how the majority those who read his literature and poetry are white. He said, "There's something wrong with my not reaching Indians . . . Generally speaking Indians don't read books. It's not a book culture. That's why I'm trying to make movies. Indians go to movies; Indians own VCRs". The film breaks many stereotypes, and also uses dialogue incorporates tropes and subtle cultural nuances that are particularly familiar to a Native American audience.