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The Best of Both Worlds: Otherness, Appropriation, and Identity in Thunderheart

From: Wicazo Sa Review
Volume 16, Number 2, Fall 2001
pp. 97-114 | 10.1353/wic.2001.0028

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Wicazo Sa Review 16.4 (2001) 97-114

In many respects, Thunderheart (1992) is a refreshing departure from its predecessors in the Native American film genre. While seemingly enlightened, I will argue that the film still relies upon too many Hollywood crutches in depicting Native Americans, which is particularly evident in its utilization of three tropes: the construction of the "other," the appropriation of native spirituality, and the formation of identity. I will also analyze several film reviews to demonstrate how the critical reception of Thunderheart reflects mainstream America's ambivalence toward Native Americans.

Thunderheart tells the story of a mixed-blood FBI agent (Ray Levoi) who ventures onto the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota to solve a murder but finds his Indian identity in the process. When he realizes that the government is involved in a murder and a plot to mine uranium on the reservation, Levoi teams with tribal policeman Walter Crow Horse and traditional elder Grandpa Sam Reaches to stop the plot and preserve the environment of the reservation. Although a work of fiction, the film begins with the following caption: "This story was inspired by events that took place on several American Indian reservations during the 1970s"--claiming, therefore, that the movie is based on a true story.

The film presents many positive depictions of Native Americans that are a radical departure from traditional film portrayals. First, the movie is set in contemporary times rather than in a timeless Indian past. Second, with the glaring exception of the starring role, all of the native characters are played by native actors. Besides Crow Horse and Grandpa Reaches, the main Indian roles include schoolteacher Maggie Eagle Bear and fugitive Jimmy Looks Twice. All of these characters have substance and are even shown to have a sense of humor, in sharp contrast to the stoic, "cigar store" Indians commonly found in most films. Thunderheart succeeds in portraying native peoples as complex and dynamic entities.

However, although the native characters are presented more humanistically, they are still rooted in familiar stereotypes. The relationship between Ray Levoi and Walter Crow Horse, for example, is reminiscent of the Lone Ranger and Tonto relationship with the white hero as leader and the faithful Indian sidekick following in the background. The Lone Ranger and Tonto provide a media prototype of a domesticated imperialist relationship that demonstrates the superiority of the European vis-à-vis the Native American in the struggle between civilization and savagery. When Third World people are not portrayed as heartless savages, they are usually cast as devoted subordinates who find fulfillment in selfless service to a white "superior."

Granted, such a one-sided relationship does not exist between Levoi and Crow Horse. After all, Crow Horse is depicted as a very intelligent and capable investigator who turned the case around with his unorthodox law enforcement skills. But when Levoi and Crow Horse join forces, it is Ray who calls the shots and Walter who rides shotgun. According to film historian Donald L. Kaufman, "Whatever the Lone Ranger was, Tonto was less -- less fast, less a sharpshooter, less domineering." The same can be said of the dominant Levoi and the supportive Crow Horse.

Besides biracial male couples, there are also ubiquitous filmic accounts of frontiersmen who fall in love with Indian maidens. If the white hero falls in love with an Indian woman, she is usually socially upgraded by being a princess or at least the chief's daughter of the Pocahontas variety. This convention is designed to render the female's status as an Indian more acceptable to white audiences. Thus, in Thunderheart, Maggie Eagle Bear is an Ivy League graduate with a social conscience. While she could have used her degree to fetch a lucrative job, instead she returned to the reservation to help her own people. In this way, she is not like the other women on the reservation and is worthy of a white man's affection.

There is an immediate and palpable sexual tension between Levoi and Eagle Bear, a tension that is sustained and developed in every scene the two characters share. But the relationship follows the Pocahontas mold. As is usually the case...

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