Reel Indians Don’t Eat Quiche: The Fight for Authentic Roles in Hollywood

Hollywood needs to stop stereotyping Native Americans. Some of the finest actors I know are Native American
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Hollywood needs to stop stereotyping Native Americans. Every time I see a new movie come out that features Native Americans, we’re either wealthy hedge fund managers with a penchant for Italian automobiles, or we’re depicted as sexy surgeons who moonlight for Doctors Without Borders, and adopt handicapped children from war torn countries. Just stop it already! We’re so much more than that!

Only rarely are we given a semblance of humanity. Take the film The Revenant for instance. In the opening scenes, when a band of marauding Native Americans on horseback attack a camp of innocent fur trappers, I was like, FINALLY, producers are making an effort to get this right! Some of the Native characters even wore loin cloths! Whoa, that’s some incisive storytelling, right there! I thought, wow, the cultural consultants are spot on! Unfortunately, that isn’t the norm, and it’s time Hollywood started getting it right!

Believe it or not Native Americans are highly capable actors and have studied at reputable institutions with the best of them. Myself, for instance, I studied at Julliard, and have an MFA in Theater Arts. I am more than willing to step outside of the same old, unimaginative typecasting of Native Americans as WWII SS officers and Nazi guards. It’s as if Hollywood producers simply are not willing to see us beyond the cliché. How much longer do Native Americans have to get stuck playing roles like eighteenth century English shipping magnate or Dutch textile industrialist before change can happen? If I see another sensitive and compelling biopic of Princess Diana, or another Movie-of-the Week portrayal of Marilyn Monroe played by [insert famous Indigenous actor] I’m going to totally lose my shit. It’s just the same old colonialist narrative, the same old malarkey.

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Some of the finest actors I know are Native American, and can deliver an impressive range of characterizations such as hostile savage No. 1 thru 65, or housekeeper for wretched pill-popping matriarch. The shirtless, wolf pack portrayals in Twilight was some of the finest cinema of the last 50 years, beyond compared to anything I’ve ever seen, even Wind In His Hair’s breakout performance in Dances with Wolves.

Don’t get me wrong, when I was just starting out, a naïve, looks-good-without-a-shirt, ethnically ambiguous male actor, and I got my big break being cast as Gomer Pyle in the 2008 reboot of Mayberry R.F.D. I was grateful for the work. And even though I was working with the whitest cast in the history of the world since The Brady Bunch, it was a solid credit. That’s just the business, that’s just how things are, I told myself. As the years have gone by however, it’s getting more difficult to reconcile. Take my role as Rory’s love interest in Gilmore Girls. Naturally the character of Rory Gilmore is going to fall for the most disgustingly rich playboy of the Atlantic Seaboard, it’s a necessary arc of her character development, but the fact that only a Native American was considered for the role, limits its scope, and frankly makes it offensive. I was glad to get the role, but it was demoralizing too, with the whole shopping with Rory at Bergdorfs and Tiffany’s, and those skiing trips in the Swiss Alps. Can you say Hello! Pigeonhole much?!

Thank god for the big blockbuster film companies! If it wasn’t for the progressive-minded pioneers in giant movie conglomerates, our lives on the big screen would never be told, and Native Americans would forever be relegated to the same, stale codswallop we’ve been relegated to since the genesis of cinema. Native American actors deserve better Hollywood, and so do the legions of movie-goers.

Tiffany Midge is a contributor for Indian Country Today Media Network, and an assistant poetry editor at The Rumpus. Her work is featured in McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Okey-Pankey, The Butter, Waxwing, and Moss. She is a Hunkpapa Lakota satirist. Follow her on Twitter @TiffanyMidge