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Crystal Downing


Smoke Signals on Film

Indians in the Movies

The word "Indian" has been as fluid as smoke. Misapplied to the aborigines of the New World, the name stuck even when the geographical confusion it revealed had been plainly exposed. Displaced for a while by "Native American," it has been recuperated by some among the very people it supposedly demeaned—but not fully rehabilitated, so its use is self-conscious and often ambivalent.

In the history of film, Indians themselves have had all the smoky shiftability of signs. Sometimes they represent the peace of the "noble savage" uncorrupted by civilization; more often than not, of course, they have been signals of evil, murderous impediments to Western advancement. One early silent, The Aryan (1916), warned viewers about Indians thus: "Oft written in letters of blood, deep carved in the face of destiny, that all men may read, runs the code of the Aryan race: 'Our women shall be guarded.' " (That the original Aryans were Indo-Europeans, including the peoples who created India's great civilization—Indians, in short—was an irony lost on the guardians of women.) In the 1940s, Native Americans employed by Hollywood were sometimes given lessons on how to "act" Indian; they became smoke signals of themselves.

Indeed, Indians are signals of movie-making itself—not only in the sense that our image of Indian culture is largely a construction of the movies, but also that Indians are so much a part of America's self-representation that they inspired some of its earliest moving representations. In 1893, Thomas Edison captured a "Hopi Snake Dance" on film in order to demonstrate his kinetoscope invention at the Chicago Columbian Exposition. After him, silent filmmakers produced nearly 3,000 cowboy and Indian movies, including Hollywood's very first feature film, Cecil B. DeMille's The Squaw Man (1913).

There are at least nine scholarly books focusing on portrayals of Indians on film. Two of the most recent, Celluloid Indians and Hollywood's Indian, discuss how the meaning of Indians has ...

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