Because of the dominance of cowboy-Indian narratives in western genre movies, romanticized notions of Native people have been embedded into American popular culture. Conceptions of monolithic “Indians” as violent-turned-pacified, noble savages persist in film and television dramas, but only sometimes employ Native actors and actresses.
Dances with Wolves (Tig Productions) makes strides in providing more accuracy in representation, featuring a detailed look at the Lakota Sioux tribe of the Dakota plains, but still adheres to a problematic romanticized western plot.
In the movie, Lieutenant Dunbar “goes Native,” becoming a Sioux warrior and expert buffalo hunter (Huhndorf, 1-3). Though Dunbar’s cultural acceptance as Lakota reveals a sympathetic view of the tribe, his whiteness eventually supersedes his multicultural ambitions. Dunbar conveniently falls in love with Stands with a Fist, a white woman raised Native, and at the film’s end, he returns into white civilization while the Lakota culture and people to which he claimed membership are “gone…to pass into history” (Ibid, 4). Dances with Wolves reinforced the dominant history of the American West: that Indians are people of the past (Leuthold, 730).
Released two years later, Last of the Mohicans (Morgan Creek Productions) doesn’t make any advancement on the presentation of Native Americans. More recently, Avatar (Twentieth Century Fox) represents a futuristic twist on the "going Native" concept. Ultimately sympathetic, writer John Cameron goes the extra mile and has his white protagonist save the Natives from extinction in the end. The common theme of the white protagonist learning the Native language (in two months!), mastering the skill of harnessing wild beasts, and winning the heart of the chief's daughter, is as old and beloved as Pocahontas.
The transitory attempts at going Native in Dances with Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, Avatar and many other western films symbolize the colonization of Native Americans and the concurrent shaping of a white American identity.
Through temporary commitments to Native culture, these characters are “playing Indian:”
Playing Indian…has served as an ultimate tool for grabbing hold of such contradictions, and it has been constantly reimagined and acted out when Americans desire to have their cake and eat it too…Indians could be both civilized and indigenous. They could critique modernity and yet reap its benefits. They could revel in the creative pleasure of liberated meanings while still grasping for something fundamentally American.” (Deloria, 157-8)
Regardless of how sympathetic the playing may be, the fleeting effort ultimately reinforces notions of conquered, vanishing Natives.
Bella’s love triangle dilemma with Jacob and Edward reinforces the playing Indian theme. Particularly in New Moon and Eclipse, Bella flirts with the possibility of choosing a life with Jacob. In essence, Bella goes Native. After many afternoons at LaPush and an appearance at a Tribal Council meeting in Eclipse, Bella rejects a human future and entree into Quileute society with Jacob in favor of death and an eternity with the racially pure white Edward.
The film also continues Western film conventions, wherein “the Indian man is rejected by the object of his affections...confusing his civilization with equality, he proposes to a white woman, who turns him down” (Deloria, 85). After Bella gives Jacob false hope that he can win her heart, Jacob “in his anger and disappointment, [hears] ‘the call of the wild,’” which Jacob literally does as he retreats into the woods in his werewolf form (Ibid). Like the films before it, Twilight succumbs to the dominant tendency of American films to limit Native roles to play rather than as serious protagonists.
The faster pace of television production enables this medium to better represent the spirit of the times, but television shows often still perpetuate old stereotypes. Though likely intended to support Hollywood's multiculturalist movements of the 1990s (Kilpatrick), episodes such as Saved by the Bell's "Running Zack" (NBC Productions) retell the same stories of Indians of the past, rather than more realistic representations of Native Americans today (Tahmahkera, 338). In this episode, Zack "plays Indian" and dresses up in a Plains feather headdress to present about his great-great-great grandfather, who was a Nez Perce warrior in the Oregon Walla Walla Valley. Despite attempting to acknowledge the unpleasant colonization history, and perhaps to relieve mainstream America from its subsequent guilt, Zack's presentation limits his relationship to the Nez Perce as his ancestors of the past (Ibid).
Further reinforcing the vanishing Indian theme, Zack's new friend and Native cultural informant, Chief Henry—a witty, boogie-boarding, LA Dodgers fan who uses humor to dispel Zack's misconceptions about Native Americans—dies unexpectedly and returns only in Zack's dream for sage-like advice, then literally vanishes forever.
A later show aired in 1999, Buffy the Vampire Slayer likewise attempted to acknowledge the irony behind Thanksgiving in the “Pang” episode (Mutant Enemy Productions). Though the character Willow continually denounces Thanksgiving, which celebrates the “destruction of indigenous peoples,” the Native characters are represented as murderous, revengeful ghosts. And despite being identified as Chumash and not as a generalized “Indian,” the non-Native characters still refer to the Chumash in the past, as if they were “exterminated” (Ibid).
As Saved by the Bell and Buffy the Vampire Slayer shows, TV representations of Native Americans portray histories as having relevance only in the past.