Cowboy Versus Indian Reconsidered

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“Thomas, don’t you even know how to be a real Indian? How many times have you seen Dances with Wolves, anyways? 100, 200 times? Oh Jesus, Thomas, you have seen it that many times.”
–Victor Joseph to Thomas-Builds-the-Fire

In the groundbreaking 1998 filmSmoke Signals, penned by Sherman Alexie, Victor chastises his friend Thomas for his politically-incorrect obsession. In the May-June issue of Colorlines, cultural critic Paul Chaat Smith examines why American Indians are so preoccupied with Hollywood movies.

“We follow casting, production, shooting schedules of each new Hollywood feature about us with the anxiousness of European investors,” he writes. “We debate the merits of each new Indian film with passion and at great length…We critique plot, clothes, hair, history, horses, horse riding, language and makeup.”

According to Smith, Indians are obsessed with Hollywood because Hollywood images have defined how the broader culture understands them. Still, he argues that Indians would do well to remember that movies are still entertainment, not the sole vehicle for representation. He points out that some Native newspapers defended the 1992 film Dances With Wolves against white critics, presumably because of its positive imagery.

“That shows how confused many of us are,” Smith writes, “that we would act as unpaid press agents for a film that is based on a novel and screenplay about Comanches, and then shifted to South Dakota only after the production designer–and this is kind of poignant–finds a shortage of buffalo in Oklahoma. And not a single Comanche or Kiowa character, some based on actual historical figures, is changed. I mean, yo, Kevin, Mike: saying Ten Bears is Sioux is like saying Winston Churchill is Albanian.”
Smith makes a case for Indian filmmakers to write, produce, and direct their own films, but to do so as part of a serious investigation of their history. This includes questioning where and from whom they get information about what it means to be Indian.


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