Popular culture plays a role in forming creating identities for people. For instance, most of the movies in the past portrayed black people as criminal and Native Americans or Indians as barbaric and inhuman. Many of the famous movie makers have persistently attached the barbaric notion and apathetic nomadic life with Indians. The popular culture has influenced their identities with the superficial notion. Be it the movies or books Indians are presented as uncivilized, and cruel with lack of empathy towards others. Although the stereotypical representation of Native American has reduced immensely, there are still glimpses of it presented in the popular culture. The paper will discuss the stereotypical representation of Indians as barbaric, uncivilized and apathetic through movies such as the Silent Enemy, Battle at Elderbush Gulch. And the change in the representation through Smoke Signal and the book, Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie, as it is essential to see the differences of representation of native Indians in Sherman Alexie’s work and the earlier work by white man.
The Battle of Elder Bush Gulch portrays Indians ugly, uncivilized, dancing and violent. It is one of the early silent movies directed by the D.W. Griffith. The movie starts with two orphans girls are sent to their Uncle. The girls carry dogs with them. The uncles do not allow dogs inside the house and ask the girl to keep them outside. The girl then sees the Natives dancing in an uncivilized vigor. While they are happy and dancing the chief of the native Indians arrive late for the feast and are hungry. And that moment one of the girls feel the absence of the dog and goes after searching for the dog. The Indians caught the girl but the uncle appears and shoots him. They leave for the moment but gather the natives to fight the uncle and other villagers. The natives want a revenge for the Chief’s son who was killed due to the bullet. They turn barbaric and attack the village, killing and violating the villagers (Griffith). The battle starts between the two groups and at the end, the white people win over the Indians. The movie shows the barbarism and lack of civilization through the attire, dance and the war. The movie presents the native vulnerable to inflict violence, sexual abuse, killing, torturing and inflicting damage to the white people. They are shown as an enemy in the movie.
Similarly, the Silent Enemy presents the Indians as hungry and ready to kill. The movie was directed by H.P. Carver in 1930.The movie also portrays the barbaric traditions of sacrifice, slaying. The nomadic and uncivilized dance is part of the movie as well. The movie begins with the authority of presenting the truth lamenting the arrival of the white man who has tried destroy the culture of the Native Americans but being thankful immediately for the preservation of the Indian culture. The story begins when Baluk takes the hunters to the South for hunting but return with no food. The search for food continues but they do not find any and finally, they return to the traditional rituals to please the gods with sacrifice. Although the Baluk is ready to sacrifice himself they end up slaying Caribou and offering a feast. The feast is accompanied by the dance.
In both of these movies, the Indians are presented ugly or evil looking with no emotions, prone to violence and uncivilized with barbaric traditions (Carver). The movies exaggerate the certain features of these people to be monotonous and blank wearing traditional dresses, prone to be violent and barbaric knowing no mercy. The movies dehumanize the people and justifying the settlers and their exclusive behavior towards the Native American. Most of the popular culture has portrayed similar images of the Indians until recently when it changed and people started portraying the Native Americans as humans with similar problems.
The Smoke Signal is a movie directed by Chris Eyre was released in 1998. It is the movie by the all Native Americans. It was written, directed and producers by the Native Americans. Moreover, it moves away from stereotypical representation of the Indians keeping the distinguishing features of the Indian people, showing their problems. The two main characters, Victor and Thomas live in the same neighborhood and are very different from each other. Victor being social and athletic but Thomas a bookworm. When Arnold, Victor’s father, dies the two leave their home to visit and settle the final rituals of their father. They start their journey to self-discovery and identity. Victor implies that the dominant stereotypes about Indians are to seem to mean when he says “look mean” as if you have killed the buffalo and came back. In the end, Victor, as well as Thomas, form identities resolving the issues with Arnold (Eyre). Besides presenting some of the stereotypical long hair and flat faces, the movie represents the Indians with humanly emotions and empathy towards each other and outsiders unlike the earlier representations of the stereotypes.
Similarly, the book Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie represents Native American’s problems living with the whites in the present days. The book presents identity and cultural problems that Native Americans face in the form of exploitation and appropriation via the story of the band Coyote Springs. The Cavalry Records use two girls to culturally appropriate the Coyote Springs to sell their songs to the broader audience. It shows how their talents are used to become famous and gain fame without their agency and approvals through the imposition of two white girls on the band without asking them about it. It shows the complex interactions of Native Americans with the white people. Indians men being attracted to the white skin of the white women and Indian women being attracted to the Indian men. The novel also refers to traditional values of Indians such as dancing, feasts and traditional and reserved way of speaking to strangers (Sherman). The book also refers to the pain and torture that the white men inflicted upon the Native Americans causing their dreams to scary and malign with fear. Hence, the novel presents that the native people were as human as anyone else but had portrayed negatively. The horror stories of mistreatment do not allow the Indians sleep soundly(Hafen).
Although the recent movies and text show a different picture of Indians, the popular culture of the past has portrayed them negatively with exaggerated stereotypes and dehumanizing way. The text by Sherman Alexie’s portray and the other popular cultural portrayal of the Native Americans differ in many ways but has some similarities. Although some people have criticized him for exaggerating the events and pain, the book has fairly represented the Natives (Bird). Alexie’s writing shows problems of natives as did the Movie the Silent Enemy but they contrast strikingly as the silent movie ends up criticizing and labeling the culture and tradition of the Indians as barbaric and uncivilized. However, Alexie’s approach towards Indian culture and tradition is critical, it is not offensive and it does not label them (Lyons). He criticizes but also highlights problems that they face in the contemporary world trying to assimilate into the dominant culture. Alexie’s representation questions the traditions of the Native culture does not portray them negatively. However, the earlier movies questioned Indian cultures as well as presented them negatively.
To conclude, the popular culture in the past has portrayed the Native American culture with criticism and negativity, dehumanizing, and ridiculing them and their culture. However, it has changed recently and people have paid attention to the problems of Indians. They have recognized the ill-treatment that they have received and tried to present it to the public via popular culture through movies and books especially Alexie has tried to show the problems and human traits of the Native Americans in his book.
Bird, Gloria. “The Exaggeration of Despair in Sherman Alexie’s” Reservation Blues”.” Wicazo Sa Review, 1995, pp. 47–52.
Carver, H. P. The Silent Enemy. 1930. www.imdb.com, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0020405/.
Eyre, Chris. Watch Smoke Signals (1998) Online Free – 123Movies. 1998, https://123moviestube.io/movie/smoke-signals-59837.
Griffith, D. .. The Battle of Elder Gulch. 1913, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQhviwp8j38.
Hafen, P.Jane. “Rock and Roll, Redskins, and Blues in Sherman Alexie’s Work.” Studies in American Indian Literatures, 1997, pp. 71–78.
Lyons, Scott Richard. “Rhetorical Sovereignty: What Do American Indians Want from Writing?” College Composition and Communication, 2000, pp. 447–68.
Sherman, Alexie. Reservation Blues.