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Control of American Indian image, existence tied together

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NEW YORK - Who decides what the American Indian looks like in the public mind? And does control of the American Indian's image also control his existence?

That was the question posed and answered on several levels at a recent double premiere at the George Gustav Heye Center of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

A crowd of museum visitors and urban American Indians munched on popcorn in the rotunda of the NMAI's ornate lower Manhattan home, the former U.S. Customs House, to celebrate the opening of an exhibit from its photographic collection and to catch the New York premiere of Randy Redroad's film "The Doe Boy."

The two shows spanned the earliest and the most recent efforts to present the American Indian on film. The photographic exhibit "Spirit Capture" drew on the museum's extensive archives to explore how different interests manipulated these images to further their own agendas.

A walk through the labyrinthine layout took the visitor through the perspective of the American Indian fighter, the reformer and the commercial exploiter, before, in eye-opening contrast, putting him in a gallery of photographs by present-day American Indian students.

A wall of "delegation photos" showed how group shots of tribal leaders on Washington visits served as propaganda for the post Civil War approach to "the Indian Problem." A before and after pose of students at a government boarding school purported to document its civilizing effect. Gauzy shots from worlds' fairs and Wild West Shows furthered romantic cliches.

But American Indians took their own photographs as well, providing some of the freshest and least familiar images in the exhibit.

In one of the earliest daguerreotypes in the show, James Mye, a Mashpee Wampanoag from Cape Cod, poses stiffly in a dress suit and top hat. In a breezy snapshot from 1928, taken by Kiowa photographer Horace Poolaw, two young Kiowa ladies with flapper-style hairdos lean on a new car as the driver gives a self-possessed gaze at the camera.

The premiere of "The Doe Boy" completed the contrast between manipulated stereotype and the rounded humanity of the American Indian's real life. The first entry in the Heye Center's summer film festival, it was an intensely personal statement by director and writer Randy Redroad, Ojibwe, who afterward conducted a revealing question and answer session.

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The film's hero, Hunter, is a young Cherokee in northeast Oklahoma coming to grips with his mixed parentage and his life-threatening hemophilia. Hunter makes the metaphorical charge of bad blood against his white father, in one of the cruelties that pass between two people who in the end deeply care about each other.

The title came from a humiliating hunting incident, in which the hero as a boy shoots a doe instead of a buck, which Redroad told the audience happened to him when he was 10. "I blew it up way out of proportion."

He said the film "was based largely on my relationship with my father. It's also a Valentine to my mother."

Hunter's mother, played with great strength and humor by Jeri Arrendondo, was his favorite performance in the movie, he said.

Redroad's script won the Sundance/NHK International Filmmakers Award in 2000, which carried the promise of $300,000 in financing for the film.

Sundance also provided technical help, he said. The upfront money, ultimately $1.2 million, he said, came from an individual backer who was a friend of Robert Redford.

Redroad said he made the round of the tribes, but none were willing to invest. "It's very important that this happen," he said, to break out of the Hollywood mold.

The film had its national premiere at the 2001 Sundance festival and in April won the Perrier Bubbling Under Award for First-Time Filmmakers at the Taos Talking Picture Festival.

Although it had distribution deals in some European countries, said Redroad, it so far found no one willing to bring it to the United States audience.

"It's not a genre piece," said Redroad. "It doesn't make a lot of sense to the people who buy movies."