Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film

By Black, Liza | Journal of Film and Video, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film


Black, Liza, Journal of Film and Video


Jacqueline Kilpatrick. Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999, 261 pp. $19.95 (paper).

Jacquelyn Kilpatrick's Celluloid Indians surveys American Indian representations in film. The strength of the book lies in its ability to shed light on the relationship between ethnicity, representation, and film, especially for American film courses. Celluloid Indians fits into the larger moment of the 1990s, with its questioning of Eurocentric paradigms and histories. Like many of the films that Kilpatrick considers, American filmmakers have aimed to upset older paradigms, throw up new stories, and animate new Indian characters. Native writers such as Sherman Alexie have done much to enliven these discussions. His presence and his talent have forced the filmmaking community to abandon its beliefs in the impossibility of native involvement in filmmaking and to acknowledge the possibilities of representations of modern Indians. Alexie's Smoke Signals may spark other filmmakers and incite film scholars to pay closer attention to American Indians and film.

The field of ethnicity and film boasts many scholarly studies packed with meaningful questions and debates. The most recent include Ella Shohat's and Robert Stam's, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (Routledge, 1994); Lester D. Friedman's, ed., Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and American Cinema (U of Illinois P, 1991); Sharon Willis's, High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Films (Duke UP, 1997), and Daniel Bernardi's, ed., The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema (Rutgers UP, 1996). Older works dealing with American Indians in film lack the same level of analysis. Ralph E. Friar's and Natasha A. Friar's, The Only Good Indian . . . The Hollywood Gospel (Drama Book Specialists, 1972) lacks a sustained argument. Its evidence is anecdotal and wide-ranging. It consistently critiques films for their lack of historical accuracy. Gretchen M. Bataille's and Charles L.P. Silet's, The Pretend Indians: Images of Native Americans in the Movies (Iowa UP, 1980) contains essays written by attorneys, filmmakers, film critics, novelists, political activists, and historians. The essays are mocking, and they fail to provide an overall critique or directions for the future. Angela Aleiss's unpublished dissertation, entitled "From Adversaries to Allies: The American Indian in Hollywood Films, 1930-1950" (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1991), on the other hand, ably considers shifts in representations of American Indians on-screen. Aleiss creates a persuasive structure in which American history determines American Indian history, and American Indian history determines American Indian filmic representations. Finally, Ann Fienup-Riordan provides an excellent analysis of Alaska Eskimos and film in Freeze Frame: Alaska Eskimos in the Movies (U of Washington P, 1995). The book surveys films from throughout the twentieth-- century and provides a rich reading of the production of the films as well as the meanings embedded in filmic representations of Alaska Eskimos.

Celluloid Indians utilizes both historical and textual analysis. Kilpatrick employs realism to criticize films for their historical mistakes and inaccuracies. The book is also dedicated to surveying twentieth-century American Indian history. Kilpatrick analyzes films that characterize historical themes and issues. In six highly structured chapters, she argues that the films must be criticized for their historical inaccuracies, but that their historical context is equally important. Kilpatrick relies on no one other than Aleiss for this employment of historical context. Kilpatrick's use of historical context is an important contribution to American Indian film criticism. According to her, "The films must be viewed as art, and art is a social, historical, cultural artifact-a socially situated utterance, a reflection of the film's time of birth and the social and political milieu into which it was born" (xvi). …

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