Progression or Stagnancy? Portraying Native Americans in Michael Apted’s Thunderheart (1992)
Keywords:Native Americans, western, revisionist western, film, American film, film studies, Indigenous studies
As argued by Wilcomb Washburn, no other ethnic group has been misrepresented in media and popular culture to such extent as the Native Americans (2010). Movies that shaped their image did so by crystallizing stereotypes and misconceptions, through which indigenous peoples have been perceived until the present day. Thomas Edison’s vignettes, early westerns, as well as subsequent motion pictures of the 1960s and 1970s strengthened the stereotypes of the vanishing Indians, bloodthirsty savages, and their noble alter ego. The 1990s brought about a revival of the western in its new, revisionist form, mainly due to the achievements of the American Indian Movement. This paper argues that the movie Thunderheart (1992) by Michael Apted — albeit belonging to that ostensibly revolutionary current — continues to reproduce various well established stereotypes in the portrayal of the Native Americans . It examines significantachievements of this partly liberal motion picture, as well as its failures and faults. Thisarticle argues that Thunderheart departs from traditional, dualistic portrayals of Native Americans as bloodthirsty and noble savages and manages to present a revisionist version of historical events; at the same time, it fails to omit numerous Hollywood clichés, such as stereotypical representation of native spirituality, formation of an “Indian identity”, and “othering” of the Native Americans, which contributes to their further alienation and cultural appropriation. This paper provides an insightful analysis of the movie, drawing on scholarship in the field of cultural and indigenous studies in order to lay bare the ambivalence towards indigenous people in the United States, that is reflected in the movie industry. Moreover, it indicates towards the commodification of native culture, as well as the perception of Native Americans as primitive and inferior, allowing to classify Thunderheartas an unfortunate product of colonialism.
Aldred, Lisa. “Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality.” The American Indian Quarterly, vol. 24, no. 3, 2000, pp. 329-52, https://doi.org/10.1353/aiq.2000.0001.
“American Indian Movement | History, Significance, & Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/American-Indian-Movement, last accessed 10 January 2021.
Apted, Michael. Incident at Oglala. Spanish Fork Motion Picture, Wildwood Enterprises, 1992.
IMDb, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0104504/, last accessed 22 January 2021.
IMDb. Thunderheart. TriStar Pictures, 1992.
Axtell, James. “Colonial America without the Indians: Counterfactual Reflections.” The Journal of American History, vol. 73, no. 4, March 1987, https://doi.org/10.2307/1904058.
Baird, Robert. “‘Going Indian’: Dances with Wolves.” Hollywood’s Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film, by Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor, Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2010.
Bandy, Mary Lea and Stoehr, Kevin. Ride, Boldly Ride: The Evolution of the American Western. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012.
Burgoyne, Robert. Film Nation: Hollywood Looks at U.S. History. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Deloria, Vine and Lytle, Clifford M. American Indians, American Justice. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1983.
Ebert, Roger. “Thunderheart: Review.” The Chicago Sun, 3 April 1992, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/thunderheart-1992, last accessed 22 January 2021.
Gallagher, Tag. John Ford: The Man and His Films. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988.
Hauptman, Laurence M. Tribes and Tribulations: Misconceptions about American Indians and Their Histories. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.
Hughey, Matthew W. The White Savior Film: Content, Critics, and Consumption. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014.
James, Caryn. “One Director, Two Routes To American Indian Travail.” The New York Times, 10 May 1992. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/1992/05/10/movies/film-viewone-director-two-routes-to-american-indian-travail.html, last accessed 22 January 2021.
Jay, Gregory S. ‘White Man’s Book No Good’: D.W. Griffith and the American Indian.” Cinema Journal 2000, vol. 39, no. 4 (Summer), pp. 3-26, https://doi.org/10.1353/cj.2000.0016.
Kasdan, Margo and Tavarnetti, Susan. “Native Americans in a Revisionist Western: Little Big Man (1970).” Hollywood’s Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film, by Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2010.
Kaufmann, Donald L. “The Indian as Media Hand-Me-Down,” in: Bataille, Gretchen M., and Silet, Charles L. P. (ed.) The Pretend Indians: Images of Native Americans in the Movies, Iowa City: Iowa University Press, 1980.
Kempna-Pieniążek, Magdalena. “Twórczość Chrisa Eyre’a w kontekście problemów filmowych adaptacji.” Annales Universitatis Paedagogicae Cracoviensis | Studia de Cultura, vol. 5, no. 135, April 2013, pp. 94-105.
Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn. Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.
Kvet, Bryan W. Red and White on the Silver Screen: The Shifting Meaning and Use of American Indians in Hollywood Films from the 1930s to the 1970s. Kent, OH: Kent State University, 2016.
Lew, Julie. “Hollywood’s War on Indians Draws to a Close.” The New York Times, 7 October 1992.
Lutz, Hartmut. “Indians’ and Native Americans in the Movies: A History of Stereotypes, Distortions, and Displacements.” Visual Anthropology, vol. 3, no. 1, 1990, pp. 31-48, https://doi.org/10.1080/08949468.1990.9966521.
Maslin, Janet. “Val Kilmer as an F.B.I. Agent Among the Sioux.” The New York Times, 3 April 1992. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/1992/04/03/movies/reviewfilm-
al-kilmer-as-an-fbi-agent-among-the-sioux.html, last accessed 22 January 2021.
Mason, M. S. “Director Tries to Balance Native American Concerns.” The Christian Science Monitor, May 1992. Christian Science Monitor, https://www.csmonitor.com/1992/0512/12112.html, last accessed 22 January 2021.
McBride, Joseph. Searching for John Ford. Jackson Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2011.
Pack, Sam. “The Best of Both Worlds: Otherness, Appropriation, and Identity in Thunderheart.”
Wicazo Sa Review, vol. 16, no. 2, 2001, pp. 97-114, https://doi.org/10.1353/wic.2001.0028.
“Pine Ridge Indian Reservation Facts.” Re-Member, https://www.re-member.org/pineridge-reservation.aspx, last accessed 29 January 2020.
Price, John A. “The Stereotyping of North American Indians in Notion Pictures.” Ethnohistory, vol. 20, no. 2, 1973, pp. 153-71, https://doi.org/10.2307/481668.
Reed, Thomas Vernon. “Old Cowboys, New Indians: Hollywood Frames the American Indian.” Wicazo Sa Review, vol. 16, no. 2, 2001, pp. 75-96.
Richards, Jeffrey. “General Editor’s Preface.” Hollywood Goes to War: Films and American Society, 1939-1952, by Colin Shindler, Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014.
Roos, Philip D. et al. “The Impact of the American Indian Movement on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.” Phylon (1960-), vol. 41, no. 1, 1980, pp. 89-99.
Sanchez, John and Stuckey, Mary E. “The Rhetoric of American Indian Activism in the 1960s and 1970s.” Communication Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 2, Mar. 2000, pp. 120-36, https://doi.org/10.1080/01463370009385586.
Siegel, Robert. “The Lone Ranger: Justice from Outside the Law.” National Public Radio, January 2008, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18073741, last accessed 22 January 2021.
Sirota, David. “Oscar Loves a White Savior.” Salon, Feb ruary 2013, https://www.salon.com/2013/02/21/oscar_loves_a_white_savior/, last accessed 22 January 2021.
Turan, Kenneth. “Vision Quest of ‘Thunderheart.’” Los Angeles Times, 3 April 1992, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1992-04-03-ca-0-story.html, last accessed 22 January 2021.
Washburn, Wilcomb E. “Foreword.” Hollywood’s Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film, by Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor, Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998, pp. 153-71.
Yacavone, Peter. “‘Free From the Blessings of Civilization’: Native Americans in Stagecoach (1939) and Other John Ford Westerns.” Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 48, no. 1, 2018, pp. 32-44.