Commodifying the Native American Identity: Photography and Cinema
By: Kristen Morrison

Jay Silverheels as Tonto in The Lone Ranger
Photography and cinema has always influenced how the world understands history and cultures besides their own. In a way, it is understandable but wrong all the same. People have such a warped perception of Native American culture and identity as they were generated by the “white” perspectives featured in photographs and movies. These tools have continuously been used to control them and the outsider’s views of them. While seeking to commodify their culture, photography and cinema has contributed to the idea that they are a vanishing race, that they are all the same, and that they are stereotypical savages and primitive hostiles. In addition to this, in the past Native Americans often had no control over how they were portrayed as almost all of the photos of them that were published were taken without consent.
Jay Silverheels as Tonto in The Lone Ranger

Cinema and photography created the idea that Native Americans were a vanishing race by focusing only on a very narrow period during history, thus denying the reality of their modern day presence. It essentially ignores who they are today, and preserves who they were, or thought to be, in the past. This is very reminiscent of the photography which preceded Western cinema. For example, the idea of the vanishing race was a typical theme used by photographer Edward Curtis, which was to document Native American life and culture before it vanished due to the oncoming civilized world. Edward Curtis even titled one of his most well-known pieces The Vanishing Race, and he captioned it, “the thought which this picture is meant to convey is that the Indians as a race, already shorn of their tribal strength and stripped of their primitive dress, are passing into the darkness of an unknown future.”

Early on in film, the agenda was to commodify the “savage Indian” to take power away from them, and make it seem like the actions of mass colonization, assimilation, and genocide were warranted. One can clearly see this in the 1913 film The Battle at Elderbush Gulch by D.W. Griffith as it portrays Native Americans as ignorant, uncivilized, dog eaters, and murderers. There is also a another side to how they’ve been portrayed throughout the history of cinema, while still equally inaccurate, as sidekicks whether it be uncharacteristically stoic, (Jay Silverheels as Tonto in The Lone Ranger), or as silent giants (Will Sampson as Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest).
The Vanishing Race, Edward Curtis

In older films there was a huge lack of historical and ethnographic accuracy, as well as, a failure to communicate the oppression and treatment of the Native American people. There has also been a habit of ignorance to the cultural differences between various Native American tribes. There were costume, prop, and weapons errors, in addition to ethnographic bias, as movies for the most part exclusively focused on the plains tribes. This hasn’t changed much in modern day, but there are some films that strive to create a new voice. For example, Dances With Wolves, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, The Reverent, Smoke Signals, Songs My Brother Taught Me, and Dance Me Outside. Not all these movies are completely accurate, or focused wholly on Native Americans, but they show them as human beings full of emotion, which is a huge step in the right direction.

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