Reservation Reelism: Redfacing, Visual Sovereignty, and Representations of Native Americans in Film

Reservation Reelism: Redfacing, Visual Sovereignty, and Representations of Native Americans in Film

Reservation Reelism: Redfacing, Visual Sovereignty, and Representations of Native Americans in Film

Reservation Reelism: Redfacing, Visual Sovereignty, and Representations of Native Americans in Film

Synopsis

In this deeply engaging account, Michelle H. Raheja offers the first book-length study of the Indigenous actors, directors, and spectators who helped shape Hollywood's representation of Indigenous peoples. Since the era of silent films, Hollywood movies and visual culture generally have provided the primary representational field on which Indigenous images have been displayed to non-Native audiences. These films have been highly influential in shaping perceptions of Indigenous peoples as, for example, a dying race or as inherently unable or unwilling to adapt to change. However, films with Indigenous plots and subplots also signify at least some degree of Native presence in a culture that largely defines Native peoples as absent or separate. Native actors, directors, and spectators have had a part in creating these cinematic representations and have thus complicated the dominant, and usually negative, messages about Native peoples that films portray. In Reservation Reelism Raheja examines the history of these Native actors, directors, and spectators, reveals their contributions, and attempts to create positive representations in film that reflect the complex and vibrant experiences of Native peoples and communities.

Excerpt

Stemming from a long tradition of staged performances such as the Wild West shows that were themselves informed by American literature’s obsession with Native American plots and subplots, film and visual culture have provided the primary representational field on which Native American images have been displayed to dominant culture audiences in the twentieth and twentyfirst centuries. But these representations have also been key to formulating Indigenous people’s own self images. Spokane and Coeur d’Alene writer and filmmaker Sherman Alexie recalls watching western films on television as a child: “I hated Tonto then and I hate him now. However, despite my hatred of Tonto, I loved movies about Indians, loved them beyond all reasoning and saw no fault in any of them.” For many Native people, it has been possible to despise the numerous abject, stereotypical characters Native Americans were forced to play and deeply enjoy and relate to other images that resonate in some way with lived experiences of tribal peoples or undermine stereotypes in a visual field that otherwise erased Indigenous history.

The often excluded or undervalued stories and acts of “survivance” of Native American spectators, filmmakers, and actors, and the memories of their descendants have inspired me to imagine the early half of the twentieth century as an era of heartache and happiness, poverty and prosperity, loss, revitalization, and creation of traditions. Because most twentieth-century cinematic images of Indigenous peoples often either reflected important pressures that Native communities were facing or completely elided Native concerns in ways that demonstrate deep-seated cultural anxieties, film scholarship provides a useful framework of analysis for . . .

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