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Reel Injun: How the film industry affected Native American image

Molly Svendsen
The Broadside

Has the film industry shaped your image of Native Americans? Gina Ricketts thinks it has.
The first thing that comes to mind for most people about Native Americans is what has been portrayed through movies and media, according to Ricketts, Native American program coordinator at Central Oregon Community College.
For many years, media has portrayed Native Americans as savages, such as the Indians portrayed in many of John Wayne’s films. “The picture of Native Americans as savage beings who are over battled and are always on horseback just simply is not true,” said Ricketts.
These perceptions of Native Americans in the film industry is brought to light in the recently released documentary, The Reel Injun. This traces movies, from silent films to current films, and their portrayal of Native Americans. This film also introduces viewers to Native American producers and actors who are becoming more present in the film industry.
“The people interviewed in this film are involved in the film industry: Not only Native Americans, but those who have played Native’s roles in past films,” said Ricketts. “By having this it shows or explores how Native Americans have been portrayed through the history of cinema.”
For more than 100 years, movies have portrayed Native Americans as either strong, fighting warriors, or wild beings who live off the land, according to Valerie Switzler, General Manager of Warm Springs Higher Education.
“Cinema either portrays Native Americans on one end of the spectrum of the other, where Natives are either made fun of and seen as silly, or seen as noble, strong warriors,” said Switzler. “In the Native American community not all are warriors…there are peacemakers,basket weavers, and politicians too.”
Another factor that contributes to the misconceptions about Native Americans is that many of the actors in films about Native Americans are not Native American actors; this makes it difficult to accurately display the culture, according to Ricketts.
“The fact of it is that not very many Native American roles are played by actual Native people, but rather white people in costume,” said Ricketts. “Not only does this add to misconceptions but also really builds how we view Native Americans and is not true to reality.”
These misconceptions are harmful to the Native American community and culture because people don’t want to be a part of something that is ridiculed, according to Switzler.
“Anything that hurts someone or even discourages someone is unwise and not necessary,” said Switzler. “We must encourage the younger Native generations to stay true to their roots.”
By creating films where the Native Americans are portrayed as savages and the cowboys as the victors, the film industry has not helped to honor and respect the Native American heritage, according to Switzler.
“In cowboy and Indian movies, most people would choose to be the cowboys, the strong, fighting ones who win,”said Switzler. “In the past the films have not helped us to honor and respect our heritage…and realize how special a thing it really is.”
Part of the misconceptions come from a lack of knowledge, so the film The Reel Injun should help to reveal the true Native American culture, according to Switzler.
“By students and faculty learning more about the Native American culture and traditions as well as being willing to broaden their horizons…this will really help to lift up and respect the Native American students,” said Switzler.





  1. Got here on Mail4Rosey’s recommendation. Such fun! And I toltlay remember having to do Native American vests every year in school around Thanksgiving. And I am part Cherokee, so cheers to you! 🙂


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