14 Dec Episode 172 — The Foundational Myth Machine: Indigenous Peoples of North America and Hollywood
Citations Needed | December 14, 2022 | Transcript
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded.
Adam: You can get about 130 or so mini episodes, News Briefs we do just for patrons, as well as newsletters and other fun goodies, and any support there is very very appreciated. We do no advertising or any kind of grants or foundations or anything. We are 100 percent supported by our listeners. So if you can, if you listen to the show and you like it, please help us out there, we’d be very grateful.
Nima: Soldiers from the US Cavalry defeat the Plains Indians, securing new territory for their burgeoning empire. A group of settlers fends off an armed Indigenous tribe on horseback in their intrepid effort to conquer new lands. A Civil War hero decides to head for the frontier in its waning days, forging an undying friendship with the Native people there.
Adam: Each of these summaries describes a film made within the last hundred years that explores dynamics between white settlers and Indigenous people in North America in what we now know as the United States, and sometimes Canada. The problem, of course, is that these films, and so many others like them, don’t — to say the least — present this history accurately. Instead, since Hollywood’s inception, the viewing public has been primarily fed a diet of reductive, dehumanizing, and paternalistic depictions of Indigenous people.
Nima: But why have stories involving Indigenous people so frequently involved the perspectives of white settlers? Why are the vast majority of these stories confined to the genre of the Western, replete with shootouts and stagecoaches? What role does the US government play when it comes to the stories we’re told about Indigenous people, how has the historically simplistic portrayal of Native people benefited the interests of the United States and Canada? And how — above all — was the expansion of US empire westward and, later, across the globe, inextricably linked to the Hollywood project of romanticized Western ideals.
Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll examine the history of Indigenous depictions in Hollywood, looking at the ways the entertainment industry has sanitized the genocide and subsequent enduring abuses of Indigenous people, recycled centuries-old “noble savage” tropes, and argue that Indian dehumanizations wasn’t just an accidental byproduct of white supremacy, but was essential and central to the establishment of America’s sense of self and moral purpose.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be speaking with Jesse Wente, an Anishinaabe writer, broadcaster and arts leader. A member of the Serpent River First Nation, Jesse has been a CBC Radio columnist, film critic, program director at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the founding Executive Director of Canada’s Indigenous Screen Office, where he now serves as Senior Advisor. He is also the author of the memoir, Unreconciled: Family, Truth and Indigenous Resistance, which was published in September 2021 by Penguin Books.
Jesse Wente: I think it’s key to understand that narrative storytelling, and both the use of it as well as the oppression of it, or the minimizing of it by certain groups, is part of ongoing, sort of colonial behavior, you know, it’s actually quite fundamental. You know, in Canada, where we didn’t fight wars, the First Nations people didn’t fight wars with the settler state for quite as long as they did in the US, I would suggest that other than occupation, actually occupying the lands, the narrative is actually really the other chief way that Canada legitimizes itself. It just tells a story over and over and over again that it has a right to exist.
Adam: Quick disclaimer here. Obviously, we can’t cover everything, depictions of Indigenous people in Hollywood is a huge topic. So there’s going to be a lot we don’t include, which, the disclaimer we give on the show quite a bit when we have kind of broader themes.
Nima: Especially when we talk about movies, because I feel like, Adam, you and I could do like 15-part series on any given movie topic, and especially this one, you know, I should say, I love Westerns, and we’re going to be talking a lot about Westerns, and so yeah, you know, the idea of Hollywood mythmaking of the stories we tell as a society as what we are meant to believe it means to be American, and then also what it is supposed to say about the American experience, and yet of course, at every single turn, we see how dangerous those stereotypes and the dehumanizing tropes are, not only on screen, but what they reflect in the history of this country and this continent.
my late father, he had a rule in our house — and I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this on the show, but this is 100 percent a true story, I’m not making this up — we were required to stand up and salute when John Wayne was on TV. It was kind of half a joke but he very much looked up to John Wayne. We had a John Wayne clock, we had a life sized portrait of John Wayne in the garage for some reason, I don’t remember why. My father was the world’s biggest John Wayne fan and we were required to watch every single John Wayne movie growing up. So the Western was very much central to my upbringing as well, for reasons, I think, we would now call on the show, problematic. Very much so, right? This kind of, you know, idealized take-charge kind of man, and obviously, he’s very iconically associated with the Western. So, you know, we were interested in doing this episode for some time for that reason. I think you and I have approached the Western in a sort of different way, but specifically how it does have all this ideological baggage. I mean, it was, you know, again, on an interpersonal level, the Western ideals weren’t just this kind of academic thing, they were actually ideological, and obviously, again, as we’ll discuss, that gets subverted a bit in the ’60s and ’70s, but very much to a lot of people, they do represent an ideological project, and that’s what I think drew us to this specific topic with the idea that there’s this idea that the US expands into West and then expands into an empire and then afterwards we have these kinds of films that reflect the past, and what we want to argue in this episode is that the expansion of US Empire West and the final conquest up until the 1910s and 1920s very much was parallel with that existed at the same time as the rise of the Hollywood Western, and of course, its predecessor, the serial novel Western, which, which really kind of created a lot of these tropes.
Nima: It was only barely, if at all, past history that was being told.
Adam: Yeah, there was a lot of overlap, and that the idea that the Western as a genre very much existed to ameliorate the kind of guilt of genocide as well as create a foundational myth to an ever expanding country going West in North America, sort of polishing off the last resistance to this genocide, and then going westward to Philippines, Cuba, whatever, all of these various sort of other colonies.
Nima: And acting like cowboys at every turn, mind you.
Adam: Right. And again, this is a term of the military doing John Wayne shit, right? It’s sort of seen as essential to that mentality, and so that’s what I think drew us to this topic that it is not incidental to but it’s actually central to this idea of America as a sort of brand, and I think it is like the number one central pillar to the American brand, the Western, and I think it sort of is for very material reasons, and we’re excited to get into what those are.
Nima: Yeah, there’s a reason why the Marlboro Man is the Marlboro Man.
Nima: So, Hollywood tropes of the quote-unquote “Indian” were born of nostalgic fantasies formed during the settling of the West of course. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, settlers in the fledgling United States developed two myths primarily about Indigenous people, both positioning them at odds with civilization: The first, often associated with Puritan settlers, was that they were bloodthirsty savages. The second, often attributed to 17th-century English writers like John Dryden and later 19th-century European Romantic writers, was that they were pure, wise, and uncorrupted by modernity, the kind of noble savage trope.
So, depictions of Indigenous people usually fell — and as we’ll see, have continued to fall — within this simple binary: the violent or the noble savage. Many scholars and critics have argued that the latter was meant as a counterbalance for the former, a way to assuage settler guilt for stealing and destroying Indigenous people’s land and lives. The effect of this attempted correction, of course, wasn’t to humanize Indigenous people, but to further dehumanize them with yet another one-dimensional quality created in the settler imagination.
Adam: And while these ideas predate the advent of film, film and its direct precursors, like novels, have been instrumental in immortalizing and reinforcing them for over a century. Some of the earliest examples of the dual stereotype of Indigenous people come from the inspirations for the genre of the Western: for example, dime novels of the 1860s and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, a traveling stage production that debuted in 1883, featuring sensationalistic, quote, “Cowboys and Indians” narratives and romanticization of the American frontier.
In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner presented his thesis, quote, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Turner lamented the closing of the frontier, which, in his mind, had inspired self-reliance and “rugged individualism” among the settlers who crossed it, sparking a unique American trait. This is something we talked a lot about on episode 139 about the connection between masculinity and meat. The third pillar of that is taming the West.
Nima: According to scholar Martin Berny, quote:
“In correlation with the closing of the frontier and the settling of the West, a certain form of nostalgia prevailed. The mythologizing of the West led to the opening of a new imaginary space that Americans could fill with their fantasies about the Natives and the land they appropriated for themselves. This tradition gave birth to the Hollywood Indian, a ‘cinematic creation springing directly from the ubiquitous images of the old blood thirsty savage and his alter ego, the noble savage.’”
By the 1910s, the US government, namely the War Department, had begun subsidizing films in a concerted effort to glorify settlers and their attendant colonization project. This is at the time that the US government was also selling off stolen Native land to Americans moving west literally in ads, saying, quote, “Indian Land For Sale,” “Fine lands in the West,” “Irrigated, irrigable, grazing, agricultural, dry farming,” end quote.
Adam: The first use of the term “Western” to describe a popular film genre, was in a July 1912 article in Motion Picture World magazine.
1914 saw the release of the film The Indian Wars Refought, was a silent feature, also known by about half a dozen alternate titles, starred and was produced by William F. Cody, AKA the showman Buffalo Bill, and recreated four battles fought between the US and various Sioux tribes. According to a 1913 Variety article, the federal government spent $100,000, about $3 million in today’s money, on the film, quote, “in efforts to preserve these scenes for future generations.”
The Hollywood trade journal Moving Picture World reported in 1914 that Cody approached Secretary of War Lindley M. Garrison and Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane about the production of the film. According to, AFI, the American Film Institute, quote:
“Garrison supplied Cody with the necessary troops from the 12th U.S. Cavalry and Lane authorized the participation of over 1,000 Sioux Indians. Lieutenant General Nelson Appleton Miles was hired as a technical consultant as well as a cast member and made sure that the re-enactments were as accurate as possible. Colonel H. G. Sickles and General Charles King recreated their parts in the original battles of Wounded Knee and Warbonnet Creek, respectively.”
Yet, while US government and military officials readily participated, it wasn’t so easy to convince the Sioux members. Moving Picture World reported that, quote, “when [the Sioux] saw the Hotchkiss guns, the rifles, revolvers and cases of ammunition, there was a feeling of unrest.” So this is similar to how we discuss that in many ways, the creation of militaristic themes, or the anti-Muslim racism aren’t only sort of cultural vectors or cultural factors, they many times are actually just paid by the government, in this case, some of the earlier Westerns were basically US propaganda projects to both venerate the military conquests of North America as well as try to lure more people into continuing to move West.
Nima: And solidify the narrative of what then became commonly understood history. So as Martin Berny, the scholar we mentioned earlier, has also written that the film, The Indian Wars Refought, quote, “became the official record of the Battle of Wounded Knee, glorifying the massacre of hundreds of Indians, mostly women and children, as an act of heroism.” A 1914 ad printed in the aforementioned Moving Picture World, a Hollywood trade magazine at the time, asserted the film was, quote, “historically correct” and, quote, “most realistic,” touting the US government’s approval as well as Cody, General Miles, and, quote, “The last of the great Indian fighters” as “leading players,” end quote.
The ad’s reference to the Sioux performers as the, quote, “last of the great Indian fighters,” end quote, is an important detail to highlight here. It implied that “Indian fighters,” at least as the US government and entertainment industry understood them, were merely a part of history. The vanishing Indian trope, the last of the Mohicans, both in novel form by James Fenimore Cooper and made into an early silent film and then, of course, later remade with Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe. This idea that Native people are only part of the historical past, right, a past that has now come into modernity, and that there are no longer these people, right? So the U.S., then, was a settled, invincible state that could only expand, and any robust opposition from Indigenous people was therefore over. This gets to the idea of the noble savage which our guest Jesse Wente has pointed out, the nobility in that name comes from the idea that Indigenous people in these stories are always doomed to fail. You are noble or prideful in the face of inevitable defeat, which is part of all of these stories.
Adam: Despite the U.S. government’s active involvement in the film, they actually found the film too sympathetic to Indigenous people and consequently restricted its release to the cities of Denver and New York.
Nima: Only Colorado and New York get to see that. No one else.
Adam: Yeah. Still, filmmakers couldn’t quite ignore the decades of Indigenous genocide that had laid the groundwork for the founding of the US. Between roughly 1890 and 1920, the Native population in the US was at its nadir, hovering around 250,000. The process of US territorial expansion; from 1846 to 1873, the Native population plummeted from 150,000 to 30,000 in California alone.
Building on Buffalo Bill’s selling point of the “last great Indian fighters,” Hollywood began to display a slight sense of guilt. To an extent, films lamented the US’s extermination and subsequent treatment of Native people, asserting that their ways of life were disappearing. This would usher in the perhaps well-meaning, but often reductive and condescending, trope of the, quote, “vanishing Indian.”
White officials and filmmakers would always be in control of the narrative, operating on the principle that the US was good, upstanding, and justified, and that the matter of US land ownership and stewardship had been settled.
Nima: Premiering in 1923 and opening wider the following year, the James Cruze-directed silent epic The Covered Wagon may have done more to introduce many of the cinematic tropes and conventions that we understand today as the Western than any other film to date. As film critic Roger Moore has noted, it did much to establish, quote, “the action beats and archetypes that carried John Ford and John Wayne, Howard Hawks and Henry Hathaway, Clint Eastwood and the Coens through a century of Western cinema. Moore continues, quote:
“The stoic Westerner — a good-bad man with a tainted past, looking for a reset on the American Frontier — the dewy Eastern flower, soon to be hardened by her odyssey across The Plains — the scheming rival, the colorful comic ‘trailblazer’ — cattle and horses and oxen pulling Conestoga wagons across dry, dusty flatlands, over mesas and up mountains, from Westport Landing (Kansas City) to Oregon — it all began with ‘The Covered Wagon.’”
“There’s a wide river to ford, buffalo, Indian raids, fistfights and gunplay and the distraction of ‘Thar’s GOLD in them thar Hills!’(California) landscapes.”
The film, based on a 1922 Emerson Hough novel of the same name, is explicit in its American mythmaking — the script calls the settlers of the titular Covered Wagon train “Empire Builders” who are heading West and they marvel at their pioneer technology that would soon mechanize agriculture, what would later become known as, quote, “The Plow that Broke the Plains.” But the film also does something many later films wouldn’t — it voices motivation for Native American resistance to US manifest destiny: Indigenous people speak out against the, quote, “monster weapon,” end quote, that would steal their land, constrain their free movement and chase away the buffalo.
Another film from around the same time, The Vanishing American, which takes place on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, explores themes of settler government abuse of people living on reservations, war, and Native identity. The mid-1920s film, which came out in 1925 with a wider release the following year in 1926, is also an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Zane Grey, the famous dime store Western novel writer, though the book was unfinished by the time of the film’s production.
Grey’s story, which served as the basis for the film, was originally serialized in Ladies Home Journal in 1922 and 1923. Yet the series’ interracial love story and negative portrayal of a Christian missionary ruffled many readers’ feathers, as you can imagine. Grey’s publisher for the novel, Harper’s, forced him to change the ending which then made the ending of the subsequent film more of a Hollywood ending. According to AFI, the American Film Institute, Grey complied and killed off the Navajo hero at the end.
As a quick aside: A 1955 film version of the same story displays a title card after the film’s opening credits that reads this, quote, “This picture is dedicated to Zane Grey — whose story of ‘The Vanishing American’ brought new life to a dying race. Today the forces of justice and tolerance are writing a new ending — and a better way of life.” End quote. The implication that Grey single-handedly resuscitated an entire other “race” of Indigenous people that are now being treated with justice and tolerance. So yeah, that’s Hollywood for you.
Adam: 1930’s The Silent Enemy continued this theme, produced under the premise that Indigenous stories should be preserved on film, lest they disappear permanently. The film depicts the life of Ojibwe people prior to the arrival of European settlers. Producer W. Douglas Burden decided to document the, quote, “fast-vanishing tribe,” unquote, of the Ojibwe while gathering footage for the American Museum of Natural History.
To its credit, the film featured primarily Ojibwe actors. It’s often labeled a documentary, though technically it’s more of a historical recreation. In the opening minutes of the film–the only spoken part of it, Chief Chauncey Yellow Robe, the film’s star, delivers a speech about the vanishing Ojibwe. We can listen to that here.
Chief Chauncey Yellow Robe: This picture is the story of my people. I speak for that horse. I know your language. In the beginning of the Great Spirit give us this hand. The war game was on. We were happy when the game was planning. In the years of famine, we suffered. Soon we will be gone. Your civilization will destroy us. But by your magic, we will live forever. We thank the white ones who help us to make this picture.
Adam: Yeah, you see how this idea that oh, well, it’s over, they’re dying out, and now to the extent to which we’re going to film Indigenous people, it’s going to be a kind of National Geographic, like they are behind glass, a historical record.
Nima: Like make sure you capture this old way of life before suddenly it’s gone, and we’re not really going to talk about why it may be gone, but, you know, also, we’re assuming, again, the nobility of the inevitable failure, that it will be vanishing because that is the political project of the United States. Not that this is a naturally occurring thing.
Now, some films of the 1930s took cues from these more humanizing films like The Silent Enemy, but were commercial failures. These included films like Man of Two Worlds and Laughing Boy, both from 1934. Set against the brutal economic backdrop of the Great Depression, bigger-budget films featuring Native characters leaned far more heavily into the savage trope. It was in this context that what we really now know was the Western genre was calcified. This became the recipe for commercial success.
Cecille B. DeMille’s 1936 film The Plainsman, for example, starred James Ellison as Buffalo Bill Cody and Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickock, legendary members of the frontier-settling vanguard who Paramount Pictures advertised as history’s, quote, “glamorous personalities.” The Natives, armed with rifles from a Civil War weapon surplus cache, are portrayed as the aggressors: they kidnap white women, torch settlements, and otherwise obstruct the process of expansion to which Manifest Destiny entitled US settlers. Indeed, producers at Paramount advised DeMille that the audience must initially recognize Indigenous characters as, quote, “really a menace — burning settlements and massacring whites,” end quote. The film was a critical and commercial success.
Adam: John Ford’s Stagecoach, the 1939 film that catapulted actor John Wayne into stardom, follows a group of settlers traveling by stagecoach through Apache land. Stagecoach echoes the Manifest Destiny-informed themes of The Plainsman, similarly pitting settlers, the avatars of progress, against backwards, violent Indigenous people.
In one scene, whiskey salesman Samuel Peacock, played by actor Donald Meek, reacts to seeing the Apache wife of an innkeeper named Chris. We’re going to listen to that clip now.
Samuel Peacock: Savages!
Chris: That’s my wife Jekima. My squaw.
Samuel Peacock: Yes, but she’s, she’s savage.
Chris: Si senor. She is a little bit savage I think. (Speaks in Spanish.)
Man: Something funny about this. That woman’s an Apache.
Chris: Sure she’s one of Geronimo’s people. I think maybe not so bad to have Apache wife, eh? Apache don’t bother me I think.
Adam: Multiple horse-chase scenes are filmed from the perspective of the settlers, who are always playing defense, usually attempting to fend off the arrows and gunshots fired by Apache men on horseback. In at least one version of the film, the opening titles warn of the, quote, “savage struggle” to oust innocent settlers.
Nima: Yeah, this idea of horsemanship is actually really critical to how Hollywood depictions of Native peoples worked especially like Plains Indians. As writer John G. Cawelti wrote in the Six Gun Mystique sequel, this is his follow up to his study on Westerns called the Six Gun Mystique, obviously, he wrote this, quote:
“The mythic representations found a way of emphasizing the otherness of the Indians’ relationship to horses, not by separation, but by suggesting an even closer kinship. If the Cowboys horse was his friend, the Indians horse was an extension of himself. Mythical Indians and variably rode bareback, while the cowboy had an elaborate saddle and harness implying a relationship of control rather than similarity in the hands never used spurs but directed their horses through some occult communication with them. A fellow being for the Indian, the horse symbolizes a tool of control, conquest and ultimately of civilization for the cowboy and the pioneer. For the Indian the horse intensified his wildness and savagery. The archetypal Western scene of the Indian attack on the stagecoach first developed as a favorite spectacle in the Wild West shows and later as a set piece in Western movies neatly exemplifies the differences in the Indian and white relationships to the horse. Hitched to an elaborate harness of the stagecoach, the horse brings the forces of civilization to the wilderness. Riding wildly out of the desert, the Indians seek to destroy that vehicle, and the representatives of a new order of control and settlement it carries.”
Adam: Yeah, John Ford, in his frequent partnerships with John Wayne, really kind of codified what a Western is, and what it is that it’s kind of cultural zenith. And one thing he was known for is location shooting, which was quite rare at the time, but he would actually —
Nima: Monument Valley.
Adam: Yeah. And, of course, much of the actual interiors, of course, are on a very obvious studio in Los Angeles but there was actually quite a bit of on location shooting, which really led to this idea that this was an authentic reflection of how the West was won. The U.S.’s entry into World War II marked somewhat of a turning point for Native portrayals in film. To deflect criticism of the U.S.’s own history of genocide and thereby boost its global standing, Hollywood released a series of films depicting a gentler, more peaceful relationship between settlers and Indigenous people. This is sort of the liberal version of the kind of barbaric or terrorist savage where it’s actually where everyone sort of gets along, right? There’s this kind of like, why can we all just get along? attitude, which, of course is its own form of erasure, albeit one less vulgar. The films’ purpose, essentially, was to present the U.S. and its military as an efficient, united, and racially harmonious entity, protecting the public and acting in its best interest–including that of Indigenous people. With the US government and entertainment industry in control of the narratives, however, this was neither accurate of course nor humanizing. To quote film historian Angela Aleiss, quote: “White paternalism replaced Manifest Destiny.”
One such film, They Died With Their Boots On, a biopic of George Armstrong Custer that premiered in 1941, of course later in 1941, the US would officially enter the war, although it had been supporting the side of the allies as early as 1939. Film Historian Angela Aleiss would write, quote:
“The movie’s theme of an Indian/white alliance was not far from wartime rhetoric: as Indians fought in the battlefields, they stood alongside white Americans and gradually melted into society. The Office of Indian Affairs announced that, despite years of discrimination, Native Americans ‘responded earnestly and enthusiastically’ to the challenge of war, and tribes even dropped claims against the United States for ‘patriotic reasons.’”
Nima: Now, given Custer’s place in history as one of the most brutal exterminators of Indigenous people during the American Indian Wars, one may be forgiven for finding the film’s framing a bit revisionist in this sense. This kind of why can’t we all just get along?-ism — a biopic of Custer.
This chauvinist and patronizing message of “unity” would persist into the Cold War, exemplified in 1950s films like The Proud Land, Apache, starring Burt Lancaster as the Apache warrior Massai, and Jim Thorpe–All American.
The last of those I just mentioned, Jim Thorpe–All American, which also stars Burt Lancaster as the title character, is based on the real story of athlete Jim Thorpe, the first Native American to win a gold medal for the United States which he did in the 1912 Olympics. Now the film Jim Thorpe preaches a clear message of assimilation, positioning Thorpe as a symbol of cross-cultural American patriotism. Here’s a clip from a trailer for that film, Jim Thorpe–All American:
Man: Jim Thorpe–All American, the man of bronze who became the greatest athlete of all time. An Oklahoma Indian lad whose untamed spirit gave wings to his feet and carried him to immortality. Here in a mighty cavalcade of sport are all the giants who paced this champion among champions, each test adding new honors to his ever growing pain.
Nima: Yes, the visuals that you can’t see, obviously, because this is a podcast, matches the amazing voice over there of course. Westerns of the 1950s continue to burnish the stardom of John Wayne, of course, no more so than the John Ford film, The Searchers from 1956, hailed as one of the greatest films ever made, a film I love and a film that is quite problematic, although it has been hailed as kind of John Ford’s apology to Native Americans. The main character, Uncle Ethan, played by John Wayne, who basically is searching, post-Civil War, for his young niece who was stolen by Indians after they massacred the rest of her family, and then John Wayne comes to find her again. Searches for her for years and years and years. That’s the premise of the film and the John Wayne character is pretty racist in its writing, it’s not veiled, and yet he is still, of course, the hero of this film, and so there’s, you know, Adam, I think there’s this whole thing where it’s like, oh, is it John Ford’s apology or is it just, you know, the same old shit told beautifully, magnificently, majestically, but of course, still doing the same thing that a lot of Westerns in Hollywood did?
Adam: Yeah, I mean, I rewatched it recently and there’s definitely like moral ambiguity at the end because he basically wants to kill her because she’s been sullied by the Indian but yeah, again, did the average American watch that film thinking of some subversive trope of America manifest destiny? No, yeah he’s a racist asshole, but he’s a tough son of a bitch and he gets results.
Nima: Right. ‘He’s our racist asshole’ and he’s out for the, you know, saving the white woman from the savage Indian, of course.
Adam: Yeah, and you know, Italian guys in red face and Natalie Wood kind of in danger, yeah, pretty much checks all the boxes. We don’t want to be too anti-intellectual about this. I mean, clearly there are nuances in these films, and they’re, you know, like you said, they are good in other ways, but it is very much a quintessential Western with a white savior hero narrative that is minimally complicated.
Nima: As our guest, Jesse Wente, has also pointed out, 1956, when The Searchers came out, was the same year that the United States expanded what is known as its Relocation Grants, which had been initially created in 1950. The United States government basically came up with this plan to solve what it had been calling, and literally calling in its formal government documents, let alone speeches by politicians, its quote-unquote, “Indian Problem.” The solution would be to pay Native Americans to assimilate with white Americans by moving them to cities across the country and by eliminating reservations. Here’s how one government official working on a Navajo reservation expressed the idea of forced relocation for the purposes of assimilation to an anthropologist named Ruth Underhill for her educational radio series called “Indian Country” in 1957, quote:
“Well, I’ve always felt that the only real solution for the Navajo was to cease to be a Navajo — to get off the reservation and become a citizen just like everybody else, and make his living in the same way as other people. Forget that he is a Navajo, in other words.”
Adam: And in the late ’60s and ’70s, as the broader political and cultural attitudes in this country began to shift, mostly in a more left-wing direction, this cultural and political shift was reflected in Hollywood in its versions of Westerns. And as a result, the concept of Manifest Destiny in the kind of jingoistic simplicity of Manifest Destiny, patriotism and assimilation, proved out of step with the anti-Vietnam, anti-McCarthy eras as well as the political formations like the American Indian Movement, which demanded political sovereignty for Native people.
By the late 1960s, 1970s, classic Westerns declined precipitously in popularity. As author Thomas Schatz, who taught when I was in film school, University of Texas, incidentally, wrote in 2007, quote:
“By the 1960s, the western had peaked both as a viable Hollywood commodity and as a national myth to ease America’s rural-urban transformation, in part brought low by a combination of market saturation and generic exhaustion.”
It’s worth looking at some major films of the late ’60s and early ’70s, as what would later be known as, quote, “anti-Westerns,” seeking a more nuanced, less settler- and war-centric approach to story and focusing on character development, and even daring to make settlers the villains.
Nima: Well, yeah, I mean, I think you know, as you mentioned, historical context is really important here. As you said, the American Indian Movement founded in 1968, the 19 month occupation of Alcatraz began in November 1969. The Trail of Broken Treaties, which is a huge coast to coast protest, took place in 1972. The Wounded Knee Occupation was in 1973. So in that context, yeah, the idea of what Hollywood was producing as Westerns began to shift as well.
1969 was kind of a major year for this. You had The Wild Bunch, you had Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, and you have this film Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here. The film centers on a 1909 manhunt targeting Willie Boy, a young Paiute man, albeit one played by Robert Blake — which was reportedly a compromise over casting made with Universal Pictures — being pursued by police through the California desert. The film’s director, Abraham Polonsky, returning from a 20-year blacklisting exile, explained that the film was meant to represent the struggles of the oppressed against a violent empire and to explore how, quote, “the romantic investment we have in the past,” end quote, operates in tension with, quote, “a lack of comprehension for the realities of the present,” end quote.
Similarly, the 1970 film Little Big Man has been celebrated for subverting the character dynamics of the traditional Western and portraying westward expansion not as a sweeping form of progress, but as a violent, militarized process causing the privation of Indigenous people. Little Big Man was still a major Hollywood production, the titular and lead character, played by Dustin Hoffman, is a white man born Jack Crabb who’s raised by a Cheyenne tribal leader, Old Lodge Skins.
Still, according to film historians Margo Kasdan and Susan Tavernetti, quote:
“Instead of savages threatening heroic pioneers, the Indians are victims of malevolent treatment by the United States Army, which, using a highly developed technology against innocent and peaceful Natives, took the land and food sources and destroyed the Indigenous culture. Whereas most traditional Westerns do not develop individual Indian characters or their customs, Little Big Man presents the Cheyenne as living together in harmony, a flourishing tribe with a defined culture. Whereas classic Westerns portray the whites as representative of civilization and the Indians as barbarians, this one suggests the opposite.”
Five years later, in 1975, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, directed by Milos Forman and starring Jack Nicholson, had in it the heroic character Chief Bromden, played by Will Sampson, which became a high-profile example of the rare, successful, Oscar-winning, Hollywood film that didn’t reduce an Indigenous character to a relic of a bygone, Western era.
Adam: The 1990s saw the resurgence of the Western. By the 1990s, big budget Westerns had been back in a slightly modified form. While subtler characters no longer yelled “Savages!” at the sight of a Native person, blockbusters in the 1990s continued to center and most intently develop settler characters often idealizing and relegating Indigenous ones to the background.
Kevin Costner’s feature directorial debut, Dances with Wolves from 1990, stars Costner as Lt. John J. Dunbar, a Civil War hero who seeks a life of solitude and purity on the Western frontier before it disappears. After vanquishing their mutual distrust, Dunbar and the Lakota who inhabit the area develop a profound bond. In one scene, after getting to know the Lakota people in the film, Costner’s character Dunbar writes in his diary, quote:
Dunbar: I’d never known a people so eager to laugh, so devoted to family, so dedicated to each other, and the only word that came to mind was harmony.
Nima: I like that you leave in the sweeping music.
Adam: I’m a Kevin Costner apologist, except for Prince of Thieves, when he has the worst accent in the world.
Nima: I agree. I’m a fan. I’m a fan.
Adam: During the scene, Costner gazes upon the Lakota on horseback, as they ride off into the sunset. Around the time Dances with Wolves was released, the federal government was making several symbolic liberal gestures meant to do some light damage control for the genocidal foundations of the US. Here again is film historian Angela Aleiss on the political climate around the time the film was released in 1990, quote:
“Politically, Dances With Wolves was timely: in August of the same year, Congress declared November as American Indian Heritage Month; by October, they passed the Native American Languages Act, followed by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (to return Indian remains and artifacts to tribes). Furthermore, the nation’s quincentenary was only two years away, and is nothing else, Costner’s epic reminded Americans that Indians occupied the country long before Christopher Columbus set foot on it.”
Aleiss would go on to write, quote:
“American Indians quickly became hot property in Hollywood. Studios scrambled to duplicate the success of Dances With Wolves and created a cycle of sympathetic Indian-themed movies. Agents scouted the country for Native American actors, and producers hired Indian consultants to ward off charges of cultural or historical inaccuracy.”
So now enter a series of big-budget, major-studio productions trafficking in more tropes of Indigenous purity and nobility, the 1992 film Last of the Mohicans and the 1995 Disney film Pocahontas.
Nima: Yeah, I think in in all of these films, and you know, even in Hollywood, big budget films that have come after it, I mean, now we’re talking about still 30 years ago, you know, the evolution of the Western and of Native characters continues to kind of play on the dynamic of savage versus noble versus where can we add more nuance, some are more successful than others. Obviously, when we’re talking about Indigenous people, we’re not just talking about say, Plains Indians, right? I mean, you, you have kind of the evolution of what Disney has been doing with, you know, films like Moana, right? That’s also about Indigenous people and Indigenous cultures. But all of these kinds of Hollywood stereotypes are present. I’m not saying necessarily in each and every one but I mean, Adam, they kind of, you know, continue to evolve while still representing oftentimes, most often, this notion of the past rather than something still current, still present, although that is changing a bit with, you know, say more streaming services that are allowing for a diversity of voices.
Adam: Yeah, it would be extremely dishonest to say that things haven’t improved. I think the question is whether they’ve improved enough? And the answer to that is, and we’ll talk about this with our guest, is no. But, you know, oftentimes in the show, when we do sort of surveys of cultural depictions, we’ll say, oh, yeah, it’s gotten better, otherwise, we’d be lying to you. Obviously, this sort of quasi democratic process of streaming, for all of its faults, and all the ways that rips off writers has, in some ways, allowed streamers to tell stories that otherwise wouldn’t tell, which has given us shows like Reservation Dogs, and Rutherford Falls and other kind of shows that have real Indigenous creatives behind them, not just token or reduced this sort of background characters are kind of vehicles for white character to explore themselves. But still, as again, as we’ll talk with our guest, there’s a ton more to go to achieve any kind of meaningful correction to this issue, because many of the same foundational myths that make people love Westerns and the Western genre, which of course, have been adapted to other kinds of genres, whether they be military movies or other settings, people still want to kind of preserve the basic architecture of that, and that to the extent to which Indigenous people are now allowed to tell their stories, it’s still very minor representation.
Nima: Against the vast catalog of the past 100 years.
Adam: And also the sort of the existential critiques of the foundational myths have resulted in a very aggressive backlash from the right, that is now trying to reduce anything that complicates or problematizes these myths as CRT, critical race theory, woke culture, and there’s a reason why that is because they know these foundational myths are actually quite important. They’re quite important to prop up US Empire today, they’re quite important to prop up the legitimacy of the inequities in white supremacist manifestations we see today, and so even with some improvements, you now begin to see the kind of backlash to that because those foundational myths for people who don’t view them critically or don’t view them through a problematic lens are still very important to a lot of people, and the biggest, again, no matter how minor the sort of progress is made, you see an overcorrection to that which is I think where we’re at right now.
Nima: To discuss this more, we’re going to be joined by Jesse Wente, an Anishinaabe writer, broadcaster and arts leader. A member of the Serpent River First Nation, Jesse has been a CBC Radio columnist, film critic, program director at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the founding Executive Director of Canada’s Indigenous Screen Office, where he now serves as Senior Advisor. Jesse is also the author of the memoir, Unreconciled: Family, Truth and Indigenous Resistance, which was published in September of 2021 by Penguin Books. Jesse will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Jesse Wente. Jesse, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Jesse Wente: Oh, thanks so much for having me.
Adam: As you’ve documented, to sort of start off with, most non Indigenous people in North America, US, Canada, their understanding of Indigenous identity is largely if not completely invented by Hollywood, it is something we’ve talked about in the show before. There was a poll about three years ago that said that 75 percent of white people have no non white friends, and so people’s impressions are largely derived from news media, television, and of course, Hollywood. Stereotypes that have been created and maintained for over a century in television, film, Looney Tunes cartoons, sports teams, names and mascots, etcetera. You’ve written, quote:
“The misrepresentation is a purposeful one. Its aim is to undermine the value of Indigenous lives and the value of Indigenous claims to the land stolen from us, and its consequences stretch far beyond taunts and jeers. It is the narrative used to justify genocide and its tools: residential school, forced separation of families, violation of treaty rights, indifference to the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women, lack of access to education and safe water. Storytelling is one of the key methods used by colonizers to explain and obscure their lawless treatment of the lands and people over which they claim domination.”
You then note that, quote:
“Storytelling is also one of our best weapons in the fight to reclaim our rightful place.”
So I want to sort of talk about this concept of storytelling as a counter weapon. Obviously, if storytelling can be used by the oppressor, it logically follows that it can be used as a tool by the oppressed to fight back, and this is obviously a very compelling idea to us, something we talk about a lot on the show. So I want you to sort of start off by talking about how storytelling, narrative building can be used to push back against the erasure of Indigenous identity and people, which is not just an abstract concept, but a sort of an ongoing political project.
Jesse Wente: Sure. I think it’s key to understand that narrative storytelling, in both the use of it as well as the oppression of it or the minimizing of it by certain groups is part of ongoing sort of colonial behavior, you know, it’s actually quite fundamental. In Canada, where we didn’t fight wars, the First Nations people didn’t fight wars with the settler state for quite as long as they did in the US, I would suggest that other than occupation, actually occupying the lands, narrative is actually really the other chief way that Canada legitimizes itself, it just tells a story over and over and over again, that it has a right to exist, even though, you know, it sort of doesn’t in any sort of legal framework that one might look to, and that’s true of even Canadian courts have struggled to find what the legal basis for Canadian existence is. So I think you have to always consider storytelling is used, both by the settler state to sort of legitimize itself, and counter actively, they have to keep the other story from being true. So, you know, in the States, you have the well known creation myth of the United States, right, manifest destiny, which suggests that it was preordained by presumably god or something that, you know, the United States would be settled in the way it was, Canada has basically the same sort of idea. They tend to refer it here as like terra nullius, or they rely on the Doctrine of Discovery of the Catholic Church, which, you know, said, if explorers discover a place that isn’t Catholic, they just get to claim it for themselves, and terra nullius was the idea that the land was empty, and it’s all the same sort of idea, there was no one here, and thus, we had to take over these places.
When you actually tell the different story, when you tell what I would say the truth, and it’s not to say that nations shouldn’t have creation myths, mine does, the Anishinaabe people, to why we refer to what many call North America, we call it Turtle Island, because that’s directly from our creation myth. Manifest destiny is just the creation myth of America, I’m not discounting it, I understand why those things occur, but of course, ours occurred is largely about an enormous turtle that exists underwater and rises to the surface with the land on top of it, whereas the manifest destiny sort of has white supremacy at its central feature. So it’s slightly different variations, and I would suggest different outcomes in terms of what has happened because, of course, Anishinaabe have existed on these lands for 13,000 years, America and Canada, not quite as much. So we can actually say, look at this sort of measuring and say, oh, this has been successful and this sort of hasn’t been. So I think, when you counteract those stories with the truth, it becomes quite powerful because the chief function of colonialism in service to capitalism, is to just dehumanize people at large, but specifically those that might impede the siphoning of wealth.
So, colonization and capitalism dehumanizes all of us in order to do this, but it will, particularly because we have class and racial hierarchies, it affects different groups differently. So one of the ways to resolve dehumanization is to do the most human thing, which is to tell a story, right? Humans are the storytelling animal. It’s what separates us from every other creature, right, the wolf, the eagle, the bear, they do not tell stories about themselves or about other people. We do, we in fact, have to tell the stories about the wolf, the bear in the eagle, so that we can understand them. That’s how we understand the world. It’s how we understand each other. It’s how we understand everything is through storytelling, and so when you are able to tell your own story, when you’re able to have what I describe as narrative sovereignty, meaning the ability to tell your own story, and nations have that ability, communities have that ability, when they have it is an incredible force for humanization. Not dehumanization. Because, of course, as you guys know, and I think most people listening to this show would know, you can go watch a movie from literally across the world, and connect with it, not because you’re from that culture, or even understand that culture, but because you’re human, and it’s telling you a human thing, and colonization and the reason why both Canada the US, and really all places that went through European colonization 500 years ago or so, they all had varying degrees of suppression of the storytelling of the Indigenous peoples that existed there pre colonization for this exact fact, right? So in the US, you pass the law that banned pagan acts, right, that was finally lifted with the Religious Freedom Act, I think in 1978, I think you passed that law in 1884, Canada passed a very similar law in 1884, called the Potlatch Ban, which outlawed Indigenous ceremonies, exactly the same as your law did, and of course, our ceremonies is where we told stories, and this is what allowed our artifacts to be collected by museums and dispersed throughout the world, for those artifacts, for those ceremonial items, for the stories about them to be told not by us, but by white curators for a white audience, and I think all of that, and again, it’s been 100 and whatever years, so I think we can safely say one of the outcomes of that been, and the outcomes haven’t been great for us. So I’m a big believer in well, if we can judge that, why don’t we try the other thing for the next 150 years so we get to tell our stories, and people listen to them, and let’s see if that might help solve some of the issues that we’re facing together on this land?
Nima: Well, I think that’s such a hugely important point, the idea that, no, it’s not just about having, oh, one or two, maybe more representative depictions, but rather, no, let’s do the same thing for the same amount of time, and then we’ll see, right? It’s like, oh, well, you know, now that there is a TV show that has some Indigenous characters. Oh, I think we’re on the right track. And I, we’re going to get to some of the more contemporary depictions in a minute, but before we do, I’d love to first talk about, since we are talking about Hollywood, we talked about the early years, the kind of advent of the Hollywood system, and the stereotypes that have been built for now, you know, well over a century, of course, and looming really large in that history is, of course, the genre of the Western, right? The basic components of the brutal savage, the noble settler, like you said, Jesse, Manifest Destiny, pioneers, taming the West, right? How the West was won. Long a staple of American filmmaking, and of course, American mythmaking. So, you know, look, yes, it’s been subverted here and there since the late ’60s, you have, you know, Butch Cassidy and The Wild Bunch, you have revisionist westerns, of course, but the basic frameworks and tropes really have remained the same, even in newer movies like Hostiles, right, which kind of tries to subvert it, but really just winds up doing the same kind of thing. So even when there’s maybe an attempted subversion of this dynamic, I don’t know, even if the intended audience is catching the subversion or really just kind of watching a Western. So let’s talk about the stakes here. How have these age old now, across our media, tropes and stereotypes about Native people, about Indigenous people, even if they’ve in some way evolved from say, outright demonization into more fetishization, how has this really done damage to the story of us, of who we — and that is a we can define the “we” in many different ways who we are, whether it’s the audience, whether it’s who’s being depicted — Jesse, how do you think these reinforce stereotypes have not only played out in our media, but then informed, as you were just saying, deliberately racist policy across North America?
Jesse Wente: Well, I mean, I think whenever you get sort of a concerted effort to dehumanize a particular group of people, or, in this case, a broad group of, you know, multi Nations of people, I think the outcomes are we see them. So in Canada, I’ll just give you an example from my First Nation, like, my First Nation didn’t have clean drinking water on and off for 17 years, and that was in the ’90s, right? That was resolved recently, in the last 10 years. That’s sort of an unthinkable situation in literally any other community, in Canada, and yet, in First Nations, it is rampant, and I would say that’s a humanization issue. If people saw us as human, you would understand that maybe we should have drinking water. But the issue has been for most of Canada’s history, we have been actively depicted as less than human, and so anything that happens to us, you know, so the fact that, for example, in Canada, and this is a very recent statistic, 50 percent of all women in federal prison are Indigenous. Indigenous women make up less than 3 percent of the Canadian population, but 50 percent of the federal prison population. There’s more children, more Indigenous children today in state care in Canada than at the height of the residential school system. So they’re still doing the same things. In places like a Nunavut, the high north, suicide is the number one cause of death, right? Not cancer or heart attacks, suicide. So my daughter being an Anishinaabe woman is 13 times more likely to be murdered or go missing, just because of who she is. So, those outcomes, and I want to be careful, like those aren’t just because the media has treated like this, but it’s all part of the same web, right? You don’t get policies that are so clearly unhuman, inhumane, grotesque, racist, you don’t get those outcomes if everyone sees everyone is human, and you and I are talking, you folks are in the States, you can sort of see this stuff happening right now in your country like live every day, right? Where segments of the population are actively being dehumanized in the media by others, and the results of that we already know, as humans, what happens, and frankly, sitting up here up north, I’m watching very large public figures in the US spout anti semitic tropes, and we really know what the outcome of that is. This should be fairly fresh in human memory how those things go. So I think the stories have all meant that we just aren’t able to be seen fully, and when you aren’t able to be seen fully, it’s much easier for these damaging things, and that’s the big thing. The small things are, for example, most people just don’t know who we are. So, if you watch Hollywood, most Indigenous people ride horses and come from the plains and wear those very long Eagle head dresses. Yeah, not Anishinaabe, and we’re an enormous Nation that existed north and south of the medicine line, right? Huge, huge territory, sort of swath the size of France was the Anishinaabe Nation. But we didn’t wear those headdresses and we didn’t necessarily ride horses. So in Canada, it’s still misunderstood that there’s more than 60 languages that were here. That’s the number of Nations, we were a multinational place. So it’s just even that basic stuff, let alone does anyone understand what treaty they’re on? What are their obligations under the treaty? What even a treaty is? You know, I don’t know about you but when I was being educated as a young person in Canada, we learned far more about treaties signed in Europe than we did about the treaties literally my ancestors signed here that helped Canada exist, and of course, that’s purposeful, right? They don’t want to tell you that there’s treaties, because then you might go, what are my obligations under them? And why haven’t we literally for a single day ever lived up to them? And you have to keep in mind that storytelling isn’t just on screen for entertainment. It’s in history classes. It’s everywhere. It’s why monuments matter, not because they teach history, but because they teach a specific point of view in history.
Nima: Right. They tell you what’s important.
Jesse Wente: They tell you what’s important. So that’s why they have to come down.
Adam: I love this idea that monuments are somehow this historical document that has no moral property. It’s like the funniest thing in the world. Wait, it’s a historical document. It was built in 1972. It’s a thing we just decided. I want to talk about that. Because, you know, something really bleak and ironic happened while I was beginning to read your memoir, now available in paperback at finder bookstores.
Jesse Wente: Thank you.
Adam: You got it. The opening segment or the opening tale is about you being racially taunted on a baseball field or softball field. While I was literally reading that, later that day, the Braves were in the National League Division Series, and they were still doing the racial taunt, which they do to this day. So here I am reading about the story that took place, what 40 years ago, 45 years ago about a racial taunt on a baseball field while it’s still going on today. So you talk about how things are still going on, and this is, of course, at a much grander, massive, sanctions scale. The Atlanta Braves refuse to stop doing it, you know, they put it on the little Jumbotron. It’s part of their, you know, it’s not like it’s an organic thing, although it’s probably both, and that got me thinking about how like, yeah, so much of this is ongoing and this is something that comes up I think a lot when we discuss these issues, the idea that there was this bad genocide days, then there was the black and white film days, and now it’s kind of over and now it’s an issue of having enough representation. I think the idea that history, the bad stuff just has stopped happening in 1975, or whenever we’ve switched to color film on TV is something we see a lot in the United States. I assume you see it a lot in Canada, that the sort of oppression is frozen in time and not sort of ongoing. So I want to sort of talk about it. I see this even still with some triumphalism coverage of recent depictions of Indigenous people in mainstream media and streaming services and I think, again, it’s wonderful, it’s great, like you said, it’s part of a process of changing a system. But there’s a kind of triumphalism that oh, yeah, we’re sort of past that now.
You gave this timeframe of 150, 200 years. So I want you to talk about what it really looks like to deconstruct decades, if not hundreds of years of racist indoctrination, and why storytelling is essential to that. Because again, if it was so essential to the creation of this country’s mythos, like people lose their shit anytime the woke police, or whatever they call it, pushes back against the most minor core axiom of American mythos. So it’s obviously important to the oppressor so it has to therefore be important, like you said, they pass laws and you couldn’t do certain rituals. So like storytelling obviously matters. Otherwise, they wouldn’t spend so much time themselves making —
Nima: Right, it wouldn’t be such a threat.
Adam: They wouldn’t have a meltdown every time. Yeah, exactly. There’s, you know, someone criticizes John Wayne or what.
Jesse Wente: Oh, god forbid.
Adam: So I want you to sort of talk about this sort of ongoing process and if I could invite you to be a little bit personal or indulge in your kind of own narrative about why you chose that path, to focus on storytelling, because I assumed there was various tools in your toolbox you thought you could have used but you chose this path. Why is that and why do the stakes matter and storytelling, because obviously we’re somewhat self interested, we’re a media criticism show, we think it matters a lot, but I want you to sort of explain why you thought it mattered and why you’ve spent your life focusing on that?
Jesse Wente: Before I even get to the answer, one thing I did want to say is, I think America is a particularly ahistorical place. It doesn’t really have any interest in its own history, quite the opposite, and so it’s a weird place to analyze, and Canada is actually not the same in that way. I don’t know if you saw but just this past week, in the last week, the Canadian Parliament recognized residential schools as an act of genocide. I can’t imagine the American Congress doing that.
Jesse Wente: We’ve also had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission around residential schools in Canada. I have cousins in the States, they can’t imagine that ever happening in the US. So Canada, at least, and I think there’s a few differences, one, our media is actually not nearly as robust and as dominant as yours has been, right? We consume a lot of American media.
Adam: Yeah. Sorry about that.
Jesse Wente: Honestly, we are going to have to have an accounting about that at some point.
Adam: Well, yeah.
Nima: Going to have our own Truth and Reconciliation Committee about that.
Jesse Wente: I think the globe needs to have a quick chat. Frankly, if we just figured out what to do about the Murdochs, we’d probably be all fine. But, I think Canada has been a little more because of the smaller population, the fact that Indigenous people have been a little more vocal or have had a little bit of a more, I don’t know how to, but we’ve been more forceful, even though we’re smaller than the states, maybe because we were just more present, so we’ve been able to push things in a way that the States hasn’t. Conversely, I would say the US entertainment industry has been actually quicker than the Canadian one, which is largely state supported, to actually make Indigenous shows because they were quicker to realize there’s money to be made, and nothing will stop America from making a buck. So they’re happy to leap on that where in Canada it’s been a bit excruciating to get these, you know, the fact that America had the first Indigenous like sitcom will forever drive me nuts, because we could have had that show 20 years ago if the powers that be it had a clue up here. But anyway, so I think there are nuance differences there that I think are important, and they’re important, because the Indigenous Screen Office, the organization that I founded, you know, so much of the work I’ve been able to do references the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, references the Commission on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls that introduced its final report three years ago. We had a Royal Commission on Aboriginal peoples that released its findings 25 years ago. So we can really point at a sort of truth telling that has occurred at a very large level that the state was involved in and say, ‘Look, you actually already know these things.’ So I think the dialogue has been able to advance a little bit more. For example, I don’t think there’s any professional sports teams left in Canada that have Indigenous mascots or names. There used to be one that was a slur against Inuit out in Alberta, they got rid of that. I don’t think you could do a chop at a hockey game in Canada at this point, you could, I don’t think it would go well, like I think people would get fired, and like the league would be in deep crap. So there’s those sorts of nuances. In terms of the stakes, you know, it’s an interesting thing because when I think about the stakes, I actually think the stakes are more about what America and Canada stakes, not Indigenous peoples, because we were here before, and we will be here after. There’s no getting rid of us. This is where we have lived for, as my grandmother used to say, forever, and she was pretty much right. 13,000 years, I don’t know what we’re counting forever, but that’s a long ass time.
Nima: That dovetails with forever, I think.
Adam: Yeah, it’s in the ballpark.
Jesse Wente: I think you can draw that pretty quick. So, to me, this is an issue Canada needs to figure out for Canada to survive, and I would say America’s long past due, in needing to figure this out in order for it to survive because these countries are not immutable things. Their concepts, their ideas, there had to be work to make them real, and the truth with both of these places, and, you know, part of my family comes from Chicago. My dad’s side of the family comes from the US. So I’ve got family in the US. Both of these countries have to reckon with the truth, get past their stories, reckon with the truth, if they want to exist, because it’s just not true that they’re a permanent thing. It requires persistent work to make them real and I’m always reminded that our communities, our Nations are very old. We’ve had a long time to figure this stuff out on these lands, and it can often be a challenge for our Nations to speak to Nations that are for, you know, in all affect children. These are very young countries who are still finding themselves. We all remember when you’re a young person, a teenager, you tell a lot of stories to figure out who you are. That’s what they’re doing. But a lot of harm has been done in that time and I think it would behoove both of these nations to tell truthful stories, confront them, so that they can become mature into adult nations that actually can have these conversations, and come to resolution, because the pathway to survival for both these places is through reparations and reconciliation with a variety of communities and that’s the promise that they should be trying to uphold.
Adam: Yeah. Because after the George Floyd protests, you saw a very immediate, very well funded backlash with the critical race theory panic that really showed how much money, effort and time and energy goes into this idea of, well, there’s this school here or this school, there, not obviously it’s a way of kind of just ginning up the foaming mob, but also, there’s something particularly I don’t want to say triggering, because that seems trivializing of that concept, but very, that really kind of gets people’s juices flowing, an appeal to the reptilian brain, when there’s the most minor criticisms around the national mythology.
Jesse Wente: What drives me nuts about that is that those of us that criticize these things, it’s not like that’s good. When I criticized Canada, my great grandparents, they wanted Canada to exist, they didn’t kick the settlers out, they helped them live. So, I criticize it because I want it to be better. It’s funny, because we’re often called the ones that are, my dad would call it thin skinned, snowflake, but I’m sorry, I can’t criticize this thing, and then it’s, you know, I criticize sports mascots, and people left me death threats.
Adam: Oh, no. Oh, yeah.
Jesse Wente: Who’s the snowflake?
Adam: There were Cleveland Indian fans who were literally rioting.
Jesse Wente: Yeah. I’m sorry, who’s the snowflake there? What I would be interested in asking you folks is, because I find this very interesting sitting here, and we have a similar media ecosystem. I find it very interesting how much people are willing to invest in the myth, both in terms of themselves, but also financially. In the States, you guys have a very, almost your entire media ecosystem is that sort of right-wing, like it’s very interesting to watch from up here, and here, we have those media groups, but they struggle to be fully financed in the way, we don’t really have a Fox News equivalent. Although I do think we get your Fox News, and we have Rebel News, which is sort of like I guess, which would be similar to Infowars, or something down there but it seems to me Infowars is of a greater scale. So, why do you folks think people are so willing to put down their credit card number for these things?
Adam: Well, a popular explanation I’ve heard, maybe it veers into pathology, but it’s part of, again, I say this knowing full well that I meet that definition, but the sort of colonial mindset, as it were, is that you fear that if you dominate someone, and then they achieve any kind of power, you’ll assume they’ll treat you just as shitty as you treated them.
Jesse Wente: Well, that’s the sort of whole history of American horror movies and science fiction movies is that fear.
Adam: Exactly. Sort of a South Africa is why they talk about South Africa all the time, because there’s this panic around like, ‘Oh, well, look what happens to the — ’
Nima: Or Palestine.
Adam: Yeah, or Palestine.
Jesse Wente: Yeah, and I think all colonial states have that fear because they actually intrinsically understand the violence that they required to gain themselves, and they have a deep fear that a predator is going to show up and decide to eat them, and they won’t be able to stop it. What, of course, is interesting is, have they asked any of us whether that’s the desire, because I don’t think that’s the plan.
Nima: But there’s been so much dehumanization up until this point, that even if there were broad consensus, ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’re not going to treat you the way you treated us,’ the entire mythology has been built to then not trust that answer to be like, ‘Oh, well, these are inherently devious, sinister groups, communities, maybe people,’ if they are humanized even that much, and so there’s kind of no way out of that. I mean, you said it yourself, Jesse, the US relies on ahistorical education and indoctrination. It’s the most pro mythology national state that I can think of and there are many others, Israel is one, but, you know, which gets to this absurd CRT panic that then, you know, serves to take as much resources and power away from public education to then maintain the dominant story, maintain the story of status quo power, but to the point that you also made, Jesse, this idea hear that the people who are being dehumanized were here before and will be here after. It’s almost like the idea of climate change, right? The earth will continue to exist, we won’t, like the survival, as you said, is about either Canada or the US or whatever other kind of colonial nation state there may be, it’s about the survival of that thing, not what is kind of fundamental to the land or the idea that there is this eternal, ongoing presence, that just is surviving the invader or surviving, you know, a new form of government or lines drawn on a map, but that that will exist, and I think that that concept is so threatening to the colonial mind, that stories have to be maintained, and further entrenched, right? To say, ‘Oh, no, we’re not passing through, we are the eternals but the other needs to be dehumanized to the point of hopefully, either not existing or having so little power, that it won’t be a threat.’
Jesse Wente: And I would, I think you’re very right, I think all of that is really insightful. I would say that’s because we’ve all been conditioned, and sort of dehumanized by storytelling, to sort of separate ourselves from this fundamental truth, right, which is that human beings are part of the natural world, we are not separate from it, we do not hold dominion over it, we are fundamentally an animal, and that we exist in concert with the natural world, and that’s a challenge under capitalism. If you don’t think you have dominion over the natural world, you sort of have to believe that in order to be a capitalist, right? To buy into the whole, well, let’s rip up the land and pull the wealth from it, you sort of have to get there, and so this is actually, to circle back, why I think a couple things. You’re right, it’s that the fact that our truth has not been told that people might still view us as a threat, when if you actually understood our histories, maybe you would see us differently. But this also is why it’s so important for us to tell our stories now, not just because it will humanize us and make it maybe more, our material living conditions better for our community in the medium and long term, I think it’s actually fundamentally important for all human beings, because we need to reorient ourselves and reject these inhuman systems that we have all decided to live under, or not decided, we exist under because we’re born into them, that are literally destroying the planet and causing a species level scare in terms of our ongoing survival, and, to me, a lot of that lies in stories that don’t come from those systems or world sense, that don’t come from an idea that that is how the world is structured, right? You need to hear stories that don’t come from that place, in order for us to be able to imagine ourselves beyond it. We have lived under these systems for so long, even though it’s not been that long, but it’s been so long, that we forget that there is another way, and yet we see all sorts of, you know, you stigmatize and you demonize other ways that currently exist. But there’s other ancient ways, not even ancient, again, Ashininaabe people are still present in life here practicing these things. There’s other ways to live, and I think part of the importance of these stories coming out now, they’re, you know, I won’t get into it, but there’s a prophecy among the Anishinaabe people about this time, about what is happening right now, and about why our stories are coming back now, and the importance of them, because it is really important, not just to us, but to everyone, but I do think we really need to imagine ourselves in a different place than what this is, and that is really the big truth around why we need to hear the stories of not just from Indigenous people, not from the way we’ve classified Indigenous people in North America, because I would say Black people, lots of people are Indigenous, all over the planet who have these same sorts of stories. They’re my cousins too, their stories have been repressed, oppressed, suppressed, but hidden away. We need to hear all of that so that we can actually find a way to live and imagine a future that isn’t this.
Nima: You really touched on this, the idea that so much of what we see in our media classifies Native and Indigenous people as communities from the past, right? Very little kind of post 1900 representation. So talking about telling different stories, building a future through different storytelling, how do you see the democratization of production via more, you know, streaming competition, changing the storytelling kind of ecosystem? Obviously, there’s shows like Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls, but at the same time, we don’t want to be naive. We don’t want to say, okay, well, there are certain gatekeepers that are clearly, you know, as you said, and finally realize they can make a profit off these stories and our green lighting them, right? We don’t want to be too optimistic, but how do you see that storytelling ecosystem kind of changing? How is this environment now different, and what are you really maybe excited about seeing?
Jesse Wente: Yeah, so I think there’s a couple of different things I would say. One is that the ecosystem has changed in that we have, as you obviously know, I mean, we have such easy access now. When I was a kid, if you wanted to watch, you know, a film from China, it took some effort to figure that out. It takes zero effort now, you can sit, like we all watched Parasite, right? And like in a different generation, not only does that movie not win an Oscar, that movie is barely seen in America, right? Like in the ’80s. These days, it can become a cultural phenomenon, like Squid Game or whatever. So I think that has changed. I think the idea, when I, you know, was coming up as a film critic in media, there was this whole theory about how North American audiences wouldn’t read subtitles.
Nima: Yeah, yeah.
Jesse Wente: Well, like that’s like, what? And so I think a lot of that has gone away, because the audience has also changed, and people have understood that. The multi segmentation of the audience and the streamers have meant you can do more niche programming or what used to be considered niche programming, take what used to be considered risks, and have huge hits, because those communities will turn out for that stuff. So I think in the US, there’s like a real move towards that, and I expect it to keep going, you know, you mentioned how depictions of us have typically shown us in the past, and that is part of the myth. What is so interesting, though, is when you look at the history of how Indigenous cinema started, it started largely in the 1960s, late 1960s, early 1970s, in Canada and New Zealand, and it was Indigenous women, Alanis Obomsawin here and Merata Mita in New Zealand, and when they started making movies, what did they end up making movies about? They were activists, they made movies about protests going on in the moment. So when Indigenous people finally had the chance to tell stories about ourselves on screen, we didn’t start by telling stories about us in the past, we told stories about what you needed to know right now about us existing right in the moment, and in a fascinating way, it was a very, I don’t think it was conscious, but what it was was a counterbalance against all of cinema history, which had depicted us in the past. Now we have the tools we’re depicting us in the present after all you folks thought the last of us had already died, and suddenly here we are depicting ourselves in the moment, and that’s still, I think, a lot of the ethos for Indigenous storytellers on screen globally, is you see most of them set their stories in the present, if not the future, because we exist in the future, too. So I think you’re seeing that move.
In terms of what I think the future for Indigenous storytelling on screen is, right now we exist where we’re just getting into it in a purely commercial system like the US, you’re starting to see investment, in a hybrid system like you see in Canada, we’re starting to see dedicated supports, you’ve got an Indigenous screen office up and running, we’ve got an Indigenous broadcaster, we’ve had one here for 25 years, I don’t think there is even one yet in the US fully. So we’re starting to build that capacity. We still exist. You know, it’s funny that we founded something called the Indigenous Screen Office. Now we serve First Nations, Metis and Inuit people. Those are the three sorts of groups that we would identify in Canada. I think as we regain our narrative sovereignty, what you’ll begin to see is we’ll talk less about Indigenous cinema and Indigenous TV, and we’ll talk more about Anishinaabe cinema, Hodinoshoni cinema, Tlingit cinema, we will stop having this umbrella. Because of course, when we were storytellers before, that’s how it would have been, you would have had an Anishinaabe storyteller and a Hodinoshoni storyteller. It’s only under colonialism that we’ve been grouped in that same way, and we’re emerging out of that now as we build capacity. So 30, 40 years down the road, certainly my hope is that that’s exactly what we see, and when we get to that, we’re having this discussion because the idea is sort of like there’s this media and people are beginning to understand things differently. Imagine when you’re not just watching the Indigenous show, you can actually say I’m watching an Anishinaabe show, how you’re now gaining a new understanding of where you live, and I think that is really also important is that Indigenous storytelling writ large, while it, of course, is a benefit to us, it is an enormous benefit to those that live here now because I think big problem in both sides of the medicine line is that the people who live here now don’t actually know where they live, I mean, in a really fundamental way. Sure, you can say you live in New York City or Cleveland or whatever. But do you actually know what that means? That had a different name at a different time. There’s people that have lived there literally forever. Do you know those things? Because that’s the difference, and I think part of unifying us or coming to understand how we exist together on these lands is deepening that understanding for those parts of the population who don’t have that in their family, don’t have that in their community, whose history may stretch back 500, 600 years, which seems like a long time, but just isn’t, and it’s trying to deepen that understanding, and I think that, you know, would help all of us.
Nima: I definitely want to hear exactly what that prophecy is, because that sounds really relevant right now.
Jesse Wente: We have many prophecies, this is the one I’m speaking with specifically, the prophecy of the seven fire, which is here for the Anishinaabe, and it talks about a time when the world turns back to Indigenous people in order to gain the wisdom that it needs to continue to exist, and the way it was always described to me was that there was sort of like that sort of what happens, but it sort of can happen in a few different ways. The key one being sort of, people can choose to turn back and gain the understanding, or people turn back because they have to, and the suggestion has always been the have to is not the preferable option, if you understand what I’m saying. And the turning back, because you sort of figure out, oh, we might need to know some things differently, and understand the world maybe a little bit differently than we have been, that is always the one that maybe saves more people in the long run. So in our Nation, this story has been passed down, this prophecy, in terms of, there will be a time, and if you look at what’s been occurring in Canada, where we’ve had this ongoing truth telling around residential schools, where we have our communities searching the grounds, my community is searching the grounds on the place where my family went to residential school because there was a grave site there, we know there are bodies there. So they’re searching the ground. If you look at all of that, if you know that, for example, my children speak more Anishinaabe in our language than I do. These are all signs, these are all signals of our communities healing, getting strength back. It’s not a coincidence that we’re seeing these gains, like in terms of the Indigenous Screen Office, all this other stuff, also happening as we heal, and we begin to grow and get our strength back and recover from these many generations now of just violence and trauma, and this is all happening as we’re also watching these colonial settler states really struggle under the burden of their history, of the myths that they’ve told, and their inability to fully confront them. So there’s, you know, as the elders would say, the world is always in motion, and the more you can understand how the different movements interconnect can make you sort of understand what’s happening, and I’ll leave you with this, you know, or leave this answer anyway with this, one thing I often say is, you know, Indigenous people are already post apocalyptic, we have seen our world destroyed, and we lived through it, so the idea of another apocalypse, we may view it differently than others.
Adam: I mean, I remember when I was like, I was pretty old, I was way too old, like seven or eight, my stepmom sat me down and had to finally break it to me because it was embarrassing for everyone that Santa wasn’t real, and I remember I balled.
Jesse Wente: Sure.
Adam: It’s a tough conversation to have, breaking myths is always hard, and the reaction is, yeah, to be expected, because it’s how one views their moral place in the universe, right?
Jesse Wente: You know, my parents took a very different tact.
Jesse Wente: They left the price tag on things.
Adam: Yeah that’s one way of handling it. I was so, I was beyond credulous. I think one of the reasons I do what I do now, where I’m just a really jaded, cynical media critic, is that I was the last person in my class to let go of Santa Claus.
Jesse Wente: You know, and you could still cling Adam. Why give it up now? Just hold on to it. What’s the difference at this point?
Nima: Belief is real.
Adam: You know what, you’re right. I’m going to become a Santa Clausist.
Jesse Wente: Yeah, I mean, at this point I’m watching from up here and I’m like, why not? I mean, might as well.
Nima: It’s no crazier than a lot of what we see anyway.
Jesse Wente: Oh, I think it’s way more sane.
Nima: Way saner.
Jesse Wente: Then a lot of things.
Nima: Well, Jesse, I think that’s a great place to leave it. This has been great. Next time you’re on I promise we’re going to grill you on what your favorite John Ford movie is, but not today. But we have been speaking with Jesse Wente, Anishinaabe writer, broadcaster and arts leader. A member of the Serpent River First Nation, Jesse has been a CBC Radio columnist, film critic, program director at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the founding Executive Director of Canada’s Indigenous Screen Office, where he now serves as Senior Advisor. He is also the author of the memoir, Unreconciled: Family, Truth and Indigenous Resistance, which was published in September of 2021 by Penguin, now out in paperback. Go pick that up. Jesse, thank you so much, again, for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Jesse Wente: Thank you so much. I’ll say my language chi-miigwech, chi-miigwech, chi-miigwech.
Adam: Yeah, I think the sort of liberal version of it is actually kind of worse, this sort of Thanksgiving fairy tale where everyone got along. In many ways it’s kind of more pernicious in the sense that, like the rhetoric around the, you know, the first Americans, they’re part of a melting pot. It’s like, well —
Nima: You want your Hollywood ending to be unapologetically violent and heroic on behalf of the colonizing white people. I get that. It gets disingenuous if we do something else.
Adam: There is a kind of assimilation, which itself can be genocidal, right? You have this sort of relocating, basically kidnapping Indigenous children from their parents and putting them in white households that lasted for up until the late ’70s, and to some extent, still exists today.
Nima: In both the US and Canada.
Adam: That was the sort of assimilation project and that is no more subtle form of genocide and is more subtly sinister. But when you sort of pivot to like the oh, we’re just, you know, at the it’s like the end of Outlaw Josey Wales, which tried to be a kind of anti-Western, the Clint Eastwood film from the 1970s, where the big kind of ending is that he says, like, you know, ‘Why can’t we live on this land without butchering one another, we can live together,’ and then the ten bears, like, you know, they do this blood brother ritual, and then he’s like, ‘You will live amongst us’ or whatever, and it’s like, I mean, I guess it’s better than like, the other thing, but it’s still like, well, it’s, it’s not your fucking land.
Adam: You know, you just, you’re just a parasite who’s invited yourself and in, you know, I, and obviously, that gets a little messy.
Nima: Well, I mean, there’s a whole other, I mean, look, you know, whenever we talk about film, Adam, I feel like there are multiple sequels and sub sequels and, you know, other things that we could do, we could obviously talk for so long about these, you know, tropes, like the going Native trope, the I don’t want to say mirror image necessarily, but you know, it kind of has that, you know, depiction of Native culture, but then it’s trying to be more, have that kind of liberal perspective, right? It’s not about obliteration, it’s more of the kind of vanishing trope, right, the vanishing Indian, the vanishing American that we discussed earlier, and you see this kind of in a lot of other films, it’s not just Dances With Wolves. So you see this in other genres with like, The Last Samurai, right, which is basically Tom Cruise, I think, is like a soldier who was at Little Bighorn, is that right? And then, you know, on the Wild West circuit, and then is sent to feudal Japan and goes Native there, right? So there’s a whole subsection of depictions of Indigeneity on film, from the early silents to the massive blockbusters of today that I think we could keep talking about. I mean, I promise, one of these days, Adam, we’re going to have to talk about the trope of the Indian burial ground but I know we don’t have time for that now.
Adam: You got it, I will, we’ll make that a separate sub second, sub sequel, spiritual sub sequel to the sub sequel. Someone needs to create, you know how there’s the Westphall Theory of unified TV because of St. Elsewhere, there were a bunch of other shows that like Dallas and all the shows had overlaps.
Nima: Uh huh.
Adam: And then because Dallas was all a dream, all the shows —
Nima: “It’s all been a dream” trope.
Adam: So someone needs to, and someone actually has like an elaborate chart online of all that, somebody to do that for our spiritual sequels and our sub sequels, and then at the very last episode we will tell everyone it’s just a dream.
Nima: This entire show has just been a dream folks. Sorry.
Adam: It’s all been a dream. It’s all fake. America is actually great. That was all fake.
Nima: That’s right. Anyway, that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you all for listening. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we really are 100 percent listener funded. And as always a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Thank you for listening again to Citations Needed everyone. Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, December 14, 2022.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.