NFB / Rezolution Pictures

Going Native

Reel Injun traces how the image of Indigenous people in cinema has influenced the (mis)understanding of their culture

15 mins read

Montreal filmmaker Neil Diamond says the turning point came when he was 17. It was then that he moved away from a reservation and landed in Ottawa, where he first started interacting with white people. And then came the questions from other teenagers: Do you live in teepees? Do you ride horses? Some would start doing “the war whoop,” as Diamond calls it, “or whatever it was.” Some would start doing a rain dance.

But Diamond says that while he was mystified by the general cluelessness of many white people about Native life and culture, he knew exactly where it came from. So many had culled their sense of who and what Native people were from the range of distorted images that populated film and TV screens.

Cut to five years ago, and Diamond, now a documentary filmmaker, thought it might be intriguing to do a short film about white actors who had played Native onscreen. “I remembered actors like Burt Lancaster, who had portrayed Natives. I thought this might make for a funny half hour film.”

But Diamond then approached producer Catherine Bainbridge, of Rezolution Pictures. “Catherine is very good at developing ideas. She liked the concept of expanding the film to talk about how Native people were represented more broadly. I watched loads of Westerns over the past few years. But I also learned that there are various interesting connections between Natives and film.”

The result is Reel Injun, a revelatory documentary about the history of the intricate relationship between Native people and the screen. Much like what The Celluloid Closet did for gays and Hollywood Chinese did for Asians, this illuminating film unreels a rich array of film clips. Perhaps most striking is just how ubiquitous Natives were for decades in Hollywood films, due to the fact that the Western was such a huge and profitable genre. As Diamond’s various clips illustrate so clearly, the Native bad guy was a profoundly negative image, often ludicrously inaccurate. Still, the Native image wasn’t always bad, as Diamond would learn. “Sometimes they were the quiet, noble savage,” he points out. “Some Native people actually get into that role and play the part, which I find embarrassing.”

Among his various interview subjects, Diamond gets comments from two of the busiest Native actors working today, Wes Studi and Adam Beach, director Clint Eastwood (the man many credit with keeping the Western genre alive), CBC film critic Jesse Wente, and the woman who declined Marlon Brando’s Oscar on his behalf, Sacheen Littlefeather. These anecdotes and commentaries are intricately interwoven with clips and Diamond’s own first-person narration. The overall impact is poignant, again revealing the collective impact the screen can have on the lives of an entire group of people. “Once we started to really explore the possibilities, it all just exploded in my face.”

Diamond says his research led to a series of revelations regarding Native people and the screen. “In fact, now that Native people are making their own films, we’ve actually come full circle. I learned that in the silent era, some of the most influential people working in Hollywood were Natives, as actors or producers. That changed when sound came in.”

As well, Diamond would learn that one of the most famous Native actors was in fact not Native. For decades, Iron Eyes Cody was one of the most recognizable Native faces anywhere. He had starred in a number of Westerns, but really became famous as the crying Native who appeared in a series of TV commercials that promoted greater environmental awareness. In the ads, which were frequently broadcast from 1971 into the ’80s, Cody would look out at polluted landscapes and then shed a tear. “I used to see him on TV all the time,” recalls Diamond. “I would learn that he wasn’t Native, but was of Sicilian descent.”

Perhaps the strangest wrinkle in this story is that Diamond believes that Cody actually began to believe he was Native himself. When a newspaper broke the news that Cody was in fact not Native, he denied the story. He accepted awards from the Native community for his work, married a Native woman and adopted two Native children, who he brought up with knowledge of their culture and traditions. “It’s sad, because we interviewed his son and I think he was very hurt to find out his father wasn’t actually Native.”

Cody’s story is so strange it begins to move into the realm of the surreal, and raises larger questions about identity and ethnicity. Diamond is very aware that some filmmakers might have chosen not to include Cody’s story, as the man turned out to not be a real Native. But since Cody had portrayed many Native characters so prominently, Diamond felt it was a fit. “Some people regard him quite negatively,” admits Diamond.

Sacheen Littlefeather’s story is also tremendously poignant. In 1972, when Marlon Brando decided that if he won an Oscar for The Godfather he would decline it, he asked Littlefeather—then a struggling actress—to attend the ceremony for him. She did, with his statement in hand. The Academy told her bluntly that the statement was far too long, and that if she tried to read it she would be cut off. Instead, when Brando’s name was called she calmly said that Brando was declining the Oscar due to the horrific treatment Native people had received over the years.

Film buffs certainly remember the moment as one of the key points in Oscar history as well as the storied career of Brando, one of America’s greatest maverick actors. And the film includes the moment of the Oscar broadcast, during which you can hear the gasps from various Academy members. But in this rare interview—she has granted very few since that Oscar night—Littlefeather describes just how controversial her appearance became.

Apparently several people had to hold John Wayne back, as the right-wing icon was so infuriated by what Littlefeather had said he appeared to want to attack her physically. And some journalists promptly suggested that Littlefeather was a fake and not in fact a Native person. “It was a very brave thing for her to do,” says Diamond. “She did some roles after that, in B-movies like The Trial of Billy Jack, but, for the most part, her promising film acting career was over. She was ostracized in Hollywood. There were no more offers.”

At the time of Brando’s famous move, actor Russell Means was holed up at the Wounded Knee standoff. Diamond includes an interview with Means, as he talks about how much Brando’s decline of the Oscar meant to him and other Native activists. Means also recalls the effect that Saturday-morning serials had on him and other Native children where he grew up. “Means told us about going to the cinema—and all the kids would watch the Natives portrayed in Westerns. After the movies were over, he and the other Native kids would have to fight their way home. These images had a tremendous impact on him.”

Some of the clips are entirely strange. Diamond shows us glimpses of the so-called Red Westerns, genre films made east of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, in which the roles are reversed. A critique of the capitalist system and imperialism emerge as Natives were portrayed as victimized good guys or freedom fighters, while the American cowboy was shown as greedy, violent and oppressive.

Diamond says the toughest interview to land was with multiple-Oscar-winning filmmaker Clint Eastwood. Diamond felt it was important to include Eastwood as he could talk about Beach’s portrayal of Ira Hayes in the 2006 World War II drama Flags of Our Fathers, and also discuss the problematic Native depictions in the Western genre generally. “One of our producers, Christina Fon, worked for several months to make contact and see when he might be able to grant us some time. We were told we had one hour with him. He gave us a great interview.”

Reel Injun has a satisfying story arc, something Diamond says was carefully crafted in the editing room. “We had so much material to pore over,” he says, adding that editor Jeremiah Hayes did a superb job of arriving at the final cut. The audience is guided on a journey, from misrepresentation to self-representation, as a series of interviews with Native filmmakers unfold. We see scenes from such recent landmarks as Once Were Warriors (1994), Whale Rider (2002) and Smoke Signals (1998).

Filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk reflects on his 2001 Inuit tale Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), which took top honours at Cannes and made hundreds of critical top-ten lists upon its release. Lead actor Natar Ungalaaq is praised for his singular commitment to capturing his role in the film, which required him to damage his feet while running across an ice floe for the climactic sequence. It’s a fitting testimony to his commitment to the art. These moments are among the most emotional in Reel Injun, as we witness the intense pride the filmmakers feel at having been able to tell their own stories on their own terms.

Diamond says he and the team from Rezolution Pictures kept hearing one thing as they met with their interview subjects. “Everyone said it was such a good idea for a feature documentary they were surprised it hadn’t been done before.”

Jesse Wente, the Toronto-based CBC film critic who appears in Reel Injun, agrees. “Considering that Native people have been the subject of movies since there have been movies, it’s surprising how long it took for the issue of our representation to be chronicled and examined on film. A film like Reel Injun is in part an acknowledgment that the representation of Native people has changed onscreen, largely due to the emergence of a true Aboriginal cinema, one that continues to grow exponentially around the globe.”

And Wente adds that it’s fitting that this meditation on cinema would arrive in the form of a film: “Given that movies have played such an integral role in the common perceptions of Native people around the world, it’s only appropriate that it’s a movie itself that exposes the truth behind those perceptions and reveals the reclamation of a culture’s identity onscreen.”

Ernest Webb, a producer of Reel Injun, says he hopes the film will stand as the definitive text on historical aboriginal representations on screen. A $1.5 million co-pro between Rezolution Pictures and the NFB, it will eventually have a CBC broadcast after its Toronto International Film Festival premiere and a theatrical run.

Webb says the power of the legacy of those screen images is powerful and undeniable. “I still remember watching Western movies when I was a kid in James Bay. We always cheered for the cowboys, even when they were killing Indians.”

And while he sees the audience for Reel Injun as far-reaching, his ultimate goal with the film was to make something that would appeal to Native audiences, especially when he thinks back to his own Cree community in James Bay. “That’s who I consider our primary audience. I just want them to be proud of what we’re doing.”

A long-time contributing editor at POV, Hays teaches film studies at Marianopolis College and Concordia University. His articles on documentary have appeared in Cineaste, The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Toronto Star.

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