Most North Americans, even those who aren’t fans of westerns, have played cowboys and Indians when they were children: even Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond grew up watching old westerns on the Waskaganish First Nations reserve on the James Bay. The children would gather in the church basement to watch classic heroes like John Wayne fight off the “Injuns.” “We cheered for the cowboys, never realizing we were the Indians,” states Diamond at the beginning of Reel Injun.
Reel Injun explores how over 100 years of Hollywood movies have influenced First Nations cultures and people. The stereotype of the savage Injun isn’t the only one Hollywood holds; films across the years also show aboriginals as spiritual, wise and in tune with nature. Movies about First Nations culture even influenced the beginnings of the hippie movement in the 1960s.
Originally, Diamond wanted to make a funny half-hour documentary about white people playing aboriginal roles, to be called I’m Not an Indian, but I Play One on TV. The idea took off and turned into the full-length doc Reel Injun.
Diamond hit the road and traveled across North America, not only to talk about movies, but also to see aboriginal landmarks, such as the Pine Ridge reserve in South Dakota, home to the legendary Crazy Horse and now the poorest aboriginal reserve in North America.
He admitted he didn’t discover anything new on the trip because of his research. However, Diamond did find out that aboriginal people across the world, even in Australia, share one common trait. “We point with our lips,” he shared. “If you ever hang around native people, watch their lips.” The odd habit is natural to hunting and warrior cultures, where it was important to point things out without drawing attention to yourself, explained Diamond.
Much like his storyteller parents, Diamond wants viewers to be entertained. “They’ll be engaged and come out of the theatre having learned something without realizing it,” he said. “It would be great if people went back to old films and watched them with different eyes.” Diamond also hopes young aboriginal people will learn something about their culture from the film. “They don’t know that part of their history.”
Hollywood has at times provided a platform for First Nations issues.
In 1973, Marlon Brando asked Apache actress and model Sacheen Littlefeather to speak for him at the Academy Awards. She passed on his refusal to accept his award for The Godfather due to the treatment of First Nations people in films, as well as aboriginal rights conflicts at the time.
Diamond’s favourite portrayal of an aboriginal on film is Chief Dan George in Little Big Man, because of the sense of humour George brings to his role. “You never saw native people laughing on film before,” said Diamond. Reel Injunmoves from Hollywood’s fascination with First Nations culture in the early days of cinema and works its way up to how Aboriginal cultures are portrayed in modern cinema.
Much like the early days of cinema, First Nations filmmakers are starting to be able to share their voices again. In Canada, Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin has made over 30 documentaries about native cultures for the National Film Board in recent years. Reel Injun also focuses on Zacharias Kunuk’s Cannes and Genie award-winning Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) as a film based in Inuit myth and made by aboriginals, for aboriginal people.
As Neil Diamond says in the film, “a new age of native cinema is born.”
This article was originally published in The Concordian on October 19, 2010.