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Apodaca: Hollywood tragicomedy

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What is the relationship between American Indians and film? Images of American Indians are the signature of the New World and adorn everything from American Revolutionary documents to food trademarks. Colonial portraits often contain shadowed American Indian images in the background to identify the painting as being of someone in America. Nothing says America like the image of an American Indian ... nothing except motion pictures.

The film industry is arguably the most influential entity on the planet and is an almost universally accepted American icon. It shapes our views about almost everything, and American Indians are key players in the history and continuance of American film. The earliest commercial documentary films dealt with American Indians: ''In The Land of the Headhunters'' (1914) and ''Nanook of the North'' (1922). Natives found new work in rodeos and as movie actors and actresses as ''Wild West'' shows faded. American Indians appear in hundreds of movies from silent to talky. The careers of countless directors, producers and movie stars have been made through their associations with Indians and films. But how do Natives feel about film?

American Indians hate film. The most feared person at any Native gathering is a person with a film or video camera. Tourists have to register their cameras at many reservations now or are requested to do so at pow wows. Anyone involved with film is suspect and Natives who help filmmakers are likely to be seen as quislings, traitors, selling out their own people. Film portrays American Indians as American playthings to be shot off horses, raped at night, left drunk at the curb and rendered helpless before new technology like guns. Nothing has dehumanized American Indians like film. Movie Indians have replaced real people in our popular understanding of America.

On the other hand, American Indians love film. The answer to Indian problems can be found in Indian control of film, or so goes the popular sentiment. The fulfilment of many Native dreams is to be on the big screen, to be recognized in the street as a film star, to make the movie that will set all things straight, to finally gain justice through the use of film. The most honored person at the pow wow, school night gathering or cultural festival is the American Indian actor or actress who attends. American Indians look to film acting as a higher calling than that of president of the United States: We have had only one Native U.S. senator during a time when whole generations of actors have become national icons.

Nothing will teach history better than an ''authentic'' film about American Indians, with real American Indian actors, producers and directors. Natives have their own version of the Academy Awards, and American Indian film festivals open each year to great approval. Now that some formerly neglected tribes have casino money, American Indian actors, directors and screenwriters are making new friends and seeking production money to finance the project that will finally make things right. American Indian activists of the most extreme reputations now star in films they certify as the most authentic ever made, provide voiceovers for cartoons of American Indians, have film biographies of themselves and have gone as ''Hollywood'' as you can go.

This amazing but very real contradiction in the relationship between American Indians and film may cause great confusion and deserves to be examined. There are a number of books that examine the history of Indians and film, and Indian academic stars like Rennard Strickland have presented reflections on the subject. Each critical look examines motif and aesthetics, and each comes away with a common impression. American Indians serve as stock characters in films from 1914 to the present and are presented in irritatingly standard dramatic scenarios. These stock characters can sometimes blend into each other so one actor can portray a few of them at the same time. Any film that hopes to succeed must have some if not all of these characters present or the audience feels disoriented or cheated. More intriguing is how these stock characters and motif have become so popular with both American Indians and non-Native folk that many strive to be one of those characters and simply can't imagine film or life without them. These stock characters can include:

*The Angry Warrior. He can be a bad angry warrior or a good one. Sometimes, he starts as one and ends up as the other. The bad angry warrior loves to kill and is cruel, while the good one is righteous and uses his bad traits for good ends.

*The Wise Elder. This can be a man or a woman. They often live apart from the rest of the community so you have ''go see the old man.'' The wise elder gives forth ancient knowledge that is surprisingly topical and answers many of today's questions.

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*The Indian Princess/Prince. Usually found naked in or near a body of water. This can be a good angry warrior, angry because he is an unrecognized prince. He can also be bad, because he is an unrecognized prince. The princess is always beautiful.

*The Mystic Medicine Man. He can also be a wise elder or an angry warrior or a prince. He has a special affinity with animals and the weather.

*The Buffoon. Often drunk; always ends up kicked in the pants, literally. The buffoon can combine the other characters just as easily as the others so he can be an angry warrior getting his just desserts or be a disguised wise elder or an unrecognized prince, etc.

*The White Indian - the most famous of characters. He lives in the world of both Indians and whites and is master of both. He usually has a forelock of some sort so his long hair can be seen as his acceptance of Native ways. Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, Hawkeye and ''Dances with Wolves'' - this category contains more actors and famous roles than any other. Being an Indian-fighter is the key to higher political office, and the best Indian-fighters are white Indians.

So, what is the relationship of these characters to American Indians? Aren't there other roles for Indians to fill in both life and film? Can Indians be in films if they don't conform to some if not all of these stock characters? Why are these characters the basis of the relationship between American Indians and film?

Recently, Native people involved with the industry have begun to challenge and question this and other stock presentations. But the real question is can such challenges truly alter the patterns if the patterns are the purpose, the reason for including American Indians in the film industry? While some decried the deception of ''Dances With Wolves'' with its scalping scenes, misogyny and use of stock script lines, others hailed it at the time as the ''most authentic'' film to date or allowed it at least created sympathy for the Native characters. The same can be said today for ''Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.'' The same discussion is taking place, or being avoided, now as in the past.

There is a real challenge to Native people to decide what role film should play in their lives and visions of themselves as well as what roles they should play in films. Indians have to participate in the technology and discourse of the world, and film is the medium of choice. Is the future that of the story of the man following the circus parade cleaning up behind the elephant? When asked why he would continue such a terrible job, his reply was: ''What? And leave show business?'' Or can American Indians, despite more than a hundred years of dime novels and movies dictating the stock character, forge a new relationship between Indians and film?

Paul Apodaca, Navajo/Mixton, is an associate professor at Chapman University. He was part of the team that won the 1985 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary with ''Broken Rainbow,'' documenting the Navajo-Hopi relocation program.