Why Indians Love the Movies So Much

Cultural critic Paul Chaat Smith examines the obsession.

By Paul Chaat Smith May 06, 2009

This essay is excerpted from Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong by Paul Chaat Smith out in May from the University of Minnesota Press and was first printed in the Sundance Film Festival catalogue.

As a people, there can be little doubt that Indians care too much about the movies. It’s embarrassing sometimes, well, actually a lot of the time. We follow casting, production, shooting schedules of each new Hollywood feature about us with the anxiousness of European investors. (We kept each other posted on those ever-changing release dates for The Dark Wind for the better part of the first Bush administration.) We debate the merits of each new Indian film with passion and at great length, like film students in Upper West Side coffee shops. We critique plot, clothes, hair, history, horses, horse riding, language and makeup. We get very involved.

Indians and Hollywood go way back, farther than either one of us might care to remember. Indian film directors in the 1920s? Yep. One of the first movies ever released (1894) starred Indians and was directed by Thomas Edison. Something about a Ghost Dance. We’ve been acting in movies for more than a century, cursing them and loving them since day one.

The movies loom so large for Indians because they have defined our self-image as well as told the entire planet how we live, look, scream and kill. Indian filmmakers are prisoners of this creation, and it’s no wonder that many of the Indian films that do exist are about stereotypes and even Hollywood movies.

We could hardly be expected to just ignore this, so we don’t. We pay close attention, perhaps too close. If it’s true that Indians have been deeply involved in the movie business, it’s also true that those films aren’t really about Indians in the first place. They aren’t made for an Indian audience, and they were not written by Indians.

People weep about Hollywood’s treatment of Indians and make the case that we’re owed something because Jack Palance played Geronimo. Who cares? Not Hollywood, that’s for sure. Just look at how everyone else is treated in most movies.

They don’t call it “the industry” for nothing. People make movies for love and money, to get dates and buy cars and drugs, and always have and always will.

Lately, though, we’ve crossed the line somewhere and forgotten that it’s entertainment and not a vehicle invented to first denigrate and then uplift our race. I believe our ancestors were smarter than that, about movies and a great many other things. (Of course, they were stupid about a lot of things too.) But I don’t think they would bother to attack critics for giving bad reviews to a movie written and directed by white people about Indians, as some Indian newspapers did when a timid backlash against Dances with Wolves emerged in 1992. That shows how confused many of us are, that we would act as unpaid press agents for a film that is based on a novel and screenplay about Comanches, and then shifted to South Dakota only after the production designer—and this is kind of poignant—finds a shortage of buffalo in Oklahoma. And not a single Comanche or Kiowa character, some based on actual historical figures, is changed. I mean, yo, Kevin, Mike: saying Ten Bears is Sioux is like saying Winston Churchill is Albanian.

It’s the movies, and in the movies you can do anything, even make Ten Bears Sioux or Churchill Albanian, but don’t toss out bouquets for service to the struggle and for historical truth.

I think in the old days we would have found the buffalo stampede stirring (“Hey, Reginald, don’t you think it was smart of them to move production to South Dakota?” “You betcha, Eldon, paid off big time during the stampede”), dug the score, and moved on to other matters.

Now, many of us think how well Geronimo: An American Legend does at the box office will represent a significant advance for the Indian Nations.

We are the Indians. On the screen, up there? That’s a movie about Indians.

The films we write about and debate and criticize are usually about the idea of us, about what people think about that idea, about Vietnam, the West, or buildings and food. Often, we’re simply a plot device or there to provide visual excitement. That many of us would place real hopes and dreams of advancement in the hands of a business renowned for its single-minded focus on the bottom line speaks volumes about the intellectual state of Indian Country these days.

Indian filmmakers face tremendous obstacles in learning their craft, locating funding, obtaining the kind of real criticism and support that any artist needs to advance. But I believe this crisis dwarfs all others. There is a terrible problem Indian intellectuals (and believe me, if you’re red and want to make films, you qualify) must face head-on, and that is that these days we’re spinning tales invented by others.

For Indian filmmakers today there is no task more urgent than reclaiming a tradition of invention and storytelling by any means necessary, an intense desire to be on the world stage, and an unshakable demand not simply to star, or even produce, but to write and direct our own stories and visions.

But whose traditions and whose stories?

Some of us come from traditional families steeped in resistance, educated by carefully remembered oral histories and speaking our native languages. But most of us do not, and that’s particularly true for those of us who’ve taken up pen or camera. We get much of our information from the same place everyone else does.

A book called Touch the Earth had a huge impact on my family when I was growing up. A sepia-toned picture book of the greatest rhetorical hits of various Indian chiefs, it captured perfectly what we wanted to believe about our past, and not coincidentally provided a snapshot of environmental feel-good sentiments of the 1970s. That slapdash book, written by an English woman and still in print, offered a kind of truth that was much easier to take than what my grandparents, more or less raised by the army in Fort Sill had to offer. So it is with many of us.

Indians can be just as good at turning out hackneyed, clichéd stories of noble savages as any white person. We defer to no people when it comes to bad taste, and feature a full complement of hacks, crooks, scammers, and those who want nothing more than wealth and fame. But Indian filmmakers, as opposed to those who want jobs in the industry, must care. And not just about who exactly wrote it, but about understanding the story in its context. It means being skeptical and inquisitive, not believing that because a speech in a book says it’s by an Indian chief, it is, or that a ghostwritten autobiography necessarily tells the whole story.

An Indian film aesthetic must challenge the manufactured images if it seeks to represent our lives and experiences. This doesn’t necessarily mean long hours in dusty archives (although that wouldn’t hurt—a history by a librarian at the University of Illinois called Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is treated as both gospel and the final word on the nineteenth century). But it does mean a deeply skeptical approach to the history, and not just that “white people told us” or what is taught in schools, or endless cheap shots at easy targets (and I write this as one who could easily be brought up on those charges), but a serious attempt to question and investigate what we know as Indian people, and how we know it.

Paul Chaat Smith is associate curator at the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.