Jody Lawrance as Pocahontas in 1953

Native Americans, cinema and framing

Great news feed forwards articles about native issues worldwide and I scour the site for notices about science. But today I want to focus on cinema because I read on the feed, Indigenous Peoples Issues & Resources, that filmmakers are being invited to send proposals for documentary, performance, cultural/public affairs and animated films to NAPT (Native American Public Telecommunications). Awards will range from $10,000 to $25,000. The link is

Encouraging Native Americans to tell their own stories is exciting but it isn’t new. For example, Ted Turner famously supported Indian filmmakers and in 1993 began a series on TNT about history—from the Native perspective. Chris Eyre, perhaps the best-known commercial filmmaker who is American Indian (Smoke Signals, Skins, We Shall Remain) is among a tiny cadre of Native artists to gain commercial success while earning respect for storytelling. Still, cinematic portrayals of Indigeneity are typically viewed through a non-Indian lens.

I’ve been fortunate to teach classes in mass media and American Indians, and found film a salient avenue for discussing framing. The most dominant frame throughout cinema’s history has been timing: films about American Indians are locked within the mid to late 1800s, and thus capture Indians within battle frames. As a result, plains Indians rule the screen—typically the Sioux or Lakota–historically have been portrayed as bloodthirsty scalp hunters.

When I was researching an article for the journal American Studies, I found that imagery of the bloodthirsty savage gained traction in mass media (dime novels and newspapers) as settlers moved westward and the hunger for homesteading became insatiable. After the West was conquered and tribes were sequestered on barren lands, the stereotypes continued.

Yet Indian heroes—Geronimo, Pocahontas and Ira Hayes—have been portrayed cinematically by non-Indians. For example, Chuck Connors (of TV’s Rifleman) portrayed Geronimo, starlet Jody Lawrance (IMDB’s spelling) played Pocahontas, and Tony Curtis (of Hungarian Jewish descent) was tapped to play Pima Indian Ira Hayes, who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima.

So, even when Indians are portrayed in favorable light, non-Indian performers have captured the glory. Critics of the film Dances with Wolves (which won 7 Oscars) seethe over the fact that a white soldier stole the thunder by discovering the buffalo and saving denizens from starvation. One scholar (Richard Slotkin) labels this as “Men Who Know Indians.” Kevin Costner, Dustin Hoffman and Richard Harris all played white settlers who assumed Indian identities and spoke for the Indian, ever more eloquently than any Native. So, organizations like the NAPT encourage Indians to tell their own stories, and offer funding to make this happen.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in authenticity, cinema, film, framing, Geronimo, Indian, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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