This wave of Hollywood ”Indian” films is reminiscent of the ”Dances with Wolves”-led surge in the early 1990s.
We have learned from the early ’90s that such movie waves usually lead to more non-Indians identifying with their Cherokee princess great-great-grandmothers, and that there has been a growth in the high-class ”Hollywood Indian” population. But for the most part, American Indians are still perceived as descendents of conquered, savage peoples with nothing to offer the world but glamorous dancing, fine beadwork and an exotic history awaiting exploitation.
Should we expect the same outcomes for the current wave of mainstream Indian films? I would have to say, ”Of course, and a whole lot more.”
Ghost is the Norse hero of ”Pathfinder: The Legend of the Ghost Warrior.” He is the son of a Viking who was raised by local Wampanoag Indians some 500 years before the landing of Christopher Columbus. He is initially cast off by the Natives, deemed not ready to become a warrior. Eventually, their entire village is annihilated by the ”Dragon People.” Ghost then defeats his own Viking people, thus postponing the colonization of Native America for another 500 years, with the aid of the Indian princess, a mentally retarded tribal member and the Pathfinder, a cliched mystic played by Russell Means.
Are we to believe that a single person stopped the Viking invasion and protected the Natives of America? Of course not, but the movie does send some powerful messages about what is known and still unknown about pre-contact Native America.
We know the Vikings landed on northern shores, but we can never gain a true sense of where this legend takes place. In ”Pathfinder,” the pre-contact environment is the harshest of any on the planet. The sun never rose. In one scene, our hero treks through caves filled with human skulls as if he were in a Conan comic book. Obviously there was ice and snow, but there are scenes that show both frozen and tropical environments. During the whole movie we are told that it is springtime, yet there are scenes that would have us thinking otherwise. Nevertheless, it does not make sense to show a young Indian girl gathering berries in a woodland area, and later show our hero sliding down a giant snow-packed mountain. The question still remains: Where exactly is this harsh environment and what is wrong with the weather?
Are we to believe that our ancient environment was at its most harsh in the absence of Europeans? Are we to believe that pre-contact North America was so untamed that even the seasons were inconsistent, and that today’s global-warming weather is ”normal?” Of course not, but ”Pathfinder” may convince some that Native America was ruled by nature, and in need of a good European environmental makeover.
We know for sure that the Vikings were armed with steel weapons, armor and probably rode horses, and so they were a force to be reckoned with. But ”Pathfinder” shows oversized Viking brutes hacking through helpless indigenous men, women and children without much resistance. ”Pathfinder” also depicts the Native people as helpless and defenseless – their pathetic warriors could not kill a single Viking – and that their lack of military tactics and common sense led their best fighters to commit suicide in a weak display of unorganized warfare. The white hero fights, defends and inevitably proves himself superior to the same savage people who denied him as a worthy warrior.
Is this common ancestor the sole reason why the French, Spanish, English and, later, the Americans were met with such violent resistance from Native warriors? Are we to believe that our ancestors could not produce the warriors and warrior societies that protected our people against the gun-wielding brutes of Europe without the teachings of a Viking? Of course not, but ”Pathfinder” may convince some, and vindicate others, that the strongest and bravest warriors came from Europe and that somehow our ancestors were bred into knowing their warrior ways.
So what does ”Pathfinder” have to offer other than poor assumptions about pre-contact North America and its original peoples? It offers nothing but the same old narrative of a white hero who saves the day or, in this case, five centuries. With his innate superior intellect and physical ability, Ghost is a hero who leaves a bloodline and legacy for modern day Americans to identify with, a theme that intrudes upon the basis for tribal sovereignty.
In one scene a Viking protests, ”This one knows our ways,” as if the human instincts of ”fight or flight” were absent in the childlike indigenous people. Our white hero is ”genetically” a natural fighter and needs no teaching.
Forget about being raised by Indians, which is usually the case in Indian movies with white heroes; his fighting ability ”is in his blood.” The white heroes from past movies, such as ”Man Called Horse,” ”Dances with Wolves” and ”The Last of the Mohicans” are no match for Ghost. He predates every Indian-raised white warrior by at least 1,000 years.
Perhaps the mainstream employment of American Indian actors is a relative victory, but I do not feel so victorious with films like ”Pathfinder.” Like most mainstream movies before, ”Pathfinder” had given Indian actors the opportunity to be on the big screen at the cost of their own exploitation. The movie falls miserably close to the path of sour Indian films which have the habit of depicting a wild pre-contact Native America filled with dirty savages wandering aimlessly, without much purpose but to await a brutal death from a much mightier European people. Should we distrust all Hollywood filmmakers when they call for Indian actors? No, but we should at least be aware of how they want to depict American Indians to the rest of the world.
Leo Killsback, Northern Cheyenne, is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arizona’s American Studies Program in Tucson, Ariz.