For most of the last century, Hollywood tended to stereotype American Indians. They were seen either as the faithful sidekick to the white man, like Tonto in the Lone Ranger films, as a wild savage threatening the white man, as in most early westerns, or as a noble spiritual being inspiring the white man, as in the popular 1990s film Dances with Wolves.
More recently, Native Americans have taken control of the scripts and cameras and begun to tell their own stories.
The Lone Ranger films provide an apt metaphor for how Native Americans have been portrayed by Hollywood, just a half step behind the white man who seemed always to be taking the leading role, both on the screen and behind the camera. Film scholars say that on-screen, in scores of early Westerns, Indians were seen mostly as "warring savages," battling the European expansion into the West.
"I think they were largely caricatures that replicated themselves," said Jason Silverman, executive director of the annual Taos Talking Pictures festival in New Mexico, who has staged many events examining Hollywood's portrayals of Indians.
"Someone saw one western and thought that's how Native Americans behaved and so they made another western where they behaved similarly," he said. "And all this was fed by pulp fiction in you know through the late nineteenth century too so there's this whole continuum of how we envisioned the west or re-imagined the west. And Native Americans have been central to that, figures in it, but not central in terms of creating it."
Film scholars agree that the "warring savage" image began to be replaced by the "noble red man" stereotype in some mid-20th century movies. Writing in a special edition of the journal Film & History in 1993, academics singled out films like Broken Arrow, from 1950, starring Jimmy Stewart, 1990's Dances With Wolves with Kevin Costner and director Arthur Penn's Little Big Man.
Many cited this 1970 film as a landmark for its sensitive portrayal of Native Americans. It stars Dustin Hoffman as a white frontier boy adopted by the Cheyenne, referred to throughout the story as "the human beings." The film depicts the advance of white civilization ravaging a compassionate native culture, personified by actor Chief Dan George.
In one scene, the character played by Dustin Hoffman asked, "Why do you want to die, Grandfather?" The reply from Chief Dan George was, "Because there's no other way to deal with the white man my son.... Whatever else you can say about them, it must be admitted, you cannot get rid of them. There's an endless supply of white men but there always has been a limited number of human beings. We won today ... we won't win tomorrow."
Yet even these more thoughtful and empathetic stories starred white actors and were written and produced by whites, leading those scholars writing in the 1993 journal to all hope for a future when Native American writers and directors would tell their own stories, moving Indians out of westerns and into today's world. In recent years, that's started to happen.
Cheyenne-Arapaho filmmaker Chris Eyre is seen as an important figure in what some are calling a Native American film movement. "The stories I feel passionate about bringing to the screen are stories about contemporary Native America and they aren't using Indians as vehicles for politics or spirituality," he said.
His 1998 feature Smoke Signals won audience awards at the Sundance Film Festival and was distributed widely by Miramax Films. It's the story of two Couere D'Alene Indians who take a road trip to retrieve the ashes of one character's father.
In one scene the two have this conversation:
Adam Beach: Don't you even know how to be a real Indian?
Evan Adams: I guess not.
Beach: You gotta look like a warrior. You gotta look like you just came back from killing a buffalo.
Adams: But our tribe never hunted buffalo. We were fishermen!
Beach: What? You wanna look like you just came back from catching a fish? This isn't "Dances with Salmon" you know!
From a story by Spokane-Coeur d'Alene writer Sherman Alexie and with a native cast, Smoke Signals has done about $6 million worth of business since its release. Not huge when compared with blockbusters, but a successful benchmark for the growing number of films written, directed and produced by Indians. Americans will be seeing more of those movies in the next few months. Sherman Alexie has his directorial debut in theatres with The Business of Fancydancing. Chris Eyre is directing Tony Hillerman's Skinwalkers for television.
And his latest feature, Skins, opened nationwide in September. It has an all-native cast and tells the story of brothers on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Eric Schweig plays a tribal policeman, Graham Greene plays his older brother, an alcoholic.
The tribe's customs are discussed in one scene.
Eric Schweig: Give us the ball, Mo.
Graham Greene: Okay. Make me.
Schweig: Quit screwing around, Mogie!
Greene: How come you always have to act like such a big man when your friends are around? Showing off is not a Lakota virtue.
Mr. Eyre is clearly leading a creative surge among native filmmakers but getting those films into theatres is another challenge altogether.
"If people wanted to see Native American movies, distributors would be selling those movies," he said. "It's called capitalism. So there's a disparity somewhere. It's either American audiences don't really care about contemporary Native American movies or the movies aren't that good. I don't know which it is. You can't generalize. Some of the movies are great and don't have distributors. Some of the movies, I don't think are very good and don't deserve to have distributors.
One of this year's biggest native film surprises seems to have the quality, a distributor and a buzz among filmgoers. It's 3 hours long, shot on digital video in the Canadian Arctic by a first time director, with a cast and crew made up almost entirely of Inuit Indians speaking only their native tongue.
The Fast Runner is an epic tale of an ancient native community's struggle with an evil spell, by Inuit director Zac Kunuk. It's won international awards and been universally praised. Some are also praising the Canadian government's policy of earmarking federal funds specifically to help indigenous populations develop media. Without much federal support for native films in the United States and with studios uncertain about their commercial viability, funding Indian projects in this country is a constant challenge.
But Chris Eyre and other native filmmakers say it's important not to settle for their modest successes to date or get stopped by modest production budgets. They remain committed to finding the compelling stories of contemporary Indians and bringing them to the screen.
Pictures are from movie studio posters and video box titles.