Images of Aboriginal People
Hollywood’s versions of “how the West was won” relied totally on the presence of Native tribes, who were to be wiped out or reined in. “And, for the longest time, ” says Canadian Ojibway playwright Drew Hayden Taylor, “there wasn’t a real ‘Indian’ to be seen on the movie sets: Native ‘representation’ was taken care of by Italians or Spaniards—anyone with dark enough skin to save on makeup.” (For a real cultural mish-mash, picture American actor Lou Diamond Philips (who is of Filipino descent), Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, and American actress Jennifer Tilly (whose parents were Finnish and Chinese) playing Inuit people in the 1992 film Shadow of the Wolf.)
Portrayals of Aboriginal people as being primitive, violent and devious, or passive and submissive, have become widespread in movies and TV programs and in literature ranging from books to comic strips. Such depictions have become a comfortable frame of reference for most of us each time there is a question about Aboriginal people, even though very few non-Natives have had the opportunity to meet a Native person in real life. Even if old Westerns rarely took place in Canada, the stereotypes they conveyed crossed borders.
“We were well into the second half of the 20th century before it occurred to filmmakers that Native people were still around, and even leading interesting lives, ” says Taylor.
“Groundbreaking films like Pow Wow Highway, Dance Me Outside and Smoke Signals provided fresh and contemporary—though still romanticized—portrayals of the Native community.” Film-maker Arthur Lamothe broke new ground in Québec from 1973 to 1983, with his 13 part documentary series La chronique du Nord-Est du Québec. The series puts First Nations people centre-stage and provides them with a venue to tell their own stories. His career is marked with numerous films and projects whose purpose is to document the daily lives and struggles of First Nations people, especially the Innus.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) made a real effort to improve the portrayals of Aboriginal people in its television dramas. Spirit Bay, The Beachcombers, North of 60 and The Rez used Native actors to portray their own people, living real lives and earning believable livelihoods in identifiable parts of the country. The Beachcombers and North of 60 drew substantial audiences among Natives and non-Natives alike. Since 2000 – enabled by the development of online news content – Radio-Canada has devoted special dossiers to various themes relating to Aboriginal people: native residential schools, Aboriginal youth and territorial claims are among these capsules.
Television in the United States has been slower to respond to criticism. Indigenous faces are still almost entirely absent from the small screen, except in news or in documentaries. There have been a few efforts to change the situation, however. In the late 1990s, the American Indian Registry for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles published a directory of Native American performing arts professionals. And in 2001, after acknowledging that “Native Americans are virtually invisible on TV, ” CBS and NBC held talent showcases in major cities across North America to strengthen their databases of Aboriginal performers.
Misrepresentation—How Many Ways?
A general climate of “political correctness” has dovetailed with genuine efforts being made by media producers to counter the more overt forms of racism in films and television—but subtle vestiges of Native stereotyping still remain. Some of the most common stereotyping traps are various forms of romanticization; historical inaccuracies; stereotyping by omission; and simplistic characterizations.
Some images of Natives that have captured the imagination of the non-Aboriginal world for nearly a century are the Indian Princess, the Native Warrior and the Noble Savage.