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Killing the Indian Maiden: Images of Native American Women in Film (review)

From: The American Indian Quarterly
Volume 32, Number 3, Summer 2008
pp. 360-363 | 10.1353/aiq.0.0007

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M. Elise Marubbio’s text Killing the Indian Maiden: Images of Native American Women in Film closely examines the portrayal of Native American female characters in thirty-four films, ranging from silent movies in the early 1900s through the 1990s. Marubbio divides the characters into three groups—Celluloid Princess, Sexualized Maiden, and the Hybrid Celluloid Maiden—based on the qualities they exhibit and the purpose they serve in the films’ plotlines.

The Celluloid Princess characters are most notable in the early silent films, the 1920s to mid-1930s, and resurface during the 1950s. The Sexualized Maiden is found most often during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, although not exclusively, and a hybrid of these two appears in films of the 1970s and 1990s. The Hollywood films chosen are well known, such as My Darling Clementine (1946), Broken Arrow (1950), Mackenna’s Gold (1969), Little Big Man (1970), and Legends of the Fall (1994). Some films, like Broken Lance (1954) and Dances with Wolves (1990), won awards.

Marubbio refers to these female Native American characters collectively as Celluloid Maidens. The Celluloid Maidens, portrayed in films for more than ninety years, share a common fate and serve a common purpose: they all die. The Princess character most often dies by suicide. The Sexualized Maiden most often is killed by someone from the white culture or sometimes from her own culture.

From the perspective of film studies, Marubbio demonstrates that the films reinforce for their audiences the inevitability of the dominance of white culture over Native American culture. From the films’ perspectives, expanding the white culture throughout the West, taking the land, and eradicating Native culture are not only inevitable but also desirable. From the dominant culture’s perspective, white culture is superior to Native culture and must prevail.

The female Native characters must die so that the dominant white culture can continue to flourish. In the case of the Princess character, the Native maiden frequently is related to the chief, she helps the main white male character in some way, they fall in love, but then she must die so that he is free and his culture can thrive. In the case of the Sexualized Maiden character, the Native female is more of a temptress exhibiting wanton characteristics who seduces the white male character, which often results in offspring, and then she must die so that he and their offspring can return to the white culture.

Symbolism is heavily analyzed. Maidens frequently represent the land the white culture is taking from the Native culture. The Native American culture is devalued compared to the white culture. The Native women are temptresses, whether innocent or wanton, and the offspring from these unions need to be separated from the Native culture through the death of the maiden and assimilated into the white culture. Miscegenation is portrayed as something to be feared and viewed as dangerous to the white culture.

Inevitably, the films show that the Native woman must be punished by death, by her own hand or by someone else’s. White society is shown as fearing the Otherness of these women and fearing that their tainted blood will pollute white culture through the dangers of miscegenation. The desirable solution for society is shown to be the elimination of Native culture through either destruction or assimilation. The hierarchy of a white patriarchal society must be maintained.

Marubbio’s work makes a valuable contribution to the scholarship of film studies because she concentrates on an in-depth analysis of the female characters. Other film scholars have studied the portrayal of Native Americans in film (e.g., Jacqueline Kilpatrick’s 1999 book Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Films). Unlike other works, Marubbio’s work is tightly focused on the depiction of the female characters. In addition to film studies, this work makes a valuable contribution to women’s studies.

Marubbio analyzes the films within the context of the social and political events occurring during the twentieth century. The country passes through periods of heavy immigration, multiple wars, a depression, the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, political policies that affect Native Americans, and so on. She explicates the subtle differences in the characters of the...

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