Native Americans on Film

Posted on February 4, 2019 at 8:00 am

It wasn’t that long ago that Native American characters in film were played by actors of other races, including Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Anthony Quinn, Burt Reynolds, Johnny Depp, and Elvis Presley. Depictions are often wildly inaccurate, from the most basic details of dress, ceremony, culture, and history.

It was just four years ago that Native American actors walked off the set of the Adam Sandler film, “The Ridiculous Six.” The fact that the movie was offensive to Caucasians and every sentient life form on the planet did not justify what the actors were being asked to do.

This week’s “Cold Pursuit” has real Native Americans playing Native American characters, and the one of the movie’s high points is when one of them uses their ethnicity — and the prospect of a withering Yelp review — to pressure a snooty hotel clerk into giving them a room. Most of the Native Americans in “Cold Pursuit” are criminals, but so are most of the rest of the characters.

Putting actors of Native American heritage in the movies is not enough. Letting them play characters who are not stereotypes, even better, letting them play characters where their ethnicity is not a defining characteristic– is a step forward. Best of all is the stories they tell by and about themselves, as in the endearing Smoke Signals.

Sierra Teller Ornelas writes in the Hollywood reporter that when she worked at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, many of the visitors asked for more information about what they had seen in the movies and it was almost entirely inaccurate.

We’re so invisible. And we’re so sick of explaining to people that we’re invisible. We have an abundance of great stories to tell. And even when we get to tell your stories, we make them so much better (see Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok). If traditional network and cable structures are about to straight-up implode, if people are finally desperate enough to try anything, then try me, or Sterlin Harjo and The 1491s, Sydney Freeland, Azie Dungey, Lucas Brown Eyes or all the other Native creators who are grinding and capable. Because if all content is indeed going the way of the streaming algorithm, I’m worried about what happens when you — and your voice and your stories — have never occurred to that algorithm.

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Native Americans Refuse to Work on Adam Sandler’s New Film

Posted on May 3, 2015 at 3:35 pm

Adam Sandler is currently filming “The Ridiculous Six,” reportedly a comic version of the classic Western “The Magnificent Seven.” According to Indian Country Today Media, a group of Native American actors walked off the set because they were offended by racist and sexist material in the script, including character names like Beaver Breath and No-Bra and crude humor.

“There were about a dozen of us who walked off the set,” said Anthony, who told ICTMN he had initially refused to do the movie. He then agreed to take the job when producers informed him they had hired a cultural consultant and efforts would be made for tasteful representation of Natives.

Five Thirty-Eight has an incisive look at the Sandler films, putting them in three categories: paydays, pineapples (a reference to a particularly gross joke in “Little Nicky”), and “he’s trying.” I wish he would try harder.

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The Man Who Is Updating Peter Pan’s Indian Songs

Posted on November 28, 2014 at 2:36 pm

Copyright NBC 2014
Copyright NBC 2014
As NBC prepares for the live production of “Peter Pan,” they are doing a bit of updating to the play, originally produced as a non-musical 100 years ago. This version is the musical best remembered as the Mary Martin production first produced 50 years later (also performed by Olympic gymnast Sandy Duncan and Cathy Rigby), with songs by Mark “Moose” Charlap, with additional music by Jule Styne. Most of the lyrics were written by Carolyn Leigh, with additional lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

Times have changed, and it is no longer considered appropriate to have the Indians in the story sing nonsense syllables like “ugga wugga.” (This is still better than the really embarrassing song in the Disney version, “What Makes the Red Man Red?” which includes a passage that explains that Indians say “Ugh” because they see their mothers-in-law.) So, with the permission of the rights holders, the producers have brought in Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, an Emmy Award-winning classical composer and the artistic director of the Chickasaw Chamber Music Festival, to advise them. An interview with Tate in Salon explains

There were three things that I was able to bring to the table to help reconstitute the piece.

The first thing is the opening rhythm. There’s this very clever col legno that’s done with the strings in the very opening that sounds drum-like but also sounds stick-like, which is actually accurate to the Northeastern part of the country with Indians. We adjusted the accents of these constant eighth-note beats so it sounded more like an Iroquois smoke dance, rather than a stereotypical ONE-two-three-four, ONE-two-three-four, ONE-two-three-four, you know, that kind of thing. So we adjusted the opening rhythm so it sounded more authentic. It’s a small cleanup….

Yes, and the trick is — to be honest with you, most Americans aren’t going to know the difference. But at least we do. Intellectually we know, and musically we know, there was a small adjustment. It still sounds a little stereotypical. That can’t go away. Because we were also preserving the integrity of the original compositions and those original compositions were very stereotypical, but they weren’t just stereotypical about Indians. They’re stereotypical about all kinds of things they address within “Peter Pan.” That’s musical theater. That’s something we accept about musical theater. Musical theater thrives on stereotypes. It just does. It always has. So, that being said, there are still ways you can improve it a little bit to where it has a little more integrity. We don’t want to interfere with the original compositions. We want to respect the original composers. But again, just bring a little more authenticity and integrity to the work.

The next example is what I call the “Indian Breakdown.” In the “Ugg-a-Wugg” song — it’s a really campy, British musical theater song, and then it has the “Indian Breakdown,” where you have that tune that goes . It’s this stereotypical, Indian-sounding thing. We were kind of looking for different tunes, but it doesn’t matter what tune you use because the flavor of it is that stereotypical Indian sound. So the musical director was brilliant. He added some different rhythms that were — he flavored it in a way that sounded more entertaining than specific. He kind of veiled it, I guess, a little bit, with some fun rhythms that sound more party-like. I think he had a great solution for that. I thought it was right on the target.

And then the really big thing that we worked on was the replacement of “ugg-a-wugg.” Just a little background: In general, what we all know is that the Indian tribe that’s represented in Peter Pan was influenced by knowledge of Northeast Indians of the United States. So we’re talking Iroquois, Huron, Wyandotte, Algonquin, these kinds of cultural regions. So what I did was I set out to find a replacement word for “ugg-a-wugg” that was literally a Wyandotte word.

The most recent road tour of “Annie Get Your Gun” made some changes to the portrayal of Native American characters, too, though that show will never reflect contemporary sensibilities (or accurately depict the very egalitarian relationship of Annie Oakley and Frank Butler).

I’ll be looking forward to hearing what Tate describes.

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