November is Native American Heritage Month

Native Americans from across the Americas


The first American Indian Day was celebrated in May 1916 in New York. Back in 1990, President George H.W. Bush named November National American Indian Heritage Month. The purpose of the observance is to highlight the roles America‘s aboriginal peoples have played in the country’s history. It’s kind of interesting. I’d say that the main role Natives have played in regard to American history was armed resistance and reluctant subjugation. It’s kind of like Israel having a National Palestinian Heritage Month, Turkey having an Armenian History Month or Sudan having a Darfur Day.

I suppose, somewhat begrudgingly, that most Natives today have come to accept the fact that America is here to stay …at least until 2012. Furthermore, Natives have, in many cases, actually been supportive of America and contributed to her history, to be sure. For example, not only did many Native nations align themselves with the US and its colonial antecedents at various times, but they also served as really good trackers and proved to be natural ecologists who demonstrated their intrinsically environmentalist natures by using every part of the bison and coming up with 30 different names for snow.

Native Bison hunt  Inuit with Snow Shoes
“Don’t worry, I will use every part of you” “Hmm… what kind of snow is this?”


Now, one thing I don’t get is why we’re supposed to differentiate the hemisphere’s various indigenous people along the present day lines of colonial-imposed boundaries. For example, why are the Uto-Aztecan-speaking Comanche and Hopi lumped in with Alaska’s Aleuts and separated from their Uto-Aztecan cousins, theAztecs, just because the latter chose to cross a then-non-existent border? It gets especially confusing when you realize that there are/were various people like the Míkmaq, Inuit, Lingít, Niitsítapi, Cree, Algonquin,Kanienkeh, Blackfoot, Tohono O’odham and many others who lived on both sides of the future US’s borders as if they weren’t even there (namely, because they weren’t). Though far from hegemonic, to distinguish between Canada‘s “First Nations” or “Aboriginal Peoples,” the US’s “Native American” or “American Indian” population and Latin America‘s “Indios” or “Pueblos Indígenas” along the lines of their colonial destructors is not only nonsensical but ignorant, at the very least, and possibly a bit racialist.

Clearly, since the presence of Mounties indicates that this is Canada, these can’t be Native Americans, right?

Anyway, though the stated aim of Native American Heritage Month is to honor contributions only of the U.S.’s indigenous peoples (you know, the usual Sakajewa, Pocahontas and the Navajo Code Talkers stuff), it’s not going to stop me from addressing the contributions and existence of non-U.S. Natives from the blogversation as if there’s some kind of pan-Native solidarity.

Remaining Native Lands



Carlisle American Indian Boarding School
Obviously thrilled to be civilized

When the USA’s history began, the country’s initial policies toward Natives were either extermination or “civilization” (i.e. forcing them to adopt their conqueror’s customs). Civilization occurred in special schools where Christian missionaries sexually, physically and mentally abused children and attempted to force them to abandon their cultural traditions under threat of severe punishment. Their centuries long resistance seems to me to be the first civil rights struggle in this hemisphere.

No Beer sold to Indians
You’re citizens now. You still don’t have the right to have a beer! Go ahead and have some whiskey though.

It was only in 1924 that all Natives were granted U.S. citizenship in the Indian Citizenship Act. There had been citizenship granted earlier, however, to some Natives. In 1831, the Choctaw became the first non-white people to be allowed status as Americans.

Natvie American Soldiers in World War II

About 44,000 Native Americans fought for the US in World War II. They fought alongside other Americans who called them, affectionately and patronizingly, “chief,” a practice continued to this day by brohams throughout the nation.

AIM at Wounded Knee
Indians squatting on dawn’s highway…

In 1973, at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, Frank Clearwater and Lawrence Lamont – two members of theAmerican Indian Movement (AIM) – were shot and killed by US Marshals.

In 1975, two FBI agents were killed at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation shooutout. As the result of a trial (one wherein the fairness of proceedings have raised widespread concern), activist Leonard Peltier was  sentenced to life in prison.

In 2005, Massachusetts repealed their 330 year-old law banning Natives from entering Boston. I assume this had something to do with that tea party that got out-of-control.

  Still from Angeleno Natives from the film, The Exiles

Today, most Natives live in California, followed by Arizona and Oklahoma. 8 out of 10 Natives are now of mixed ancestry, sometimes known as “Metis.” These figures don’t include Mestizos, who are just as Native-descended as Metis, but not included due to aforementioned false distinctions between Natives north and south of the U.S.-Mexican border. This is also despite the fact that over 80% of the Mexican-American population have Native ancestry. Due, I suppose, to deeply the ingrained tradition of Spanish racism, it often seems that most Latinos are in denial of their Native ancestry. Conversely, nearly every non-Latino white person in the U.S. claims to be “part Cherokee.”  Still, even without counting Latin America’s indigenous and mestizo immigrant populations, Los Angeles is home to the largest Native population in the USA.



Whether in colonial frontier tales or wild west narratives, Natives have long been central to American entertainment. In film, actual Natives were usually relegated to roles as extras, with white actors playing the main roles. Did you watch that ad above with the Sicilian guy in buckskin threads rowing a boat in New York and then crying at the sight of litter and think, “This must be a PSA about schizophrenia or something?” Apparently it wasn’t meant to be about mental illness. The actor [the Native-sounding “Iron Eyes Cody” (né Espera de Corti)] was merely part of a long and continuing tradition of redface, wherein white actors stereotypically portrayed most Natives quite often until pretty recently — although it still happens a lot more even today than, say, blackface.


In most American film, non-Native (usually white, Latino or Asian-American) actors played Natives as bloodthirsty, unreasoning barbarians whose demise was glorified. Actors in redface depicted Natives as droopy-nosed, barely human stoics capable only of speaking English in broken, halting fortune cookie-isms.Iron Eyes Cody even adopted a Native kid (Robert Tree Cody) and chanted on Joni Mitchell‘s “Lakota.” Lithuanian/Tatar Charles Bronson often passed for believably Native — at least for a movie-going public almost completely unaware of what Natives actually look like.

Tell truth. You not know we white man.

Even when somewhat sympathetic to Natives, white people were still almost always cast as the leads, the Caucasian appearance usually attributed to their being “halfbreeds.” The Last of the Mohicans (1920),Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans, F-Troop, Iron Eyes Cody’s entire career, Broken Arrow, Kings of the Sun, Navajo Joe (Burt Reynolds is a quarter Cherokee), Captain Apache, I Will Fight No More Forever, Sitting Bull, Commanche, Chato’s Land, White Comanche, Comanche and Gregg Henry inBody Double all feature white actors playing Native characters.


There were very few actual Native Americans starring in American films during the silent era. James Young Deer, a veteran of Miller Brothers101 Ranch Wild West Show, and his wife, Red Wing, starred in Bison Motion PicturesThe Falling Arrow (1909). The two went on to work together in front of and behind the camera. In 1914, Red Wing starred in the first, feature-length film shot in Los Angeles, Squaw Man. Red Wing continued acting, appearing in over 35 films between 1909 and 1921.

Young Deer directed White Fawn’s Devotion: A Play Acted by a Tribe of Red Indians in America Under Both FlagsThe Red Girl and the ChildA Cheyenne Brave,An Indian’s GratitudeCowboy Justice and The Yaqui Girl (all 1910); Red Deer’s Devotion(1911); The Squaw Man’s Sweetheart and The Unwilling Bride (both 1912); The Savage (1913);Who Laughs Last and The Stranger (both 1920); and Lieutenant Daring RN and the Water Rats (1924).

Young Deer acted in The True Heart of an IndianThe Mended LuteRed Wing’s Gratitude and Young Deer’s Bravery (all 1909); The Ten of Spades; or, A Western RaffleYoung Deer’s GratitudeThe Cowboy and the SchoolmarmThe Indian and the CowgirlThe Red Girl and the Child and Young Deer’s Return (all 1910); Red Deer’s Devotion and Little Dove’s Romance (both 1911); The Unwilling Bride (1912); Against Heavy Odds (1914); Under Handicap (1917); and Man of Courage (1922).

Read more on Red Wing and Young Deer here


With the emergence of Hollywood and its domination of American film, Asian-American, Black, Latino, and Native American filmmakers were effectively silenced. Although it wasn’t commonplace, there were non-white actors who reached celebrity status. By far the most famous indigenous American star was Ray Mala.

Ray Mala

Ray Mala was an Inupiat actor born in CandleAlaska on December 27th, 1906. In 1925 Mala made his way to the Edendale neighborhood and got a job as a cameraman with Fox Film Corporation. In 1932, Mala was featured as an actor in Edwin Wing‘s “documentary,” Igloo, which was distributed by Universal and became a hit. The following year, he appeared as “Mala the Magnificent” in the big budget MGM film, Eskimo. He went on to appear in many films, often in “Northerns” and also playing Pacific Islanders in other films. Mala also spent a considerable amount of time behind the camera as a cinematographer. He worked with Joseph LaShelle on many pictures including Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Laura (1944), The Fan (1949), Meet Me After the Show (1951) and Les Misérables (1952).

Read more about Ray Mala here


Redface and almost always negative portrayals of Natives occurred almost unchecked until AIM started staging protests in front of theaters showing anti-Native films. Their efforts (along with revisionist western filmmakers using the genre to subversively attack the war in Vietnam and address civil rights) helped put an end to the universal glamorization of the Native American holocaust.

Through Navajo Eyes

Real Native American Film history returned in the 1970s, when a duo of anthropologists taught a group of Navajo how to shoot their own films, which resulted in the series of seven documentaries that make upThrough Navajo Eyes (1972).


Nowadays, Natives primarily serve as local color (e.g. Twin Peaks or Northern Exposure) and authenticity-conferers to white people in whom they recognize something special. To this day, Hollywood is still completely incapable or unwilling to attempt to tell a story purely from a Native perspective. Instead, the protagonist is invariably a white guy who earns (like Jane Godall with her chimps or Diane Fossey with her gorillas) the trust of the noble savages and whose ultimate acceptance of the protagonist serves to exonerate the film’s entire audience from racism or exotification and confer on them the status of being down and maybe even slightly mystical.

So, whilst no longer hateful in their portrayal of Natives, now you’ve got films centered around Natives with white people so down with Natives that the stories are really about them, part of the larger “Through Blue Eyes” genre which includes work like Amistad, Schindler’s List (Spielberg is an auteur of the genre), Glory,the Last Samurai, Tarzan, Ghosts of Mississippi, Mississippi Burning &c.

Sting and the Kayapo
Sycamores – white on the outside, red on the inside

Through Blue Eyes films that deal with Natives include Run of the Arrow (and its un-credited remake,Dances With Wolves), Little Big Man, A Man Called Horse (and Return of a Man Called Horse), The Missing, The New World, Last of the Mohicans, Black Robe, The Mission, Cabeza de Vaca,Thunderheart, Geronimo, Pocahontas, Aguirre Wrath of God, Pathfinder, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, The Emerald Forest, The Light in the Forest. Don’t get me wrong, a few of those films are amazing, even favorites. It’s just sad that Hollywood won’t make a film about Natives which doesn’t at least squeezeweddos in somewhere. Even Apocalypto, which was concerned enough with accuracy to be filmed inMayan, ended with a shot of Spaniards heading for shore, even though their arrival came hundreds of years after the Mayan Civilization had collapsed.


Roughly at the same time that America started producing Revisionist Westerns, which often looked critically at the mythologization of the Western narrative and the widespread demonization of Natives, the Eastern Bloc produced so-called Osterns, or Red Westerns. Some (mainly Soviet) merely transplanted Western iconography to a different locale (usually the steppes). Others parodied American Western stereotypes such as Czechoslovakia‘s Lemonade Joe, the USSR’s The Man from the Boulevard des Capucines or the DDR’s The Oil, the Baby and the Transylvannians. But most interesting for their portrayal of Natives were the “sauerkraut westerns” made by East Germany‘s DEFA studios, which cast Native characters against Americans in a propagandic attack on Western capitalism and corruption.

apachesSons of Great Bear


Whether Native-made or merely Native-centric, more and more filmmakers are making films with strong, positive or nuanced portrayals of Native Americans, almost exclusively outside of the Hollywood system.

In 1914, Edward S. Curtis made In the Land of the Headhunters. The cast was entirely made up of Kwakwaka’wakw and, as such, was the first film cast to be entirely Native. The film, though not marketed as a documentary, attempted to accurately portray Kwakwaka’wakw customs. As with all Curtis’ depictions of Natives, however, anachronism were portrayed as aspects of modern Kwakwaka’wakw life.

In 1922, Robert Flaherty made the similar Nanook of the North with an entirely Inuit cast. As with Curtis, Flaherty staged scenes and attempted to present vanished customs as still being practiced, including Nanook (in fact named Allakariallak and only accustomed to hunting with guns) ice fishing with a spear. Unlike Curtis, Flaherty successfully passed it off as a documentary and most people erroneously accept it as such.

The Exiles, a film directed British filmmaker Kent MacKenzie, was one of the first times Natives had been shown as living in the present, not vanished in the mists of time. It documents the lives of Natives who left reservation life to live in Los Angeles’s Bunker Hill neighborhood in the 1950s.

Yawar Malku (1969) is a damning attack on American cultural imperialism. The story concerns American Progress Corps (i.e. Peace Corps) volunteers who, reportedly, sterilized the Quechua in an effort to shrink their impoverished population. In the film, the Quechua get wise and deal with the antagonists. DirectorJorge Sanjinés followed it up with several militant films about Natives.


Consider these other Native Cinema films:

Chacdance me outsideatanarjuatLa Otra ConquestaPow Wow Highway

Shadow LakeBlack CloudBury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Business of Fancydancing
Christmas in the CloudsCoyote Waits

Dark WindDreamkeeperFour SheetsEdge of AmericaJohnny GreyeyesLast of His Tribe

Sioux CitySkinsSkinwalkers

Smoke SignalsSong of HiawathaSpirit Rider

Squanto Thief of Time     Naturally Native          doeboyThe Exiles Native Americans in Los Angeles Poster DVD Reel Injun movie poster

The Silent Enemy movie poster  Nanook of the North poster Eskimo movie poster

Igloo movie poster  In the Land of the Head Hunters movie posterThe Squaw Man
Not Pictured – Honey Moccasin, On and Off the Res and Harold of Orange.


Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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