Looking for the Truth: Representations of Native Americans in Film

The Revenant (2015)

Ever since I was young, I was fascinated by the Native American culture. I enjoyed learning about the people’s history and their traditions, but the only part of Native American culture I actually saw was through film. Due to my age, I assumed that all I saw was true and I accepted the representations that movies portrayed. Now that I am older I understand that not everything we see is true, and I questioned what I had learned from films with Native American characters. In order to see the truth behind these films I watched The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and The Revenant (2015). Both films represent Native American people by the language the characters use and the stereotypes that the characters fulfill. Afterward, I looked at a few articles to examine Native American perspectives on the movies.

“Really? You don’t look like an Indian…”

Before I watched the movies I did a little research. I found that there are five major stereotypes of Native Americans portrayed in films and were reinforced by the films I watched. They include:

  • Beautiful Maidens– these are the beautiful Native American princesses that are very vulnerable, but this portrayal has real life consequences. Native American women suffer from high rates of sexual assault from both native and non-native men.
  • Stoic Indians– these are unsmiling Native Americans who speak very little, which apparently could not be further from the truth.
  • Magical Medicine men– these are wise men with magical powers. They serve very little purpose other than to guide the white characters to their glory.
  • Bloodthirsty Warriors– these are “tomahawk-wielding savages thirsty for white man’s blood” (5 Common Native American Stereotypes). The characters engage in barbaric practices including scalping and sexually violating white women. It is important to note that yes, conflict did exist between Native American tribes, but a majority were peaceful and only attacked in self-defense. The Anti-Defamation League believes that this stereotype is “shallow” as it “obscures family and community life, spirituality, and the intricacies inherent in every human society” (Native American Stereotypes).
  • In the Wild and on the Rez– In film, Native Americans are almost always seen living on the reservations. In reality, about 60% of the Native American population lives in cities, with the most populated being Los Angeles and Phoenix (5 Common Native American Stereotypes).

The next is a stereotype I found just between the two movies I watched. It may or may not be applicable to other films with Native American characters.

  • That white native guy– this is a white man who has assimilated into native culture, whether it be by marriage or by the death of family members. These men learn the language and their way of life, but will leave the culture once they “find their glory”.
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

First on the chopping block: The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

In this film, there are two different Native American tribes represented, the Mohican and the Huron. Technically the characters should have been speaking Mohican and Huron, but both languages are not natively spoken anymore (Languages in the Last of the Mohicans). Instead the Mohican characters are speaking Delaware/Lenape and the Huron characters are speaking two different languages, Cherokee and Mohawk. Why? Sources have indicated that actors for the Huron characters spoke Cherokee and some other were Mohawk, while Mohican and Delaware/Lenape are related. It was easier for the actors to speak fluently in the language that they knew (Languages in Last of the Mohicans).

In the film the native languages are only spoken between four native people, Hawkeye, Chingachgook, Uncas and Magua. Otherwise the white characters only speak English, with the exception of a white translator. All of the native characters can understand English, but have different degrees of speaking ability. The “good” Native Americans include Hawkeye, Chingachgook and Uncas (the Mohicans). These three men can speak the English language very well; it is fluid and lacks grammatical errors. The “bad” Native Americans are the Hurons, with Mauga being the only character with speaking lines. He does not speak English well; instead he speaks something called Pidgin English in a very flat monotone. A Pidgin language is a grammatically simplified communication that develops between groups who do not share a common language (Mufwene). For example, Mauga says, “Magua said understand English very well” (The Last of the Mohicans).

I could not find an example of Magua speaking from the film, but this woman is speaking Hawaiian Pidgin. It is an actual language used in Hawaii to communicate. This language is not the same as the Pidgin English used in the movie, but you can hear the grammatical differences between Standard English and Hawaiian Pidgin.

Of the six stereotypes that I mentioned previously, three are seen in The Last of the Mohicans. Hawkeye is the white native guy. He was born to a white family, but after their death he was raised by Chingachgook, with Chingachgook’s son, Uncas. Hawkeye accepted and adopted the Native American language and traditions. Chingachgook, Uncas and Hawkeye are the stoic Indians. They show very little emotion and speak very little, but what I found interesting is that Hawkeye does most of the speaking for the other two men. The Huron Native Americans in this film are the bloodthirsty warriors, especially Magua. He thirsts for the white man’s blood and the death of the white men’s children so that no more white men can be created.  There are also a few massacres that occur in the film with scalping included, perpetrated by the Huron characters. These massacres appear to have no purpose other than to kill.


Huron characters from The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

After watching the film, I did some research and a found a few articles by Native Americans where they shared their perspectives on the film. Overall, the attitudes were not favorable. Hawkeye (the white native guy) predominates the screen. Often his face took up the screen, while Chingachgook and Uncas were far in the background. Chingachgook only has two primary scenes in the whole film where it is just his face in the picture; Uncas has none. In addition, I found that Hawkeye does most of the speaking for Chingachgook and Uncas when in a crowd of more than just the three men. An article suggested that this very little screen time treats natives as second rate citizens (Edgerton).  It also suggested that the love triangle intertwined in the plot suppresses the native presence. At the end of the movie, Hawkeye falls in love with a white women and this causes Chingachgook to face extinction (Spoiler alert: Uncas dies during the film) becoming the last of the Mohicans (Edgerton). The Pidgin language and the inability for the Native Americans to speak for themselves, reinforcing the impression that native people are slow-witted and unsophisticated. In effect, it dehumanizes the native people. Lastly, the movie does not expand into native life and culture as the following film does.

The Revenant (2015)

Up Next: The Revenant (2015)

In this film, there are two Native American languages used, Arikara and Pawnee (Lee). Similar to The Last of the Mohicans, the native languages are only spoken between native people. Otherwise all white characters speak English or French and use very negative speech toward the native people. Arikara is spoken between DiCaprio’s character, Glass, and his son, Hawk. Both of these characters understand and speak English, but Hawk only has three lines of very simple English. They include, “What should I do?”, “Pa” and “He passed out” (The Revenant). When Glass speaks English it is fluid and grammatically correct like a native English speaker. There are some other scenes of Pawnee being spoken between Glass and a medicine man, then a native girl. As I already mentioned some French is spoken between French fur traders and Pawnee Native Americans. A French translator is on hand to help communication between the two characters, but it becomes apparent in the scene that the Native American man has no need for a translator. He can understand and speak French quite well. This scene implies that the native people speak the languages that they come into contact with.

Of the six stereotypes I mentioned at the beginning of the blog, I only noticed two. Glass would be considered the white native guy. He married a native woman and had Hawk with her. Glass assimilated into the native culture and accepted their values and traditions, this becomes apparent with how he handles the concept of revenge. There is also a magical medicine man. Spoiler alert!! When Glass is suffering from the infected wounds and is starving, this medicine man comes to his rescue, but no more than a few minutes later the medicine man is killed. His only purpose in the film was to heal Glass so that Glass could seek revenge for the death of his son.

Hawk from The Revenant (2015)

Finally, I did some more research and found the articles to be in favor of the film. They thought that it accurately portrayed the events of colonization of the American west and the tense relationship between the English invaders and the native people (Native Perspectives Film Review). The film also captures how brutal people had to be in order to survive. Another article mentions that the film captures the beauty and power of nature that is important in Native American culture (Killsback). The Revenant (2015) goes against many stereotypes that we usually see in Native American film (Killsback). Instead of showing native women as dependent squaws, we see a woman defend herself from a sexual assault. We also see native tribes attacking fur traders for a purpose, rather than mindless killing. In effect, the film humanizes Native Americans. That being said, it is yet another movie where a white man is front and center and learns the native ways. It has become a norm that the native people provide lessons and are tragic figures. They rarely live to see the white man’s redemption, because they must die so that the white man can find his glory (Native Perspectives Film Review).

The Revenant (2015)

So here are some ideas to keep in mind when watching films with Native American characters, or any films that represent race:

  • Stereotypes are used to make generalizations about the culture of the characters.
  • Language is used to characterize characters within their racial groups.
  • Often stereotypes and the language are not an accurate portrayal of the culture. These inaccuracies can have negative impacts on the culture that are perpetuated by the production of inaccurate films.

Now this does not mean that Pocahontas will stop being one of my favorite Disney films, or when I want to watch a soppy, romantic, love story I will find something other than The Last of the Mohicans, but we must think critically about what we watch. Think about how it represents race and understand whether or not it is an accurate depiction. Then, hopefully, we will understand the implications that productions of inaccurate films can have on people in general.

“We must…challenge and protest films that inaccurately depict native culture and history” (Native Perspectives Film Review).

-Gretchen Suter

Works Cited:

“5 Common Native American Stereotypes in Film and Television.”                    About.com News & Issues. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

Edgerton, Gary. “`A Breed Apart’: Hollywood, Racial Stereotyping, And The     Promise Of Revisionism In The Last Of..” Journal Of American                     Culture (01911813) 17.2 (1994): 1. Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 Apr.     2016.

Killsback, Leo. “The Revenant Is a Game-Changer.” Indian Country Today     Media Network.com. N.p., 14 Jan. 2016. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

“Languages in Last of the Mohicans.” Mailbag:. Native Languages of the         Americas, n.d. Web. 05 May 2016.

Lee, Stephen. “Arikara Man Was Adviser on DiCaprio’s “The Revenant”.”       Capital Journal. Capital Journal, n.d. Web. 05 May 2016.

Mufwene, Salikoko Sangol. “Pidgin.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online.             Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 05 May 2016.

“Native American Stereotypes.” Native American Stereotypes. Anti-               Defamation League, n.d. Web. 05 May 2016.

“Native Perspectives Film Review:.” Red Haircrow Review. N.p., 07 Jan.           2016. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

The Last of the Mohicans. Dir. Michael Mann. Prod. Michael Mann. By             Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe. Perf. Daniel Day-Lewis,                     Madeleine Stowe, and Jodhi May. 20th Century Fox, 1992.

The Revenant. Dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom     Hardy. Regency Enterprises, 2015. DVD.

Ross, Gyasi. “The Revenant Is Ultimately the Same Old White Savior Stuff       for Native People.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d.       Web. 24 Apr. 2016.