Native American heritage month examines how American Indians deal with the challenge of their identities being blurred by Hollywood “Injuns,” who are characterized by their feathered headdresses, buckskins and red faces.
On Wednesday, the Native American Educational and Cultural Center hosted “Real Indians vs ‘Reel Injun’: Examining American Indian Identity in Film” in celebration of Native American heritage month, which ends this week. The event shed light on the challenges present-day natives face as they try to dispel the stereotypes pinned to their culture by Hollywood’s depiction of them in various films throughout the years.
The event featured a documentary, “Reel Injuns: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian,” and included a panel of speakers from Purdue’s Native American community. There was also a presentation from keynote speaker Terry Gasdia, a Pima-Hopi artist whose main goal is to teach Native American history and promote conservation and preservation of the culture.
Gasdia, who grew up balancing the traditions of his tribe as well as the teachings of mainstream society, said watching this documentary brought back thoughts from his youth.
“My childhood memories always go back to the portrayal of Indians in these movies,” he said. “We were losing a lot of our traditional heritage back then, and these movies aided in that.”
The documentary goes deep into Hollywood’s creation of the stereotypical “Injun” – backward, vicious and inferior – and oftentimes not even played by a Native American.
Many of these “Injuns” were played by people who would paint their bodies in red face paint and speak what is known in Hollywood as “Tonto language” (English played backward). To top off the portrayal, actors often don stereotypical garb such as feathered headbands.
One of the best-known Injun actors was Iron Eyes Cody, who played in more than 100 Western films and lived his entire life as a Native American, though in reality he was a full-blooded Sicilian immigrant.
The documentary also touched on the “groovy Injun” movement of the 1960s and 1970s – when many hippies adopted the style and behaviors of Native Americans to symbolize being free spirits – as well as the protest at Wounded Knee in 1975, which led to Marlon Brando requesting that Sacheen Littlefeather, a Native Indian friend, use his acceptance speech at the Academy Awards as a platform to speak on the mistreatment of Native Americans, both in film and real life.
Emily Sweeny, a sophomore in the College of Liberal Arts, said this film is a must-see for anyone who wants to know the truth about Native Americans and their rich culture, and how poorly many Hollywood films portray it.
“I have always loved watching Western films and as a kid, movies like ‘Geronimo’ were my favorite,” Sweeny said. “I didn’t realize it then but now I see how stereotypical and binding these films were to native people – and how it tarnishes their culture. These portrayals are especially bad for people who have never been around Indians enough to know that this is not how they really are.”
Gasdia, whose grandfather instilled in him the importance of keeping his culture’s traditions alive for future generations, hopes this film will give Purdue students the chance to openly discuss this topic with the Native American community on campus. He says this will not only help them learn about Native Americans, but it will also help Native Americans to learn about themselves.
“Many Native Americans struggle with their identity, and it is very hard for them,” Gasdia said. “It is up to us as a people to fight for our rights and learn about our heritage and traditions. Only then will we be able to find our identity, and once we do, no one can ever take that away from us.”