Tarantino’s ‘dead Indians’ and the roots of American violence

Pictured: A Los Angeles billboard for Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film 'Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood'.(Photo: Nancy Marie Mithlo)

As other viewers of Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film 'Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood' laughed at Leonardo DiCaprio's 'the only good Indian is a dead Indian' refrain, Nancy Marie Mithlo, Chiricahua Apache, cringed

My day job is as an American Indian Studies professor at a major university. Actually, like many educators, it is my day and night job. The luxury and the burden of being an academic is that you get to think about complex and weighty ideas ALL THE TIME. That is why I particularly relish going to the movies. I want complete immersion  to be fully entranced, to luxuriate in a space, place and time frame that is totally unique. I want the fantasy. Often, I need the fantasy.

Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film 'Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood' promised to be all that. And in many, if not most ways, it delivers. Described by critics as his ode to Los Angeles, the film conveys the textured, layered and vibrant world of 1969 that I knew as a child. The radio jingles, the go-go boots, the television shows and the hippies, evoked all the sensations I recalled from my youth. It was complete nostalgia.

Hollywood Boulevard sign
Pictured: Hollywood Boulevard. Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film 'Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood' is described by critics as his ode to 1960s Los Angeles.(Photo: Nancy Marie Mithlo)

During the screening in a fully sold out theater on LA’s Sunset Boulevard, I was enthralled with Tarantino’s latest, and so was the packed house. But then, out of nowhere (and this happens a lot) as DiCaprio’s zealous bounty hunter character rides the dusty streets in a classic black and white Western, you hear the narrator’s voice echo the refrain, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” As the audience laughed, I cringed. So much for my escape from the “real” world. 

Let me be clear, this is not a critique of Tarantino; I think the guy is genius, even if often off-tune in matters of race and gender. It is even rumored that he is of Cherokee descent, (something to give one pause). So, where to locate the cause of my angst? Perhaps I am mad at the audience and their ignorance. Yes, Bruce Lee takes a hit in the film as do the actors who play car lot attendants from Mexico, and yes, the Sharon Tate character does not get many lines. But in those cases of diminishment, the audience is not asked to find humor in the extermination of a race.

The phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” has its origins in the mass-extermination of Indigenous peoples of the American West in the mid-1800s, notably the inhumane slaughter of hundreds, if not thousands of Native people who were at peace with the United States under treaty. These horrific war crimes are so far removed from our collective understanding of American history that a type of amnesia is at play. I call this oversight “willful ignorance.”

Was it historically accurate to have a Western character in a 1960s drama use racist language? Yes, of course this type of racial slur was common, so why object to its inclusion in a period piece?

The researcher in me knows that the audience has no conception of American Indian people as real, has no way of relating to “Indians” as contemporaneous people, but thinks of Native folks as simply objects of cultural fantasy. I know this because a fellow professor and I recently completed a study that demonstrates this objectification of American Indians with a Los Angeles survey population.

In short, our findings demonstrate the inability of viewers to consider American Indians as anything but objects; basically, props in an often-elaborate fantasy world populated by fictional “chiefs” and “princesses.” Our conclusions are in concert with related psychological research on implicit bias demonstrating how Native people are considered equivalent to sports mascots and both are disparaged.

It is well-known that bias enacted against one racial or cultural group leads to bias against other groups. Our collective tolerance for incitement of violence is starkly evident in the rising numbers of mass-shootings on innocent citizens in the U.S., and should serve as a dark reminder of its original use against American Indians. Both kinds of mass-shootings were similarly motivated by white supremacist ideologies.

“The only good Indian is a dead Indian” is an American proverb with roots in the genocidal policies of the U.S. government. The salience of this proverb today is ever present as we struggle to recognize basic human rights globally.

While the fantasy of escape from our current crisis of racial, cultural and political intolerance is intoxicating, the truth of our discord and dysfunction is inescapable. Maybe this is what Tarantino wants us to understand — that the violence enacted in the creation of this nation is ever-present and waiting to explode. Perhaps his tenth and supposed final film could address just this — America’s origins as premised in the annihilation of its Indigenous peoples.

Nancy Marie Mithlo, Ph.D. (Chiricahua Apache) is a Professor of Gender Studies and an Affiliated Faculty with the American Indian Studies Center at University of California Los Angeles. A volume of her collected essays titled Knowing Native Arts will be published with the University of Nebraska Press, Fall 2020.

Comments (9)
No. 1-8

You know. A lot of those Hollywood western movies have everything wrong. When they made those movies in the 1930s - 1970s. They didn't know anything. Whether it's on Native Americans, Africa Americans, Asian Americans, and Caucasian Americans. These movies got everything wrong. I don't think the producers did any research on that time period. And of the people of that time. They are only interested in entertainment, making a money. And that's how hollywood, california is. And the reason for lower case letters. Is I don't give a shit about hollywood and their movies.


The most dangerous effect of this is the tip of the iceberg when Donald Trump vehemently espoused hatred for Mexicans, Muslims and black Americans long before he was elected. Since El Paso and Dayton a few days ago people now see the full iceberg. American white supremacists have espoused Trump and are carrying out Trump's desires with genocide.

Northerner at heart
Northerner at heart

Okay, I'll stick to the point of the topic. In our youth, we used to hear, CONSIDER THE SOURCE! So who is the source? Leonardo DiCaprio agreed to say those lines. A few years ago, before he won the Oscar, he was buttering up to native ways. Would he have said, "The only good Actor, is a dead Actor"? Would he have uttered, "The only good Mexican, is a dead Mexican"? And so on! Hollywood is Sewerland, these days. Truly! Reports are that some actors are Satan worshipers. One solid actor proclaimed his relationship to Satan on an awards show earlier this year that was seen world-wide. So it's almost a compliment to natives when they consider the source. We know we are good; and we will outlast the hate of Hollywood


I think Tarantino is a sick and twisted waste of space and I will not watch any of his films. Not surprised at all that such dialogue would find its way into this film.


I am Wichita with out tribal headquarters in Anadarko, Oklahoma. and have been trying to gather as much information about our tribe and people as I can. Much of what I learned at a very early age came from my great grandfather who died at the age of 106 when I was six years old. He was born in 1843, and I remember him telling stories about fighting the white man and about fighting the troops sent after them with orders to just kill them all, men, women and children, not exceptions. My grandparents and parents tried to shield myself and my siblings from the truth of these tales, but one thing I always remembered him saying was that the white man could kill an indian without provocation and suffer no consequences.
That the general attitude of the whites during the last half of the 1800s, and apparently into the 1900s was that the only good indian was a dead indian. In studying our history, I have seen that sentiment expressed in many books, mostly by white men. But for some reason it did not hit home with me as hard as it did when I was reading Buffalo Bill Cody' s autobiography and in it he talks about freely killing indians and states in this book which was written and published in 1922, that he believed "The only good indian is a dead indian." That made me lose all respect for him as a person and a historical figure. The more I study our history, the more appalled, and angry I become at how white people who invaded out country have treated our peoples from coast to coast and shore to the Canadian Border.

I am in my 70s now and I really wish I had taken the time to become more aware of out history and the treatment of our people by the white man. I am well educated with graduate degrees and have been wondering how to gain a voice to the public so I might bring out in a more hearable way this tragedy on which this country was built.