Hollywood depictions of tribal nations over the last century have been atrocious. The stereotypical stoic Indian became reality for generations of ill-informed Americans, because they assumed the Indians they saw on the silver screen and the TV had a signature resemblance to the actual historic Indians, as well as those Indians still around. Not even close.
There has been a lot of criticism from the Diné about the new AMC series Dark Winds, based on the mystery novels by the late Tony Hillerman. Tribal critics assert that the language and the behaviors of the actors are not representative of actual Navajo, and they are absolutely correct. But this is one of those times where the bellyaching, however accurate, misses the forest for the trees.
The Indian as celebrity is a touchy subject, given the historic injustice, given the distorted perception of all tribal people courtesy of a media never known for its quality of character. Time and again, opportunists take advantage of this ignorance, and try to pass themselves off as Indians, when they are actually from England or Italy. The end result is a depiction so distorted that real Natives balk at the representation. But—they are so preoccupied by their balking they do not notice that Hollywood distorts every aspect of culture and history, not just as it pertains to Natives.
For example, Johnny Depp’s Tonto portrayal is seen as a negative stereotype of Indians, a fantasy. Of course it is, because the entire movie is about the Lone Ranger, basically a cowboy superhero. The entire premise of the movie is fantastical. Why would the makers of a fantasy movie that inaccurately depicts white culture in the Old West, be held to some thin-skinned outrage standard to accurately depict Native characters?
The inability of many Native social critics to process anything except through the distortion of their own experience and self-interest limits their ability to properly access the intent and impact of anything they criticize. Do you actually think the cowboy is accurately depicted in shows like Gunsmoke or Big Valley or Bonanza? This is a Hollywood depiction of the Old West which has no bearing on reality. Obviously, any tribal nations appearing in this Hollywood version of reality will be similarly distorted. Billy the Kid was actually an ugly, scrawny, sneaky, cowardly creep of a person, but big Hollywood stars take on the role, and often portray him as handsome and heroic. Hollywood puts a spin on history that serves its entertainment interest.
AMC wants an audience for its new series Dark Winds. Most of that audience must necessarily be white. They didn’t make the series for Navajos. You can hire some Navajo to play Joe Leaphorn, but I watch the series to see Zahn McClarnon. I would not have watched it otherwise.
(Contact James Giago Davies at firstname.lastname@example.org)