The other day I was watching Cowboys and Aliens. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a great concept, with top actors, great CGI, and terrible writing. Case in point? At one point the posse stumbles upon a paddle steamer. It is upside down, “500 miles away from any river big enough to hold it”. No further explanation is given, and, if this is supposed to be an indication of just how messed up things have gotten, there are no other examples.
But the point I wanted to make is about the film’s portrayal of the Chiricahua Apaches. Their introduction comes via a swift ambush on the beleaguered posse. When the unconscious protagonist comes round they are being shoved around the camp by a mob of ululating braves. A dead member of the posse is aggressively thrown on the fire, and things look like they’re going to go south pretty quickly. [SPOILERS] occur, and attention shifts before things can get out of hand. Eventually, an alliance is formed, and the Chiricahuas heal the protagonist’s amnesia with psychedelics.
My point is, the tribe only seems to be there to drive the plot. The main character needs to start of with amnesia because the plot demands it. But when the writers needed a way to heal that amnesia quick, they got them some of that Injun magic. I’m no expert with psychedelics, but I’m pretty confident that they can’t just heal unspecified mental trauma on demand. Still, the confident way the Chiricahua chief says “they will take care of that” implies that they’ve done this thousands of times.
At the end, the main town of Absolution becomes a [SPOILER] mining town. This is despite the fact that the major deposits of [SPOILER] that we know about (because of plot) are right in the middle of Apache territory. I have a hard time believing that the Chiricahuas would just roll over and allow that. I also have beef with the fact that the white men are willing to let the fugitive protagonist ride off into the sunset because of their shared experiences, but presumably run the Chiricahuas off their land despite the fact that THEY ALSO SHARED IN THOSE EXPERIENCES.
But let’s stop picking on this particular film. These are actually some pretty common themes.
For example, in the Call of Juarez game, an Apache medicine man called Calm Water appears as a quest giver. Because of him the protagonist, Billy, learns how to use a bow and horse, and climbs up a steep mesa to retrieve an eagle’s feather. Billy goes on to become a braver man; facing his inner turmoil and standing up for himself and those he cares about. Yay for Apache-sponsored spiritual growth. Calm Water is subsequently killed for helping Billy, possibly because the plot demanded it.
Want more examples? I didn’t play Assassin’s Creed 3, and neither did any of my gamer friends, so I can’t really talk about Ratonhnhaké:ton, the Mohawk-English protagonist of that game. You’ll also notice I haven’t really gone into Red Dead Redemption. Again, this is because I haven’t played it, much as I would like to. But from all I’ve read, the old tropes are alive and well there. Neither do I want to talk about Fallout New Vegas: Honest Hearts, or the Twilight franchise because neither is set in the past. That said, they do comply with several of the common tropes associated with Native Americans. Oh, and while I’m on the subject, Star Wars’ Sand People and Avatar’s Na’vi are both proxies for Native American cultures. And they both stink.
I did watch Appalloosa, the Ed Harris-directed film about two marshals who are trying to bring peace to a lawless town. While the two heroes are on the trail of their quarry, some more of those pesky Chiricahua turn up to ransack the bad guys, and carry off their guns, horses and wimmun. After a shoot-out, Viggo Mortensen resolves the thing by giving them a horse.
Another film I watched recently was A Million Ways to Die in the West. If there’s one thing that film did right it was to knowingly admit that the indigenous peoples were treated terribly by the settlers. But then Seth MacFarlane does drugs with them and grows spiritually so that he can go back and face the bad guy. Oh, and also, they provide him with [SPOILERS] so that he can outsmart that bad guy.
I could also go into Disney cartoons with Pocahontas and Peter Pan, but I think I’d probably get more hate there for ruining your childhoods. Suffice it to say, it’s always the white guys who end up with the minority women, and never the other way around. No wonder Save the Last Dance felt so progressive…
But anyway, Native American cultures are still suffering persecutions to this day. This frequently comes in the form of the erosion of their territories and reservations. However, it is also in the reduction of their culture to that of a plot device. They are inserted as one more hurdle for the inevitably white male protagonists to overcome. Hell, one reason I enjoyed True Grit so much was that it was told through the eyes of a 14-year-old girl. Switching things up a bit. History has not been kind to the more-than 500 different First Nations peoples. They had an oral culture, which has not often made the jump to the written word. Furthermore, their place within American society has very much been determined by others.
In media terms, Native Americans generally crop up in ‘Westerns’, which are dated to a specific era. It is very rare to find them depicted outside of this time period, and even when they do, such as in Twilight, they are generally portrayed as savages. They are shown as animals, who are defined by their curse, not by their mastery of it. And that sucks. I really want to see something different. No more magic, no psychedelics, no brave warriors. There has to be a whole side to that culture that I know nothing about, and I want a bit more balance, please.