Native American’s Treatment in Film

In light of the analyses provided by both Buken and Kosmider, the discussion about the portrayals of Apache Chief Geronimo on film are problematic to begin with. The reason for this is they have been entirely constructed by White people. Irrespective of whether or not Native American actors portrayed Geronimo, according to social constructionist theory, the subject category known ‘Geronimo’ can only be authentically constructed and reconstructed by people within the Native American culture. Thus, any creation of Geronimo as a film or television character is going to be considered primarily a mythological character within this theoretical premise.  

In order to determine the myth and reality of the way in which Geronimo was portrayed in particular, it is important to lay a foundation for understanding the man and his life.   According to author, Henrietta Stockel (nd) who wrote a brief biography of Geronimo, he was born in 1829. However, Stockel is incorrect when she states he was born in what is now New Mexico. Geronimo was in fact born in Arizona.   One of his earliest memories is the information on Native medicine passed down to him through his male ancestors.   “The Indians knew what herbs to use for medicine, how to prepare them, and how to give the medicine. This they had been taught by Usen in the beginning, and each succeeding generation had men who were skilled in the art of healing.”   His story explains how the Apache Tribe is divided into six subtribes. Geronimo also describes Apache customs, beliefs and values in great detail.  

Another problem in recreating Geronimo’s life on film is the fact that these films are not only entirely created by White people but for White people as well.   As we will see, the stories which are the foundations for these films are not really about Geronimo, except in a couple of rare cases. They are actually about White civilization and its successful conquering of the Native Americans. They are also about reinforcing a famous historical, American viewpoint which is the need to preserve the myths around the time period they call ‘the Old West’. There are many romantic notions when it comes to American history but one of the most highly preserved is that of the Old West.   It is a time period which continues to be the subject of films and television series and there is almost always this false notion of the blossoming of American culture.   The reality is that the incursion of White people onto Native lands brought with it great cultural destruction and the denial of cultural identities of many Native American tribes including the Apache people. Thus, any film which portrays the notion of the Apache people being conquered for the ‘greater good’ of the political and economic development of the United States as a country is a myth in and of itself.  

The question we are faced with is, can any film which is about Native Americans but created entirely by White people be considered reality? If we take the social constructionist viewpoint, they cannot. White people will always be creating a story from their own cultural viewpoint, no matter how ‘sympathetic’ or ‘empathetic’ they are to the Native American experience. Thus we have to consider the possibility that there cannot be a realistic depiction of the Native American experience as long as it’s created through the eyes of White people.  

Kosmider (2001) relates how one of the more popular exhibits at these world fairs in the early part of the twentieth century was the opportunity to see ‘Indians living in a civilized manner’. “Yet fairgoers could also visit exhibits that demonstrated American Indians’ gradual progress in becoming “civilized.” The Indian Office at the Chicago fair contained a two-story schoolhouse where visitors could witness “live” Indians demonstrating ‘civilized skills’ while they endured “the stares of the curious.” Geronimo and his men were part of such exhibits. Of course this demonstrated to the White community that Indians could indeed become civilized people and thus assimilated into American society.   Like films and television shows created by white people, these exhibits were not about the myths of Native American culture, nor about the realism of their culture. They were about creating an image that the American public could accept.

Thus perhaps the most problematic issue in the creation of Geronimo on film and television is that these portrayals are ultimately a need to reinforce the dominance of White culture. They are not about creating stories which depict Apache culture except in highly exaggerated ways. Thus, the social discourse that is American film and television is very much about creating the subject known as ‘the Indian’. The Indian is the colonized and the White man is the colonizer. For a story to be authentic about the subject we know as ‘Geronimo’ it must, at least to some degree, disrupt this notion of colonizer and colonized. Otherwise, the story will always remain the same. Geronimo, whether or not he is portrayed in a negative or positive light (the revisionist style) will always, to some degree be the ‘savage Indian who fought the forces of colonization’.    

Gerald Wilkinson’s (1974) illuminating article discusses the effects these kinds of films have on American society. “Stereotypes also harm society as a whole. They reinforce our dominant cultural attitudes–about race, gender, class, religion, and other defining traits. They allow the people in power to remain in power. If Indians or other groups are deemed inferior or worthless, we can take their possessions and rights and not feel bad about it.” Films such as Geronimo’s Last Raid, Stagecoach and Indian Uprising: Geronimo on the Warpath Again! must be understood as the socially constructed reality of their time. When these kinds of films are made, they create artistic caricatures which are unfortunately enduring myths and ultimately, harmful stereotypes. As Wilkinson says this is also about basic human rights which the Apache people were repeatedly denied. They were treated as less than human and denied the right to self-determination for a long time. Unfortunately, films such as Stagecoach and the others mentioned above not only reinforce such racist notions they also perpetuate them.  

Journalist, Rita Pryllis (2004) agrees with Wilkinson. “Beginning with Wild West shows and continuing with contemporary movies, television, and literature, the image of Indigenous Peoples has radically shifted from any reference to living people to a field of urban fantasy in which wish fulfillment replaces reality.” Akim Reinhardt (2004), a historian at Towson University wrote of this same phenomenon in The Baltimore Sun.   “[…] Indian films almost always involve war. They become a mirror for examining what was happening in the nation […] Before World War II, you have films like Drums Along the Mohawk in which settlers are fighting vicious Indians who are stand-ins for Nazis and other fascists. Then in the ’60s and ’70s, you have the Vietnam war played out on the  

Dr. Cornel Pewewardy (, discusses the impact of racial stereotyping on Native Americans. “Beginning with Wild West shows and continuing with contemporary movies, television, and literature, the image of Indigenous Peoples has radically shifted from any reference to living people to a field of urban fantasy in which wish fulfillment replaces reality. The challenge that we have today is to deconstruct a reality that has been manufactured by the American media and scholars. Therefore, Pewewardy suggests that although the films that have been discussed so far are actually stereotypes and not the ‘lived reality’ of Geronimo and the Apache people, they are the ‘constructed reality’ that people understand as being the facts of life in the Old West. Not only is this a constructed reality (albeit a false one) in a very real way it has been a tool for constructing and controlling ethnic identity.  

Films such as the above gave the moviegoers of their times a constructed reality of Geronimo and the Apache people. That reality, although a mythical creation and a series of negative stereotypes was nevertheless the reality that people believed in for a very long time. Thus, to the people of the time, Geronimo was a savage Indian and the Apache people were primitive and inferior. As Pewewardy explains, unless these stereotypes are counteracted in a positive way and quickly, people will buy into these portrayals as accurate.   He also goes on to explain that these films did not only influence people during the time they were made but for years afterward. “Years of research recognized that television and movies have shaped children’s values, attitudes, and subsequently, their behaviors.   Children learn by observation and readily imitate complex behavior patterns, even without reinforcement.”

Pewewardy also suggests that the power of these stereotypes goes beyond that. He states they are part of a pattern to exploit Native Americans culturally, politically and intellectually. He also states that prior to Columbus, we really did not have any notion of cultural constructs as we know them today, especially ones based on race. But, once Columbus and other colonizing forces came into contact with Native Americans, the notions of who they are and how they should be were created, recreated and reinforced right from the beginning. The force of colonization created the opportunity not only to exploit Native Americans but pave the way for racism to exist as we know it today. .   “Prior to Columbus, the world functioned for millennia without the race construct as we understand it today.   Therefore, we must understand that racism is the primary form of cultural domination in the United States over the past four hundred years.   It is cultural construction by social scientists and other students of group life as well as the mass media.”

If we analyse the films we have considered so far, then Geronimo and the Apache people were socially constructed from the beginning to be inferior in order to justify the force of colonization. But more than that, they reinforce negative ideas such as cultural domination and the right to construct ethnic identity in any way we choose. Ultimately then, these films are cultural and political reinforcement of racist ideas that were created a very long time ago regarding Geronimo and the Apache people. Pewewardy blames American cinema for being one of the most powerful agents responsible for stereotyping Native Americans. “Understanding the contemporary images, perceptions, and myths of Indigenous Peoples is extremely important not only for Indigenous Peoples, but also for mainstream America.   Most images of Indigenous Peoples are burned into the global consciousness by the mass media.   It was the Hollywood screen writers who helped to create the “frontier myth” image of Indigenous People today.   In most every respect, it was challenging the worn-out theology of Indians as losers and victims, and was transforming tribes into powers to be reckoned with for a long time to come.”

If we take this analysis to the extreme, in some ways, films such as these are no different from the films Hitler created in his time to racially stereotype Jews, the Roma (Gypsy Culture) and all those he wished to exterminate. His Ministry of Propoganda recognized film as the powerful tool that it is. It has the ability to reach millions of people in a relatively short time. These visual images remain with us for a long time and can influence the way we think and feel about other people.  

According to Dr. Ellen J. Staurowsky (1999), these kinds of images not only remain with us but influence us in ways that we often don’t consider. For example when we see products like the Jeep Cherokee, or Land O’ Lakes Margarine, do we think of this as inappropriate or do we simply disconnect? She suggests that the negative images and stereotypes of Native Americans are so powerful that we’re almost more comfortable with the mythical Indian than the realistic one. “As signifiers of the superior level of sophistication and accomplishment achieved by the “colonizers” then and now, the “primitive” images of American Indians have marked the growth of a capitalist consumer culture and in the process have created a degree of “cultural saturation” that does not encourage racial sensitivity. As Bordewich (1996) notes, Americans are more comfortable with fictional Indians than with real Indians.” What essentially happens is that Native Americans become reduced to “[…]little more than a singular stereotype of a mythical be-feathered fighting figure (Staurowsky, 1999).

Staurowsky goes on to suggest that these mythical stereotypes not only affect White children but Native American children as well. These are the stereotypes of their culture. They are thus constantly victimized and revictimized as these images play over and over again on peoples’ VCR and DVD players.   These stereotypical attitudes and portrayal are not something that will be easily removed from society. Unfortunately, myths and stereotypes about people from many different cultures continue to persist today. However, the information in this chapter suggests that the media — film and television can play a significant role in re-educating the public about these stereotypes and even help to dismiss them. Thus, the media has an important role to play in ending the victimization of Native Americans by creating films and television productions which provide us with realistic portrayal of Native American culture(s).


  1. I think this quote nails it: "we’re almost more comfortable with the mythical Indian than the realistic one." Sadly, most people don't realize or know what a "real" Native American looks like. Nor do they realize that one most likely lives nearby them. I think as long as the imagery is powerful enough, Hollywood will continue to use the stereotype of the romantic noble savage.

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