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Opinion
Tim Giago: Few roles for Indians in Hollywood


Posted by request of Tim Giago, Nanwica Kciji. © 2006 Native American Journalists Foundation, Inc.

Oh, Hollywood, that beautiful place where dreams are made and dreams are dashed.

I need not go into the horrific, erroneous, hideous, nonsensical and racist movies about Native Americans that have sprouted in this magic kingdom and left such an onerous stench across Indian country because they have been enumerated countless times amongst the Indian people themselves.

We are all products of our times. Jay Silver Heels, the infamous Tonto of the Lone Ranger films, fought to make changes in the movie industry at a time when Indians were considered no more important than ornaments that decorate the movie set. He went along to get along and his “pidgin English” pronunciations to the “Masked Crusader” soon became synonymous with all Indians. “Me makeum smoke signals to Great White Father, Ugh” was the kind of language any aspiring Indian actor had to master before he could be cast in the early Grade “B” Westerns. White kids playing Indians in the perennial game of Cowboys and Indians were soon spouting this “Tontonese” with expert clarity. In the 1930s and 1940s, Indian children attending classes at the Indian boarding schools went so far as to emulate the linguistics of Mr. Silver Heels. Even in the movie Key Largo, a movie in which Silver Heels plays the part of a Seminole Indian, he continues to speak in his “pidgin English” voice.

I spoke with Silver Heels many years ago at an awards banquet in Los Angeles and I was not surprised to hear him say that he was always very, very uncomfortable speaking as he did and he wished he had been more assertive to the many white directors who expected him to speak like an unaccomplished idiot. “But this is the way it was back then and I think I allowed myself to be manipulated because I was one of the few Indians actually playing the part of an Indian and I really hoped that by going along I would be able to open the door for other Indian actors,” he said.

The Indian people are truly the invisible people in the movies and in the many television sit-coms. You tell me when you last saw an Indian in an everyday situation in a sit-com? I know that the television series Northern Exposure featured Elaine Miles, Umatilla, as Marilyn Whirlwind in a recurring role, but that series was an exception to the rule.

Movie opportunities are rare indeed for Indian actors and actresses. It is probably more so for Indian women because in the early days of motion pictures whites portrayed most Indian women. Of course, Anthony Quinn as Crazy Horse opposite Errol Flynn as George Armstrong Custer in “They Died with Their Boots on” is also an example of non-Indians taking on the roles of strong Indian males.

Graham Greene is probably one of the best-known Indian actors and yet even he chose to take on a role that was demeaning. A movie based on the book “The Education of Little Tree” written by Forrest Carter, a white man claiming to be an Indian, and worse yet, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, placed Greene in the uncomfortable position of playing a role that should have been left in the hands of a white man playing an Indian. As a matter of fact, based on the lies that created the book, it was a movie that should not have been made at all.

Carter, the author, was a segregationist writer for the racist Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, and the leader of a Ku Klux Klan branch that preached hate against blacks and Jews. Amy Kallio Bollman said of his book, “It is not autobiographical – at least not as we conventionally utilize that term. While the aesthetic value of the book is arguable, it contains messages which are thinly veiled pro-white supremacist and which are perhaps unintentionally anti-Native American.”

American Indian film director Chris Eyre has made a supreme effort to bring movies with Indians as main characters into the mainstream, but the lack of good scripts and a high wall to climb within the movie industry have shackled him. He is young and he will, in my estimation; knock down the wall standing in his path.

As Indians we have to move past stereotypical movies like “Black Cloud” with Eddie Spears and Russell Means. As a matter of record, for an activist Means played the only role worth mentioning in the movie. It’s like when you see any really bad movie, but even in the badness, you find one actor of worth. Means filled that role in Black Cloud.

If there is an Indian star on the horizon it has to be Adam Beach. I am sure that he is at times uncomfortable about the roles he has to take on as an Indian actor. Even in his dramatic role as Ira Hayes in Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers,” Beach had to further dramatize the image of a stereotypical drunken Indian.

I am hopeful that those past Indian actors like Jay Silver Heels and Eddie Little Sky will someday be honored for the pain they had to endure while trying to make their mark in Hollywood. They did open the doors for real Indians with their sacrifice.

(McClatchy News Service in Washington, DC distributes Tim Giago’s weekly column. He can be reached at P.O. Box 9244, Rapid City, SD 57709 or at najournalists@rushmore.com. Giago was also the founder and former editor and publisher of the Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers and the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association. Clear Light Books of Santa Fe, NM (harmon@clearlightbooks.com) published his latest book, “Children Left Behind”)

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