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.
Kristin Gleeson is a writer, artist and musician who lives in the west of Ireland in the Gaeltacht.
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