Inside the behemoth hit film, Wonder Woman, a welcome and long overdue newcomer to the all-white male movie superhero landscape, stands a supporting character known as Chief, portrayed by Blackfoot actor, Eugene Brave Rock. By all accounts, the character is not just another caricature, Brave Rock and director Patty Jenkins were allowed to create a real, complete character even for the supporting role he was playing. The character is complete beyond stereotype. Irritatingly, the last Native character I saw in a superhero film was Adam Beach’s role in Suicide Squad and he emerges from a car, hits a woman and says she deserved it. I haven’t had the opportunity to see Wonder Woman yet, I really want to but am watching my money at the moment. It will be the first one I see when I can.
Current views of Dances with Wolves aside, the white savior motif et al., I, and many Native people were excited to see the film when it came out back in the early nineties. Not for the journey that Keven Costner made in the story, and his sacrifices to help the Native people survive in the last real west, but for those Native people. There was Graham Greene speaking Lakota! There was Tantoo Cardinal! There was a buffalo hunt with real, Indigenous people! There was real, Indigenous people! There were real, Indigenous, young people too.
ON. THE. MOVIE. SCREEN. IN. FRONT. OF. ME!
For me, even more powerful was Thunderheart, bringing back Graham Greene yet again, but also introducing Val Kilmer as a light-skinned, mixed blood, Indigenous FBI agent who returns to the reservation and meets with mixed reactions from the residents. Story of my life, except for the FBI part. The film presented a reserve that I recognized, albeit on a macro scale. It presented people that I recognized.
Every few years, when I was teaching, the Native kids in my classes would suddenly start saying, “Hey Vic-torrrr,” and I would know that another film with real, Native characters had entered their lives. Smoke Signals was another film, this one from a Native writer and Native director and Native actors, told a Native story in a uniquely Native setting that was decidedly contemporary. These were real characters not caricatures or stereotypes (although they did exhibit stereotypical behaviour, it’s a fascinating balancing act), and they were contemporary. I can’t stress that enough. One of the complaints about Dances with Wolves, and much of the Settler view of Indigenous peoples, is that we are very much a part of the past. For our kids, Smoke Signals was about young people in contemporary times. For us, and the students every few years, they could be the people down the street.
It’s useful to remember that representation matters, especially if you are a teacher or are in another position of authority for our youth. Too often we see the Johnny Depp as Tonto, Rooney Mara as Tiger Lilly, Pocahotties stories that harm more than help. Too often we see the ongoing mascot challenges that continue to reverberate and we are often attacked with the strawman arguments that there are more important issues that we should be fighting for. It is important to remember that these are all connected. The mascot and the white actor playing Indian create a worldview and a climate that allows the other, more important challenges to thrive. Too often we encounter the casual racism, the “get over it” mentality on those challenges and a large part of that is because the way we are portrayed, as mascots, as pretend, as not real or really important, teaches our society that it is okay, or that it is, somehow, our fault.
Teaching against this is hard, especially online, and that is why we need to be the proper teachers our children need. When choosing the media you show the students, make sure that it is making real representations of Native people. When choosing the novel you want to read about a Native story, who wrote, what does it say, why does it say it? And are we stuck in the past? My favourite Graham Greene performances is in Thunderheart but also in Die Hard with a Vengeance. He plays a cop in both. One is much more “Indian” but he is humourous and competent, real. His speech about having a vision is priceless in Thunderheart. I love, love, love the novel, Dreadfulwater Shows Up, by Thomas King (writing as Hartley Goodweather), because it is a modern story of a cop, who happens to be Native, solving a murder. Plus, it’s funny.
I cannot wait to see Wonder Woman, admittedly not just for the Chief, it is nice to see a superhero that isn’t just the white male motif of everything else. Truthfully, I am suffering from superhero fatigue, but I am happy to see this because it is from filmmakers that are trying to make changes within the box and succeeding. It is exciting that more of us are being allowed to see ourselves in popular culture. I hope it continues and I hope that the clapback is held in check against women, against people of colour, against Indigenous people, and we are able to move forward somewhat. Until then, I will enjoy this film and the other ones I mentioned (even the white savior one) and the others that have been popping up lately (whatever you think of the Fast & Furious franchise, it is awesomely diverse!).