The Brilliant Way Native Americans Fought Racism In Westerns
Sweet, sweet payback for Hollywood’s stereotyping.
Film directors have long been fascinated with Native Americans, but they’ve rarely portrayed them respectfully. Perhaps it’s because exploitative Western movies evolved out of an equally exploitative literary tradition dating back to the days when European settlers and soldiers were eradicating native tribes in their drive westward. American Indians have been depicted as whooping savages, dehumanized stereotypes acting as foils to white leading characters.
In many films, especially “spaghetti westerns” shot in Spain, Native Americans were simply played by white actors, like Burt Reynolds in Sergio Corbucci’s embarrassingly bad 1966 film “Navajo Joe.” Reynolds, who says he is part Cherokee, said making the film was “the worst experience of my life.”
When directors like John Ford and Raoul Walsh did cast Native Americans to play Native Americans, accuracy was not a priority.
It didn’t matter what tribe the actors and extras came from. Navajo Indians played Apache or Kiowa or Mohawk characters. In one film, Roy Rogers walks up to a chief who’s dressed in a totally impossible mishmash of cultures, courtesy of the art department:
“[The chief] has just come out of his tepee wearing a Sioux war bonnet (both northern plains items), draped in a Navajo blanket (Southwest), beside a beautiful stream in which is parked a birchbark canoe (Ojibwa from Wisconsin or Minnesota). Oh yeah. There is a totem pole (Northwest) standing beside the tepee.”
?—?Robert J. Conley, “Cherokee Thoughts: Honest and Uncensored”
It didn’t matter what language they spoke, either. Some 250 different Native American languages are spoken today?—?down from the approximately 1,000 that were spoken before Europeans arrived—and some have as much in common with one another as English and Swahili. Whether Navajo played Apache or Shoshone played Navajo, American Indian actors were simply asked to speak their native language.
Most of the time, that is.
When one director didn’t think the actual American Indian language actors were speaking sounded “Indian” enough, he had them play the scene in English, then he just played it backwards. That sounded “Indian” to him.
Suffice it to say, white directors had no idea what Native Americans were actually saying.
Native American actors and extras often took the opportunity to play a joke on the directors, and perhaps enact a tiny bit of revenge.
“Tony Hillerman’s novel ‘Sacred Clowns’ tells of a Navajo theater audience watching the film and laughing at both the use of Navajo tribesmen to play Cheyenne and the use of obscene or comic lines spoken in Navajo (supposedly Cheyenne) unknown to the filmmakers or to white audiences.”?—?Jeremy Agnew, “The Creation of the Cowboy Hero: Fiction, Film and Fact”
Famed director John Ford was respectful of Native Americans and sympathetic to their suffering. He shot many movies in Navajo lands in Utah’s Monument Valley and was even adopted into one community. That didn’t spare his films from parody by their Navajo actors. In Ford’s John Wayne vehicle “The Searchers,” (1956) Navajo played the Comanche. Native American audiences were quiet during the serious picture, until their friends appeared, spouting “ludicrous” dialogue.
“Then it was like watching home movies. Everyone would laugh and call out names of who they saw on the screen. The whole movie became more like the funniest comedy ever filmed.”
?—?Robert S. McPherson, “Navajo Land, Navajo Culture”
In Ford’s last Monument Valley film, 1964’s “Cheyenne Autumn,” the Cheyenne were again portrayed by Navajo actors.
“The film translation indicates that they are speaking of treaties and their people’s needs. But the words produce happy bedlam among the Navajos at the drive-in. What the Navajo actors in the film really said in solemn tones generally concerned the size of the colonel’s penis or some similarly humorous, disrespectful, and earthy reference.”
?—?Michael R. Real, “Exploring Media Culture: A Guide”
But I’ve saved the best for last. In his 2009 documentary “Reel Injun,” Cree Indian filmmaker Neil Diamond translated some of the dialogue from the 1964 film “A Distant Trumpet,” directed by Raoul Walsh. Navajo play Apache in the film. Troy Donahue, starring as a cavalry officer, probably died never knowing what the actor playing the Indian chief actually said to him: