SYRACUSE, N.Y. - In his second guest lecture in two days, American Indian legal scholar and film historian Rennard Strickland visited the Syracuse University School of Law to discuss the portrayal of American Indians in film on Oct. 16.
Strickland, who is of Osage and Cherokee heritage, discussed how Hollywood's stereotypical portrayals of American Indian culture have had a profound impact on the public perceptions of Native culture. Images of Indians as "exotic" or as a murdering savage in hundreds of films have created misperceptions about Indians far removed from their reality.
"If we relied only on the celluloid image of the American Indian, we would never see the Indian as a mother, father, lawyer or even cab driver," Strickland said. "This is of interest to law and culture because you fail when you resort to basing legal opinion in these perceptions."
One of the more misguided notions created by Hollywood is that there is no Indian country east of the Mississippi River, as Strickland put it, "because the real danger was on the Plains." The film industry would have had people believe that the Apache were the largest tribe in the country, despite the size of the Navajo Nation and the Cherokee population, and that Comanches killed more whites than any other tribe in history, said Strickland. A lasting image of the American Indian was created as a villain standing in the way of the Manifest Destiny of the United States and the rugged individualist whites who settled the West.
Strickland noted that in many of the classic Western films "the Indians were not even Indian." The list of non-Indian actors who have portrayed American Indians on films has ranged from Debra Pagent, the recipient of Strickland's lifetime achievement award for a non-Indian playing an Indian, to Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney.
Strickland recounted another incident on a movie based on the life of legendary Sac and Fox athlete Jim Thorpe where producers chose a non-Indian to play the lead instead of Thorpe playing himself because he wasn't right for the part.
A shift occurred where American Indians started to be portrayed as more of a victim than a villain. Indians were shown to be impoverished and hopeless in films like "Broken Arrow" and "Fort Apache." Strickland said in other films like "Billy Jack" the American Indian was used to reflect the social conflict of the times particularly in the turbulent 1960s. The protagonist Billy Jack mirrored the national trauma of the Vietnam War and Indian women that married or became involved with white men were portrayed as "doomed to die" reflecting concern over race-mixing.
"Indians were the only group society would agree to be treated in such a fashion," said Strickland. "This has had a debilitating impact on [Native] children when they only see Indians portrayed this way.
"The 'trust relationship' has been violated."
Following the lecture, Strickland said the same type of contempt for Native culture is reflected in the ongoing mascot debate. In both cases there has been a portrayal of American Indians contrary to their reality that would not be permitted directed at other ethnic groups.
Recent American Indian films, like "Smoke Signals," have provided a more accurate depiction of life in Indian country and reflected a more positive portrayal, said Strickland. Yet the expense of producing quality movies in modern times has prevented many American Indian filmmakers from pursuing feature film projects and restricted them to making documentaries or utilizing other media formats.
"There has been a renaissance in Indian literature and writing because films take too much money," said Strickland.
Strickland is the Philip H. Knight Professor of Law at the University of Oregon and has been regarded as a key figure involved with bringing Indian law into the university curriculum. He has written or edited more than 35 books, including "Tonto's Revenge: Reflections on American Indian Culture and Policy," and was the founding director of the Center for the Study of American Indian Law and Policy at the University of Oklahoma. Currently, Strickland serves as the editor-in-chief of the "Handbook of Federal Indian Law."