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The Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume Vlll, Number 1,Spring 1977 UnderstandingHollywood'sIndianRhetoric John Harrington Intellectual etiquette requires damning the way Hollywood has treated every group and nationality. Pierre Berton's Hollywood's Canada is only a recent example. Berton predictably bemoans the ways in which Hollywood has unfairly fabricated Canada's cinematic identity. Everyone apparently agrees that Hollywood is a factory churning out misrepresentations, yet the books and articles cataloguing Hollywood's transgressions keep coming. Lamenting Hollywood's treatment of Native Americans is an especially durable critical pastime. The public did not need to await today's critics to tell it that movies portray Native Americans inaccurately and demeaningly. Criticism of Hollywood's Indian rhetoric has accompanied the rise of America's film industry. Issues of Moving Picture World from as early as 1911offer several examples. One article reproaches producers for"unrealistic protrayals of the American Indian," 1 while another notes that a delegation of Native Americans visited President Taft to seek congressional investigation and regulation of the false portrayal of Indian life and character in movies. 2 A third reports the protest of a California tribe against one movie's depicting Indians in war paint at a time when they were peacefully farming.3 Yet another calls for a series of authentic films to record the lives of a race rapidly approaching extinction. 4 Other articles during the same year follow similar lines, adding to a long bibliography. Recent articles and books, such as The Onzr Good Indian .... The Hol~iwood Go.\pe/ by Ralph and Natasha Friar, 5 continue to catalogue the movie industry's abuses of the history and culture of Native Americans. If nearly three-quarters of a century of critics detailing the errors of Holly- 78 wood's ways has had an effect, that effect seems tiny in relation to the critics' time and energy. Changes have occurred in Hollywood's treatment of Native Americans-- I will point out some of those changes-~ but changes in Hollywood 's Indian rhetoric seem much more easily explained by contemporary cultural concerns than by the railings of critics. The American public and the Hollywood movie industry have remained largely indifferent to pleas on behalf of the roles of Native Americans in films. My purpose is not to add further to the catalogue of Hollywood's abuses, but to attempt to understand Hollywood's adapting of the Indian to cinematic fiction. Certain unfortunate givens apply to Hollywood's approach to ~ative Americans: most North Americans learn about Native Americans from movies; Hollywood is indifferent to presenting Native American culture accurately; and (following from the first two as in a syllogism) Hollywood creates "Indian" culture. These givens become self-reinforcing. The first given is dear: while people seem vaguely aware that movies misrepresent Native American culture, most people's experience with, and therefore attitudes toward, Native Americans come from movies. Next, Hollywood creates fantasies for dollars. Movies about Native Americans were not created to 1111 orm but to entertain, without regard to the proposition that in the bei.,t tradition of Sir Philip Sidney-entertaining and instructing, teaching and delighting, could be joined. Audience and economics have therefore led Hollywood to create Indian- or lnjun- culture rather than to present Native American culture. American filmmakers have created and defined a unique and mythical (mythical in both the Jungian and the fallacious senses) culture which they choose to label "Indian." Movies about Indians present not reality but a narrow perception of reality which has been embroidered and elaborated upon for decades. The economics of the filmmaker's relationship with an audience have not yet required that he or she faithfully present the complexity found in reality The ignorant, which includes most of us, do not know and do not much care about what is accurate and what is inaccurate in movies about Native Americans. The Hollywood filmmaker, therefore, has a condescending justification-at least partially self-created-for why Native Americans are portrayed inaccurately. "The boobs wouldn't know the difference," he can say, and has. But on a more complex level of explanation, and perhaps of justification, 1tshould be said that it is not the task of fiction...


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