Reel, Honest Injuns

By Sandra Hale Schulman
News From Indian Country October 2010

Hollywood has made over 4000 films about Native people; over 100 years of movies defining how Indians are seen by the world.

A new film – Reel Injun - and book – Honest Injun: Hollywood, History, and the Great White Lie - tell the stories of how mainstream media has portrayed the Hollywood Indian, exploring the portrayal of North American Natives through the history of cinema, pulp novels, songs and literature.

Reel Injun

Traveling through the heartland of America, Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond looks at how the myth of “the Injun” has influenced the world’s understanding – and misunderstanding – of Natives.

With candid interviews with directors, writers, actors and activists, including Clint Eastwood, Jim Jarmusch, Robbie Robertson, Sacheen Littlefeather, John Trudell and Russell Means, clips from hundreds of classic and recent films, including Stagecoach, Little Big Man, The Outlaw Josey Wales, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Atanarjuat the Fast Runner, Reel Injun traces the evolution of cinema’s depiction of Native people from the silent film era to today.

Clint Eastwood:  “I remember once we were on a set, the director said ‘I want a real native, upfront. I want to see the real thing.’ We couldn’t find one!”

Clint Eastwood is a living Hollywood legend with a string of classics behind him as an actor and director. He has directed such films as The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Unforgiven (considered by many to be one of the best Westerns of all time), Million Dollar Baby and Flags of our Fathers. As an actor, he has starred in many contemporary classics including A Fistful of Dollars, Dirty Harry, and High Plains Drifter.

Jim Jarmusch:  “That is a genocide that occurred and the [American] culture wanted to perpetrate the idea that [the natives] these people are now mythologic, you know, they don’t even really exist, they’re like dinosaurs.”

The definition of an American indie filmmaker, Jim Jarmusch has directed the Camera d’Or winning Stranger Than Paradise,  Night on Earth, Coffee and Cigarettes, Broken Flowers, Ghost Dog and Dead Man, starring Johnny Depp.

reel-adam-beach1.jpgAdam Beach: “We’ll never be able to change the fantasy of who and what Indians are. That fantasy will always be there, we will always be on the cover of novels saying ‘Cheyenne Warrior’!”

Acclaimed film and TV actor Adam Beach is a member of the Saulteaux First Nations from the Dog Creek Reserve in Manitoba. His recent credits include the TV mini-series Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, for which he won a Golden Globe Award. He starred in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and learned Navajo for his role in another high-profile WWII drama, John Woo’s Windtalkers. Adam’s major motion picture roles also include Bruce McDonald’s Dance Me Outside and Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals.

Sacheen Littlefeather:  “[In the 60s] People asked me, what are you, are you a hippie? And I said no, I’m an Indian, what’s a hippie?”

Native American activist and actress Sacheen Littlefeather was catapulted into the world spotlight in 1973, when Marlon Brando was awarded the Oscar for his portrayal of Don Corleone in The Godfather. Brando asked Sacheen to present his Oscar speech and focus attention on the treatment of American Indians and the siege at Wounded Knee. Active in the Native American Bay Area community, Sacheen was one of the original occupiers on Alcatraz Island protesting civil rights violations against Indian people and is co-ordinator of the Kateri Prayer Circle in San Francisco.

Russel Means: “We don’t believe we’re going to get out of [Wounded Knee] alive and the moral is down low and Marlon Brando and Sacheen Littlefeather totally uplifted our lives.”

reel-cher-halfbreed.jpgRussell Means is one of the best-known and most prolific activists for the rights of Native Americans Indians. Thirty years ago, he led the historic 71-day takeover of the sacred grounds at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Today, he has instituted programs for the betterment of his people, including the Porcupine Health Clinic and KILI radio, the first Indian-owned station. He has also built thriving careers in screen acting, film and television production, and music recording.

Jesse Wente: “When you’re kids and you’re trying to play Cowboys and Indians, and if you’re an Indian kid – well, doesn’t that mean you’re going to lose all the time?”

Jesse Wente has been the weekly film critic for CBC Radio for nearly a decade. He also appears on Q, CBC Radio’s national arts and culture show, and is seen regularly on TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movies. Jesse is a programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival as well as the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival. He is also president of Native Earth Performing Arts, Canada’s oldest Aboriginal theatre company.

John Trudell: “We’re not Indians and we’re not Native Americans. We’re older than both concepts. We’re the people, we’re the human beings.”

John Trudell is an acclaimed poet, recording artist, actor and activist. Trudell (Santee Sioux) was a spokesperson for the Indian of All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969 to 1971. He then worked with the American Indian Movement (AIM), serving as Chairman of AIM from 1973 to 1979. Since 1983, Trudell has released 12 albums featuring his own unique mix of poetry, Native music, blues and rock. He appears on the new Peter La Farge tribute album Rare Breed: The Songs of Peter La Farge. Trudell has also acted in a number of feature films, including Thunderheart.

Charlie Hill: “Chuck Connors as Geronimo! That’s like Adam Sandler as Malcolm X!”

Native American comedian Charlie Hill received the 2009 Ivy Bethune Tri-Union Diversity Award for his work in breaking many stereotypes about Native and non-Native Americans. He was featured in the Showtime special The Indian Comedy Slam, No Reservations Needed in November 2009. Charlie starred in the documentary On and Off the Res’ w/ Charlie Hill, which was broadcast on PBS. He has appeared with such comedy stalwarts as David Letterman and Jay Leno, and his acting credits include the TV series Moesha and Roseanne.

Chris Eyre: “White people playing native roles? I love it, because it’s funny.”

Chris Eyre is a Cheyenne/Arapaho filmmaker. Smoke Signals, his first feature film, was one of the five highest-grossing independent films in 1998. A classic story of a man coming to terms with his father, Smoke Signals won the Audience Award and Eyre received the Filmmaker’s Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. His other films include A Thief of Time and Skinwalkers, based on the novels of Tony Hillerman, the award-winning Edge of America, and the short film A Thousand Roads for the Smithsonian’s National Museum for the American Indian. Eyre also directed several episodes of PBS’ acclaimed history series American Experience. His next feature, A Year in Mooring, will be released in 2011.

Contact: DOMINO FILM &
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- October 28th Museum London in
London, ON (with Director Neil
Diamond in attendance!)
- October 12th-17th The Indigenous
Film Festival in Denver, CO

Honest Injun: Hollywood, History, and the Great White Lie

reel-hi-cover.jpgThis is a book I wrote about 6 years ago and shelved because there was so little interest from publishers and Universities. Now years later, the subject has become hot, thanks to movies like Reel Injun. It is being used as the basis of a course at Navajo Technical College, and has been ordered by colleges all over the US and Canada.

From Buffalo Bill to Billy Jack, Cher to Sacheen Littlefeather, and F Troop to Elvis, the truth about Native Americans in the media gets heap big scalped. Honest Injun takes a hard look at how the entertainment media in the U.S. has viewed Native Americans since the 1900s. Meticulously researched and generously illustrated, and wr, Honest Injun shatters the made-in-Hollywood legends and circles the wagons around the ignorant laws, attitudes, and culture with bracing courage and intelligence.

About me: Sandra Hale Schulman is an entertainment writer, producer, and promoter. Through my company Slink Productions I has produced a tribute CD and documentary on the late folksinger Peter La Farge ( released in July 2010 in conjunction with a current exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.

I also released a music video for the La Farge song Drums featuring John Densmore (The Doors), Keith Secola, Martha Redbone and Floyd Westerman, and a documentary on Cherokee folk singer Karen Dalton.I have also written From Kokopellis to Electric Warriors: The Native American Culture of Music.

My work has appeared in Billboard, Variety, Rolling Stone, Ocean Drive, Country Music Magazine, The New York Daily News, and Entertainment Weekly.