The Role of the Indian in Hollywood Westerns The American Indian’s image has been shaped a great deal by Hollywood Westerns more than any other ethnic group in the United States. It has been shaped so much that it has become very stereotypical. The reason for this is that all the characteristics that are definitive of the American Indian have been dramatically conveyed in film, which has been one of the most powerful media of the 20th century. Of course there exists stereotypes of all American ethnic groups but when it comes to the issue of the Indian character possesses many features that are easy to pick out and describe in narrative form.
These features include rapid physical movement, violent confrontation, exotic appearance, and a spirituality that is deeply rooted in a natural environment. With time, the trends through which the American Indian is portrayed have been changing but the stereotypical image remains as before. The dramatic effect has not changed. Sometimes the Indian is portrayed as a wronged victim. At other times, he is portrayed as a generous host or even a savage opponent.
Very recently, a dramatic shift has been observed whereby white actors are replaced by Indian actors in the task of portraying Indians in films. The film industry, owing to its ability to define the past as Indians know it through the cinematic image, has helped in the work of promoting the recovery of the modern Indian the mid-twentieth century, in what may be termed as the renaissance of the Indian through art and literature. Motion pictures prevented the identity of the Indian Character from being absorbed into the American society as merely another tiny minority.
Additionally, this same medium made it possible for Americans to be reminded of the importance of Indian adversaries in shaping the American history. The portrayal of the Indian-white past through recreations seems more interesting to learn about compared to the case when the same experiences are conveyed through documentary films, which of late have tended to assume a dramatically growing sense of importance. A person who chooses to view The last of the Mohicans or Little Big Man cannot easily forget the past or its representation as depicted by several artists working on a record of the past, whose details are admittedly recorded in an incomplete manner.
Sometimes, the realities of Indians may be historically unsupported or ideologically distorted but this does not prevent docudramas and documentaries gaining more popularity over reinventions of the past that are composed into westerns. In fact, these documentaries are more critically appealing compared to contemporary imaginative films that are loaded with many political overtones. Films contain the stereotypes of greedy whites who own mining companies with the support of puppet tribal governments are as appealing as ever.
Scholars have been debating on the question of objectivity in history for a long time. It seems that the debate may not end in the foreseeable future, at least not in matters of films as recreations of the past as Indians experienced it. Literary scholars have been debating on whether or not physical reality exists, and if so, the shape that it should take. Makers of westerns that present Indian stereotypes often the obvious excuse that film is a “privileged” medium that is shaped as much by stereotypes as by historical realities.