Sunday I was listening to ‘A Point of View’ and heard that Hollywood is in the process of remaking ‘The Lone Ranger.’ It caught my attention and I listened with dread, wondering who would play Tonto and somehow knowing that I wouldn’t be pleased. I was right. In a casual statement a few moments later the commentator mentioned Johnny Depp was cast in the role and only added a few words that it had cause some controversy as he moved casually on to explain his reason for bringing up the topic for his point of view—that he had loved ‘The Lone Ranger’ as a child and remembered how the series and films had been so popular in Britain and captured the hearts of many children and adults.
I could only groan. Even in the original series of the Lone Ranger Hollywood had for some unknown reason gone against the norm and cast a real Native American for the role. Jay Silverheels was a Mohawk from Canada and he spent most of his professional career trying to get Hollywood to cast real Native Americans to play the native parts and when he could, to have them portrayed authentically.
Usually Hollywood studios just grabbed wigs out of wardrobe and piled
on the makeup because it was cheaper to keep one race (white) on the payroll that could be used in all films with just a slight adjustments. It wasn’t always this way. There were some early studios that had Native Americans on their payrolls in the days of silent films, but when the studio system emerged and Hollywood began to dominate filmmaking and competition and cost of talkies them to cut their payroll to cutback on actors and retain those that could play a variety of parts. So they taped back eyes to create a Chinese man like Charlie Chan or donned black wigs and heavy makeup for Native Americans. We got Ricardo Montalban playing a chief and laughable of all, Donna Reed playing Sacajawea, the Mandan woman who guided Lewis and Clark. With her obvious 1950s undergarments (torpedo bra and girdle) worn underneath her fringed buckskin dress,
one can wonder why they didn’t supply her with heels!
My great-grandmother, Ella Mannal
Wigs and makeup weren’t the only areas that Hollywood fell down on. The images of Native
Americans portrayed on film were stereotypes that emerged out of the dime western novels and also influenced by the nature movement of the nineteenth century that celebrated Native Americans as pure and unsullied by modernism. The stoic chief, epitomized by the commercial against littering broadcast in the
1970s in America. Some started groups in America, Britain and elsewhere to emulate the wilderness skills and connection with nature around the early 1900s. Even my great-grandmother, Ella Mannal, got in on the act and was in‘The Daughters of Liberty’ I think it was called.’ Baden Powell (founder of the Boy Scouts) and others’ were inspired to start organizations for children that incorporated wilderness skills and other aspects of behaviour they thought Native Americans exemplified. On the female side was the Indian Princess and tales of Pocahontas was created as the best model.
Tsianina Redfeather, a peformer
This contradicted the other stereotypes of the dangerous warrior with braids and warbonnet of the plains Indian. The female version was clad in a blanket, followed silently after her man in her braids carrying bundles or a papoose on her back.
Regardless of the stereotype Hollywood used they all seemed to feel though that the Native American could only utter things like ‘ugh,’ or ‘how’ or the more loquacious ‘me come in peace.’ If they did grant them some dialogue it was riddled with bad grammar or it sounded like pidgen English. Poor Tonto had some dire sounding lines that more or less added up to ‘yes kimosabe, no kimosabe.’
Some Native Americans who managed to break into the film business had no choice but to go along with the stereotypes if they wanted to stay employed. Or if they were to perform in public in any way because it was audiences expected and wanted, was the argument. Anahareo’s partner in wilderness preservation, Archie Belaney/Grey Owl understood that and hen he toured in Britain, the U.S. and Canada he dressed the part complete with beaded
buckskins, braided hair and later even a war bonnet. He allowed people to
believe he was half Apache because he knew they would accept a message of
wilderness preservation from someone whom they felt was close to nature.
Click herAnahareo, swept into celebrity by Grey Owl’s book,
Pilgrims of the Wild, published in the 1930s, didn’t change her appearance and presented to the world an authentic person. She was a Mohawk/Algonquin woman who was raised in a town, had become expert in bush living but still had modern sensibilities. There were no braids and buckskin dresses for her. She wouldn’t drag around after Grey Owl clad in a blanket toting a papoose. She wore trousers, high top boots, a neckerchief stylishly tied around her neck and bobbed her hair and she could smoke a cigarette with the finesse of Bette Davis. (see webpage for Anahareo). She spoke of her past as a prospector, a dog musher and trapper and she always spoke her mind. Even in later years.
It was a brief event, though. Her celebrity faded and it was only years later that her voice was heard again in the 1970s when the world was ready to hear about ecology and preserving the wilderness. She was a woman
ahead of her time, presenting an authentic image of a First Nations person and more particularly a First Nations woman in Canada.
Today, the stereotypes still linger. I understand that PBS broadcast a program called, ‘The Reel Injun’ about Hollywood stereotypes. I haven’t seen it. Apparently Disney haven’t either. I can hear Anahareo snorting in disgust from beyond.
If you want to read more about this topic there are several books out.
Among them is Philip J. Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places.
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Daffodils in our meadow
Spring has sprung now here in Ireland and we’re in the middle of Seachtaine na Gaeilge, or Irish week in English, the period of time surrounding Lá le Padraig, St. Patrick’s Day. I say‘period of time’ since it’s officially a 2 week celebration and for some it’s a month long celebration. There are event’s happening everywhere and it’s a great time to enjoy a variety of music, art, dance, literature, food and just about anything you can remotely connect to the ‘wearing of the green’ or celebrating Irish culture. It’s also the month when all the politicians disappear from Dublin to participate in parades around the world. A different Flight of the Wild Geese, that.
In Macroom, the local town the Lion’s Club there is celebrating in grand style by staging a fund raising event to beat all—a mouse race. They borrow eight mice from the pet shop in the city and then create race lanes for them and sell the lanes and have heats and then on site betting the evening of the event. The race is filmed on CCTV and then broadcast out to the room so no one feels left out and all can see who is winning. There are about 8 different races but with only 16 mice they change the names of the mice for every other race so no one can tell who’s the best one at figuring out how to get from one end of the race lane to the other. Sometimes the race lasts seconds and sometimes ages as the mice decide whether they will go forward, wait around or go all the way to the end and just before they get
there turn around and run to the start.
On the more traditional side in Macroom it’s the time of the big parade. And who is the biggest feature there? The Philadelphia Mummers’
Woodland String Band. Yes I kid you not. I can’t escape them. Yes here in Ireland the heart of experiencing a St. Patrick’s Day and I get New Year’s Day in Philadelphia. This year they are back again for the 11thor 12th year (can’t remember). I heard today that last night they were playing in the Castle Hotel café and above was the weekly bridge group. The playing was so loud the bridge group couldn’t concentrate. What is that racket? Anyway they abandoned the bridge and decided to join them rather than try and beat 'the racket.'
St. Patrick’s Day is a day of religious observation here still, though the celebration factor seems to have risen to the fore. Here in the Ballyvourny/Coolea area there are still some who would be aware that it is also the time of Naomh Abán’s feast day. St. Abán, is a local male saint who was contemporary with St. Gobnait, our patron saint around here. St. Aban had a small community just down the road a way from me. There are three little stellae/standing
stones and a well where he’s buried. One of the stones is an ogham inscription. His thigh bone is there tucked away from the elements.
It’s a site of veneration and rounds are done there, especially on his feast day.
Back when I was in Philadelphia during this period I would be madly going around to the many Irish music events that appeared in this month,
getting my feast in that would normally have to last me for the rest of the
year. Here I’m so fortunate to have the Ionad Cultura, the Culture Center down in the village and the coordinator there, Bríd (a talented and known musician herself) gets some amazing people appearing there. Even now in the downturn (or however you want to euphemistically term it) she’s done wonders in attracting well known names. This past Saturday we had the local talent, many of whom win national awards and honours and the little kids coming up in it singing and performing various styles of traditional singing. One fine singer, a young woman named Nell Ní Cronín, was just named Singer of the Year by TG4 (Nations TV station for Irish). After the local talent we had the fine singer and musician Sean Keane.
I first saw Sean in Philadelphia at the Commodore Barry Club/Irish Center in Mt. Airy. It was long enough ago that I won’t embarrass him or myself by saying the year. In any case he’s wearing well and so is his voice. He was
in great form and and the audience was too; it was the type of night when he could just easily launch into la la la when he forgot the words in the middle of a Mayo song and everyone forgave him. A great lark. He had two encores and left us asking for more. My friend, a real fan, was thrilled when he opened with the song she’d sing often when out with the choir. It’s a Robbie O’Connell song about emigration –Back Across the Ocean (or something like that—forgive me for not remembering). It’s sad to say
that it’s relevant again, for so many young ones are emigrating.
Her own sister is in North Carolina, which made it even more poignant
when Sean Keane sang, ‘Galway to Graceland’ the song her sister loved to sing when she was out with the choir.
With Sean Keane to tide me over to the next event I am back to my keyboard working like a little beaver here. I have completed my edits for the novel and that is on track. The book trailer is in the making and my postcards should be done soon so it is all perking along. It’s the biography
on Anahareo that has taken off suddenly and, it seems to me, at lightening
speed. The edits are done, a cover tentatively selected and it seems it will be coming out in May. I’m working hard getting the publicity together for that and then turn my thoughts to making a book trailer for the biography. It's all go.
Kristin Gleeson is a writer, artist and musician who lives in the west of Ireland in the Gaeltacht.
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