“What do you think he would say about Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger?” Dania asked.

Rolling her eyes, Eleanor replied. “What do you think?”

“It might make an interesting discussion,” Dania said. “Compared to something like Iron Eyes Cody.”

“Well, Iron Eyes Cody is a problematic example,” Gwen said, as the credits for Reen Injun began to roll. “An extremely interesting one, but a more extensive issue than simply casting Johnny Depp as Tonto.”

“That scene with his son gives the whole documentary this other weird dimension to it,” Eleanor said. “The moment of him standing in the field playing a flute, as he defends his father as genuinely Native American…”

“He’s not, though!” Dania interjected. “He was Italian!”

“Of course,” Gwen said. There was a moment’s pause, before she continued. “And yet…”

“There’s no ‘and yet,’ Gwen,” Dania responded. “He was Italian and pretended to be Native American.”

“But his son doesn’t believe that,” Eleanor replied. “For better or for worse, it’s difficult to tell someone they aren’t from a culture when they’ve been raised as a member of that culture so completely.”

“Well, in a Hollywood version of the culture,” Dania added. “In a version of native culture that Iron Eyes Cody decided was accurate.”

“I wish there was more information about what other people thought about Iron Eyes Cody,” Gwen said. “We get the historical angle about his past, but little about the response from other Native American filmmakers about his legitimacy. Or the legitimacy of his son, for that matter.”

“That’s my thinking,” Eleanor said. “I wouldn’t say that he was legitimate in claiming Native American ancestry, obviously not. That said, you look at the other examples from the same time period, and factor in how he stayed believing he was Native American offscreen –– and you consider the people looking up to him as a role model? Was he a force for positive change regardless?”

“I hesitate to look at him positively,” Dania said. “Basically everything in the documentary is problematic, except for the last, like, two films.”

Smoke Signals and The Fast Runner,” Gwen agreed. “They certainly provide a nice concrete button to the narrative.”

“A button ruined by The Lone Ranger coming out after the documentary did,” Eleanor said. “And that one controversy about Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily. See, the controversies still happen today. Atanarjuat didn’t change things overnight.”

“It’s one of the small criticisms I have of the documentary, in structure,” Gwen said. “The attempt to tie up the loose ends at the end, like Native American depictions in cinema had finally reached this peak and the work is now done.”

“Does it say the work is done?” Dania asked. “I think it’s still pretty depressing at the end.”

“I think it’s more hopeful,” Gwen suggested. “The idea that some Native American filmmakers now have the power to put their own heritage on screen.”

“I think what gets me –– like, the thing I’m taking away from this,” Eleanor said, “is how much the white people putting Native Americans on screen thought they were celebrating them. Holding them up.”

Dania winced. “A touch,” she said. “Not all of them.”

“Oh, definitely not,” Eleanor agreed. “You look at the movies where the Indians get massacred by the good white people. Ugh, everything that John Wayne ever made, I swear.”

“That one clip from The Searchers about desecrating graves,” Gwen groaned, recollecting. “That could pretty much be the entire documentary right there.”

“Well, that clip, paired with Chris Eyre discussing it,” Eleanor said. “The reaction is just as important.”

“Maybe that section with the Indian summer camp as well,” Dania suggested. “Just to really drive it home.”

Gwen’s hand went to cover her eyes. The clip in question, of a mess hall filled with shirtless white boys with faces streaked with war paint, smashing the tabletops in fierce warrior rhythm, had seemed to play for hours on screen.

“Okay, but that’s exactly the thing about people attempting to honor Native Americans in the worst way possible,” Eleanor said. “So much of their idea about Native American culture comes from cinema, where it’s depicted incorrectly. So, in an attempt to honor them, white people look to film –– and mirror the wrong thing.”

“Yeah, I get what you’re saying, about it coming from a good place,” Dania said. “I just don’t believe that it’s worth saying that their motivation is positive in honoring them, when the end result is so bad.”

“That’s fair,” Eleanor said. “Definitely fair. The documentary isn’t totally about that anyway.”

“Isn’t about what?” Gwen looked to Eleanor, with confusion. “White people appropriating the image of Native Americans?”

“Not entirely,” Eleanor said. “I mean, that’s a part of it, but it’s on the periphery.”

“I think the history of Native American depictions on screen is pretty central to a film literally called Reel Injun,” Dania said.

Gwen agreed. “I’d argue that the thesis of the film is that depictions of Native Americans on screen were only changed due to the activism and pressure of the Native American community, and how it mirrored the push for Native American sovereignty and rights and everything else that happened across the 20th century. That filmic depictions of Native Americans served as a litmus test for how the country responded to them.”

“Yes, all of that is in the documentary, for sure,” Eleanor said. “But the thesis, in my mind, is more complex. It’s not just about the history of Native Americans on screen, but about how thoroughly and completely Native American identity in the real world has been shaped by their depictions on screen.”

“I think that might be giving Hollywood too much credit,” Dania said.

“But is it wrong?” Eleanor said. “Like, consider the headband detail. That Native Americans never wore headbands. But Hollywood made up the fact that they did, and now you watch Smoke Signals, and boom: headbands. In a depiction of Native Americans made by Native Americans.”

“There is significant discussion in the documentary about the impact of these depictions on the Native American people being interviewed, or Diamond as the host,” Gwen said. “I thought the section about Sacheen Littlefeather and the Oscars protest was really fascinating.”

“That’s exactly it,” Eleanor said. “Protesting the Oscars might not have changed Hollywood, but it emboldened the protesters at Wounded Knee. I don’t know of any other cultural group that has its identity so thoroughly tied to fictional depictions of itself.”

“I mean, all groups have stereotypes, and they have to deal with them,” Dania said. “There’s always a fear of playing into stereotypes, especially ones that white people created.”

“Still, I think Eleanor has a point,” Gwen said. “So much of the cultural history of the American Indian is locked into films about them. All of it focuses on the version of their culture from at least a hundred years before film comes along. Imagine if every film depiction of China or Chinese people was from before the Revolution of 1911. It’s a stifling way to represent history.”

“And because film is super widespread, it’s really impactful,” Eleanor agreed. “Diamond himself discusses watching westerns as a kid and rooting for the cowboys, not even realizing that he was technically on the side of the Indians.”

“I don’t know,” Dania demurred. “I feel like that theory would give film too much credit. I mean, Native American culture is learned through other mediums besides film. Just because every film shows a Plains Indian doesn’t mean that every Cree, Seminole, and Chinook child suddenly imagines their heritage to be the same thing.”

“No, not entirely,” Eleanor said. “But it certainly sends mixed messages. Which can always mess with someone’s depiction of their ancestry.”

“Compared to traditions of blackface –– which, yes, is an extreme example,” Gwen said. “Blackface was racist caricature, but it was clearly caricature. No young black artist would look at it and mistake it for the truth. Depictions of Native Americans on film are more convincingly accurate.”

She paused, and then added finger quotes over “Accurate.”

“I just think it’s a really well-made documentary,” Eleanor said. “It does the good things documentaries do: shining a light on something you don’t usually think about, and make you care about it in a more immediate way.”

“I certainly care about the subject. I think it would have been hard for it to fail in that aspect,” Dania admitted. “I guess I just have some questions about the parallels that it draws. Whether the documentary is, itself, simplifying the Native American struggle down to just ‘Indians on Film.'”

“Well, it’s a documentary about Indians on film,” Eleanor said. “Of course that’s the focus.”

“But if the thesis is what you say it is,” Dania began, but petered out. “I don’t know, I just think it’s more complex than ‘Native Americans grew up watching The Searchers and lost their heritage.'”

“Which is why the documentary is longer than the time it takes to say that sentence out loud,” Gwen pointed out.


“Either way, a film everyone should see,” Eleanor said. “At least before we get another white person playing a Native American character on screen.”

“Someone send the movie to Johnny Depp,” Dania smirked.


Image Source: The Globe And Mail