Johnny Depp’s casting as Tonto in Disney’s “The Lone Ranger” drew criticism for the whitewashing of one of the few prominent roles to be played by a Native American (read our review here). To be sure, even the film’s trailers have been viscerally unpleasant, with Depp dolled up as one of Kirby Sattler’s pieces of pseudo-native hotel art, “I Am Crow.” As the second half of the actor’s career devolves into a series of mugging expressions and put-upon accents, ambling about in black-metal face paint and muttering in pidgin is a perversely logical next step for Depp, though that does not make his work any more palatable.
Most worrying of all, however, is the knowledge that Depp’s appropriating appearance is not an aberration of Native American depiction in Hollywood, merely a continuation of a fraught history of racial representation. When it comes to Westerns, even the well-meaning, more progressively minded approaches to Native Americans resort to whitewashing key roles and oversimplifying the many cultures of Native American tribes into one unified people. Studio-era films uniformly cast white and Hispanic actors in all major indigenous roles and typically used a stable of Navajo actors to round out bit parts. Revisionist Westerns like “A Man Called Horse” and “Dances with Wolves” anchor their takes on the mistreatment of Indian tribes on a white savior who comes to lead them. “Little Big Man” is so dialed into its Vietnam commentary that it even casts a Malay actor among native performers.
Not all films featuring indigenous actors are so simplified. Films like “The Silent Enemy” (1930), “Black Robe” (1991) and “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” (2001) document Canadian Indians with a balanced view and, more importantly, the voices of actual Canadian Indians. The latter was even made by an Inuk director and scripted from the bottom up in Inuktitut. Terrence Malick’s “The New World” hints at a romanticized view of the East Coast Powhatan, but John Smith’s awed paeans to the natives’ goodness run up against moments of the natives unmonitored by whites, in which they discuss strategies to defend the territory of which Smith believes they have no concept of ownership.
But still the Western struggles to provide an accurate representation of history, and to right the wrongs of generic depictions and casting. That only makes the Westerns that do strive to portray indigenous peoples as anything other than barbarians or beatified saints and sages all the more vital. To call attention to some of these films, ranging from the silent era through the genre’s peak and beyond, we’ve compiled a list of 10 Westerns that attempt to grapple with history’s—and the genre’s—marginalization of Native Americans.
“Run of the Arrow” (Samuel Fuller, 1957)
Even Sam Fuller, who employed African- and Asian-Americans in his films stretching back to ‘51, could not cast true native actors for “Run of The Arrow’s” principal Sioux roles. Elsewhere, though, Fuller’s research and his commitment to digging into America’s fraught history of race relations pay off in a sharp twist on “going native” tropes. Delving into Sioux culture, Fuller shows an eye for the small details that cannot be learned, as Rod Steiger’s runaway Confederate tries to do. Even as Steiger’s O’Meara finds acceptance among the Sioux, he discovers that mere immersion into a culture does not make one of that culture. For most films of this type, the natives’ insistence he is not truly one of them would mark the start of a redemptive third act, but Fuller ends the entire movie on that blunt truth, stripping the white man of his arrogant attempt at ingratiation even as the lessons imparted by the Sioux have the potential to change the hate-filled Reb for the better.
“Broken Arrow” (Delmer Daves, 1950)
“Funny, it never struck me that an Apache woman would cry over her son like any other woman.” James Stewart’s Tom Jeffords remarks to himself after speaking with a wounded Apache boy, just before being hogtied and made to watch the grim ambush of some white riders. The swift contrast of Indian humanity and inhumanity nevertheless engenders a sense of respect in the white man, proving to him that Indians are neither as good nor as bad as whites, only as multitudinous. Conflict continues to rage among settlers and natives, and within rival factions of each, but no film that ends with an Apache chief urging a white man not to avenge his murdered native wife could be considered a normal tale of cowboys vs. Indians.
(As a bonus, check out Jay Silverheels as Geronimo a few years before he took the role of Tonto.)
“Devil’s Doorway” (Anthony Mann, 1950)
From the moment a cheery reunion of the Shosone veteran Lance Poole (Robert Taylor) with white townfolk cuts to an imposing low-angle shot of a man scoffing at the idea of an Indian in uniform, Anthony Mann’s typically severe, spare Western plunges into darkness. Shadows plunge over Taylor’s face in a show of the Indians’ twilight, and Lance’s status as a rich man and decorated veteran tears apart stereotypes of poor primitives without possessions even as his rights are violated without compunction. It’s Native American film as Holocaust allegory, a reminder of America’s own genocide in the disruption of peaceful relations that cows previously tolerant whites into complicit silence and strips well-off, fully acclimated Indians of their holdings as easily as it does those with nothing. Its climax feels less like a Western standoff than the futile stand in the Warsaw Ghetto.
“Cheyenne Autumn” (John Ford, 1964)
"Cheyenne Autumn" is not John Ford's atonement for a career of debasing Indians, only the final and least subtle of the director's regular depiction of Americans violating good faith with tribes. Nevertheless, the film's didactic properties frequently open up into more nuanced, studious observations that portray its mistreated natives as sympathetic but also flawed and confused. The film's excessive length allows the plot of threatened starvation to reveal the true danger facing the Cheyenne: the erasure of their culture.
“Cheyenne Autumn” is as bitter as any of Ford’s late Westerns, but the director does not close the book on Monument Valley before giving it back to its rightful owners through a series of breathtaking shots that suddenly make the white actors previously defined so majestically against the valley’s vistas seem like the intruding tourists they always were. Ford’s late career was a slow dismantling of his own mythos, and it is fitting that his last Western should be his most naked show of solidarity with the American Indian, even if studio impositions yet again put actors like Ricardo Montalban in Indian parts.
"The Sons of Great Bear" (Josef Mach, 1966)
Of all the excuses given for not casting native actors in Westerns, this East German film’s production location has the rare legitimate explanation. A key Red Western, "The Sons of Great Bear" is less a complex revision of Western politics than a simple inversion: here it is the whites who play the base savages while the Lakota are noble people defending their homes. Suits for peace on behalf of the tribe are violated before the two parties can even discuss terms, while the possibility of finding gold on sacred tribal land justifies the relocation and slaughter of Lakota.
The direction is inartful propaganda, and in many respects it still has a Western mindset: the white women are all sympathetic to the Indian plight, even the daughter of a major who is killed in battle, while discussions of freedom define the concept along the not-so-free standards of Communism. But it also defines the Lakota outside their conflict, with scenes of laughter, toil, even flirting. Gojko Mitić parlayed his lead role into a career as the "Indian" John Wayne, but damned if he didn't earn it, trading Wayne's lumbering, tragic air for a wired ferocity that can dart from a peace negotiation to a one-man fort destroyer in an instant.
“Ulzana’s Raid” (Robert Aldrich, 1972)
Released more than a decade before Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece “Blood Meridian,” “Ulzana’s Raid” nevertheless feels closer to that book’s spirit than any Western made since. In sharp contrast to the “hippie-fication” of Indians with movies like “Little Big Man,” Robert Aldrich’s late Western depicts its white characters as brutal—one Cavalry soldier “rescues” a white woman from Apache by shooting her in the head, and in his terror he kills himself rather than be taken—but its Apache no less so.
Ulzana (Joaquín Martinez) and his men rape and slaughter, albeit with a head for strategy that counters stereotypes of mindless savagery. Their actions are not those of Godless brutes who simply act out their nature, but of cunning warriors who know how to demoralize the enemy. In the film’s estimation, the war between whites and natives is completely removed from those fighting it, but that only makes the possibility of peace less likely. No one among the groups of soldiers and Apache started this war, but none has the agency to do anything but try and kill as many on the other side as possible.
“Geronimo: An American Legend” (Walter Hill, 1993)
“Geronimo” presents an alternate take on “Ulzana’s Raid”: like Aldrich’s film, Hill’s feature depicts the conflict between Union Cavalry and Apache as a war ordered by larger forces but perpetuated brutally by those on the ground. But where Aldrich draws nihilism from such material, Hill finds tragedy, bridging the sense of honor between soldiers and warriors to build an empathy, even admiration between the two forces. The great Cherokee actor Wes Studi gives a powerful performance as Geronimo, believably fearsome and tactical in combat, but also reflective and pragmatic. This Geronimo is a master of war who would prefer peace, just not on the Union’s suffocating terms. A singular film for its portrayal of the routine slaughter and deceptions of both sides less as an overarching show of war than as personal betrayals of trust between trusted leaders.
“Dead Man” (Jim Jarmusch, 1995)
Before Johnny Depp claimed dubious Indian heritage and dressed up like a caricature, he appeared in Jim Jarmusch’s great reckoning of the Western, “Dead Man.” In it, he plays a man named William Blake, though only a Native American named Nobody (Gary Farmer) gets the reference to the poet. It’s the first of many deadpan jokes that upend stereotypes of the Indian as poorly educated brute, and Nobody’s subsequent care for Blake seems less a show of the noble savage than an inversion of the White Man’s Burden. Various in-jokes sprinkled in multiple native languages give further voice to natives while enhancing the film’s hallucinatory effect. Of course, the idea that hearing actual Native American languages spoken freely and often in a Western would give off a surreal vibe says a great deal about the genre’s longstanding shortcomings in its handling of race.
Windwalker (Kieth Merrill, 1980)
Set in the future Utah territory before the advent of American settlers, “Windwalker” film offers a rare glimpse of Native Americans without the contrast of white people. Though its eponymous Cheyenne is played by the British Trevor Howard (who took over for an ailing Chief Dan George), the rest of the cast are all native and, with the exception of some English narration, the whole film is spoken in Cheyenne and Crow, and a careful observance of custom, dress and beliefs turns a spiritual drama into an anthropological work. Even its violence is important, a necessary reminder in mainstream cinema’s pan-Indian depictions that Native American tribes are not only distinct from one another but locked in conflicts that long preceded the arrival of the white man.
“The Daughter of Dawn” (Norbert A. Myles, 1920)
Of all the Westerns made in Hollywood to depict Native Americans, none may provide more hope of honest, fair treatment and casting than this recently rediscovered and restored silent film. Boasting a cast of hundreds of authentic native actors acting out the cultural behavior, communication patterns, history and mythologies, “The Daughter of Dawn” sounds, on its face, more progressive than effectively any other Hollywood film featuring Native American stories made in the intervening century. Even the chance to observe something as minor as the gesticulations used in Comanche speech would be an incredible corrective to decades of mainstream cultural simplification. Still on the revival circuit, “The Daughter of Dawn” should hit home video eventually, offering the invaluable chance to see a film with faithfully replicated culture, and a cast that includes some survivors of the actual Indian Wars.