Dances with Deception
HOLLYWOOD STILL DOESN’T GET IT WHEN IT COMES TO NATIVE AMERICANS
by Glenn Lovell
“Dances with Wolves,” the 1990 Oscar-winner, was supposed to signal a “new awareness” of American Indian issues. It was supposed to lead to better vehicles and roles for Indian actors. Has this happened? Not according to a number of Indian actors, film makers and industry observers.
The post-“Dances” outlook is status quo-to-grim, they say. In their future: more broken promises by Hollywood. More sidekick and comedy-relief roles. More lip-service from a liberal establishment represented by actors-turned-producers Robert De Niro and Robert Redford.
”I didn’t expect a lot of change, but I did expect more Native Americans to be used in movies,” said Doris Leader Charge, the Lakota Sioux teacher who appeared in Kevin Costner’s “Dances.” “That hasn’t happened.”
”It’s still bleak,” agreed Rodney Grant, the star of “Powwow Highway” and “Dances.” “For every step forward, we have to take two steps backward. It’s an uphill battle.”
And why is this?
Because Indian projects are still seen as “downers” and a financial risk, and because Indian actors are so eager for work, any work, they’re sometimes forced into films they find morally and politically reprehensible.
And, perhaps most troubling, because white actors continue to claim Indian blood ties to claim Indian roles. Among these “Hollywood Indians,” as they’re called, are Johnny Depp, Val Kilmer, Lou Diamond Phillips, Frederic Forrest and Fred Ward. Depp, who calls himself part Cherokee, plays Tonto in Disney’s upcoming “The Lone Ranger.” Kilmer and Ward played part- and full-blooded Sioux in “Thunderheart,” which received mostly glowing notices (De Niro was executive producer). Phillips, who’s Filipino and Hawaiian, plays the half-breed Chavez in the “Young Guns” movies and a Navajo cop in “The Dark Wind.” Forrest has been masquerading as Indians for years, in everything from “Where Legends Die” to the miniseries “Lonesome Dove,” in which he played the murderous Blue Duck.
The American Indian Registry in Hollywood tracks the employment of Indian actors and the continued use of white and Hispanic actors in Indian roles. Its statistics couldn’t be more damning. Of the 250-plus Indians registered, only 3 percent are making a living wage. According to registry director Bonnie Paradise, little has changed since the days of stereotyped Indian Jay “Tonto” Silverheels and the grease- paint “Injuns” of countless “B” Westerns.
”Indians are looked at as Indians — but not star Indians,” Paradise said. “The doors have not been opened to us in other roles, either, such as doctors, lawyers and secretaries. We’re ready for that, but Hollywood isn’t.”
The solution? Foment a revolution within the industry and, like black film makers John Singleton and Spike Lee, wrest loose the tools of production. “The eye behind the camera must be not a white eye, but an Indian eye,” said Billy Two Rivers, a Canadian Mohawk activist who appeared in “Black Robe.”
The “big wounded heart of the Indian nation,” as “Dances” writer Michael Blake called it at the 1991 Oscars, continues to bleed. The acceptance of “Dances” by mainstream Hollywood appears to have been what everyone feared: an interesting fluke. The tomahawk-brandishing “redskins” of John Wayne shoot-’em-ups are still with us. Only now they’re disguised more carefully.
Leader Charge, Paradise, Grant and other Indian actors contacted saw “Dances” as a sop to the conscience of middle- class America. Hollywood is concerned with not fairness or truth, but what sells with the popcorn: It’s Indian affairs in 1992; it could be Gypsies or Armenians in ’93, they point out.
”We were always shown as savages,” lamented Leader Charge from her home on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. “I was raised in boarding school and tried to assimilate. I always yelled for John Wayne. I didn’t realize it was our people getting slaughtered. . . . At least in Kevin’s film we weren’t depicted as savages. We were shown as people who had something wonderful at one time.” That “something wonderful” has soured considerably in such post-“Dances” releases as “Thunderheart” and “Black Robe.” The former, directed by Britisher Michael Apted, depicts modern-day reservation life as grim and oppressive; “Black Robe,” about 17th-century Jesuit missionaries in northern Quebec, depicts torture and cannibalism among Huron warriors.
ABC’s “Son of the Morning Star,” a 1991 miniseries about George Armstrong Custer, was no less objectionable, said Leader Charge, who drew a small role after working on “Dances.” “I thought this would tell our side of it (the battle at Little Big Horn), but it didn’t.
“It depicted Custer as a blond, curly-haired, wonderful man, and we were the people who went in and killed him.”
Apted defended “Thunderheart” as more balanced than “Dances.” He also pointed to the large number of Indians (more than 100) who figured in the production. Kilmer, he said, was cast as the one-quarter-Sioux FBI hero because he has some Cherokee blood. Apted didn’t check with the Indian Registry.
”Val told me he had a tiny bit of Indian blood, that he was ‘a little bit Cherokee,’ ” recalled Apted, best known for “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” another look at rural America. “But I suppose half the population in American can say that.” Chris Cain, director of “Young Guns” and Fox-TV’s “Lakota Moon” (about a Sioux village in 1820), saed he’s aware of the registry and its concerns but hasn’t worked with the organization. “I didn’t check on Lou (Phillips). It can get silly. It can get to the point where you say to Lou, ‘You can only play Filipinos or you’ll never get work. . . . We’re in the business of fantasy and illusion.”
”They (white actors who claim Indian heritage) are all Cherokee,” shot back Leader Charge. “That must have been one huge tribe.”
The bottom line? “They become Indians when it’s profitable,” said Leader Charge. “They ought to come and live on a reservation for a while. Then they’d know what an Indian is.”
But isn’t acting, in the purest sense, about placing yourself in someone else’s skin? Isn’t it about stretching and dressing up — Burt Lancaster staining his skin for “Apache,” Joey Bishop and Martin Landau in braided wigs and war paint for “Sergeants 3” and “Hallelujah Trail,” respectively? That’s the most frequent argument by white actors and directors who work on Indian films. Robby Benson, who played Sioux Olympian Billy Mills in 1983’s “Running Brave,” defended the practice. “If asked to do it again, I would in a second,” he said. “It’s what an actor does: They become something they’re not … If you’re worried about the political fallout every time you take a role, you might as well hang it up.”
It’s exactly this insensitivity, this dog-eat-dog attitude, that has hurt Indian actors, argued Leader Charge, Grant and others. Grant, the most successful Indian actor after Graham Greene (“Dances,” “Thunderheart”), winced when told of Benson’s retort. After playing the brash young warrior Wind In His Hair in “Dances,” Grant landed choice TV roles (in “Lakota Moon” and “Son of the Morning Star”), but movie offers remained meager and demeaning.
”Most of the projects dealt in the same old stereotypes,” he said. “Instead of having a character standing around drinking beer, why can’t they have him drinking coffee — to improve the image?” asked the New Mexico-based actor.
Grant auditioned for the Officer Jim Chee role in “Dark Wind” that went to Phillips. He was part of executive producer Robert Redford’s “media show,” he claimed. “I guess all the Indians they looked at didn’t look Filipino enough, so they went with Phillips,” he quipped.
”It’s absurd — white actors like Frederic Forrest and Sam Waterston (in the 1979 TV movie “Eagle’s Wing”) playing Indians!”
August Schellenberg, a well-known Canadian Indian actor who appeared in “Black Robe” and TV’s “The Broken Cord” (about the high incidence of fetal alcohol syndrome among Indians), was more philosophical about the post-“Dances” situation. “It’s positive, to a degree,” he hedged. “The movies we’re talking about were directed and written by white people, but they give work to native actors.”
Actors Billy Two Rivers and Tantoo Cardinal, also in “Black Robe,” said inroads can be made by pressuring film makers to look upon Indian characters as complex individuals instead of menacing or comical “types.” Their protests about the depiction of cannibalism in Brian Moore’s “Black Robe” script paid dividends. Director Bruce Beresford cut some of the offending moments and toned down others.
”We were shown to be subhuman . . . without souls,” complained Two Rivers, a Mohawk council member from the Kahnawake Reserve in Quebec. “On top of all the lies that have been spread about us, we were now being shown as cannibals. . . . “Knowing what it might have been, I’m very satisfied with ‘Black Robe’,” says Two Rivers, a Mohawk council member from the Kahnawake Reserve in Quebec.
Cardinal, the wife of an Algonquin chief in “Black Robe,” argued that sunny, one-dimensional portraits of Indians are just as harmful because they ignore the grim realities of reservation life — the unemployment, the drug use, the high rate of teen suicide. “There’s room for ‘Dances’ and others,” she said. “The first is full of light, the others are full of blackness and clouds and, yes, brutality.”
The summer releases about Indians should, likewise, proffer contrasting tones and perspectives. Besides Redford’s “Dark Wind,” the months ahead will bring the nightmarish “Clearcut,” with Greene as a visionary-terrorist, and the larger-than-life “Last of the Mohicans” with Britain’s Daniel Day-Lewis rubbing salt in the wound as Hawkeye — “the first American hero.”
Next year (1993) could bring adaptations of Forrest Carter’s evocative “Education of Little Tree,” Tony Hillerman’s gritty “A Thief of Time” (a sequel to “Dark Wind”) and Oliver LaFarge’s 1927 Pulitzer Prize-winner “Laughing Boy.” The latter, about a Navajo girl who defies tribal law, is described by director Bob Clark as “an Indian ‘Romeo and Juliet’ — the quintessential American Indian story.” All but one of its 25 speaking roles will be filled by Indian actors, Clark promises.
Apted and Redford also have the documentary “Incident at Oglala” (opening May 22 in San Francisco). It’s an examination of the case against Leonard Peltier, now serving a life sentence for the 1975 murder of two FBI agents. Redford served as narrator-producer, and Apted shot back to back with his “Thunderheart” during “one long, depressing year” on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
And then, of course, there are the two now-in-production Christopher Columbus sagas. How will they portray New World Indians — as bloodthirsty heathens or docile victims? The signs aren’t good. Longtime Indian activist Marlon Brando, cast in the showier of the two epics, “Christopher Columbus: The Discovery,” has already asked that his name be removed from the credits, citing “cruel inaccuracies.”
Sensitive to this issue, director Clark was determined his low-budget “Laughing Boy” wouldn’t fall prey to “Hollywood Indian” casting when it goes before the camera in September. “The Phillips/’Dark Wind’ episode,” as he called it, left the Indian community understandably skeptical. “We’ve made a commitment to the Navajo nation to not cast anyone who isn’t at least one-fourth Indian. We’re not going to do any star-tripping. My backers have agreed: The truth and integrity of the piece should not be violated.”
When pressed, Clark admitted that a white actress could land the Slim Girl lead. “Our first obligation is to go with someone of Indian origin, but the counter-argument is that you should have whoever is best for the part.” And so another carrot could be yanked away. (Redford also promises to make amends for “Dark Wind” by casting an Indian in his second Jim Chee thriller, “A Thief of Time.”)
”It’s a sad commentary,” sighed Mike Smith, a Sioux graphic artist who oversees San Francisco’s American Indian Film Festival, now in its 16th year.
“When they couldn’t find an Indian to play Billy Mills, one of the few contemporary Indian heroes, they went with Benson. That’s the best they could do?”
Smith envisions a time when an American Indian fund will bankroll Indian projects. “We have to start developing and producing the stories,” he stressed.
”Right now we’re standing on the sidelines, waiting for someone to pick up our cause. That’s crazy. We can’t expect to realize benefits unless we’re willing to take risks.”
Apted said he applauds this independent spirit but will continue tackling whatever projects interest him. Indeed, he believes his “outsider” status helped on “Thunderheart” and “Incident at Oglala.” “Being a British film maker, I don’t have your prejudices or guilt. I was able to look at it with fresh eyes.”
The truth, if there is such a thing, isn’t to be found in either “Dances” or the most insulting “B” Westerns, says Schellenberg. “We’re neither noble savages nor people who speak in monosyllabic phrases. We’re just people . . . who don’t get tapped to play Hamlet very much.”
Published in 1992 (recent updates/tweaks added)