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Mary Robinette Kowal – Attack of the Stereotypes! Native Americans in Fantasy


As Columbus Day approaches, you’ll hear people talk endlessly about the Italian mapmaker and his discovery of America. Of course, such talk ignores the fact that people had been living here in thriving civilizations for thousands of years before he arrived. To honor the holiday, let’s take a look at how fantasy movies treat the folks who got here first.

Native Americans as Injuns

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
When I was a kid, we played cowboys and Indians with no understanding of either group’s culture. That’s not really surprising for a bunch of 8-year-olds. Hollywood producers, on the other hand, are still content to turn out movies that portray Native American as savages. Hence the hilarity that ensues when Johnny Depp has to stage an improbable escape from being served as dessert to an island full of them. Thanks for perpetuating that bloodthirsty stereotype.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
This movie heads down South America and fiddles with Mayan culture. Then it tosses in warriors from the invented Ugha people, so that our five heroes can have someone beside Nazis chasing them for a change. Inventing a tribe doesn’t absolve one of perpetuating stereotypes. Just ask Depp’s Captain Jack about the Pelegostoans.

Native Americans as Cultural Appropriations

Peter Pan (1953)
Cultural appropriation can take several forms. Here the idea of Native Americans is romanticized in the form of the Indian tribe Piccaninny. (I’ll cut J.M. Barrie some slack for the name, since he was writing in 1904 and, we hope, didn’t know any better.) At first glance, he seems to be working against the stereotype of the savage by introducing the beautiful, exotic, and powerful Tiger Lily. But the emphasis is put on Tiger Lily’s exoticism, which flattens her into a different kind of cartoon. Let’s call it the Indian Princess cliché.

The NeverEnding Story (1984)
In this movie, Atreyu stands in for Native Americans as one of the Plains People. There’s no doubt of his origin — heck, his parents were even killed by a buffalo. What makes Atreyu an interesting case is his metafictional nature: On the one hand, he’s the hero of the story that Bastion is reading. On the other, as soon as Bastian enters the story, Atreyu gets downgraded.

Pocahontas (1995)
This involves a different form of cultural appropriation: taking a specific historical figure and turning her life story into a musical with singing animals. It’s no real surprise the movie character bears little resemblance to Pocahontas the person. Making an 11-year-old girl into a super-hot adult are what really got under the skin of the Powhatan nation. I’ll grant that playing fast and loose with historical facts is fairly common in Hollywood. It becomes tricky, though, when the dominant culture is the one revising history.

Native Americans As Noble Savages

Windrunner (1995)
Noble savages exist along the lines of magical negroes — the ones who exist in the story to help the white along in his journey. In Windrunner, Greg Cima (Jason Wiles) has trouble acclimating to life in his new town. How does he solve this problem? By training with the ghost of Native American football star Jim Thorpe, of course. Because obviously ghosts don’t have anything better to do than come back to help angst-y teens.

Indian in the Cupboard (1995)
Here we have a little boy who brings to life a plastic figure of an Iroquois warrior and through a heartwarming journey learns the meaning of history and honor. Pause for a moment, if you will, and consider the symbolic ramifications of a Giant White Boy controlling the life of a Tiny Indian Warrior.

Night at the Museum (2006)
This is significantly more balanced, in that Sacagawea (Mizuo Peck) is not alone in helping Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) on his heartwarming journey of self-discovery: the entire museum is tagging along. The real problem lies in the industry as a whole, which offers so few counterexamples to the Indian-princess myth that she still comes off as a form of noble savage.

Dead Man (1995)
This movie, too, seems to fall into the noble-savage trap: Nobody (Gary Farmer) helps William Blake (Johnny Depp) on a spiritual journey. But the movie is a nuanced and respectful portrait of that journey. Nobody named himself that to represent how he views his place in the world, but he is the one making the decisions and struggling with his role in society, while Blake is merely a tool Nobody uses for self-discovery.

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Mary Robinette Kowal is the winner of the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a professional puppeteer. Her first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, is being published by Tor in 2010.

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