One thing our society is very often guilty of is ignoring the voices of the people whose opinion should matter most. We seem to think that if our intentions are good, it doesn’t matter if people are offended, because we didn’t mean for it to happen. This is a devastatingly problematic habit we fall into as a society, because we’re so afraid of being the bad guy that we fail to realize that sometimes being a mensch means owning up to our mistakes and working on making amends, rather than coming up with excuses. That’s partially why for this article, I decided to speak to some Toronto Native American youth to solicit their opinion on the portrayals of Indigenous peoples in mainstream movies.
Not surprisingly, the Native youth aren’t so thrilled about the way their people are portrayed in film, old and new alike. “I feel like a lot of movies with Aboriginals involved in them aren’t portrayed as best as they could be,” 18-year-old Kaillin says. “I think Hollywood should do more research than they do and educate themselves, instead of following this certain routine they have set for Aboriginals.”
“I have always disliked and felt disgusted with the portrayals of indigenous people in mainstream media, from film to televised series,” says 15-year-old Nyame. “These films are a tool to further divide and ‘other’ indigenous peoples. ‘Othering’ is the first crime you can commit against a people and a key move to allow one to dehumanize someone, opening the door for cultural and ethnic genocide.”
The films in question are numerous, ranging from classics like Disney’s 1953 animated favourite, Peter Pan, to The Twilight Saga to 2013’s box office flop, The Lone Ranger. I asked specifically about these films, since they’re memorable for their unflattering portrayals of Aboriginals and, unsurprisingly, the youth do not find them cute, amusing or entertaining in the least.
I think Hollywood should do more research than they do and educate themselves, instead of following this certain routine they have set for Aboriginals. (Kallin, 18 years old)
Cheyanne is 18 years old and refuses to sugar-coat her thoughts. “I am actually disgusted by the portrayals [of] Aboriginals in Peter Pan. All Disney did was take a bunch of stereotypes and mash them together,” she says. “Let me clarify: I, personally, do not have red, hot pepper skin [and] a huge nose, nor do I speak in a caveman-like way.” This sass is delicious, but behind it is a crucial point, which is that Hollywood has a long history of not doing its homework and/or taking liberties with the facts for the sake of a good story or a foil for the often-Caucasian hero. “If they did their homework on indigenous people and actually studied [our culture], they would have gotten everything correct, but they made it clear that they think we are the punch line to a bad joke.” Said joke is a form of making a clear distinction between the “heroes” and the “savages” they must save.
At the same time, 15-year-old Destiny points out that despite trying too hard to separate them, mainstream movies still don’t let Aboriginal people be too different, lest it alienates the viewer. “Indigenous languages aren’t spoken enough in movies about/or starring Native people, and for that I am sad. Why talk about and romanticize our culture but not preserve our language? I’m shaking my head.” It’s almost as if Hollywood doesn’t really care about appropriately or correctly representing Native Americans, but rather uses them as hurdles the often Caucasian hero(es) need to overcome during the course of their adventures. “I think the indigenous people in these films should have been shown in school for a scene or two speaking their language. It would have demonstrated what so many movies fail to bring to attention: our children preserving our traditions and cultures that are otherwise going to be forgotten. Our elders, who carry these teachings and aspects of our culture, are passing away and the generation before us isn’t knowledgeable enough to keep our language and ceremonial values alive on their own. We need to take a stand,” Destiny declares.
Our people dress and associate with others like any race, so why are we always dressed and treated differently? My people are seen as wild and ruthless in so many movies; it upsets me. (Destiny, 15 years old)
To be completely honest, Destiny surprised me. I never thought of the accurate portrayal of Aboriginal cultures in mainstream movies to be a way to help keep their traditions and culture alive. It makes sense though, since so much of culture is unintentionally preserved via film, but it’s interesting to realize that it’s the constantly evolving mainstream culture of the European colonizers we so eagerly and happily preserve, failing in the process to give a damn about any other one, even that of the people who have a legitimate right to call this their home and native land. If filmmakers took Destiny’s advice and accurately portrayed Aboriginal culture candidly and with education, what a difference that would make!
For one thing, the seemingly undying use of inaccurate (and often offensive) racist stereotypes, which are now unfortunate clichés, would cease. “First, we have the ‘savage,’ who runs around in a loin cloth, throwing spears, swinging tomahawks, shooting arrows and, let’s not forget, scalping ‘handsome and true white men,’ kidnapping white babies and children [to] raise as their own or to sacrifice to some ‘heathen God.’ Next up are the ‘Indian princess’ and the ‘stoic Indian,’ whom are both proud individuals that are in touch with nature, commune with the animals, want nothing but peace [and who] fall in love with a white person, has a baby and indirectly stops an invasion through this act. [Then] we have the substance-addicted, ‘abused abuser,’ who lives on the street or is found in a prison or health group. Lastly, there’s the self-deluded and lost-as-Columbus ‘New Age Native youth,’ who just wants to be like everybody else without knowing themselves,” states Nyame.
“Our people dress and associate with others like any race, so why are we always dressed and treated differently? My people are seen as wild and ruthless in so many movies; it upsets me. I mean, sure, we have our alcoholics and drug abusers, but what community doesn’t?” Destiny continues.
Traditionally in our indigenous cultures, we do not send our kids to an institutional ‘education system’ to have their identity ground down like beef and then stuffed and packaged like a meat sausage, only to be used as a means to a corporate end. (Nyame, 15 years old)
Almost all of the kids agree that simple research would have done wonders for not only classic movies that miscast Native roles, but especially modern ones. “In the majority of these films, they would make fun or belittle the indigenous people by mocking the way they spoke in sometimes ‘pidgin English.’ In reality, traditionally in our indigenous cultures, we do not send our kids to an institutional ‘education system’ to have their identity ground down like beef and then stuffed and packaged like a meat sausage, only to be used as a means to a corporate end,” says Nyame. “Now, let’s remember how challenging it is to learn a foreign tongue, even in this day and age, even with all the books, classes and online resources individuals are privy to in the ‘developed world.’ In the time that many of these stories were supposed to have occurred, there were no computers and it’s not like an indigenous person could just walk into a class that was for the betterment of those of Europeans heritage.”
Kaillin adds, “a lot of these films portray Aboriginal people [as] kind of slow or dumbfounded in certain situations, whereas the white people are there to help them in some way or make fun of them. I think Hollywood should do more research than they usually do and educate themselves more, instead of following this certain routine they have set for Aboriginals.”
There’s also the problem that when (and if) Aboriginal people are portrayed, it’s often by non-Native actors. “I think Caucasians playing Aboriginals in movies is pretty strange,” says Destiny. “We have so many talented actors and actresses — why can’t they get a role? If a Caucasian played an African-American that would be weird, right? [It] may be considered racist even. The black-and-white, soundless movie days are over; we can go back to using Anishinaabe people in our movies.”
Cheyanne has a similar sentiment: “Caucasians, or any other race, shouldn’t even have the option to audition for the role of a different race. It doesn’t make sense. I don’t like seeing other races play the roles of people of a different background; it just ruins the movie.”
Despite these criticisms, at least one member of this intelligent, stellar group of young people recognizes that change is in the air — slowly but surely. Destiny states eloquently, “We’re often times oppressed and kept on the sidelines in real life, but times are changing; the wind is howling in the enaahtig [maple tree].”