By: Darby Kendall
“Indians always have secrets, which are carefully and slowly revealed to everybody. And Indians must see visions. White people can have the same visions if they're in love with Indians. If a White person loves an Indian, then the White person is an Indian by proximity. White people must carry an Indian deep inside themselves; those interior Indians are half breeds, and obviously from horse cultures. In the Great American Indian Novel, when it is finally written, all of the White people will be Indians, and all of the Indians will be dead.” - Sherman Alexie, “The Business of Fancydancing” (2002)
Native Americans have played an essential role in the creation of cinema. Prior to its invention, indigenous peoples starred in a highly influential precursor to movies, Wild West shows. Once American film-making began, these live shows transformed into movies like “The Indian Wars” and “Custer’s Last Fight.” These early films, made in the 1910s, then evolved into the mid-century Westerns we still know so well today. For over a century, Native Americans have starred in, written and directed movies that help shape the way modern society approaches film. However, there are also many movies, such as “The Indian Wars,” that use indigenous peoples to promote Western agendas. This multifaceted relationship between Native Americans and cinema has led to a wide spectrum of quality among films that feature Native characters – from movies using red face to those created by real indigenous peoples, indigenous-centric films have a far-reaching scope.
One particularly common plot within these films is one that forcibly collides the world of colonizer and colonized: the mixed Native and White relationship. Films centered around these relationships are well known among my generation, thanks to the widespread popularity of Disney's “Pocahontas.” Additionally, Native/White mixed relationships have been a popular theme in movies since silent films acted out the colonialist settling of the West.
Elise Marubbio, an associate professor at Ausburg College who studies Native American film, says these onscreen mixed relations have often been used to reflect the current social climate.
“I think there have been narratives throughout our history that show the issues faced by interracial marriages. The Squaw Man films of the turn of the 20th century clearly illustrated the existence of these marriages, as did those in the 1950s... which also took on the overt racism the families of these marriages had to deal with, as well as the physical violence enacted on the woman herself,” Marubbio says. “These are raised again in every decade, so there is progression in terms of how it’s depicted and what the trope allows us to see in terms of our own history. What is clearly ongoing is an ambiguity about interracial mixing, Native Americans within the fabric of the Settler-Nation state reality, and Native women.”
Native mixed relationships are widespread in popular culture, but how common are they in real life? The short answer is: extremely. In 2013, 58 percent of newlywed Native Americans married someone of a different race, according to the Pew Research Center. That's compared to the 12 percent average of interracial marriages among all races, a record high. Clearly there is a large difference between the Native American average and the national average – of the races surveyed for the report, newlywed Natives have the highest interracial marriage rate.
Based on those numbers, it's safe to say that Native American interracial marriage is common in the modern age. Unfortunately, what isn't so common are films that depict these relationships in a realistic way, especially films coming out of Hollywood. That's not to say that indigenous mixed relationships haven't been widely shown in movies – lots of silent films and early westerns did show mixed couples, but they often split up before the end of the film. Sometimes, if the indigenous member of the relationship was a woman, she was used as a plot device for the white man to find himself – and then she was killed off when no longer needed for his character development. In a way, these early films remind me of racist, more openly sexist versions of indie movies with manic pixie dream girls. Marubbio explains why the Native female character has evolved so little over the years.
“Since the 1990s filmmakers have attempted to portray Native Americans more accurately and in greater numbers in films (The Last of the Mohicans, Dances with Wolves, even Apacalypto) but they still rely on the Nobel/Ignoble and Vanishing American theme, and most importantly, the women are still relatively invisible or silent aspects,” Marubbio says. “It is as if non-Native filmmakers don’t know how to undo the trope so they just don’t deal with female characters or they simply rely on Pocahontas imagery.”
What is clearly ongoing is an ambiguity about interracial mixing, Native Americans within the fabric of the Settler-Nation state reality, and Native women.
The 1914 silent film “The Squaw Man” is perhaps the most well-known template for this story line. The plot is equally as problematic as the title itself. To give a quick summary: James, an English captain, takes the blame for his cousin’s crime and travels to America to escape punishment. Once in Wyoming, he rescues a Ute woman named Nat-U-Ritch from a local outlaw. Of course, they fall in love and later have a child. James is cleared of his crimes, and he is free to go back to England. His cousin's widow (with which James had a hinted affair) comes to take him back to England. James wants to take Nat-U-Ritch and their son, but she does not want to leave James, her child or her home, so in classic silent Western style, she kills herself. This leaves James able to presumably get together with his cousin's widow, and take his son with him into British society.
Nat-U-Ritch's death is not only a quick ending to the story’s conflict, but it also promotes a problematic ideal, according to Joanna Hearne, associate professor of Native American and global Indigenous studies at the University of Missouri.
“In ‘The Squaw Man,’ the native woman kills herself, and sort of takes herself out of the picture, out of grief. That creates and incredibly tragic and melodramatic resolution to this plot, where everyone is sad, but the problem of how their child will be raised is solved that way, with the death of the Native character,” Hearne says. “That is the sort of narrative in which she lends legitimacy to settlement through this kind of voluntary choice to disappear, and makes space for the settlement to happen. That's the settler fantasy, that this vanishing happens: Tragically but by choice; tragically but out of loyalty and tragically but out of love. What it erases is genocidal violence, governmental policies and settler actions that very aggressively seized land illegitimately... That's what screens were selling at one point.”
And how these movies sold. The film was directed and produced by Cecil B. Demille, who's known best for his later films “The Ten Commandments” and “The Greatest Show on Earth.” The movie made $244,700 in the box office, which when adjusted for inflation, is just over $6 million. Due to its popularity, the film became a template for silent westerns, which partially explains why Native suicide was so common in the genre.
“This fantasy across racial romance – that the mixed race child is then taken away to be raised away from the tribe at the end of the story – is being circulated as a blockbuster film,” Hearne says. “It's one of the very first feature film blockbusters in Hollywood, ever. So that film was in many ways a model for what a [successful] film does.”
At the most basic level we have not come as far as we need to be. While we see more interracial relationships in our daily circles and to a degree on television, they are still an anomaly in films and media.
As generations progressed and social ideals changed, Native and White mixed relationships continued to be featured in blockbuster films. However, the agendas of the filmmakers shifted. Because it was actually illegal to show Black and White mixed relationships onscreen until 1968, due to Hollywood’s miscegenation laws, many directors used Native and White relationships to symbolize an overarching theme of mixed relationships.
“It's really plausible to see these as substitute relationships for talking about broader race relations in the United States in the 1950's, during the Civil Rights Era. You weren't allowed to depict [Black/White relationships] onscreen, but you could hint at it in a Western,” Hearne says. “I think it's an extraordinarily complicated moment in Native, ethnic and settler relationships mid-century. The Westerns that depict those relationships step into that complicated field of meaning, and they can mean more than one thing at one time.”
Two films from this period tackle the subject of mixed race relationships in significantly different ways.“Broken Arrow,” was released during the Cold War Era in 1950, a period in U.S. history where fear surrounding unknown people and cultures, or 'the other' was rampant. Fortunately, this film has a pro-Native stance, with the main character's mixed relationship shown in a positive light. Unfortunately, his love interest dies at the end of the film, in the predictable manner film has historically favored.
“In no other arena do we see killing the woman as the continual and only solution or resolution to her placement in the narrative,” Marubbio says. “Killing the Native woman is such an ongoing and obvious narrative about colonialist right to enact genocide over and over against the First peoples of this hemisphere and yet it is so continually legitimized and wound together with institutionalized and normalized discrimination and racism toward women and peoples of color, that we tend to gloss over it culturally.”
A second critically acclaimed movie from this era is “The Searchers,” a John Wayne film that has a noticeable tone shift from “Broken Arrow,” though they both feature mixed relationships. The overarching feel of the film is heavily anti-Comanche, as it shows a forced relationship between a white captive and a Comanche chief. Rather than a sympathetic or female Native victim point of view, the film associated fear with mixed relationships.
“[These films] took on the overt racism the families of these marriages had to deal with as well as the physical violence enacted on the woman herself,” Marubbio says. “The tragic undertones do shift – clearly in the turn of the 20th century this was about the 'vanishing races' hypothesis, by the 1950s the fear of tainted blood comes into play with miscegenation.”
Miscegenation laws in Hollywood laws became null and void in 1968, and with that came another shift in the representation of Native mixed relationships in film. Not only were social attitudes towards race rapidly evolving during this era, but film-making equipment was becoming more accessible. This made cinematography easier for non-Hollywood associated filmmakers, which only increased after the invention of the digital camera a couple of decades later. The conveniences of modern technology led to a Renaissance of sorts in Native film-making, allowing indigenous directors to give a real voice to Natives that had been overwhelmingly directed by colonialists for so long.
One such work is a movie by Sherman Alexie, “The Business of Fancydancing” (2002). The film is about a successful gay Spokane poet who now lives in Seattle with his white boyfriend. He goes back to the reservation for the first time in over a decade when his cousin dies, and ends up in a deep struggle with his indigenous identity. One thing that I liked about this film is that although the mixed relationship is a central part of the plot, that's not the sole point of the movie. It's also not the main characteristic of the Native character, unlike in movies such as “The Squaw Man” and “Broken Arrow.” Seymour, the main character, is such an anti-hero that I could spend a couple hours unpacking his personality. Finally, we're seeing dynamic indigenous characters in a movie featuring a mixed race couple.
With some thanks to the assistance of modern technology, indigenous filmmakers are now creating hundreds of films that finally show themselves and their tribes the way they desire to be seen. Movies like “The Business of Fancydancing” are breaking the cycle of indigenous suicide, scenes that were once so popular in movies showing mixed relationships. I hope to see more more films like this one in the future, for as Marrubio says; “At the most basic level we have not come as far as we need to be. While we see more interracial relationships in our daily circles and to a degree on television, they are still an anomaly in films and media.”
Note: Two other modern Indigenous-made and starring films I highly recommend are 'Imprint' and 'Expiration Date.'