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Filmmaker as Explorer

Explorers investigate areas unfamiliar to them, often for the purpose of discovery. Filmmakers who have taken on this role tend to produce stories that justify their ethnocentric perspectives or celebrate underrepresented communities. Robert Flaherty established this filmmaker role when he directed Nanook of the North: A Story Of Life and Love In the Actual Arctic (1922) with the help of Inuit people in Port Harrison, Northern Quebec, Canada. Unfortunately, this style of filmmaking is corrupted when directors dehumanize their Indigenous subjects. Neil Diamond updates this filmmaker role by traveling through the United States and the Canadian North in Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian (2009) to examine how Hollywood depictions of First Nations peoples negatively influence how his community is viewed and treated.

Nanook of the North: Background

Nanook of the North: A Story Of Life and Love In the Actual Arctic (1922) by Robert Flaherty

Robert Flaherty’s decision to undertake this role as filmmaker was influenced by his father, who often took him on expeditions to Arctic Canada. He entered this field himself as an iron-ore prospector and mining engineer by working for Grand Trunk Pacific and Sir William Mackenzie, a Canadian mining and railroad magnate, who encouraged him to record his geological findings and interactions with Indigenous people through photography and film. Mackenzie also funded Flaherty’s studies in cinematography at the Eastman Company (Barnouw 34). Flaherty shot 70,000 feet of film in Baffin Island and the Belcher Islands in the Hudson Bay for his first film but thought “it was a bad film; it was dull—it was little more than a travelogue. I had learned to explore, I had not learned to reveal” (Marcus). He notes that there was "no thread of a story or continuity" (Grace).

Flaherty ended up accidentally setting the only copy of this edited print on fire but decided to try again by “[making] a film that captured the essence of Inuit life and the hardships the Inuit faced” (Marcus). He resolved to find "a typical Eskimo and his family and make a biography of their lives" (Grace). Fundraising took several years but Flaherty eventually convinced the Revillon Frères fur trading company in 1920 to provide $53,000 for a sixteen-month trip that used the company’s “trading post at Port Harrison on the Ungava peninsula in Arctic Quebec” (Marcus). Out of that $53,000, there was ”$13,000 for equipment, $500 per month for Flaherty, and $3,000 worth of credit at the Revillon trading post for "remuneration of natives.” Revillon Frères was credited in the film, which served as advertising against the Hudson Bay Company, their main competitor (Grace). The film became a great critical and financial success after it was distributed by Pathe (Barnouw 42) and it was promoted through sales of dogsleds, cardboard igloo displays (Aufderheide 27), Eskimo pies, phonographs, refrigerators, and cars (Marcus 209).

Nanook of the North: Ethical Issues

While Robert Flaherty is considered the father of documentary, due in large part to the promotional efforts of himself, his family, and his acolytes; it is not as widely known that creating Nanook of the North was dependent on collaborating with the Indigenous subjects of the film (Barnouw 36). Subsequently, issues around ethics and authenticity arose from this production, which continue to impact the documentary field.

The varying descriptions of this collaboration demonstrate the range of perspectives on Flaherty, his Indigenous collaborators, and the film. Marcus claims that Flaherty “trained Inuit assistants and paid them to develop and print the film stock on location and maintain the cameras” while Barnouw insists that the Inuit were more familiar with Flaherty's camera than he was. They took it apart, put it back together, repaired it when it was dropped in freezing water, and built a drying rack for film out of driftwood (36). These Indigenous participants also knew how to shoot the scenes Flaherty wanted. Such as when they solved the problem of how to shoot the interior photography of an igloo by building a larger, partial igloo that would be easier to film.

Furthermore, they were willing to put up with dangerous conditions in order to make a good film. The crew exposed themselves to freezing temperatures and dangerous animals to recreate exciting and intimate scenes. The actors slept in the partial igloo all night in order to capture an early morning scene on film of them waking up (38). Alakariallak, the film’s star, who was the most accomplished hunter in his community, was so passionate about making a good film that he agreed to sacrifice the meat from a hunting scene if it conflicted with the filmmaking. These collaborators also advised Flaherty on what kinds of scenes would be interesting, dramatic, and feasible to capture. They suggested staging a walrus hunt that was performed before contact with outsiders instead of filming a polar bear hunt (36). Flaherty was informed that no polar bears could be found and the community did not hunt them anyway after he had bear skin pants made for Alakariallak’s film wardrobe and gave his character the name, Nanook, a transliteration of “polar bear” (Marcus). Barnouw adds that the failed polar bear hunt almost killed the crew and hunting animals because they were stranded during a blizzard for weeks without food and water (38).

Flaherty also endangered the lives of his Indigenous collaborators so he could record traditional practices. He ignored their cries for help in shooting the walrus so he could continue filming the scene. And even though they were at risk of being pulled into the sea, Flaherty did nothing since he wanted to avoid showing how modern the Eskimo actually were (37). Flaherty wanted to focus on older traditional ways because he thought that their lives before contact with Westerners was more compelling and noble (45).

Nanook of the North: Authenticity Issues

Flaherty’s vision of what the Inuit experience was authentically like was influenced by his own views of their community, which were shaped by how Indigenous people and other people of color were viewed at the time. Despite Flaherty's sympathetic view of his subjects and requests for their input, these efforts were in service of what he believed about them, not a dialogue.

Barnouw posits that Flaherty’s focus on indigenous communities was linked to his own conflicts about how he changed the lives of the indigenous people he interacted with. He was disturbed by his first encounters with this community when he was a young man witnessing Native people begging in the mining camps for food and shelter. They were often sick from diseases brought on by their contact with the Westerners, like alcoholism.

He was also influenced by his mother who blamed the white man for the loss and indignities that indigenous people suffered. Consequently, when he encountered Inuit communities farther north who had limited contact with outsiders, he believed he saw “an earlier nobility” in those people. Yet, he also felt that he represented this destructive force as one of the “advance guard of the industrial civilization” in his role as an explorer and prospector (44-45).

Flaherty’s ideas on how to represent Indigenous Arctic communities were also influenced by author Jack London, who “developed stereotypes and semiotics of the North that became deeply embedded in the American imagination at the turn of the twentieth century” (Matheson), photographer Edward S. Curtis, “who was [in] [the] [process] [of] establishing a reputation as the leading photographer and filmmaker of Native American tribes” (Marcus), and filmmaker D. W. Griffith, whose racist blockbuster, Birth of a Nation, portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as the heroes of the Post-Civil War Reconstruction era and kicked off the Hollywood film industry (100 Years Later, What's The Legacy Of 'Birth Of A Nation'?).

Matheson found that London’s influence in Nanook of the North was expressed in “intertitles and scenes [resembling] passages found in […] White Fang, Call of the Wild, and White Silence; […] treatment of Nanook [echoing] “the sparseness of character and plot” found in London’s works; […] characters [that] [are] are thinly drawn Romantic figures; […] the lack of amenities and threat of death [as] […] structural givens, […] winter in Ungava carefully [paralleling] London’s “savage, frozen-hearted wild,” […] nature […] has the final word; and that “Nanook’s dogs are exactly like those found in White Fang [...] a string of wolfish dogs.”

Furthermore, Matheson adds “Flaherty used the Arctic as an image of primitiveness and [employed] London’s semiotics as a means by which to elaborate ideas that appealed (and arguably still appeal) to modern audiences.” Marcus notes that Flaherty met Edward S. Curtis, who shared his belief that First Nations peoples were going to go extinct and was driven to document their existence through film, photographs, and books before that would occur.

In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914) by Edward S. Curtis

Flaherty saw Curtis’ film In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914), which recreated Kwakiutl Indian ceremonies and years later Flaherty recreated a traditional pre-colonial era walrus hunt in Nanook of the North. But Aufderheide claims that In the Land of the Head Hunters had “a melodramatic plot that did not draw from Kwakiutl culture” and failed to attract audiences because “it was a sad and clumsy box office and aesthetic failure.”

Birth of a Nation (1915) by D. W. Griffith

She believes instead that Flaherty was more cinematically influenced by D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) since he adopted its structure to “[tell] a dramatic story of survival” that would draw audiences in. Flaherty also used Birth of a Nation’s innovative camerawork such as “[close-ups], zooming the camera in on faces, crosscutting in dramatic […] battle scenes, not just taking a single, static shot — all of which heightened the power, the impact, the drama, the emotion" for Nanook of the North (100 Years Later, What's The Legacy Of 'Birth Of A Nation'?).

Combining powerful storytelling techniques with biased views of Indigenous people and their homelands leave lasting impressions on who and what Indigenous communities are. These ideas of primitiveness, savagery, and extinction are painful legacies for the descendants of those who survived earlier genocidal campaigns against their communities.

Ethnographic filmmaking, another film genre that Flaherty is associated with founding, has been criticized for promoting the biases of anthropologists and other outsiders seeking to document and interpret Non-Western communities. Can a film truly advance anthropological knowledge if it relies on an outsider’s perspective to understand and represent that community?

While every documentary filmmaker has a definite point of view of their film’s subjects, which is a defining element of the genre, Flaherty’s belief that the only authentic Indigenous person existed in the past and would soon be exterminated by progress of modern industrial societies problematizes the issue of how authenticity is represented in documentaries. Can a film be called a documentary if it does not accurately represent how its subject existed in the moments it was recorded?

Misrepresenting Indigenous Communities

An explanation for why Flaherty omitted depictions of Inuit using guns to hunt or engaging in complex interactions with traders, missionaries, and other explorers could be clarified by Wells’ assertion that “when Indians seemingly assimilated into mainstream society and adopted modern temporal cues, whites denied Indians' indigenousness” because they wanted Native Americans to serve “as the perfect Other” symbolizing a past that was “in opposition" to the anxieties unleashed by modernization, capitalism, emancipation, and industrialization.”

Using Native Americans in this way helped white settlers understand and reaffirm their identities as people facing the challenges of modern life. Wells explains that “As Americans struggled in the aftermath of the Civil War to make sense of their new world, they increasingly searched for authenticity, not truth, to manufacture an imagined and soothing past.” As a result, settlers “increasingly measured Indian authenticity or Indianness in opposition to the symbols and processes of modernity. […] As scholar Phil Deloria argues, those "Indians who had assimilated into modern society" emerged in white eyes as "negative others."

Edward S. Curtis: Promoting the Manifest Destiny Agenda

The Vanishing Race, Navaho (1904) by Edward S. Curtis

Photographer Edward S. Curtis also promoted this view of Indigenous people as primitive “Others” by omitting clocks from his portraits because it conflicted with his view of Native Americans existing in a timeless and natural state (Wells). Furthermore, Olson explains that Curtis’ vision of Native Americans as a group of wild and free people from another era was sponsored by powerful European Americans who had economic interests in presenting Native Americans as fading from the landscape: Theodore Roosevelt and J. P. Morgan.

Stanley explains that Roosevelt carried Victorian-era prejudices that led him to believe that “life [was] a struggle between the courageous and the weak,” the world could organized into a racial hierarchy that placed whites as the gods over other humans, and “Native Americans were a degenerate impediment to settlement of the American West” who “deserved their near-extinction.” Roosevelt even remarked “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

According to Daniels, Curtis saw “Roosevelt [as] a valuable contact and friend” at the start of his career even though Roosevelt “was more interested in obtaining a record of vanishing Native American cultures as a testament to the superiority of his own civilization than out of any concern over their situation or recognition of his own role in the process.” He provided Curtis a recommendation letter for a meeting with the billionaire Wall Street banker and art collector John Pierpont Morgan, who eventually agreed to provide “$15,000 a year for 5 years to complete” The North American Indian project. Roosevelt also wrote the foreword for the first book of the 20 volume series.

Morgan became “one of the world’s most powerful railroad magnates,” by restructuring, merging, rehabilitating, joining the boards of directors, and controlling the stocks of several railroad companies. (John Pierpont Morgan | American Financier). Additionally, the expansion of railroads further west into the United States required the exploration, settlement, and disruption of Indigenous homelands. (Native Americans and the Transcontinental Railroad). Thousands of wars broke out as a result and photographs by Curtis propagated the idea among his powerful and influential collectors that Native Americans were going inevitably to perish in these struggles.

These wars expressed fundamental conflicts First Nations people and white settlers had over how to treat natural resources. Historian Donald Fixico points out that “the idea of "owning" land was foreign to […] American [Indians] who could not conceive of owning the Earth until the land was taken away. The Indian believed that he was a steward of the Earth.” By contrast, settlers viewed the land as “potential income, wealth, self-sufficiency and freedom. Expansion into the western frontiers offered opportunities for self-advancement” as the United States’ colonial population and economy grew. (Manifest Destiny).

Fixico explains further that, “there are 389 ratified U.S.-Indian treaties, and majority of these have been broken by the U.S.” because “the desire for Indian lands by white settlers created an uncontrolled momentum” due to “the [pressures] of Manifest Destiny [expressed] in the [development] [of] railroads, quest for gold, silver, and ranchers and settlers wanting land to build homes.” Breaking these treaties “made huge amounts of surplus land available to public domain, and […] although such treaties did not include railroad construction […] the opening of more land to white interests certainly involved the routes of the transcontinental railroads.”

Politicians like Roosevelt and economic leaders like Morgan used the concept of Manifest Destiny to justify the “continental expansion by the United States” by presenting it as a destiny that could not be avoided. They explained that it “was their mission to extend the "boundaries of freedom" to others by imparting their idealism and belief in democratic institutions to those who were capable of self-government.” However, this vision “excluded […] people who were perceived as being incapable of self-government, such as Native American people and those of non-European origin” (Manifest Destiny).

Indigenous Ambivalence Around Edward S. Curtis’ Body of Work

Salvage ethnography is an anthropological term that refers to “the urge to capture on film the nature of rapidly vanishing cultures” (Barnouw 45) in order to create “crucial historical records” of them (Spitta 172). Coming out of this colonial legacy there are three primary ways Curtis’ work is now viewed: 1) with great criticism, 2) with a shift back to admiration for his efforts despite the criticism, and 3) as an opportunity for Indigenous communities to engage in visual reclaiming.

The criticism is that his images of Indigenous people are exploitative, sentimental, stereotypical, and anachronistic. His work has been called misleading for removing modern objects from the frame and asking people to wear headdresses and costumes that were no longer used. Curtis also inaccurately re-created rituals and customs. Sometimes he even bribed people to gain access to sacred objects not intended to be seen by outsiders. He romanticized people by putting them in dramatic poses in idealized settings. His captions were dehumanizing, such as when he described some of his subjects being "of healthy stock" as if they were farm animals.

Tom Haukaas (Rosebud Lakota), who wrote an essay accompanying an exhibit of photographs by Curtis at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, remarked that “The images mythologize our past and our predecessors into the Indian equivalent of a national myth. All nations need their myths. They help them construct their national ethos and character. But our people have adapted themselves and their cultures to fit present times just like Anglo-Americans. Anglo Americans don't dress and act like Puritans anymore, so why should Indians be any different?" (Edward S. Curtis: Portraits Of Native America).

By contrast, others who heard the criticism shifted back to admiring Curtis’ efforts. He worked with over 80 tribes (Edward S. Curtis: Portraits Of Native America) to produce a 20 volume work that included 2,500 photographs out of the over 40,000 photographs taken during his career (Zamir). Artist Marcus Amerman (Choctaw) says “I just want to thank him for doing this for Indian people [since] no Indian could have done that at that time" and Janelle Weakly, curator of photographic collections at the Arizona State Museum says “I don't want to convert people who don't like Curtis [...] [but] can you at least see the value of it? Yes, there is a romanticism of people. That was the style of the time. Now we have this body of work to reflect on, to learn from." (Talahongva).

Still there are many others who feel ambivalence since Curtis' images remain admired and influential even though he was proven wrong in assuming that Native Americans would vanish (Edward S. Curtis: Portraits Of Native America). Despite the criticisms, some use his body of work as source materials to help them research their own communities. Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie, a Taskigi/Dine professor, says that Curtis “captured images of people's ancestors and tribes' ceremonies that are cherished today” and that ”visual reclaiming [is] [a] […] preciousness Curtis will never know [...] For us, it's like a portal […] to see our ancestors. Curtis becomes more of a side note because the people and the images are much more important. They carry much more information than Curtis could even imagine!" Talahongva wonders if “Perhaps that is the real lasting legacy of Curtis for many Native Americans.”

Others have used his images in their own work to “reappropriate past Western images of themselves" in order to “[compel] the viewer to reflect […] on […] the Western representational tradition from a Native point of view" (Vervoort).

Neil Diamond seems to use Curtis’s photographs in all three ways in his documentary Reel Injun. They are historical artifacts that illustrate statements like “This fascination with everything Native begins with the very first explorers. They encounter hundreds of nations, rich and diverse cultures, languages, and beliefs.” The photographs also become examples of how Indigenous stereotypes were presented when he points out that “the world is hooked [and] in the movies we’re often portrayed as spiritual, noble, and free.” Finally these images draw attention to how inaccurate Western views impact Indigenous communities when Curtis’s anguished and destitute portraits compare to contemporary images of suffering.

Corruption of the explorer-as-documentary filmmaker genre

Barnouw believes that the “explorer-as-documentarist” [genre] was clearly in decline” ten years after Nanook of the North was completed (51) even though other filmmakers tried to replicate that film’s popularity and financial success (49). Essentially, the genre gets corrupted when its processes are compromised.

When Hollywood expected Flaherty to create another Nanook-style blockbuster quickly, that film was a box office failure because there is not much that can be revealed to audiences when filmmaker-explorers do not invest the time needed to understand other cultures. Nanook was the culmination of twenty years living with the Inuit and sharing the same struggles they faced. By contrast, Moana (1926) was made within one year in Samoa and since it was difficult to find a conflict to record on the seemingly benign island, Flaherty ended up resurrecting tattooing rituals banned by missionaries to create dramatic tension (47-48).

The genre is also corrupted when filmmakers travel to remote locations only to dehumanize the Indigenous people there by treating them without basic respect, appreciation for their differences, or compassion. For example, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack directed Grass (1925) about the arduous journey that 50,000 people make over the Zardeh Kuh Mountains in Turkey and Iran to find grass for their herds. But instead of creating a story that could make audiences empathize with the herders’ struggles or connect with their humanity, the filmmakers focused on filming the migration in ways that celebrated the filmmakers’ technical ingenuity instead of the protagonists’ efforts to cross large and dangerous terrain.

Their next project, Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927) was also disconnected from its protagonists (Barnouw 48). It was a story of a family struggling for survival against jungle animals in Thailand but it contained ridiculous, melodramatic subtitles (50). Barnouw observes that these directors were moving towards a patronizing Hollywood vision of how Indigenous people behaved and that they were much more successful with their next film, King Kong (1933), which has been described as a “thinly veiled racist narrative” that “reflects a kind of miscegenation panic” (The Social Controversy Behind All Three King Kongs).

Disrespectful filmmaker-explorers also treated indigenous people as bizarre occurrences in the natural world. This occurred in Leon Poirier’s The Black Cruise (1926), which portrayed Africans as oddities in the vignettes of tribal life they shot along the roads his caravan traveled (50). However, the worst practitioners of this genre exploited indigenous people’s ignorance of Western objects and experiences for cheap and mean laughs and/or a demonstration of the director’s self-perceived superiority.

The “primitive people” films produced by Mr. and Mrs. Martin Johnson for twenty years expressed “unabashed condescension [and] amusement [that] marked their attitude toward natives.” For example, they named one film Congorilla (1932) and subtitled it “Big Apes and Little People.” The film’s protagonists were referred to as “funny little savages” and “the happiest little savages on earth.” One film sequence showed them giving a cigar to an Indigenous man and recording him getting sick from it as a form of comedy. In another sequence, they recruited 40 locals to clear some land and referred to them as “black boys.” When one man gave his name, the Johnsons didn’t bother to correctly understand what he said. Since his name sounded like the word “coffee pot,” that was how his name was recorded (50-51).

Unfortunately stereotyping, superior attitudes, excessively melodramatic storylines, self-aggrandizing filmmaking, and disrespecting Indigenous languages have continued to be used to present and interpret worlds largely unknown to industrialized Western societies.

Reel Injun: Updating the Filmmaker as Explorer Legacy

Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond travels through the United States and the Canadian North in Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian (2009) to examine how Hollywood depictions of Native Americans influence outsiders' views of his community and how these stereotypes affected how the community regards itself.

The film starts with this message on a black screen: “In over 4,000 films, Hollywood has shaped the image of Native Americans. Classic Westerns like They Died With Their Boots On created stereotypes. Later blockbusters like Little Big Man, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Dances with Wolves began to dispel them. Not until a renaissance in Native cinema did films like Once Were Warriors and Smoke Signals portray Native people as human beings.” Then another card: 100 years of cinema defining the Native American image to the world. A film countdown starts from 8 and ends at 4, to present an extreme close-up image of a child’s eyes watching a screen. Gunshots and the soundtrack to a Western movie are heard.

A voiceover from the director begins while we see this child watch a Western on a large screen from different angles, “Growing up on the reservation, the only show in town was movie night in the church basement. Raised on cowboys and Indians, we cheered for the cowboys, never realizing we were the Indians.” The director’s perspective is presented upfront and it’s a startling admission because the story of genocide is rarely heard from the survivor’s point of view. Most people do not know what living with that legacy is like.

Onscreen a group of Native American warriors on horseback are riding into a white settlement. The next camera shot reveals the child is part of a diverse group of people watching the film. He’s wide-eyed and taking it all in uncritically. As the director says, “we were the Indians,” aerial shots of a mountain landscape are shown, which transition to a series of clips of stereotypical Hollywood portrayals of Native Americans: warriors dancing in a circle, a man placing a beaded headband on a smiling woman, men sitting in a circle chanting and drumming at a community gathering, a man dancing at a powwow, an older man saying “Your civilization will have destroyed us but by your magic we will live forever,” more shots appear of warriors on horseback riding into battle, fighting cowboys and then fighting each other. Then there’s clips of more recent images of Indigenous people: Chief Bromden (Will Sampson) with a laughing R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the car driven by Maori gang members in Once Were Warriors, a scene from Dances with Wolves, and scene from Smoke Signals where Thomas Builds-the-Fire says “You know, the only thing more pathetic than Indians on TV is Indians watching Indians on TV.” Then there is a shot of a woman smiling from the feature film The Silent Enemy (1930) that was about Ojibwa people’s lives before contact with settlers. A vocal track of an Indigenous woman singing plays with this clip as the title of the film appears.

These clips show the worst and the best cinematic representations of Indigenous people. Introducing a young First Nations boy at the start of the film as the one consuming these images drives home the point that the extreme range of hateful to humane depictions of Indigenous people plays a large influence on Indigenous communities.

After the film’s title appears, there is a shot of a beautiful Arctic sunset. The filmmaker introduces himself by proclaiming, “I’m an Injun, a Cree who grew up on one of the most isolated native communities on Earth, close to the Arctic Circle. Up here, we don’t wear feathers or ride horses. But because of the movies, a lot of the world still thinks so.” Images of children playing in his community are shown. They’re bundled up for the cold and some are riding bikes and snowmobiles.

Diamond continues as images of a plane taking off and aerial shots of Arctic landscapes appear, “I’m on a journey to make sense of how Hollywood’s fantasy about Indians influence the world.” A clip from Smoke Signals plays next. “You gotta look like a warrior. You gotta look like you just came back from killing a buffalo,” says Victor Joseph to Thomas Builds-the-Fire. In response Thomas says, “But our tribe never hunted buffalo. We were fishermen.” These images have exerted such power over people’s psyches that it can result in the internalization of false ideas of who they are and how they ought to behave, which often leads to tragic outcomes.

The Reality Behind Fearless and Stoic Indian Warriors

When Diamond’s voiceover returns to say, “the myth of the fearless, stoic warrior lives on,” another clip of Hollywood Indians are shown. This time a Native warrior stands stone-faced against a tree as a firing squad of other Natives shoot arrows at him. When they all miss him, he still doesn’t show any change of expression. This is just one instance of Diamond using film clips to help continue the narrative of his journey while simultaneously commenting on what is motivating it.

An interview with actor Adam Beach appears: “We’ll never be able to change the fantasy of who and what Indians are. That fantasy will always be there. We’ll always be on the cover of novels that shout “Cheyenne Warrior!” To support Beach’s comment, a Warner Brothers cartoon plays next of a half-naked Indian warrior with a face almost completely covered by his braided hair. This physical rendering effectively dehumanizes the character by not revealing any distinguishing traits, which makes him seem more animal than man, in addition to being sexually objectifying. It is clear though that he has an overdeveloped chest and biceps that enables him to walk through a mountain, shake the earth with his steps, split trees in his path, and scare a bear into the size of a cub with his growls. Rhythmic drum and horn music plays, which is the soundtrack used in Westerns when Native American characters appear onscreen.

Using a cartoon example of this stereotype reminds viewers of the Indigenous child at the beginning of the film soaking these ideas up. It’s also a comment on how these ideas are hard to avoid since they are manufactured for multiple audiences.

Diamond travels to the Black Hills and Lakota reservation in South Dakota to examine where the “fearless, stoic Indian warrior” myth originated from and learns that it is inspired by Lakota military leader Taaunke Witko (Crazy Horse), who led several successful campaigns against “the white man’s invasion of the northern Great Plains” (Crazy Horse | Sioux Chief). He helped win the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, which is a story that Hollywood keeps retelling “turning the battle into a legend and Crazy Horse into an icon” since he supposedly killed Custer. Ojibway Film critic Jesse Wente explains that Indigenous people and Hollywood view Crazy Horse as a mystical warrior, but Hollywood took that to mean all Native Americans are “really great warriors…almost unstoppable.”

After a montage of Hollywood clips of the Battle of Little Bighorn play, Lakota activist and actor John Trudell points out that despite the romanticism and hopefulness of that moment, “15 years later our leaders were dead and we were herded up.” Contemporary footage of the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation is shown and Diamond explains that it is the “poorest Indian reservation in North America.” Images of children sleeping and bathing outside are also shown as Diamond proclaims, “these [people] are the descendants of Crazy Horse.” It’s chilling to see this community suffering despite their history. Perhaps they are allowed to suffer because of their efforts to resist the invasion of their homelands.

However, Taaunke Witko still inspires people. Diamond visits the location where a memorial to him is in the works and when it’s completed it will be “the largest statue to a human anywhere,” which is “ironic since he refused to have his image captured.” Trudell claims that Taaunke Witko’s appeal has lasted through generations because he “is an idea […], an embodiment of what can be done when you’re centered and balanced within yourself […] when you have a relationship to the spiritual reality that you are a part of.” This clarifies how the Hollywood view of Native American warriors only scratches the surface of the kind of spiritual power and physical strength that Indigenous leaders have to cultivate during times of war.

Savage Injuns Onscreen: Promoting the Manifest Destiny Agenda Again

Portrayals of Native Americans changed dramatically during the Great Depression. Audiences weren’t interested anymore in seeing stories about noble and spiritual Indians. Films that depicted Native Americans as brutal, marauding savages who indiscriminately attacked others became wildly popular. Maybe people were upset that Natives didn’t die out as expected. Or maybe it was because the public needed a scapegoat during tough economic times. An image of a white cowboy hat worn by John Wayne appears onscreen as Diamond states that “Americans [needed] a new brand of hero.” Westerns present the Manifest Destiny era from the white settler’s perspective.

Wente describes Stagecoach (1939) as “the iconic Western […] that all others were […] modeled after and it’s one of the most damaging movies for Native people in history.” Scenes of John Wayne shooting at Indians attacking stagecoaches carrying white people across the desert follow this statement. He explains that the Indians in that film symbolized the “wildness attacking Americans […] those that are stopping progress, those that are backwards, those that are vicious and bloodthirsty and that John Wayne’s cowboy characters “embodied the idea of the unstoppable American, and that the true American was not Native” because “Native Americans stopped real Americans from settling their own country.”

Since the Great Depression was another economically difficult time in U.S. history, it seemed that audiences wanted to look towards the last time Americans overcame an economic crisis, even though different factors precipitate each crisis and require unique solutions.

The Great Depression was “a global event that derived in part from events in the United States, U.S. financial policies, [...] [and] the First World War, which upset international balances of power and caused a dramatic shock to the global financial system. The gold standard, which had long served as the basis for national currencies and their exchange rates, had to be temporarily suspended in order to recover from the costs of the [...] War [...] However, this introduced inflexibility into domestic and international financial markets, which meant that they were less able to deal with additional shocks when they came in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The U.S. stock market crash of 1929, an economic downturn in Germany, and financial difficulties in France and Great Britain all coincided to cause a global financial crisis” (The Great Depression and U.S. Foreign Policy: 1921–1936).

Unfortunately, it was far easier to assuage the public’s anxiety over events they could not control by using Indigenous people as scapegoats. Wente points out that Stagecoach “summed up and gave the opinion of Native people for decades to the populace in the U.S. That’s how they thought of us, because of John Ford, and that how some Native people even thought of themselves.”

Boarding Schools: Indoctrinating Indigenous Children To Believe They Are Savages

As bad as Stagecoach is, it must be noted that aggressively promoting Indigenous people as savages didn’t just occur in the production of films and photographs, it was a federal policy adopted after the Civil War because the U.S. government determined that it was too expensive to continue going to war with Indigenous people like in the Wounded Knee and Sand Creek massacres.

So instead of employing military forces to eradicate the Native population, “the systematic destruction of Indigenous communities through the removal and reprogramming of their children” by enrolling them in boarding schools was pursued. When 2nd Lieutenant Richard Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian School in 1879, which was the first boarding school located far from Indigenous homelands, he said that his goal was to “kill the Indian, in order to save the man.” The fundamental principle was that Native Americans must be taught to reject tribal culture and adapt to white society (Let All That Is Indian Within You Die!). Bear explains, “The United States was still at war with Indians […] [and] the schools were “based […] on an education program he had developed in an Indian prison.”

Indigenous children were taken far away from their families to attend government and/or church-run schools for years and their parents were often threatened with violence, imprisonment, and/or the loss of food ration tickets if they did not comply (Let All That Is Indian Within You Die!). According to Tsianina Lomawaima, Director of the American Indian Studies program at the University of Arizona, the boarding schools “targeted Native nations that were the most recently hostile […] [with] a very conscious effort to recruit the children of leaders […] [to] essentially to hold those children hostage” (Bear). Later on, some Indigenous parents willingly sent their children to these schools because they were shut out from local public schools due to racism (Bear).

These schools claimed to educate Indigenous children so that they could assimilate into mainstream American society but that meant stamping out any connection they had to their own cultures. They “were punished for speaking their Native languages, banned from conducting traditional or cultural practices, shorn of traditional clothing [...], taught that their cultures and traditions were evil and sinful, and told they should be ashamed of being Native American.” (Let All That Is Indian Within You Die!). Many were given European names (Bear).

Being “intentionally and systematically inculcated with shame for being Indian through ridicule of their religions and their life-ways [resulted] [in] […] self-loathing and emotional disenfranchisement for their own cultures.” All of this made students largely incapable of fitting in with their communities and succeeding outside of them. Kevin Gover (Pawnee), the United States Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, shared that “The trauma of shame, fear, and anger has passed from one generation to the next, and manifests itself in the rampant alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence that plague Indian country. Many [...] Indian families suffer [...] by alcoholism, suicides made of shame and despair, and violent death at the hands of one another.”

Children “were controlled, trained, neglected and abused” at approximately “500 boarding schools in 18 states.” Facilities were often overcrowded and filthy (Bear). Many attempted to run away and unaccounted numbers died “from disease, malnutrition, loneliness and abuse.” There were also “[disappearances] of children born to boarding school students as the result of rape” (Let All That Is Indian Within You Die!).

Growing Up With Images of One’s Own Cultural Genocide

While Reel Injun is Diamond’s journey to understand how stereotypes about Indigenous people, it also attempts to answer, “What does it mean to grow up seeing your people degraded and murdered so many times on screen?”

Fights between cowboys and Indians are a motif that occur throughout the film: numerous clips of Westerns are shown, several people recall playing this game in childhood, and the director even participates in a mock gunfight with other adults at Goldfield Ghost Town, a reconstructed 1890s town in Arizona. This motif epitomizes how prevalent the genocidal images are and how they’ve disrupted Indigenous people’s sense of security of themselves and the world.

Wente says “Those images do shape people’s opinions and [...] [if] you’re trying to play cowboys and Indians [...] [as] an Indian kid, doesn’t that mean you’re going to lose all the time?” Activist and actor Russell Means (Oglala Lakota) recalls, “When we watched the Indians getting slaughtered at the end of every movie, my brother would refuse to watch it. Every time that bugle went off and the charge started, my brother would close his eyes and crouch down in his seat [...] we’d come out of those theaters [...] and all of a sudden we would hear “There’s those Indians!” and then we’d start fighting. We had to fight those white kids. Every Saturday we knew we was going to get in a fight.”

Lucy Toledo (Navajo) attended the Sherman Institute in the 1950s and shares that the point of attending boarding school "wasn't really about education [because] students didn't learn basic concepts in math or English, such as parts of speech or grammar.” However, the boarding schools made sure that the children watched Westerns every Saturday night. Toledo recalls "Cowboys and Indians. Cowboys and Indians. Here we're getting all our people killed, and that's the kind of stuff they showed us" (Bear). It seems gratuitous then for Diamond to visit the Crow Agency School to screen Little Big Man (1970). It’s a Western with a more sympathetic view of Native Americans, but it’s not surprising to see shots of the children’s shocked, horrified, and scared expressions while watching the film’s realistic depictions of a massacre.

A series of photos of Indigenous children taken by Edward S. Curtis are shown next to transition to an interview with John Trudell on how the dehumanization of Native Americans started with the first contact with European settlers. He explains, “When they got off the boat they did not recognize us. They said who are you? And we said, we’re the people. We’re the human beings. And they said “Oh you’re Indians because they didn’t recognize what it meant to be a human being. I’m a human being, this is the name of my tribe, this is the name of my people but I’m a human being. But then the predatory mentality shows up and starts calling us Indians and committing genocide against us as a vehicle of erasing the memory of being a human being. So they used war, textbooks, history books, and when film came along, they used film. You go in our own communities and how many of us are fighting to protect our identity of being an Indian and […] it’s reached a point evolutionarily speaking that we’re starting to not recognize ourselves as human beings. ”

Hollywood Belittles Indigenous Languages

Wente also observes the Hollywood Westerns of the 1930s and 1940s promoted the “Tonto-speak” style gibberish “that got associated with the portrayal of aboriginal people onscreen.” Diamond points out that some Westerns relied on yodeling, actors ad-libbing in their own Indigenous languages, or even playing English dialogue backwards when Native characters spoke. Peterson explains that this “was typical for a period when Hollywood used indigenous languages like warpaint or feathers to vaguely signal “Indian” without regard for geography or ethnicity.”

But sometimes Indigenous actors took advantage of their co-workers’ ignorance. A scene from A Distant Trumpet (1964) shows that while a cavalry officer is warning a tribal leader to comply with an order in English, the tribal leader responds in Navajo, “You can’t do anything to me, you’re just a snake crawling in your own shit.” The Navajo translation isn’t usually provided, but it provides another layer of meaning for those who do understand. When Diamond travels to Monument Valley, on the Utah/Arizona border where many Westerns were filmed, he meets an elderly Navajo couple who worked as extras on the set of a John Wayne film. They watch these films for the first time and recall how Navaho actors often went off-script to joke in their own language.

Native American Code Talkers: Using Indigenous Languages to Win World Wars I and II

While Hollywood film directors were using anything to represent Indigenous languages in Westerns, Native Americans were being recruited by the U.S. government “to develop secret battle communications based on their languages.” Code Talkers played a significant role in ensuring military victories during World War I and World War II since none of their messages were deciphered by America’s military enemies (Native Words, Native Warriors: Introduction). They became communications specialists who sent “coded messages about troop movements, enemy positions, and other critical information on the battlefield [by] [either] [translating] messages into their Native languages and [relaying] them to another tribal member […] [or] [developing] a special code within their languages to send important messages” while in combat (Native Words, Native Warriors: Introduction). Diaz notes that even “if they were being shot at, their focus was on sending the message, not firing back at the enemy.”

Eighteen Indigenous languages were used to send secret messages during World Wars I and II: Assiniboine, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chippewa/Oneida, Choctaw, Comanche, Hopi, Kiowa, Menominee, Muscogee/Creek and Seminole, Diné, Pawnee, Osage, Sac and Fox/Meskwaki, Dakota Sioux, Lakota Sioux, Yankton Sioux. There were at least two code talkers for each language (Native Words, Native Warriors: Native Languages). Adolf Hitler even assembled “a team of anthropologists to try to learn Native American languages in preparation of their use in World War II” since Cherokee and Choctaw codes were used successfully against them during World War I. However, the Nazis failed in their mission since Indigenous languages were too complex for them to understand (Diaz).

The largest group of Code Talkers were Diné. A school that was established after 29 men developed a code for their language ended up training over 400 Diné. They developed Type One Codes where “a Diné word for each letter of the English alphabet” spelled out more crucial messages than the Type Two Codes that just “used [...] everyday tribal languages to convey messages […] over the radio.” Animals were often used to represent different letters and special terms were developed to refer to military items. For example, “eagle” in Diné referred to a “transport plane” and “turtle” in Comanche referred to “tank.” When Carl Gorman was asked why the Diné were so successful at quickly memorizing complex codes, he answered, “For us, everything is memory, it’s part of our heritage. We have no written language. Our songs, our prayers, our stories, they’re all handed down from grandfather to father to children—and we listen, we hear, we learn to remember everything. It’s part of our training.” (Native Words, Native Warriors: Code Talkers).

Most Code Talkers were underage teenagers who retained fluency in their languages even though they attended boarding schools. It confounded them “that the same government that had tried to take away their languages in schools later gave them a critical role speaking their languages in military service,” but they participated in U.S. war efforts anyway. (Native Words, Native Warriors: Boarding Schools). It was a way for them to participate in the warrior traditions (the practice of doing whatever is necessary to protect their communities and homelands) that were highly respected in their cultures, in addition to taking advantage of opportunities to build economic security, further their educations, and travel to Europe, the Pacific Islands, and Africa (Native Words, Native Warriors: Code Talking). It took decades for Code Talkers to be acknowledged for their efforts because their work was classified. Once discharged they were told not to share with their families and communities what they exactly did. Many Code Talkers died before the U.S. government in the early 2000s would officially recognize them. (Native Words, Native Warriors: Recognition).

Groovy Indian: When Hollywood Indians Are Celebrated

Diamond introduces this era by observing “in the 60’s everything was turned on its head. The Westerns go out of style and the hippies become Indians.” However, since the images of American Indians that people wanted to copy were from inaccurate Hollywood depictions, they were just replicating the same stereotypes but with a different attitude.

The popularity of wearing headbands among hippies is one example of this. When Diamond meets Hollywood Costume designer Richard Lanotte to look through Native American costumes he learns that “Native Americans were…props. Rather than try to make them look regional, everyone was identifiable. They weren’t interested in explaining the tribes […] so to keep things simple; every Indian becomes a Plains Indian wearing the headdress, buckskin, and the headband. [While] certainly some Native American tribes did […] wear headbands […] the Plains Indians usually [did] not. But when you’re working on a Western and you have stunt people and they’re going to fall off horses, you need to keep their wigs on and that’s the best way you do it. So Hollywood started putting headbands on Plains Indians and got to be a thing you saw in every movie.” Wente calls this “an ingenious act of colonialism [because] you’re essentially robbing nations of an identity and grouping them into one.”

Furthermore, Seminole scholar Melinda Micco points out that hippies “created this fictionalized notion of native society and it was supported by the films they were seeing.” A scene from Geronimo (1962) plays “They don’t understand us, so we do the best we can. At least we stay alive.” “Are you alive?” another Native character asks to the other as they stand there in their red skinned spray tans and matching headbands and black shoulder-length wigs. They look ridiculous and their overly solemn speech makes it even more laughable.

John Trudell says, “in a way they were trying to imitate us, but in another way they were trying to remember who they were […] every human being a is descendant from a tribe […] there was a time in their ancestry when they wore feathers and beads and shells. There was a time in their ancestry before this colonizing mentality came and did to them to turn them into the white people they are and then they came and did it to us. The very same things that happened to them happened to us.”

Another scene from Geronimo plays that shows a confrontation between cavalry officers. One asks, “What’s bothering you lieutenant?” and the other answers, “Just human compassion General. I know who I’m fighting but I’m not sure I understand why.” Wente, explains that this change of perspective during this era was because “It’s emblematic of one of the ways that people in the 60s, Hollywood particularly, were trying to deal with their own legacy, which I think at this point was hard to deny. And they were coming to some sort of reconciliation about it.” And as a result, Native American people became a great allegorical tool to stand in for virtually any oppressed people.” They were standing in for the civil rights movements occurring at that time.

However, Native Americans also began to fight back against injustices they had long been suffering. Code Talkers were not the only young Indigenous people who maintained their tribal identities after going through the boarding school experience. Many returned to their homelands to become tribal leaders. Others used the boarding school experience to develop a “pan-Indian identity” that led directly to the American Indian Movement activism of the 1960s-1970s “over political and cultural self-determination” (Indian Country Diaries: Indian Boarding Schools). Trudell believes that all of this activity (the takeover of Alcatraz and Wounded Knee by members of the American Indian Movement) helped “rekindle the spirit of the people which had been diminished” because at that point “people had become ashamed due to the hostility of the Non-Native communities around Native communities and in its own way the hostility of the media through film because they are subtle hostilities if they are not blatant hostilities.”

From Stoicism to Humor: Native American Film Roles Evolve

Wente says that these political activities were “an opportunity to see Indians in a different light” which influenced how filmmakers portrayed the community. Little Big Man (1970) was the beginning of “an attempt to portray Aboriginal people as non-stereotypes or attempt to flesh out that characters that they could portray on screen. It played a lot with satire, with sending up the stereotypes.” Chief Dan George played his character Chief Old Lodge Skins with “a sly comic wit” that was unseen before. Next there was Billy Jack (1971), which had “a Native-style hero who would use physical violence to enact justice. That one character [...] embodied all of the 70’s angst and anger.”

Then there was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), which was the “beginning [of] [...] [seeing] an ownership over these stereotypes, where Will Sampson plays the stoic Indian [...] [in] [a] way [...] that [...] reclaims that character for our people.” Sampson’s performance was considered nuanced and graceful.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) was another revisionist Western that includes a character by Chief Dan George that challenged the stereotype of the wise old man by being hilarious and just as lost as the main character played by Clint Eastwood. Trudell says, George “was the key that brought that warmth and authenticity of who Native people are because he had that sense of humor. One of the things that I think are a vital part of our community, what have kept us alive is [...] our ability to laugh at the ugly.” Wente says that Chief Dan George was “undoing a lot of the problems that had been done before him in a single role.” Trudell was not the only American Indian Civil Rights movement leader that acknowledged the importance of humor to Indigenous communities.

The book Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (1969) by scholar and activist Vine Deloria, Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux) spoke out on issues affecting the community from a perspective that articulated how tribal identity and values are expressed in modern life. Deloria explains in the “Indian Humor” chapter, “One of the best ways to understand a people is to know what makes them laugh. Laughter encompasses the limits of the soul. In humor life is redefined and accepted. Irony and satire provide much keener insights into a group's collective psyche and values than do years of research"


"Tribes are being brought together by sharing humor of the past. Columbus jokes gain great sympathy among all tribes, yet there are no tribes extant who had anything to do with Columbus. But the fact of white invasion from which all tribes have suffered has created a common bond in relation to Columbus jokes that gives a solid feeling of unity and purpose to the tribes. The more desperate the problem, the more humor is directed to describe it. Satirical remarks often circumscribe problems so that possible solutions are drawn from the circumstances that would not make sense if presented in other than a humorous form."


"Humor, all Indians will agree, is the cement by which the coming Indian movement is held together. When a people can laugh at themselves and laugh at others and hold all aspects of life together without letting anybody drive them to extremes, then it seems to me that that people can survive.”

Indigenous Film Renaissance: We’re Asking To Be Human

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001) by Zacharias Kunuk

First Nations people become more fleshed-out characters from the 1960s to the 1990s, but non-Indians were still producing the films and Indigenous people were rarely the central characters. Reel Injun’s climax occurs at the end of the film when Diamond returns home, meets Zacharias Kunuk (Inuk), director of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001), and discusses the current global renaissance of Indigenous filmmaking.

It brings Diamond’s journey full circle (and the filmmaker-as-explorer role that Flaherty established in the Canadian Arctic) by reinforcing the point that he and other members of his community have the capacity to make films about their own mythologies, iconography, story structures, and experiences instead of telling stories about assimilating into mainstream culture/replicating stereotypes. Diamond says over footage of children playing in the snow and igloos that “after traveling across America, the answers were here all along.” He marvels that “it’s an unlikely place to give birth to a film that has revolutionized Native Cinema and gone on to win at the Cannes Film Festival.”

Kunuk shares that he makes films “to [record] our own history, the stories […] we used to hear when we were children, what [...] we believe, [...] why we are here, [and] how much trouble [the elders] went through to get us here.” He feels in a race against time because he wants to record the knowledge of his community’s elders before they pass on and that information is lost forever.

Originally he wanted to have actors French kiss in a movie scene but realized it’s not practiced in his culture. So he sat down with some elders and asked them “How did you get married? What is Inuit kiss like?” When director Chris Eyre (Cheyenne and Arapaho) says that it is clear to him that Atanarjuat is a film that is an “inside job,” a film by Native people for Native people, it may be due to Kunuk conducting that deeper level of research to ensure that he is creating work that is authentic and resolutely rooted in his own subjectivity.

As Diamond walks towards some ice sculptures in the sunset, he states, “A new age of native cinema is born in the world.” Eyre says, “You don’t always have to make great images of Native people. We’re not asking for that. We’re not asking to be noble or righteous or good all the time. We’re asking to be human.” Wente adds that “these films made in the North are incredibly special and they’re finally the aboriginal cinema [...] [where] the gaze is ours.” He looks like he’s on the verge of tears when he says, “To see it in my lifetime is very empowering for our culture. We can’t describe the importance now. They’ll be described years from now by critics probably far more important than me. They will talk about what those movies meant.”

A chant recited by women in Atanarjuat plays during this section of the film: while directors and critics analyze this development and scenes from the following films are shown: Smoke Signals (1998), Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001), Whale Rider (2002), Once Were Warriors (1994), Dance Me Outside (1994), Skins (2002), Ten Canoes (2006), Thunderheart (1992), and Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002). This section winds down on a joyful, excited note with the chanting women smilingly embracing each other. Reel Injun ends with the film’s title card appearing onscreen again to communicate that the global Indigenous Film Renaissance gives new meaning to the film’s title.


Smoke Signals (1998) by Chris Eyre

Filmmaker-explorers who want to present underrepresented stories accurately and sensitively must take care to not replicate the biases of the cultures they come from, dehumanization of their subjects, and ethical dilemmas made by previous practitioners. They also need to be aware of the destructive impact of aligning themselves with corporate and/or colonizing interests that take an adversarial position towards their film subjects. First Nations communities suffered the worst of these filmmaking missteps and Reel Injun explores how these destructive ideas were continued in Hollywood films produced each decade of the last century.

As filmmaking is undertaken by more diverse communities around the world, there is a need to come to terms with how films have been used to denigrate non-Western societies so that such depictions are no longer blindly accepted. This would make it easier for truthful storytelling from underrepresented points of view to replace outmoded narratives that marginalized them.

Since films can significantly contribute to the efforts to combat hundreds of years cultural genocide, it would also be exciting to follow-up on Jesse Wente’s observation that future critics will be better able to contextualize the impact of the Global Indigenous Film Renaissance. It is almost twenty years after the release of Smoke Signals, “the first film to be directed, acted, and produced by Native Americans to have a major distribution deal” which is also credited with kicking off the Native American Cinema movement (Hearne).

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