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Redressing racism in the American Western

Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Killers of the Flower Moon” (2023)

Word from this year’s Cannes Film Festival indicates that Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorsese’s epic adaptation of David Grann’s true-crime bestseller, will be one of this year’s must-see movies when it opens in October. The Western drama, set in 1920s Osage County, Oklahoma, tackles an especially shameful episode in America’s documented history of systematic racism.

Heading the cast, alongside longtime Scorsese collaborators Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, is Lily Gladstone, an actress of Blackfeet and Nimíipuu heritage who broke the hearts of everyone who saw her as a lonely Montana horse-wrangler in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016). Scorsese and co-screenwriter Eric Roth encouraged input from members of the Osage Nation to inform their portrayal of the tribe, which in the nineteenth century was driven from its Kansas homelands into what appeared to be barren territory. When the Osage struck oil there in 1897, it made them rich, but also attracted greedy, unscrupulous white men. If the film is anything like Grann’s book, it will make your blood boil.

Coming from a generation that grew up playing “Cowboys and Indians”, I always took the side of the Native Americans, as we call them now, not least because I found the feathers, beads and face paint more appealing than cowboy hats or cavalry uniforms. I was the proud owner of a rubber tomahawk, brandished so vigorously that the head broke off. But I already understood that my adoptive people had been treated unfairly, thanks to my brother’s copy of Famous Fighting Indians (Scottie Books, 1956), which didn’t shy away from broken treaties and the Manifest Destiny mindset of white colonialists, while containing useful tips such as rinsing out your dead pony’s intestines for use as a water canteen while crossing the desert.

The decidly non-Apache Debra Paget in “Broken Arrow” (1950)

One of the westerns that impressed me most when I saw it on TV as a child was Broken Arrow (1950), part of a gradual Hollywood shift towards treating Native Americans with empathy instead of depicting them as bloodthirsty savages, even if Apache chief Cochise was played by Jewish New Yorker Jeff Chandler (who would go on to play Cochise in two other movies). Meanwhile, 42-year-old James Stewart falls in love with an Apache maiden played by sixteen-year-old, decidedly non-Apache Debra Paget. A notable exception to Broken Arrow’s otherwise whitewashed cast was Geronimo, played by Mohawk-Canadian Jay Silverheels, now best known for playing Tonto in The Lone Ranger TV show. When I was little I wanted to be a ballerina and marry Tonto, and I still don’t see why that wouldn’t have worked.

The second book to leave a scar on my Native American-loving soul was Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970), publication of which coincided with the 1970s vogue for “revisionist” westerns, many of them framing the conflict between white men and First Nations as an allegory of American involvement in Vietnam. In particular, it was hard not to watch the brutal recreations of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre (in which the US Army slaughtered unarmed Cheyenne elders, women and children) in Soldier Blue and Little Big Man (both 1970) without being reminded of the recently reported American atrocities at My Lai.

White actors are still being “browned up” to play Native American roles

Native Americans were depicted with more nuance in revisionist westerns, but the protagonists were still almost always white, or browned-up, or just weird, like Dame Judith Anderson, better known as Mrs Danvers from Rebecca (1940), playing Buffalo Cow Head in A Man Called Horse (1970). Even two decades later, Kevin Costner’s Oscar-winning Dance with Wolves (1990) stuck to the sort of “White Saviour” narrative that assumes white audiences are incapable of empathising with other cultures unless they have a Caucasian hero to cling to. And white actors are still being “browned up” to play Native American roles: Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Pan (2015) or Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger (2013). Depp claimed, “I guess I have some Native American somewhere down the line,” but was dismissed as a “pretendian” by the Native American community, as well as by me, as “not my Tonto”.

Johnny Depp as Tonto in “The Lone Ranger” (2013)

For real Native Americans who are the heroes of their own journeys, we must look to the low-budget indie sector. The non-professional cast of Chloé Zhao’s The Rider (2017) are Lakota Sioux on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, with Brady Jandreau playing a fictionalised version of himself, a former rodeo star wrestling with a brain injury since getting a hoof to the head, but still capable, in the film’s most bewitching sequences, of some serious horse whispering.

Pine Ridge is also the setting for War Pony, released in UK arthouses this month. It’s the co-directing debut of Gina Gammell and Riley Keough (not just Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, but a fearless screen presence in films like American Honey and Zola). Written with Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy, who drew on their own experiences without turning it into poverty porn, it’s the intertwined story of two Lakota boys (non-professional actors again) who deal drugs, placate baby mamas and dream of getting rich by breeding pedigree poodles, while the entitled, patronising white folk are relegated to the sidelines. It’s a long way from Broken Arrow, and has the tang of authenticity.

I will never be an authentic Native American. But I still think I would have made a terrific Mrs Tonto.

Anne Bilson is a film critic, novelist and photographer

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Arts & Culture, Billboard, June 2023

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