As the summer of 2017 rockets by, popular media portrayals of Native American subjects and themes have begun to pile up, and the outcome is not looking good. From mass media studies we know that pop culture tells us the film portrayal is more about the time it was made instead of what the story is actually saying. The question remains, is it better to be seen as a culture frozen in time or remain locked out of the wheelhouse of defining our own identity, one rating season at a time?
I am a far from the hopeful star-gawker that normally comments about these enduring subjects like Hollywood is doing Natives a favor by allowing Native actors to be employed in the entertainment industry. The historical exploitation of dead Natives was seen as entertainment in some frontier communities during the era of Manifest Destiny. When the surly saloon keeper Al Swearengen kept the deceased Native chief’s head in a wooden box after he paid a bounty on him in the fictional HBO seriesDeadwood, the plot device presumably kept us from having to watch the weekly onslaught the Black Hills went thru during that gold rush period. There are no fair trade-offs between the entertainment factor and the genocide implicit in such drama. The rating censors are not keeping score for “our side,” they are just looking to minimize fines from the Federal Communications Commission. If sweat was red, then North American Indians have paid the dues in full already to allow us to tell our own stories.
Instead, we are greeted with outlandish commercials for movies like Wind River, starring Graham Greene, where he says that (in Indian country) ”there is no backup,” like a bookend to his other starring role in the 1993 movie Thunderheart, where he portrayed another isolated Native cop. Wind River, like Thunderheart, is a film about marginalized death on Native lands, passing for entertainment for middle-class voyeurs often amazed that any Natives are still alive. That description seems to define the concept of kill media as a genre built on hopelessness and despair amidst American riches and advancement.
James Fennimore Cooper was a pioneer of kill media through the totality of his storytelling in The Last of the Mohicans, nobly depicting of the extinguishment of an old warrior’s bloodline as the backdrop of transplanted European warfare set in the North American wilderness. Has nothing changed in three hundred years? So can the bar possibly be set lower today than to tantalize audiences with tales of the last Natives preying on each other before that culture goes extinct?
I watch little broadcast television but do tune into the popular Walking Dead, and spin-off Fear the Walking Dead series produced by the AMC Network. Both shows had refreshingly avoided any trivializing Native storylines until recently when Fear introduced a Native character with a nonsensical backstory. The writing is on the wall when the supporting Native characters remain faceless and prone to quick and early demise. In Star Trek jargon it would be described as a red-shirt syndrome, where the security officers in red tunics were often the first casualties of any landing party, killed off before you got to know them. Both wearing AND being red are clearly a common path to media extinction through that prism.
My interest in the undead performances is an ode to my recently departed favorite director George A. Romero, recognized as the father of modern zombie films. The undead have appeared in Hollywood productions since the silent era, but it was Romero and his partner John A. Russo who co-wrote the seminal Night of the Living Dead in 1968, breaking all traditions in showcasing an African-American lead actor in Duane Jones. That role became even more ironic when just as the film was in distribution, the racial conflicts between police and black citizens boiled over in metropolitan cauldrons like Detroit, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey. Romero, who passed over from lung cancer, said that he never gave the casting a second thought because Jones auditioned best for this role. I think it was among the choicest of decisions, even though the lead character cannot escape his civilized fate in the end after making it through the long dark night.
Even the long-running FX series The Strain has partially adopted a Native-themed character who at least seems to be looking the part with beaded turquoise earrings, hunting elk with a classic rifle and a North Dakota address. The press reviews of that cataclysmic storyline of vampire variants reference the character as a “pioneer woman” and seem to leave it at that. Easy on the eyes and light on conscience, these depictions tell us about the times that we are currently living in.
I have to look back to my childhood television memories to keep things straight. While the comedic F Troop cavalry western series episodes made me cringe as my Mohawk grandmother would quietly sit and watch the antics from the soft-blanketed couch behind me, I was more drawn to long-form storytelling to find the elusive chords I can still scarcely recognize today. James Michener’s Centennial mini-series included the frenetic French-Canadian trapper character Pasquinel played by actor Robert Conrad who had a family with a Native woman named Clay Basket, and the story showed their years together until Pasquinel’s greed led to his demise. Of course, the historical Metis culture is based on this very coupling of French male businessman and displaced Native wife forging new paths together, often with bi-racial children left behind to scratch out a living in their wake. The way these roles were portrayed lent some credibility to the performance that remains with me today.
The late media critic Neil Postman, the author of the classic book Amusing Ourselves to Death, said once, “People in distress will sometimes prefer a problem that is familiar to a solution that is not.” I think those words aptly describe where my concerns lie today.
It is not enough to see Native actors employed, even in starring roles, when they only represent the past and not the future. The hope that a foot in the door leads to better things has not been borne out in the evolution of Hollywood power circles. When we’re just glad to be let in the big door to make a token appearance and then to exit stage left, we have abandoned political capital on the table because we were too uneasy to reach out and take it upon ourselves to then spend it figuratively. Indeed, there have been some poorly conceived Native film projects that were not ready for prime-time, but over those efforts, we should see some better things come to pass. The creative tension requisite for success just does not seem to nurture a catalyst beyond the initial spark. Box office returns will tell if the capital potential meets the elusive opportunity anytime soon.
If sweat were red, Natives would already be fully vested to write, direct, produce, act, gaff, and distribute on a consistent basis that would lead to critically relevant results because the dues have long been paid. The stories and the scenery have always been there as a visual oasis, but the continuity and blocking have been all but reliant upon sympathetic film and decision-makers to fleetingly capture the essence of the underlying Native storyline of survival and endurance. Kill media only makes those efforts seem like historical reruns to tune out and ultimately veer away from.
Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.