For decades, most American Indians have lived in cities, not on reservations or in rural areas. Still, scholars, policymakers, and popular culture often regard Indians first as reservation peoples, living apart from non-Native Americans. In Reimagining Indian Country: Native American Migration and Identity in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles, Nicolas Rosenthal reorients our understanding of the experience of American Indians by tracing their migration to cities, exploring the formation of urban Indian communities, and delving into the shifting relationships between reservations and urban areas from the early twentieth century to the present.
In this guest post, Rosenthal discusses American Indians’ involvement in the Hollywood film industry and their attempts to challenge inauthentic and stereotypical depictions of Indian history.
[This article is crossposted at FirstPeoplesNewDirections.org.]
Last January actress Drew Barrymore was photographed wearing an American Indian-style headdress while flashing a peace sign and exhibiting the smile that has captivated audiences since she was a child. The photo attracted many fans, but it also received criticism from other sectors of American society. Native Americans, for instance, read the image as an all too familiar display of ethnic stereotyping and cultural appropriation.
Indeed, Barrymore’s unabashed glee in “playing Indian” is nothing new. For hundreds of years Americans have claimed the right to don Indian dress and act out their fantasies—from the Boston Tea Party to the Boy Scouts of America to the sports mascots of the twenty-first century. American Indian people have long been conscious of such appropriation and ambivalent about their complicated relationship with American popular culture. In fact, American Indian actors and entertainers in the early twentieth century struggled to broker the American fascination with Indian culture through their participation in the Hollywood film industry.
From the 1910s through the 1930s, hundreds of American Indians settled in Los Angeles and worked in the motion picture industry as actors, extras, stunt performers, and technical advisors. Some were recruited from reservations to make films for a short period of time. They camped in the Santa Monica Mountains, shot films in its canyons during the day, and explored the city by night. Others, like Charles Bruner (Muscogee), moved to Los Angeles and became part of a group of Indian actors that worked steadily in western films.
Many American Indian actors were uncomfortable with Hollywood’s depictions of Indian history and culture and worked to change them. Most often the film studios were unsympathetic, but American Indian actors persisted and formed advocacy organizations like the Indian Actors Association that kept up the pressure for more authentic portrayals. Some especially prominent actors like Luther Standing Bear (Lakota Sioux) and Richard Davis Thunderbird (Northern Cheyenne) used their celebrity status to present their own versions of American Indian history and culture, through public appearances, performances, lectures, pamphlets, and books.
American Indian actors and their struggles in the early years of Hollywood are part of the history of the migration of American Indians to cities that I explore in Reimagining Indian Country: Native American Migration and Identity in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles. In later years, urban American Indians continued to fight cultural stereotypes and define Native American culture through their performances in places like Disneyland’s Indian Village and city-wide and regional powwows.
Clearly, as illustrated by Barrymore’s photograph, these struggles continue. Americans still have work to do to cast off stereotypes of the “primitive” and understand Native Americans as modern peoples. American Indian actors began trying to convince non-Indians of this almost a century ago.
Nicolas G. Rosenthal is assistant professor of history at Loyola Marymount University.