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Telling Their Own Stories: Native American Stereotypes in Art

Whether the noble Indian is shedding a tear for a 1960s' environmental public service commercial or being saved by the great white hope Captain John Smith in the recent Disney movie Pocahontas, hints of self-pity and romanticism continue to haunt American Indians in film. While Hollywood no longer portrays American Indians as painted and uncivilized savages, waving tomahawks and scalping the innocent European settlers, contemporary movies maintain the stoic `Indian' image smothered with sentimentality.

American Indians are seizing control of their own narratives in film, theater, and other artistic venues instead of passively waiting for filmmakers to abandon inaccurate and often racist stereotypes. A prominent example of this new approach is the recent movie Smoke Signals written, directed, and starring young American Indians. Smoke Signals, touted as the first full length feature movie by American Indians, has not only garnered two awards at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, but has more importantly, paved the way for other American Indian artists to reach similar success as they combat the traditional Native American stereotypes created by the popular media. American Indians are exploring their individual and cultural identities in all art forms and challenging perceptions of American Indians today as they are driven by the need to tell their own stories.

American Indian Breakthroughs in Film

Compared to such breakthrough movies as Spike Lee's, You Gotta Have It, for its unconventional use of racial archetypes, Smoke Signals provokes the viewer to question clichés about American Indians and formulate a new perspective on contemporary American Indian culture. The film is directed by Chris Eyre and based on screenwriter Sherman Alexie's award-winning short story The Lone Ranger and Torito Fistfight in Heaven. The story is about two young American Indians, Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, from the Coeur d'Alene reservation in Idaho, who travel to Phoenix, Arizona to bring back the ashes of Victor's alcoholic father. Instead of soaking the film in political correctness, Alexie uses self-deprecating humor and humanity to paint a picture of the realistic squalor and hopelessness on `the Rez.' Amid the reservation radio station KREZ's traffic updates: "A truck just passed, it's gone now. That's it," weather reports: "One of the clouds up there looks like a horse," and daily inspirations: "It's a great day to be indigenous," the two main characters mock and embrace American Indian stereotypes through stories and flashbacks which highlight their oral traditions and allow their stories to adapt to the changing times.

The American Indian pride uniquely portrayed in the movie is common among a new generation of American Indian artists who aggressively strive to reclaim their stories promoting their cultural heritage and dignity. Products of a post-Wounded Knee generation, these American Indian artists pay tribute and embrace ground-breaking events like the American Indian Movement demonstrations of the 1970s and stake their claim in American mainstream culture. Sherman Alexie, a 31-year old member of the Spokane tribe, said in an interview published in the New York Times, "that one of his primary goals was to take away from so-called white experts the responsibility for describing contemporary Indian culture." His aim is "not to avoid criticism of Indian society but to make sure it is Indians doing the criticizing and interpreting." As American Indians proudly proclaim their unique cultural history and avoid assimilating into the national consciousness, they set a standard to be followed by the next generation.

Encouraging young American Indians to pursue film is a growing phenomenon within native communities. Through such American Indian film showcases as the First Nation's Film and Video Festival, First Americans in the Arts, and Red Earth Film Festival, native works by young artists highlight the presence of American Indians in the film industry. In addition, independent film companies are sprouting in response to an increased demand by young American Indian filmmakers. For example, Apache Pride Independent Film Production Inc. is currently in pre-production on its first motion picture, Spirit of an Outlaw, while Turtle Island Productions is working on a documentary film on the American Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969 to 1971. The American Indian Film Institute (AIFI) in San Francisco is another media arts organization that fosters the understanding of the culture, traditions, and issues of contemporary Native Americans.

In order to encourage American Indian filmmakers to present historically excluded Native stories, the AIFI sponsors the annual American Indian Film Festival, the quarterly journal Indian Cinema Entertainment, the Silver Star Pow Wow, and a media mentor program for American Indian youth. American Indian film industry professionals are also supported by resource centers like the Native American Indian Talent Agency and Casting Agency (NAITCA) in Oklahoma which has assisted in casting Native Americans in such productions as Tecumseh, The Last of the Mohicans, and Walker Texas Ranger. However, the ultimate obstacle facing these American Indian film companies and other artistic collaborative associations is the lack of initial investments. Hopefully, the mainstream success of American Indian films like Smoke Signals will soon illustrate the profit potential and cultural benefit of sponsoring Native American productions.

Native Empowerment in the Arts

Artistic license over how American Indians are portrayed in film is only one example of how American Indians are modifying the stereotypical images of themselves in popular culture. A recent exhibit in the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City reflects the increasing emphasis on American Indian artistic expressions against ethnic inaccuracies. Entitled "This Path We Travel: Contemporary Native American Creativity," this installation displays biased images of American Indians used in advertising, television, and film. While a television in a native-centric household played programming from an American Indian point of view, native performances and created artworks reflected the talents of 15 contemporary artists from a wide variety of native cultures. This collaborative statement about the living culture of American Indians reveals the growing collection of their artistic projects and their increased control of information about their own heritage.

Native American Public Telecommunications, Inc. (NAPT) in Lincoln, Nebraska, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, strives to implement the messages presented in the museum exhibit against stereotyped portrayals of American Indians. Its mission is to encourage the participation of American Indians and Alaska Natives in the creation of public telecommunication programs about their tribal histories, cultures, and languages. This service organization supports tribal sovereignty by promoting American Indians' direct involvement in the development of their own images in the media. The Native Voices Public Television Workshop in Montana provides an outlet for Native Americans to tell their own stories in the national arena. Founded in 1989, this program provides professional media access and training to American Indian film and television producers and is becoming a model for national television programming and production.

The cultural representation of American Indians in theater has also become a central issue in the Native American community. Dedicated to encouraging American Indians to reflect upon the importance of their cultural heritage, the Red Path Theater Company of Chicago produces ongoing theatrical dramas that feature Native American playwrights and local American Indian actors. Weaving their cultural history into original dramas on topics dealing with domestic violence, substance abuse, and racism, productions from this young company present a rare perspective in theater from the native point of view.

The growing acceptance of this broader outlook reflects the changing racial attitudes in America. Russell Means, an American Indian activist who has played high profile parts in several movies including The Last of the Mohicans, Natural Born Killers, and Wagons East!, stated that " Americans we have faced up to many social ills. Anti-Semitism, racism against blacks, oppression of women, and now it's time to face up to the Indian issue." Through organizations like the Red Path Theater Company which provide networking opportunities and serve as excellent support groups for burgeoning artists disenchanted with the seemingly impenetrable art world, American Indians are responding to these changing times. Through active involvement in the visual and performing arts, American Indians are continuing their cultures and improving American Indian images that are viewed by diverse cultures around the world.

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