by Mikai Tilton
Early Westerns starred white cowboys on a picture-perfect landscape saving women from Native American tribes or other rogue local villains and being vigilantes in solving and bringing justice to other crimes.
These portrayals of Native Americans were always lined with a fundamental lack of knowledge surrounding Native American culture.
Many early films starring Native Americans were laid on a premise of fascination with the supposed “mystique” of Native American tradition. This pandered very well to white audiences living in major cities, the majority of which who had little to no substantial knowledge of Native American culture. Lighter portrayals of this nature almost always incorporated magic or other “spiritual” characteristics into their characters. A reference to this archetype can be seen in the gift of seeing into the “spirit world” possessed by Nobody, a Native American character in Dead Man (1995).
As time went on, this fascination with Native American “mystique” morphed into a more violent and dangerous misrepresentation of the group.
D.W. Griffith, director of Birth of a Nation, released The Battle of Elderbush Gulch in 1913. In it, two hungry Indians steal a young woman and her newborn baby’s puppies for food. After being tracked down, one of them is shot and killed. The other Indian goes back to his tribe where they perform a war dance and then attack the young woman’s village. The newborn baby is captured by the Indians and the white settlers’ cabin is set on fire. White soldiers arrive to save the day as the Indians almost make it into the cabin. All Native Americans, as well as a “Mexican,” are portrayed by white actors. The film does not provide much of a motive behind these crimes other than an inherent and natural “evil” of the entire Native American tribe, adding a dangerous evil mystique to Native American culture.
A recurring image in classic Westerns—the likes of which can be observed in The Searchers (1956) or The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913)—is a cavalry riding in and “saving” the protagonists by massacring a tribe of Native Americans at the very last minute.
White audiences at the time knew almost nothing about Native Americans except for battles or massacres against them by the U.S. Army. It could be assumed, based on a lack of any other knowledge about Native Americans or their culture, that Native Americans were a danger to American citizens or a force that needed to be controlled—why else would the army commit such atrocities or expend so much energy to this cause?
White audiences’ lack of knowledge and stereotypes surrounding Native Americans freed directors to portray villains without needing to provide a motive for their crimes, as well as add a dimension of “magic” through Native American characters without much explanation. Directors likely didn’t know much about Native Americans, either, but it didn’t matter—white actors could be interpreted as “Indian” for simply wearing face paint and putting feathers in their hair. This misinterpretation helped spur widespread modern injustices (dangerous and harmful mining, land theft, and cultural destruction) that can still be seen today.