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Favourite Characters of Americans From Old Movies

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Native Americans have consistently been portrayed in the media throughout the years. Whether it’s in old cartoons like Mickey Mouse, or Popeye the Sailor Man, television shows like The Three Stooges, or any number of blockbuster films, Americans have always loved to watch a good western. They loved to see the heroes they learned about in school played out in front of them, but so often these heroic storylines came at the expense of the Native characters portrayed alongside them. This is especially true about media in the early twentieth century when television and film had just started to become popular. The Ideas of Indians and the old west were commonly used themes, and tended to be very romanticized. “Euroamericans have been fascinated by the idea of Indians yet simultaneously critical of their supposed customs and physical appearance.” Sometimes actual Native American people played Native characters, and these portrayals seemed much more genuine than that of their white counterparts, but more often than not directors casted white actors in the roles of native characters. The majority of the time Native American Representation in early media employed negative stereotypes that portrayed Indians as savage, unintelligent, immoral and sometimes even rewrote history to be more forgiving to early white pioneers.

When watching old movies and cartoons that include native characters a very common stereotype used is this idea of the “Noble Savage.” The Noble savage is just that; a savage, but at the same time this character is so much more. While he or she is primitive, and uncivilized, the character is also uncorrupted from the evils of society, and embodies the potential of what humanity could become. “In its simplest form, the noble savage – both male and female – tends to represent innocence, purity, and an ideal man unfettered by civilization and corruption.” A good example of this stereotype can be found in the 1937 short Little Hiawatha, which depicts a young Native American boy attempting to hunt in a forest setting. Despite all his best efforts he is clumsy and uncoordinated which leads him to be unsuccessful in his hunt, and when he finally gets the chance to make the kill he cannot bring himself to do it. No matter how much he wants to be a big scary Indian he is just too pure of heart to fill this role. The wild animals even end up having to save him in the end.

On the surface the Noble Savage stereotype may sound like a positive quality for any character to exhibit, but it tends to have the opposite effect. A pure, innocent native running wild through the environment paints a pretty picture, but it comes at the expense of the character’s intellect and civility. White America often comes to the conclusion that if a person is not living in a way deemed civilized by American society they are doing it wrong, and it’s up to Americans as the civilized culture to educate the poor Indians. This commonly used device is the perfect way to ease white America’s conscience, and justify the historically poor treatment of Native people. However, Native Americans viewing these images fail to see accurate representation. The Noble savage stereotype is a poor role model for Native adults and children.

While the Noble Savage stereotype represents everything innocent, pure, and moldable into what white America wants it to be, its counterpart the “Ignoble Savage” represents the very opposite. This character is full of unredeemable qualities, and shows no sign of wanting to assimilate into American culture. They attack anyone and everyone without provocation, and with brutal tactics that go against any moral decent human beings contain. “The Ignoble savage, often described as bloodthirsty or cannibalistic, provides the antithesis of the noble savage. In both male and female forms, the ignoble savage is often violent, morally questionable, and a very real physical and psychological threat to the colonizer.” This character is commonly male, and many times non-verbal. He instead communicates in a combination of yips and yowls, war cries, and body language. Picture an angry violent man shirtless and adorned with warpaint on his face, yelling loudly and riding horseback towards a helpless settler as fast as he can; rifle or bow in hand. This is the Indian character movie goers see played out on screen again and again. It not only paints Native Americans in a horribly negative light, but can also have an effect on the way they are treated, and how they view themselves.

Another Common trait of Indian characters in early media is the way they speak. They use a broken version of English that is very formal, but at the same time missing key sentence connectors. This style of speaking is what Barbra A. Meek in her article, “And the Injun Goes ‘How!’: Representations of American Indian English in White Public Space” calls “Hollywood Injun English,” which is, “The distorted representations of American English that serve to mimic Native American speech.” Viewers will find this device used in almost every movie, television show, or cartoon that contains Indian characters, and because of the constant viewing of this stereotype, when viewers picture Native American people in their minds, and think of the way they speak, “Hollywood Injun English” is what they will hear.

When bringing any character to life onscreen one of the most important decisions creators will make concerns what costumes the character will wear. What is the character’s background? What is his or her personality like? Where is this character from? All of these come into consideration when deciding what the character’s wardrobe will contain. It seems like a very involved process, but if this is so, why do the majority of Native characters end up wearing the same sort of costumes? Dress the character in brown clothing, add in some feathers, beads, braids and maybe some face paint. Top it off with a huge feather headdress if the character is a chief. This character is now recognizable as an Indian. This was definitely the norm for early media involving Native American characters. “Euroamerican and European stereotypes about Indians have always centered on clothing (the type, its body position, and amount), body decoration (hair style, face painting, tattooing, body piercings), and key props which were then compared with the ideas of proper European/American dress, interpreted via temporal changes in class privilege, religion, and morality.” Few directors took into consideration the fact that different tribes wear different styles of regalia, and that beads and face paint could have specific meanings.

These stereotypes combined with countless others are part of a larger phenomenon called “redfacing,” which is, “The process and politics of playing Indian; the “Virtual reservation,” the imagined and imaginative sites produced by the cinema…” Redfacing is similar to what is commonly known as “Blackfacing” but differs in the sense that it is not always literally painting one’s face to emulate skin tone. It is costume choices, negative stereo types, broken English, war paint, and yes, even the darkening or reddening of skin to show the character’s Indian-ness. Today’s society considers this cultural appropriation and there is much debate surrounding the subject. Society in the early twentieth century however, did not share these reservations.

A good background in devices commonly found in media containing Native characters allows for a deeper analyzation of these portrayals, and helps to reveal the significance of the many stereotypes used. With that in mind one can really dive deep into these characters to understand what is going on. On the surface the 1934 film Laughing Boy is a tragic love story between a Navajo man named Laughing Boy, and his partner Slim Girl, but when looked at more closely there is more to be seen. Slim Girl is a woman caught between worlds; too Indian to live among white folk, and too whitewashed to live among her Navajo brethren. Her character is made to be almost predatory in the way she pursues Laughing Boy by forcing him to dance after he refuses, and in the many ways she “corrupts” him such as sauntering around when she walks, and giving him moonshine in order to seduce him. At one point while they are dancing Laughing Boy even tells her, “You move like a snake. It is not good.” Regardless of what his family says, and of the moral shortcomings Slim Girl exhibits, Laughing Boy ends up marrying her and bringing her home to live with his family. Eventually Slim Girl lies to Laughing Boy by leading him to believe that she is taking trips to town to trade silver for coin in order to support their new homestead, but is secretly selling herself to a man from her past.

These two characters lie at very opposite ends of the spectrum. Laughing Boy completely embodies the Noble Savage stereotype as shown by what would be considered at the time, his moral integrity, while Slim Girl exhibits predatory and immoral behavior at almost every turn putting her into the Ignoble Savage category. Broken English is also consistently used by the native characters throughout the movie; though it is with more of a Mexican accent than was normal for the genre, because of the two main actors Ramon Novarro, and Lupe Velez’s Mexican decent. Long pauses and missing sentence connectors are still used, and sentences are ended with phrases like, “I think” or “maybe” when characters are trying to make themselves understood.

Another movie of the time was Delmer Daves’ 1950 hit Broken Arrow. When reading reviews of this movie on various movie data bases a common theme can be found. Reviewers tend to see it as ahead of its time, and with good reason. It is one of the few westerns from the early twentieth century that doesn’t portray its native American characters as compete savages. The Native Character with most screen time, Apache Chief Cochise and his tribesmen are first discussed by the town’s people as savages who are responsible for the war that has been plaguing the country, but when the main character Tom Jeffords rides into the village to discuss safe passage for the town’s mail carriers he finds the opposite. Chief Cochise is a wise and fair leader who is willing to hear Tom out, but is wary of white men and their supposed peace.

Jeff Chandler’s portrayal of Chief Cochise is definitely one of the least harmful of the time, but it is still problematic in some aspects. The actor himself is not of Native American decent, and the costuming choice to darken his skin was made in order to make the actor appear more Indian. His speech is less broken than the typical Indian character, but is still very formal, and employs long pauses. This matter of speaking is less harmful, but still recognizable as “Hollywood Injun English.” Chief Cochise, like Laughing Boy can also be put into the “Noble Savage” category. Though he is an Indian, and definitely considered a savage to the white characters; he shows his nobility in his willingness to learn white ways, and to try for peace. He demonstrates this during the peace talks between the various Apache Chiefs. At one point he even states, “The American keep cattle but they are not soft or weak. Why should not the Apache be able to learn new ways?”

Sonseeahray played by white actor Debra Paget is another character portrayed in Broken Arrow worth mentioning. In addition to darkening Chandler’s skin for the role of Chief Cochise, the costuming department made the choice to darken Paget’s skin as well. Sonseeahray is different than Chief Cochise however. Her English is more broken, and she is without question a Noble Savage. Her beauty and innocence make this character the perfect love interest for the white hero. She is very moldable and open to new ways of living. Most of the couple’s conversation is dominated by the hero educating her in white ways, and lines like, “The world is so big, and I know so little.”

Early films did tend to have a high occurrence of these negative stereotypes, but early television was even worse. While stereotypes were less apparent in films, television shows embraced, and exaggerated them, blatantly using them for offensive comedy, and entertainment purposes. This is especially true for the 1937 Three Stooges short “Back to the Woods”. In this short, beloved American characters Larry, Curly, and Moe are convicted of a crime, and sent to America as indentured servants. There they come into contact, and do battle with the local Indians who have refused hunting rights, and peace with pilgrims leaving them to starve in the winter. There is a large number of Indian characters in this short, but they are all lacking substance and compassion. The first Indian character the stooges meet is Chief Rain in the Puss. This character’s name alone is an intentional mockery of traditional Native American names, but the way he conducts peace talks, and how he treats the pilgrims really shows his true nature. Chief Rain in the Puss could not care less if the poor pilgrims starve to death. The only thing he cares about is money that the pilgrims can not provide.

After the peace talks the stooges decide they cannot sit back and watch the pilgrims go hungry, and set out on a hunting trip into Indian territory. It is there where the Stooges come into contact with the second type of Native character included in the short. Chief Rain in the Puss’ tribesmen. Not a single one of these characters is assigned dialogue besides a continuous howling, yelling, and the occasional erratic body language. The nonsensical stooges outsmart these Indians at every turn eventually using their slapstick comedy tactics to defeat them, and escape on a peculiarly fast canoe.

The two types of characters portrayed in “Back to the Woods” not only fall very clearly into the “Ignoble Savage” category, but also are an example of an outright use of Redfacing, and in contrast the pilgrim characters take on the roles of the Indian’s victims. This skewed version of history did much to ease the white viewers conscious about the historical treatment of Native American people, but is extremely harmful, and contains multiple stereotypes that were planted into viewers minds, and influence the way Society views Native people still today.

Among all types of media perhaps the most harmful was ironically the genre geared towards the most innocent. Early cartoons were jam packed full of harmful stereotypes, inaccurate representations, and a twisted version of history with early pioneers always portrayed as the heroes. These range from the mildly offensive Noble savage stereotype portrayed in Little Hiawatha, all the way to the hugely offensive character “Injun Joe” in the 1945 Porky Pig short, “Wagon Heels.” Injun Joe is the epitome of the savage Indian stereotype. Not only does he speak in very broken English, and have an exaggerated red skin tone, but he is also a giant, unintelligent, and violent Indian chief. He walks with his knuckles dragging the ground, and attacks anything that moves unprovoked. After many attacks, and an episode filled with Looney Toon style action the story line concludes with the pioneer characters Sloppy Moe, and Porky Pig tickling Injun Joe off a cliff, and defeating him. A map changes from “Injun Joe’s Territory” to “The United States of America,” and the narrator is then heard saying, “And so America became the great nation she is today thanks to brave men like these.”

Unfortunately, the blatant rewriting of history demonstrated in “Wagon Heels” is all too common in the cartoons of the time. This phenomenon is replicated in cartoons such as the 1930 Mickey Mouse episode “Pioneer days”, and the 1933 Popeye the Sailor Man episode “I Yam What I Yam.” Both cartoons feature angry violent Indians as the villains who attack settlers unprovoked. “Pioneer Days” features a traditional “Indians attack happy Pioneers” story line with the kidnapping of Minnie mouse thrown in, and ends with the heroes outsmarting the villainous natives.

“I Yam what I Yam” is slightly different. Popeye and his companions discover America, build a log cabin to settle in, and are attacked by the local natives. They are Numerous, they don’t speak in any coherent language, wear the same brown pants and feather, and have very prominent noses. They attack in droves, but the heroic Popeye eats his can of spinach and defeats the horde. When he’s not looking however, a giant, angry chief pops out from behind a rock ready to attack! Popeye quickly punches him out of his clothing, and surprise! The chief is actually Gandhi in disguise. The implications of this are hard to even fathom. One interpretation could be that Popeye punched this Chief so hard thats he changed into a peaceful Indian. Another could be that to the creators the different types of Indians are one in the same. It doesn’t really matter what the creator’s intent behind this scene was. Regardless, either way it comes off as harmful, and in very poor taste. The Native American people are still the violent characters, and the white settlers are the heroes.

It goes without saying that film and television dominated the media in the early 1900s. Viewers wanted to be entertained, and directors and producers in turn were all too happy to indulge them. As a result, countless amounts of westerns, and films incorporating Indian characters emerged. Regardless of how much Americans loved these storylines, and how popular the genre became it didn’t change the fact that the skewed version of these Native American characters shown on screen created a toxic savage stereotype that was extremely harmful not only for the white Americans watching, but more importantly the Native Americans who looked to television to see a part of themselves. Instead of accurate representation they got big nosed, red skinned giants who attacked anything and everything. These characters lacked intelligence, and sometimes did not use coherent language. In live action films the characters appeared bare chested, and spoke in a broken halting style of English. Even films like Broken Arrow that got so much right still employed negative stereotypes to appeal to their target audiences. It is painfully obvious that filmmakers during the time focused more on ticket sales than the well-being of the very people they represented. The effects of their widely spread stereotypes have reached more than just the American viewers of the time. They have spanned over generations and spilled over into the present. It goes to show that once something is put out there for the world to see, it is not easily undone.

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