The story of the white man’s push westward across the country has been romanticized by Hollywood for as long as there have been movies. These movies are peopled with handsome cowboy heroes, fair maidens in distress, persevering pioneers, and fierce Indian warriors. These movies help create – and sustain – the frontier myth we call the Wild West.
The story of the Wild West is portrayed most vividly in the genre often called “cowboy and Indian movies.” In these tales, the American Indian is usually portrayed as a bloodthirsty savage who must be conquered in order to save the lady and the day. Another common movie depiction of the American Indian is as a drunken, none-too-bright sidekick to the conquering hero.
These cowboy and Indian movies present a very wrong picture of both the cowboy and the Indian. In reality, it was often the Indian who was brutalized by the white man’s encroachment on the Indian’s ancestral territories, bringing disease, gunpowder, and firewater along with him.
Fortunately for both the cowboy and the Indian movies today present a much more realistic portrayal of the life and times of the people of the era. Earlier movies usually presented only one side of the story – the cowboy’s – while very little effort was made to personify the mysterious Indian. Movies such as Dances with Wolves and The Last Mohegan provide a glimpse seldom seen before into the other – Indian – side of the frontier.
All art is a presentation of the artist’s perspective and movies are no different. There was a time in our country when it was considered a very bad idea to boast of, or even mention, an American Indian heritage. Thankfully, those days are over and many people in the movie industry are proud of their Native American ancestry.
Now that American Indian movies are being made by people who embrace their native heritage, perhaps a great deal of bias will go away and more truth, and entertainment, will be on the big screen instead.