Exploring the history of the Hollywood-made Indian

Award-winning documentary depicts the effects of Hollywood on Aboriginal culture and self-identity

Tourism students Nolan Guichon and Lacey-Jade Tallie presented Reel Injun in the CAC’s Alpine Room as part of a class project. (Wade Tomko/The Omega)

Tourism students Nolan Guichon and Lacey-Jade Tallie presented Reel Injun in the CAC’s Alpine Room as part of a class project. (Wade Tomko/The Omega)

IDays is often a time of year where students can explore the abundant diversity at TRU. The week-long event allows cultures from around the world to show the people of both the TRU and Kamloops communities a showcase of what makes them unique.

While many groups on campus exhibited their cultural diversity through games, food, film and fun, students Nolan Guichon and Lacey-Jade Tallie decided to go against the norm and celebrate IDays a little differently this year.

As part of the Staging Special Events class within the Tourism program, the pair screened the documentary, Reel Injun, in order to highlight the stereotypes of First Nations peoples created by Hollywood.

“Both of us being First Nations, Lacey and I wanted to showcase First Nations culture. But we noticed IDays stereotypes a lot of people’s different cultures,” Guichon said. “Whenever someone meets me, they always think of a different stereotype, either I should have long hair or I should be drinking, but I don’t drink. So that is how we created this event.”

The film, Reel Injun, takes audiences through over one hundred years of Hollywood cinema and its depiction of First Nations culture. Directed by Neil Diamond, a Cree filmmaker from Waskaganish, Quebec, and co-directed by Catherine Bainbridge and Jeremiah Hayes, Reel Injun explains how Hollywood’s representation of First Nations peoples in North America has led to the belief that all First Nations share the same culture.

“There are so many different cultures and First Nations communities, but Hollywood talks about Plains Indians as being the archetypal Indian. But that’s not the case, we don’t just have one culture,” Guichon said.

For many First Nations people, this blanket portrayal of their culture has adversely affected the way they see themselves, often causing them to identify with a culture not their own. Reel Injun goes on to explain that the issue was made even worse during the Great Depression, when Hollywood began repeatedly depicting First Nations as the nemeses of the western genre heroes: cowboys.

For the next few decades after the Great Depression, First Nations were often made to look like backwoods savages, speaking gibberish and stealing away white women. For this reason, many First Nations, including some in Guichon’s family, self-identified more with the cowboys than with the “Indians.”

“Just like in Reel Injun, they would sometimes watch movies about cowboys and Indians,” Guichon said. “My dad would always talk about how his cousins would always cheer for the cowboys and he always wondered why they would cheer for the people trying to kill us.”

On top of the damage done by stereotyping First Nations culture, Reel Injun shows how Hollywood made no attempt to use Native actors. In fact, one of the most famous First Nations actors of the ‘30s, Iron Eyes Cody, was actually an Italian who reinvented himself as a Native American on screen.

Even today, the stereotypes depicted in films from close to a century ago are still believed.

“We have a friend from India and he kind of helped us think about this whole thing,” Guichon said. “He thought all First Nations people are as one, he didn’t know that we are so different from each other.”

Guichon believes that the only way to break down these stereotypes is through conversation and exposure.

“It is our responsibility to break down these stereotypes,” Guichon said. “To come to different events and learn about the different stereotypes is how we can deal with them. If we keep having these stereotypes it gives people the OK to be racist, even if they are not trying to be.”