Netflix Instant Files: Reel Injun

neil diamond

If anyone doubts the power of the media, they need to see 2009 documentary Reel Injun, now on Netflix Instant.  It follows Hollywood’s portrayal of American Indians, from the inception of film up to contemporary times.  It shows how the ways in which Hollywood presented and lumped together diverse groups of people that it identified as “Indian,” created the most common perceptions of them, continuing their systematic persecution.

russell means

Oglala Sioux activist Russell Means.

Like with many documentaries, Reel Injun feels at first like it’s just a loosely connected series of ideas.  The organization of the film starts off a little rocky, but then finds its footing as it follows Hollywood through the ages.  It looks at each era of cinema, using the chronological organization to point out the various stereotypes Hollywood espoused: The Noble Indian, The Savage Indian, etc.

The film collects clips from movies and interviews with filmmakers, film historians, artists, activists, and other voices from American Indian communities all across the continent.  Through these it examines the history of the portrayal of American Indians, and how that’s affected both their communities and the West’s response to them.

Filmmaker Neil Diamond (no, not the singer) also structures the documentary as a road trip.  He sets off from his home to travel across the country to Hollywood, stopping to conduct interviews along the way.  It’s this part of the film that results in the two most upsetting scenes, both involving children.

In the first, Diamond travels to a summer camp that revels in the concept of the “noble savage.”  Of course it’s not called that, but it might as well be.  Each summer boys gather at the camp and are divided into tribes.  They spend their days fishing, playing lacrosse, and practicing archery, all while decked out in war paint (the color of the paint, in bright blues and greens and yellows, denotes the tribe to which they belong).

neil diamond

Director/filmmaker Neil Diamond in his rez car.

One of the counselors came from Austria to work at the camp.  He admits that he’s gathered all of his knowledge about the groups he’s presenting to the campers through movies.  He claims that he’s gotten a true sense of the American Indian mentality through those films.

The boys repeat chants like “pass the peace pipe to Crazy Horse.”  They have tribal matches that amount to wrestling fights in the mud.  Before meal times, they work themselves up into a frenzy, screaming and hooting at each other, the din apparently another native tradition.

Diamond claims the country is littered with such camps.  I’d never heard of them before now, but at the very least we know this one exists.  The camp seems to function as giving boys an excuse to act wild and crazy for a week (or however long the camp lasts), claiming to do so in the guise of honoring a noble culture.  As if running around covered in paint and screaming before supper is what it means to be American Indian.

It’s worth noting that I didn’t see a single woman in any of the camp footage.  Perhaps women work at the camp, but I didn’t notice a single female camper.  But any feminist commentary I might have comes far after the list of other, much more upsetting and wrong problems with such camps.

The other most upsetting moment requires less explanation.  Diamond visits a school on a reservation.  He wants to see the children’s reactions to historical portrayals of American Indians on film.  They show the children a movie depicting a government-led massacre.  The children need to know their history, and it’s heartbreaking.

Civil Rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather.

Civil Rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather.

Reel Injun isn’t all negative.  It’s not even as judgmental as it could be.  It shows how promising the portrayal of American Indians was in early Hollywood: they were popular subjects, and at first actual First Nations filmmakers and actors were able to start making their own films and telling their own stories.

That fell by the wayside, replaced by depictions of either the stoic, noble warrior or the shrieking savage.  But times have changed.  Portrayals have gotten better.  American Indian filmmakers are able to start telling their own stories again.

In the end, that’s all the makers of Reel Injun want.  They don’t want to be put on a pedestal; that was one of the problems.  They just want to be viewed as human: as complex, diverse people just like anyone else.  They don’t want to be lumped together with other tribes, and in some cases they don’t want to be considered as tribes at all: just as people deserving of being given the same level of voice as anyone else.

The purpose of Reel Injun isn’t to incense viewers, though I imagine that might be a common side effect.  It doesn’t shy away from showing the deep pain caused by decades of mostly negative (and always stereotypical and false) media portrayal.  Yes, it acknowledges that centuries of massacre was worse (though it doesn’t shy away from pointing out that massacres continued even in the modern era, when we think such things would have stopped), but it doesn’t want the damage caused by the media/Hollywood swept under the rug, either.

Film director and producer Chris Eyre.

Film director and producer Chris Eyre.

We need to be aware of the power of the media.  How our firmly entrenched our views of others can be determined by it.  The headbands, the single feathers: few, if any tribes ever wore these, and yet that’s the first image that likely comes to mind when we think of American Indians.  Cinematic heroes such as John Wayne made their names by fighting “savages” again and again in their films.  In The Searchers, he shoots out the eyes of an already dead and buried American Indian, all to prevent that person’s spirit from moving on, and yet these are still supposed to be the actions of a hero (if a tragic one).

Hollywood isn’t that bad anymore, but we shouldn’t ignore the damage that’s already been done.  Even so, the primary thing the filmmakers of Reel Injun want, the primary purpose of the movie, is to give the people back their voice.  We should learn about the myriad American Indian cultures not from stereotypical movies or from misled summer camps, but from those to whom the stories actually belong.  Reel Injun is a great place to start, and it contains clips from other films for those interested, including Smoke Signals, which is also available on Netflix Instant.

You can also pick up the DVD of Reel Injun at Amazon.