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Who Will Tell Native Stories, and Who Will Hear Them

A visit with Joanna Hearne, Assistant Professor, English Department

By Kelly Washatka
Published: - Topics: Native Americans Fourth Cinema indigenous animation stereotypes sympathetic Westerns

Native Americans have long struggled for accurate representation in media, particularly in film. Whether the uncredited performances of the “documentary” Nanook of the North or the familiar racism of traditional Westerns, Indigenous cultures have rarely been given much truthful, let alone positive, attention. However, Native people have been slowly cultivating their own voice in film, and that voice is what Dr. Joanna Hearne has spent her academic career studying.

Dr. Hearne is an assistant professor of Film Studies in the English Department, where she both chronicles the history of Native cinema and works to give Native films a greater presence in Film Studies curricula. She was initially drawn to film because she saw the medium as a form of storytelling that provides focus on issues of representation and also has the potential to reach and affect large audiences. Her courses emphasize “the power of media literacy” in students’ lives.

A pivotal moment for Dr. Hearne’s career came when she was teaching high school students on the Tohono O’odham reservation in 1998, the year that the film Smoke Signals was released. The first feature-length film written, directed, acted, and co-produced by Native Americans to achieve national distribution, Smoke Signals was a critical and commercial success, and Hearne noticed the tremendous response to the film within the Native community. Younger generations were especially excited to see contemporary Native characters in a realistic story about family life, high school, basketball, and road trips. After this experience, Dr. Hearne says of her career path that she “was never really able to think about anything else.”

The history of Native American cinema is more complex than one might think. From the earliest period, Indian melodramas (later called “sympathetic Westerns”) were being produced alongside traditional Westerns. These films often depicted Indian characters or a mixed-race family, typically in a contemporary context. However, that’s not to say that these “sympathetic” films didn’t have their share of negative stereotyping and damaging representations. Hearne notes that “one of the things sympathetic Westerns refused to do was to imagine Native American families, and the continuation of those families.” For example, a common trope was to end a film with a Native mother’s heartbroken suicide over having a child taken from her, giving audiences the impression that the Indigenous tribes were dying out.

The idea of Native Americans “vanishing” was prominent in films of that period, and is indicative of real actions that were being taken by the U.S. government to assimilate Native children into Westernized culture through institutions such as boarding schools. These schools also directly utilized their own media; they sent out photographs in serialized magazines that showed Native children before entering the school, dressed in traditional clothes, and then a few months later in Western clothes.

Throughout cinematic history, many filmmakers have made movies that challenged the stereotypes of “vanishing” perpetuated by Westerns and such boarding school “before-and-after” photographs. As early as 1910, Native filmmakers like James Young Deer (Ho Chunk) were making movies that told a different story about frontier relations, while still working within the conventions of early cinema. For example, Young Deer’s White Fawn’s Devotion (Pathe Freres, 1910) presents Native characters in loincloths and feather headdresses. It focuses on the struggles of a mixed-race family in which the white father considers sending the child away. However, in this film, unlike in so many Indian Dramas, the Native American mother doesn’t commit suicide; instead the family becomes stronger by having overcome a crisis together. Another common image of traditional Westerns is that of raiding Indian parties, portraying Natives as “invaders in their own land.” Fortunately there are films such as the 1928 Ramona, directed by Edwin Carewe (Chickasaw), which reversed this image by showing settlers invading an Indian village. This sort of shift in plot and perspective within otherwise stereotypical films was the first step towards a Native cinema.

Despite these important figures, the dominant image conveyed by Hollywood film is still the vanishing Indian. And as Dr. Hearne asks, “what happens when future generations look back at those images?” Contemporary Native media resist the idea of vanishing through images and stories of new generations. In the recent resurgence of Native film, she observes, “the focus on the domestic life is really present in a way that it isn’t in Westerns.” Victor Masayesva (Hopi), Alanis Obomsawin (Abenaki), Chris Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapaho), and other filmmakers consistently include images of Native children in their work.

Western films generally relegate Native actors to roles as “extras,” rarely listing them in the credits. A prominent example of this practice is the documentary Nanook of the North, made in 1922, which claimed to show how Inuit people lived. Not only were many scenes staged to hide evidence of contact with settlers and contemporary Inuit use of guns and other items, but the film also cast a local man, Allakariallak, as the title character without ever listing his name in the credits. Allakariallak was believed by Western audiences to be “Nanook,” at least until the 1990’s when Nanook Revisited was produced. This second film featured the community where Nanook of the North was filmed and included interviews with people who were present during the shooting of the film. Although Nanook Revisited reveals the truth about the original “documentary,” Dr. Hearne believes that the film that really counters this crediting problem is Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner). This epic fiction film is based on an Inuit legend, and includes many traditional cultural practices and lifestyles. Atanarjuat features and was produced by an entirely Inuit cast and crew, and was filmed in the local language of Inuktitut. It not only takes on a local perspective, but also reveals its production practices in the final credits.

Contemporary Native films that counter Western stereotypes are part of a larger, global movement of Indigenous film. This cinema of the “Fourth World,” or “Fourth Cinema,” has been described by Maori filmmaker and author Barry Barclay as countering “invader cinemas” with the perspective of “the camera ashore.” This theory focuses on shifting the camera’s point of view away from the metaphorical ship-deck of the colonizers toward an Indigenous perspective from the shore. In other words, it provides a lens through which to think about all contemporary Native cinema. For example, in Smoke Signals one of the Native characters pokes fun at himself and his friends for watching a Western on TV, saying, “the only thing more pathetic than Indians on TV is Indians watching Indians on TV.” This image contemporizes the Native characters, while at the same time criticizes the negative inaccuracies of Westerns.

Another way that native culture is being preserved and continued in media is through the recent growth of Indigenous animation, centralized in Canada. These animated films teach children traditional stories, and can encourage Indigenous language use in younger generations. This strategy helps to neutralize the “potential for mass media to foster assimilation” by making English a dominant language. Native animated films counter the power that stereotypes have to make new generations feel as though they are a diminishing minority, and instead pass on languages, stories, and traditions through the same modern media that could otherwise be so damaging.

As Dr. Hearne points out, the future of Native media is a "high stakes” future; at issue is nothing less than “who will tell Native stories, and who will hear them.” One of the most powerful things about Indigenous media is that although Westerns and the negative stereotypes they create are an almost exclusively American product, “Indigenous media as a movement is really a global phenomenon.” Native peoples worldwide are taking hold of their stories and telling them in their own voices. This movement is pivotal not only for the way non-Natives view Natives, but also for how Indigenous peoples view and feel about themselves. Societies often learn about other cultures, and even their own, through the media images that happen to be presented to them; that is why it is so crucial that Native cultures tell their own stories. Native media can empower and enlighten viewers, and share Indigenous perspectives with audiences worldwide.