The Portrayal of Native Americans in Film and TV Over the Past Decade
Native American representation in media is sadly lacking, and films like Killer of the Flower Moon, successful or not, only serve to polarize the community as yet another white man gives their ‘take’ on Native Americans from a white point of view and makes yet more money from exploiting their trauma. But the winds of change are blowing, and representation is growing, especially in the TV space.
The Time Before
Long before the Osage Murders of the early 20th century, white people had been eradicating Native Americans for centuries. Our not-so-great forefathers appropriated land and resources from the Native Americans before systematically relegating them to smaller and smaller patches of earth. We suck. I can say that as a white man.
The earliest days of cinema began strong for Native American filmmakers and actors. By earliest, we mean circa 1900 with films like White Fawn’s Devotion (1910), Daughter of Dawn (1920) and Tragedies of the Osage Hills (1926), and yes, that last one which predates Killers of the Flower Moon by almost a century was the same story told from the Osage point of view.
But things changed over time, and with the advent of sound in the 1930s, Native Americans often were characterized as savages, shamanistic healers, and objects of sexual desire for white men, a la the native princess. As if to make things worse, Hollywood then started putting white men in redface and taking what might have been career-making roles away from the very people they depicted. Even when Native Americans were cast, it was always some white dude in the director’s chair.
Native American representation in film was (and let’s be honest, is) often inaccurate, largely because it is told from the perspective of non-natives. This not only pertains to story decisions and casting but other things like costume, hair, make-up, dialect, all of it. The story of Pocahontas, by and large an arranged marriage of a “white savior” to a very young girl, has been glamorized and fetishized over and over again in media.
Like most parts of the world, change is slow. In the early 90s, a few films started to turn things around, namely Dances with Wolves (1990) and Last of the Mohicans (1992). In both cases, Native Americans were cast as, and I know this sounds crazy, Native Americans. Not only that, but the characters were nuanced, defined, fleshed out, and complicated, and their caliber portrayals by prominent Native American actors laid the cornerstone of the change to follow.
Portrayal In Film
Native American portrayal in speaking roles has been less than one-quarter of one percent over the past decade, according to a recent USC Annenberg study. Worse, just one protagonist in the top 1,600 theatrical films from the last 16 years was Native American. The latest Annenberg Inclusion Initiative research brief found that Native Americans comprised just 133 of 62,224 speaking characters – and only 99 of those roles were played by Native actors. So let’s be clear… .there is not enough Native American representation in film, full stop.
That being said, there have been some prominent films in the past decade featuring Native Americans in prominent roles, though it’s worth noting that in many of these cases, these are predominantly white stories told by white filmmakers from a white character perspective. The Revenant (2015), which was also a Scorsese film, clearly was just an appetizer for Killers of the Flower Moon (2022).
“Westerns”, while certainly no longer in their Hollywood heyday, remain a prominent source for casting for Native American actors, including Hell or High Water (2016)
Magnificent 7 (2016), Wind River (2017), Hostels (2017), Woman Walks Ahead (2017)
and Badland (2019). In most of these films, only a handful of roles go to Native Americans, as these are, by and large, stories about white people. It’s also worth noting that Wes Studi is in almost all of these. That man is a marvel and if you haven’t seen his comedic chops in Mystery Men (2006) you are doing yourself a disservice.
That brings us to Prey (2022), which breaks every glass ceiling for Native American representation in film, since it is an action-packed science fiction film with a Native American female lead, and with some sequences shot in Comanche language! Also, pretty sure you can get the Comanche subtitles so… yeah. This movie was a step in the right direction.
Representation On TV
Native Americans are seeing much stronger representation in the TV landscape, where actors can find steady work for multiple seasons. Even better, these roles are often more prominent, key roles, less tropey, and in general well-received by even the Native American audience.
In the Western genre, you’ll find shows like Westworld (2016-2022) of course, but also Jamestown (2017), 1883, and spinoff 1923 (or is it the other way around?) and The English (2022). Dark Winds (2022) has been critically acclaimed by audiences and critics both but was criticized by The Navajo Times for lacking authenticity in its representation of Navajo people and language. Series director Chris Eyre responded to the criticism and commented, “It’s critically important to all of us that we represent the culture correctly. If there’s course correction to be made, we’re happy to do that.” For the second season, the series hired Navajo cultural advisor George R. Joe to help create more accurate portrayals of the Navajo culture.
This of course leads us to Reservation Dogs (2021-2023), which may be the most prominent TV role of Native American culture in the modern age since Smoke Signals (1998). Critically acclaimed and beloved by audiences, this show was the whole package, from featuring an ensemble cast struggling with identity, coming of age, jobs, you know… normal stuff. Better it was from a Native American point of view. In short, there needs to be more shows like this made by Native Americans but accessible to everyone.
Representation of Native Americans in Hollywood is inadequate at best. Native Americans need more opportunities to share their stories from their perspective. Hollywood can and should do better to promote the work of Native American actors and filmmakers.
Below is a helpful video detailing Native Americans in cinema produced by Alamo Drafthouse.
Indigenous Cinema: A Brief History of Native American Representation in Film — Alamo Drafthouse