Ahhh, yes. Native film. Films with Natives, by Natives, about Natives.
Tell me, please.
What makes a film…well…“Native?”
You can ask and ask and ask all the smart people you know and they will give answers and answers—even smart answers—but the definition remains mostly in the eye of the beholder. Smart or not.
Which is why I am both curious and dubious of something I came across recently while surfing the net. A contest, that’s right, a contest—sorta like a primary but without Romney’s Brylcream hair and Hillary’s acid glare—a contest where you and me and every yahoo on Yahoo can vote for their choice of the 15 Best Native Films of All Time. But no, unlike the Dems and GOP; this votefest is sponsored by actor/writer Roscoe Pond as a companion piece for an article he’s writing for Native Peoples Magazine.
The 15 Best Native Films of All Time from 1950 to the present. Think about it…
Did they have “Native films” in 1950? Or 1960, or even later? Errr, sure they did, if you include films starring Jeff Chandler as Cochise and Jim Thorpe portrayed by very New York, very Irish Burt Lancaster. It took another 20 years before real Indians were cast as real Indians, such as Chief Dan George’s breakthrough role in Little Big Man and Will Sampson’s turn in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Progress, no doubt, but honestly, can either of these award-winning films be defined as “Native?”
Neither projected the Native view—not even the sympathetic Little Big Man, which if you recall, is the story of a white guy sharing his experience in the Cheyenne world. Yet both of these films, along with the likes of Billy Jack, Windtalkers and Squanto are deemed “Native” enough for many in the film establishment—as evidenced by their inclusion in the aforementioned contest.
Forget this silly li’l contest where you can vote and vote and vote for these gems multiple times. And Pond is absolutely right when he says we shouldn’t take any of this too seriously—the contest, that is.
However, the reality of Native-produced and Native-inspired cinema is serious indeed. Serious in that filmmakers from pueblos and reservations, cities and suburbia, tribes steeped in tradition and tribes struggling to retain their identity are all finding their voice. For the first time, these artists are telling the Indigenous story from an Indigenous perspective through the lens of a camera.
What makes a film…well…“Native?”
I can tell you this much. A Native walking across the screen doesn’t make a film Native. Showing sweeping landscapes with tipis, tomahawks and soaring eagles doesn’t make a film Native. An Indian storyline told from a non-Indian point of view doesn’t make a film Native. Tom toms and flutes and New Age spirituality don’t make a film Native.
No matter how cute Natalie Wood looks in braids and brown makeup or how much you enjoy a glimpse of Costner’s heinie, you just can’t fake it. Regardless how good or lousy, Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Broken Arrow, The New World, Apocalypto, and Flags of our Fathers are not it.
They are what they are—classics, laughably awful, screamingly mediocre—and not “Native.” Not then, not now, not ever. Four Sheets to the Wind, The Doe Boy, Sleepdancer, Mile Post 398, Imprint, Turquoise Rose, Atanarjuat/The Fast Runner, Johnny Tootall. They are. These and dozens of other features and documentaries depict the contemporary Indigenous story in the words and images of contemporary Indians.
Then, now and forever.