REEL INJUN: Film about portrayals of American Indians in movies

by Guest Contributor Debbie Reese, originally published at American Indians in Children’s Literature

There’s been a lot of buzz amongst friends and colleagues about the film Reel Injun. The title itself says a lot. “Reel” —a reel of film—and “Injun”—a derogatory word for Indian—but the title also points to what is missing from film and from children’s and young adult literature: real Indians.

Saying the phrase, “real Indians”, makes me cringe. First, it is the year 2010, and we—people who are American Indian—encounter people who think we were all wiped out by enemy tribes, disease, or war.  Or, people who think that in order to be “real Indians” we have to live our lives the same ways our ancestors did. Course, they don’t expect their own identities and lives to look like those of their own ancestors… In principle, we are a lot like anyone else. We have ways of thinking about the world and ways of being in that world (spiritually and materially) that were–and are—handed down from one generation to the next. Though we wear jeans and athletic shoes (or business suits and dress shoes), we also maintain clothing we sometimes wear for spiritual and religious purposes. Just like any cultural group, anywhere.

Second reason “real Indians” makes me cringe is the word “Indians”. We use it. In fact, I use it in the title of this blog. But I know it references all the indigenous nations and tribes and bands and communities and pueblos in the United States, all with unique ways of doing things.

That said, I want to talk more specifically about the trailer.

Watch Clint Eastwood say he wanted real Indians but couldn’t find one. I wonder where he looked?

Watch Cheyenne/Arapaho filmmaker Chris Eyre say it is funny to watch white people playing Native roles. The trailer shows a series of them: Anthony Quinn, Burt Lancaster, Charles Bronson, Daniel Day Lewis, Chuck Connors, Burt Reynolds, Boris Karloff, Sylvester Stallone, and, William Shatner…  All of them playing tough, savage, or tragic Indians. Watching them do it, as someone who is Native, can be hilarious, but only if you know more about who we are.

Filmmaker Jim Marmusch Jarmusch notes that John Wayne signals a moral standard of what it means to be American. His remark is followed by a clip from one of John Wayne’s movies, where he is shown kicking someone. That clip may be from The Searchers, a film hailed by many as a critique of racism.

Then there’s a critique of Dances With Wolves….

Though I’ve not had the opportunity to see the film, I love what I see in the trailer, and I think anyone who works with children’s literature ought to see it! I think it holds great promise for helping critique portrayals of American Indians in the books we give to children.

Visit the website for Reel Injun and find out when and where you can see it.