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The Role of Native Americans in Film

By Jessica Baker Roche

[1] Native Americans were part of this country long before our founding forefathers. They were the people that Christopher Columbus found inhabiting this land. There is even evidence to show that they have been on the American continents for thousands and even tens of thousands of years. Yet, somehow the European powers dominated these people, forcing them from their land to make it "ours." In the early part of the twentieth century, a new industry began to develop; we call it the film industry. Along with the industry came movies that were made and are still made for the amusement of a mass audience. Some flaws did come with this industry, and among them was the depiction of Native Americans. "Anonymity is a feature of the Indian portrayed in film...many do not have names or speaking parts" (Bataille and Hicks 10). Native Americans often speak with a broken dialect or "baby" English. They are not able to fully understand or express complete thoughts in the English language. This makes them appear to the audience as a lesser character. The second role of Native Americans in film is that of a sidekick or crony of some white hero, like Tonto in The Lone Ranger (1938). In these films the Native American was placed into one of the following four roles: the first is the comedic Indian, the jester of the frontier court. This Indian spoke in simple is clearly secondary in importance" and was never the hero (Crowdus 297). The two most significant roles of the Native American are the bloodthirsty savages and their counterparts the "noble" savages.

[2] These two opposite characteristics were adopted from the "images and stereotypes which had already been popularized in fiction and in art was only a continuation of a practice which had already been institutionalized in the root of culture" (Bataille and Hicks 9). Filmmakers showed what they felt had already been conventional to their beliefs about Native Americans. In the film The Last of the Mohicans (1920) these two contrasting roles of Native Americans dominate most of the plot. The fiend is Magua, and the "noble" savage is Uncas. These two roles that are shown of Native Americans have some historical ground, but what makes one side good and the other bad? Is it because that is how society wants to see them? And does the director's representation of the two sides gain them acceptance in American culture? In the history of America, Native American tribes often became associated with similar tribes with similar beliefs. This is true of the two tribes in The Last of the Mohicans: The Huron, who according to the historical events of Fort William Henry are the Iroquois, and the Mohicans, who are historically associated with the Delaware. The Huron in the various versions of The Last of the Mohicans, come to represent the Iroquois who were allied with the French, and were seen as evil in the eyes of the British. The Mohicans historically come to represent the noble Delaware, who were allied to the British. These tribes get grouped together; the "Huron [became] condensed into the same entity as Maquas, Mingoes and Mohawks and contrasted with the superior virtue of the Delawares and Mohicans" (Clark 122). These tribes were constantly intermixed throughout History, the Huron and the Mohawks and the Delaware and the Mohicans. They each tended generally to ally with the same European power as the tribe they were confused with. It is these two groups that we see both in history at the fall of Fort William Henry and in the film The Last of the Mohicans (1920).

[3] These vicious savages, as we like to call to call them, are the cannibal, the drunk, and the scalping Indian. They are the ones who paraded around the covered wagons killing, stealing, and burning everything to the ground. The "bad" Indians are creatures that "are presented as being distinctly different than whites, almost subhuman, costumed in war paint and caveman skins. They are physically strong, practically indestructible, but also childlike, unpredictable and prone to violent behavior" (Edgerton 1). This is how we as a society saw Native Americans for a good deal of time. Filmmakers found it easy to create a negative image of Native Americans. To start off, they were not European. We never call Europeans savages just because we fought against them in a war. Native Americans, on the other hand, are not white; thus they can be whatever Anglo-historians want them to be. The British

tended to dwell on the Indian's illiteracy, alcoholism, and love of trinkets, because these traits made the red man seem a child who needed the protection of the white father. Evidence of polytheism, scalping and torture rituals was regarded as a sign of barbarism... Behind all these oversimplified judgements lay the assumption that the red culture was "savagery," white culture was "civilization," and the two could never peacefully exist. (McWilliams 52-53)
Our ancestors, in turn, tried to create a public memory that "remains a product of elite manipulation, symbolic interaction, and contested discourse" that placed Native Americans in a lesser category than Whites (Bodnar 20). It is from this public memory that our parents grew up playing cowboys and Indians, and the Indians were the "bad" guys. The Huron tribes are the Native American group upon which we created this image.

[4] In the French and Indian War (1755-1763), it is easy for us to deem the Huron and the Mohawks as hostile because they were not on "our" side (the British side). The French, as well as the British, used Native Americans as allies against the opposing other. The French as well as the British found it to be a successful tactic to have the help of Native Americans in battle. The Huron tribe fell into the "confines of a wild hunter and warrior life. They were inevitably attached to it, impracticable conservatists of barbarism, and in ferocity and cruelty they matched the worst of their race" (Francis Parkman, qtd in Pearce 168). The attachment to this way of life made the Huron excellent allies to the French against the British. With promises of material goods, the Huron and Iroquois were readily swayed to join the French in their fight against the British. Montcalm, the leader of the French troops in North America, "had recruited Indian allies with promises of scalps and booty"; however, at Fort William Henry on Lake George, Montcalm "agreed to an honorable surrender that gave the unpaid Indians virtually nothing" (Steele 128). This broken promise spurred rebellion among the restless natives who sought to gain what they had been promised. The massacre that took place on the morning of August 9, 1757, was a result of many things, and one of them was the broken promise by the French. The Huron sought to gain from the fleeing British what they were not given by the French.

[5] In The Last of the Mohicans (1920), the Huron and especially their leader, Magua, show ultimate hostility and animosity when they do not get what they want. Magua shows the first signs of hostility in the beginning of the film when Cora and Alice Munro are preparing to leave for Fort William Henry. Magua reclines against a wall and begins to scrape the remains of a scalp with his knife and proceeds to wipe the blood on his leg (10:50). This scene in the film establishes the Native American as a killer, who prides himself on his scalps. The second priority of Magua, in this film, is obtaining a "white" woman as a squaw. In his attempt to achieve this goal, he tries repeatedly to capture Cora and Alice. This is best shown towards the end of the film as Magua and the Huron watch the British, mainly women and wounded, leaving the fort (43:20). As Magua watches, the director sees his point of view as if through a telescope. It is very focused and directed straight at Cora and Alice. It is as if the director wants us to see him as determined and focused on what he wants, women. It is a very obsessive view, like an animal eyeing its prey. That is exactly what the director, Maurice Tourner, does by using this camera work. He gives Magua very basic and almost animal-like instincts by making him the predator.

[6] The Huron as a whole also have the same animal-like quality about them as their leader. They leer at the fleeing British, which the director makes mainly women and weak soldiers. The director makes the Huron appear more evil by having them attack a defenseless group of travelers. It is these attacks that make the Huron "ideal examples of "savage reactionaries" who confront the white manifest destiny with violent defiance" (Edgerton 1). In this same scene we are perhaps best prepared to see the horrifying acts of the Huron, as the director sets them up to be truly horrifying creatures. The Huron run through the fort slaughtering the sick and wounded, who were even too weak to leave the fort to start. The director shows a lone Indian outside a covered wagon, who takes a giant swig from a jug, which the audience can only guess is filled with alcohol. The Huron then proceeds towards a covered wagon from which he pulls a mother and her weeping baby. The "savage" takes the baby from the arms of the mother and throws it high into the air (75:00). It is these kinds of acts that Tourner uses to show the Native Americans in a negative light. With the characteristics of Magua and the Huron, as seen in the film, it is very simple to see how the bad stereotype of the Native Americans is prevalent in films.

[7] On the other end of the scale, there is also the image of the "noble" savage. This is the "good" Indian. He is the one who helps the "good" guys at all costs. He is loyal and helpful and has great virtues. These Native Americans fit the "prototypical 'noble anachronisms,' who embody Rousseau's notion of 'natural man and his inherent goodness' but are ultimately doomed by the onslaught of Euro-American culture" (Edgerton 1). It is this good human who saves the fort, helps women, and is never failing in his pursuit to help out others -- white, red, it doesn't matter, he believes in doing what is "right." It is this type of Native American that is seen less often than the former, and when they are discussed it is because they were on our side (the British side). This establishes them as noble in our eyes, throughout both History and film. In both cases, however, the "noble savage" is likely to fall at the hands of his own kindness -- almost canonizing him and making him the more noble, which occurs more often in film than in real life.

[8] The tribes that were most renowned during the French and Indian War, as far as the "noble savage" is concerned, were the Delawares and the Mohicans. The two as it turns out are often in different accounts interchanged. They are considered the "proudest and most civilized of Indian nations" (Clark 116). It is this "civility" that made them liked by the neighboring Europeans. The "Mohicans joined with the Delawares in befriending the white man. Marked by all the qualities of savage nobility, bravery, cunning, courage, artfulness, they yet are limited by their life of hunting and warfare" (Pearce 202). They were very different from their savage Huron enemies. The two tribes were not allied with the British until October 21, 1758. This occurred when "The entire British force, under the command of Brigadier General Forbes, arrived at the new Fort Bedford. . . . after a council of nineteen days between the Indians and English at Easton, Pennsylvania, the Iroquois, the Shawnees, and the Delawares affirmed peace with the English" (Schwartz 100). It is this allegiance that made the British successful in their final days of the war against France. In truth, then, for the most part of the French and Indian War both the Delaware and Mohicans had little or no involvement with the British, unless it was from the negative end. In some cases the British were fighting the French without any allies other than those in the American colonies. Maurice Tourner, director of The Last of the Mohicans, keeps the same allegiances as James Fenimore Cooper, author of the original novel.

[9] Uncas is the "noble savage." He is loyal to the white man through the end. This "Mohican" in the film is seen "as both heroic and naturally moral" (Cameron 53). The good savage as seen in Uncas, not only saves Cora several times from his evil counterpart, Magua, but he is also successfully able to win the girl. In this silent film Cora remarks to Captain Randolph via the sound card that "Surely among his own people he is a prince" (6:05). Cora's perception of his nobility is the first basic affirmation of the nobility that is seen in the film. Uncas has come to warn the British of the French and Huron attack that will befall Fort William Henry if troops are not sent immediately. He has come to save the entire colony, but little does he know the fate that will befall him. It is this attempt to gain the acceptance of a "white" society that is the downfall of Uncas.

[10] The job of the historian is to create a common belief that will unite all the people in a nation together under a common thread. This country was founded by people with different beliefs, so when "people of different ethnic origins, speaking different languages and professing different religions, settle in the same geographic locality and live under the same political sovereignty . . . unless a common purpose binds them together, tribal hostilities will drive them apart" (Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. 10). The creation of a common bond against the Native American population gave the founding country a bond of a common enemy. The Native Americans in this country, however, wished to live their lives as they always had. Worshipping their gods, hunting, and even fighting, it is what they had always done, just as whites had always done, and just as the French were doing with the British during the French and Indian War. The best way for America to deal with this "enemy" is to remove their culture. The culture of the Native American had already been wiped out the white men who lived here in the past three hundred years. In spite of the good and bad side of the Native American culture, they are never able to gain acceptance in our own time. The goodness of the "noble savage" is not enough to prevent the ultimate destruction of their race. Native Americans were rubbed out of our History. They were eliminated for the most part because they did not wish to conform to the life that the American people wanted. The white culture found their ways barbaric, mainly because they were not "our" own ideals,

on the grounds that Christian civilization, precisely because it was merciful and humane, had every right to supplant the spiritual barbarism of the red man. Indians, it was commonly assumed, were still living by tribal practice of the Old Law: the Lex Talionis, and eye for an eye, kill or be killed. (McWilliams 113)

[11] It became the job of the Whites, mainly British, to take it as their duty to mold the hostile savages into "god-fearing" Christians. If this standard was not to be met, then the problem could simply be removed, with something like small pox in blankets, or simply warfare. It was the same Christians who believed that you should love your neighbor as you love yourself, as long as the neighbor wasn't a red man. This image that the Native American cannot fit into our culture is seen in The Last of the Mohicans in the stance against miscegenation.

[12] Miscegenation is the idea of interracial relationships, and even sex between the races! It was something that was considered forbidden at the time of the French and Indian war, but it was also forbidden in the 1920's when the film was released. It was this "running concern about 'miscegenation' with its connected fears about interracial sexual attraction that leads to death" (Barker 27). If a character becomes involved with someone of a different race, they must die along with the possibility of interracial relations. In the film it is played out that "lust is bad and marriage is good. The less culturally Native American the couple, the better their chance for happiness" (Crowdus 297). If marriage was the option in the relationship between a Native American man and a white woman, it would have been considered more acceptable, I don't think so! At the time of the French and Indian War it was acceptable for a white man to have a woman of different color as a mistress but never a wife. If we are talking of the reverse situation, white woman and ethnic man, it was definitely not acceptable. It was something that must be eliminated.

[13] The lust of the film is acted out through Magua's desires to obtain Cora as his squaw. He does not wish to marry her; his only desire is to have her for his own sexual desires. Cora is horrified at the thought of Magua's proposal to take her as a squaw. At the end of the film Hawkeye, a white man living with the Mohicans, "puts a final end to the 'forbidden love' triangle and the film's lingering threat of miscegenation by shooting" Magua and ending the threat of what might have been. Magua's pure desire is sex, or so we can only assume, since he never takes the time to get to know her. He is very forceful with her and tries to take without being kind. Magua lusts after Cora, and Uncas truly admires her.

[14] Uncas, the "last of the Mohicans," meets this strong daughter of Colonel Munro as she attempts to make her way to Fort William Henry to reunite her and her sister, Alice, with their father. Cora first spies Uncas as he comes to warn the British of the attack that is going to befall Fort William Henry. "The bond of a common danger -- drawing together these two, so widely separated by the mystery of birth" (19:42). The danger that threatens these travelers is Magua and the other Huron. Yet, this danger draws Uncas and Cora together and establishes a mutual respect and love between them. As this is a silent film there are no words that express their feelings for each other, but it is seen in their eyes and their movements. But what makes this relationship more acceptable? Is it because he is good? Cora is an acceptable pairing for either of the two Indians, more so than Alice. Cora is a more acceptable partner because of her darker hair. "Alice (Latin 'light')...mark her as young and innocent and indefinitely marriageable to the handsome colonial officer, and Cora (Latin 'heart')... whose black hair, black eyes... mark her as older and far more knowing, and possibly marriageable to The Last of the Mohicans" (McWilliams 69). It is the contrast of female characters in the film that make Cora a more acceptable object of conflict between Uncas and Magua. But in the end of the film, it is still deemed unacceptable for Uncas to be with Cora, because he is still a Native American and she is still white.

[15] At the end of the film when the final pursuit of Magua and Cora is taking place, the audience thinks that she will be saved. How can it not have a happy ending? Uncas and she share this bond that no one else has in the film. Regardless of how hopeful the audience is "Native American-white sexual attraction must end in death," and it does for Uncas and Cora (Cameron 53). Culturally this union would not be acceptable, just as we see people today struggle with the acceptance of interracially mixed children; imagine how much worse it would be in 1757. The image of an interracial relationship was also unacceptable in 1920, when Maurice Tourner made his film version of The Last of the Mohicans. The 1920's, much like 1757 or even the middle of the nineteenth century, was a time when interracial relationships were not acceptable. The way to deal with this potential relationship in literature and film was to eliminate its existence. In The Last of the Mohicans the "twin deaths of Uncas and Cora prevent the reality of interracial sex with the 'disappearance' of the Mohicans" (Barker 27). The death of these two characters prevents the suggested nightmare that would have come by allowing these two brave souls to live. It is much easier to not allow this to exist than to struggle to gain acceptance of their union culturally.

[16] The role of Native Americans has always been important in one way or another. They were here when early explorers found this country, and they were here when the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. We have seen them in both good and bad light, whether it is Pocahontas saving John Smith or a troop of Native Americans killing General Custer at his Last Stand. "[F]ilm must provide a face for the faceless" in a history that does not provide one (Rosenstone 36). Film gives us the image of Native Americans that we were not able to see. Film creates the life and times that American society has only heard about or researched but never lived. Film gives American society that "happy medium" that allows us to live a different life without having to face Native American struggles. It also enables us to see how certain people acted, like the Native Americans. If they helped "us," they were "good Indians," but when they were against "us," they were "bad Indians." This role was given to Native Americans in films. It lays the

necessary groundwork for understanding the parameters of the Amerindian stereotype on film. These analyses focus on "good" and "bad" character types and traits; and furnish us with a composite which is deeply conflicted and contradictory, as is common of most racial, ethnic, and gender stereotyping. (Edgerton 1)
This stereotype created the standard of the "noble savage" in film as well as the "fiendish savage." These two players, in spite of how good or how bad they are, are never able to gain acceptance from the white culture. It is these two major characters that we see in the film The Last of the Mohicans (1920). These two roles are at the heart of the conflict, which is to possess the white woman. The possession of the white woman, Cora, is a symbolic step into the acceptance of the white society. Neither the "good" nor the "bad" Native American can be accepted, just as the concept of miscegenation cannot be accepted. Anyone or anything attempting to be a part of it must be killed off, and so they are in The Last of the Mohicans. The love of Cora and Uncas cannot be accepted, just as the Native Americans were not accepted by society, unless they chose to conform to "our" white society.

Barker, Martin. "First and Last Mohicans." Sight and Sound 3.8 (1993): 26-29.

Bataille, Gretchen, and Bob Hicks. "American Indians in Popular Film." Beyond the Stars. Vol. 1. Eds. Paul Loukides and Linda Fuller. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State UP, 1990. 9-19.

Bodnar, John. Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992.

Cameron, Kenneth M. America on Film: Hollywood and American History. New York: Continuum, 1997.

Clark, Robert. "The Last of the Iroquois: History and Myth in James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans." Poetics Today 3.4 (1982): 115-34.

Crowdus, Gary, ed. The Political Companion To American Film. Lakeview Press: 1994.

Edgerton, Gary. "'A Breed Apart': Hollywood, Racial Stereotyping, and the Promise of Revisionism in The Last of the Mohicans." Journal of American Culture 17.2 (1994): 1-20.

Hall, Stuart. "The Question of Cultural Identity." Modernity and Its Future. Ed. Stuart Hall, David Held, and Tony McGrew. Cambridge: The Open University, 1992. 273-316.

McWilliams, John. The Last of the Mohicans: Civil Savagery and Savage Civility. New York: Twayne Press, 1995.

Pearce, Roy Harvey. Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind. Los Angeles: U of California P, 1988.

Rosenstone, Robert A. Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Disuniting of America. New York: Norton. 1992.

Schwartz, Seymour L. The French and Indian War, 1754-1763: The Imperial Struggle for North America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

Steele, Ian K. Betrayals: Fort William Henry and the "Massacre." New York: Oxford UP, 1990.