Monday, March 28, 2011

Red Racism and the Entertainment Industry

It was last Thanksgiving when I realized just how bothered I was by latent racism against Native Americans, or indigenous cultures as a whole.

Here I was, good lil’ CleverEuphemism, sitting in a bar the Monday before Thanksgiving watching a bunch of white, middle-class 30-somethings dressed up in feather headdresses playing Indian and doing shots. It irked me. Thinking back on it, it still does. But, at the time I knew I shouldn’t blame them. Rather, my feather donning bar-mates were just symptomatic of a ubiquitous stereotype that has overtaken our entertainment industry.

I guess they learn to do it from an early age nowadays.

Look, I am not going to stand on a soapbox and say that white people or the culture industry are evil or anything like that, that is not the point. But rather, I would like to hold a mirror up to an issue that has become so ubiquitous that it is hard to even see or acknowledge anymore unless you are looking for it.

So, as many-a-fan of this blog know, SugaryCynic and I recently took a trip to Disney World and one of the attractions we partook in was The American Adventure which can be found in Epcot.

Note the Indian in the center of the poster for the attraction

So this attraction is a half-hour show that covers the American experience from 1776 to the present through the eyes of Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain, ‘cause why not? (I am sure they were BFFs back in the day, oh wait…. ) Anyway, given that fact that history spanning from 1776 to the present contains Indians and the poster features a Native in the center of the poster I thought to myself “well, I guess this will touch on some tough times, good for Disney.” So, how much time was devoted to the plight of Indians in this half hour of American history?.... About 15 seconds. No, really, I swear. Basically the Indian “chief” on the poster pops onto the stage by himself and says something along the lines of “My people are all gone, we now belong to history, we will fight no more.”


I was a bit taken aback by all of this. I mean, there were a few things wrong with what this unnamed, unsourced speaker and quote conveyed. For one, I don’t think it all went down quite that way. But beyond that, uhhh… INDIANS KIND OF STILL EXIST. There is this weird limbo Americans do when it comes to Native Americans. They want to honor their culture. We do this in our culture by pushing it in our schools, our movies, etc. The problem is, is that these people still walk among us. Hell, just look at sports. We name our teams after Trojans, Vikings, Spartans, and… Indians (or Redskins). You know the name that sticks out? THE ONE WHO HASN’T BEEN A CULTURE THAT CEASED TO EXIST ABOUT A THOUSAND YEARS AGO! But hey, why let that stop us?

At least he’s happy, ‘cause you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.

Obviously not such a blantant logo would be used nowadays by any rational person (not that the current Cleveland Indians logo is much better). And in fact, for the most part, American culture is sympathetic towards native Americans. But generally most sympathetic attempts tend to be reductive and undercuts any good will it tries to pass off. Case in point: Avatar.

It’s Pocahontas meets Dances With Wolves.

The one thing I love about this poster in particular is that it conveys the entire movie in one frame. White people can play Indian just fine, it is the Indians, oh excuse me… Na’vi who are stuck being tree jumpers (Yes Na’vi… Native Americans… if only it was only a little more obvious. Fuck, I’m still trying to figure out what unobtanium is supposed to be). The Na’vi are the perfect stand in for Natives. They are peaceful people who run around in drabs and talk to nature. Yeah, you know that metaphor of how they literally connect to everything around them by their hair? How much more thinly veiled could James Cameron be? And of course by the end we get the same old story of white people are better at being X culture than people of that actual culture are. Either it be crippled soldier white guy being a better Na’vi than the Na’vi, or super scientologist being the best samurai ever, it is old and yet ubiquitous, and yet the movie going public swallows it hook line and sinker, really across the board.

At least with Avatar we got to experience it in 3-D, so there is a whole new dimension of reductionism.

I will never forget sitting in the theatre with my girlfriend of the time when Avatar ended and the credits started to roll and we both began to laugh. We were both laughing for the same reason. We had studied film, and both were in the same “Native Americans in Pop Culture” seminar and Avatar hit and rammed through every cultural road block possible. But it was at that same exact moment that our laughter was accompanied by the comments of two teens in front of us:

Teen 1: Holy shit, that was awesome. If that doesn’t with the Oscar then it will be a joke.

Teen 2: Yeah, totally. Best movie of the year, hands down.

That is the moment the laughter stopped and I serious faced.

I do not believe James Cameron meant any harm, I really don’t. In fact, I think he is a victim of sorts. He fell into the same trap as countless other directors and entertainment producers. But, by doing that he just added to the Pocahontas-myth of reductionism of Native Americans. And when something like this has been going on for five –plus decades, it is easy to do that.

All the old Western genre films are the worst. But even things like Disney’s Pocahontas get things so wrong it is appalling. If you ever want to better your knowledge, you would be well rewarded to read John Rolfe’s diary about meeting Pocahontas and all of that. For it is him, and not John Smith, who has kids with her and stuff. To be fair, Disney does get that right… eventually, in Pocahontas 2: Journey to a New World (get it, ‘cause it’s all like new to her, like her world is new to the English).

On the other hand, one contemporary movie that purposely goes out of its way to paint Native Americans as poorly as possible is Apocalypto.

Mel Gibson make a racially insensitive film? Why I never…. (well at least it wasn’t about Jews)

Now, did you catch that bit at the bottom of the poster? “No one can outrun their destiny.” What could this possibly mean? Well, you pair that quote with the opening epigraph of the film: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within – William Durant,” and suddenly you realize, yeah, that Native on the poster, and all of the others in the film are probably fucked.

In fact, what the film basically boils down to is Mel Gibson showing what he perceives to be a god-less, blood lusting culture that has something coming to it. And what is coming to it? Well, the film ends with the shot of Spanish ships landing on the coasts of South America. Oh, but don’t feel too bad for the Natives as they run back into the woods, they won’t outrun their “destiny.” And don’t blame the Spanish for what they are about to do once the credits start, because they aren’t conquering a worthwhile culture, for it is apparently just taking over where a failed and crumbling culture once stood. Yes, Mel Gibson basically makes the case that what happened to Indigenous people in the Western world was quite fine. And he does it in record time… about 10 seconds into Apocalypto.

But hey, at least the first thing they did when they got off the boat is erect a cross right on the coast

In summation, I don’t think finger pointing, or judging works one by one is all that beneficial. Rather what I think is important is that we all realize what is really being conveyed in our entertainment, especially when it comes to issues that are so ubiquitous we sometimes lose sight of it. And of course this is not just limited to appropriating Native culture (there is a reason 90% of villains in the 80s were Russian, and nowadays they are middle eastern). But the reductionism needs to be examined and looked at.

Now if you are interested in some films done by indigenous directors, since many people don’t realize an indigenous film industry exists I would recommend any of the following: Skins (the Chris Eyre film), Smoke Signals, Whale Rider, The Business of Fancy Dancing, and Harlod of Orange

They're savages! Savages!
Barely even human
Savages! Savages!

Drive them from our shore!
They're not like you and me
Which means they must be evil
We must sound the drums of war!
They're savages! Savages!
Dirty redskin devils!
Now we sound the drums of war!


  1. I am glad I am not the only one that saw Avatar as Pocahontas but with Smurfs. I did love the movie (ooooh... the colors....), and it pissed me off that Hurt Locker beat out this movie and many others that were WAYYYYY better (GOD I hated Hurt Locker). Grrr... yeah, still pissy...

    As far as Mel Gibson... he is like Charlie Sheen to me. An air parasite that you wonder everyday how it survives and people still defend no matter how much damage, destruction, infection, and disease it spreads.

  2. Great post CE, you are now officially wandering onto my turf. Which is ok, since I posted film reviews today...:)

    But seriously, you hit it on the head with just the right amount of force. Avatar was like a 1970s Blacklight Poster Fest, layered over the most overtly ethnocentric storyline possible. The entire, "No father, don't kill him..." scene was a direct rip-off of the Smith/Pocahontas myth. Smith made a lot of the Indian "Princess" saving his life out of love, when in fact it was basically a choreographed adoption ritual.

    Anyway, well written and timely post. Thanks!

  3. This post touches my heart as my husband is part Native American. Movies, books, plays, etc. do not always tell the full truth regarding their history and it is a shame. But, it seems now a days, the truth can be scewed to fit into whatever a person wants it to be. Sad, isn't it?

  4. Wait? Now I have a legitamte reason to hate Avatar? Hazzah!

  5. Laura: I was a big fan of District 9, but I am a bit of a SF fan. However, I will say that I was happy The Hurt Locker beat out Avatar, even if it was because I didn't think it would ever happen.

    Paul: Thank you kind sir. And yes, leave it to the whities to misconstrue everything in their journals, knowingly or not.

    Mary: It is easier to talk in culturally accepted platitudes, especially in films when time is money and you need to convey a lot of ideas in just a few frames.

    Simon: "Unobtainium" was really reason enough to hate. Or, if that wasn't reason enough, how about that crack about how everyone from New Jersey has bad BO? Oh wait, that wasn't Avatar... that was me. =P (P.S. you should remind the local Cynic that she never drew you your picture for guessing the last movie quote correctly... lord knows I haven't let her forget it.)

  6. Oh. Oh. I see how it is. You want to start about Jersey, bro?

    Cynic: get on it.

  7. Come on brah, you wanna throw down brah? Huh brah, Brah, BRAAAAAH?!?!?!!?


  9. You, uhh, forgot an "of" in there somewhere brah.


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