Native American peoples have been recorded on film ever since the medium was used first and have remained a favorite topic among movie audiences up until today and the interest in "Indian pictures", as Indian-centered and Indian-themed films were called in the silent era, were immensely popular. Millions of people saw Indians on screen in the first decades of the 20th century, while few ever met any "real-life" Native Americans at all. The portrayal of an entire group and the stereotypes created in that way cannot simply be dismissed as "unimportant film portrayals" because they shaped and informed the beliefs about Native Americans of millions of people worldwide (Price 1980, 75). Many of the stereotypes established by cinematic conventions of the silent era asserted influence not only over the decades immediately following the silent era but even on filmic representations of Native Americans today (German 2012, 24). Because of this the dichotomic image of the Indian as either noble or savage, as either a friend or an enemy to white people, and the fact that there are few shades of gray even in the revisionist and sympathetic Westerns of the 1990s is often attributed to a development of Indian images in film that is apparently assumed to be linear. This kind of reasoning entails the assumption that if today's images are not positive, the images in the silent era couldn't possibly have been positive either. This notion has been contested by scholars who maintain that most of the stereotypes in existence do indeed correlate with developments over a century ago. At the same time they argue that Native American representations in the silent era were surprisingly varied, positive, and sometimes moved outside the realm of stereotypes altogether, thus, offering an laternative to the negative images that was not included in the Westerns of later decades anymore (Simmon 2003; Kilpatrick 1999; Hearne 2012).
This digital project analyzes the portrayal of Native Americans in the silent era and analyzes the time on screen for different categories of representation, namely the 'chief', the 'warrior', the 'maid', Indians as 'groups', 'villains', and 'families'. The quantification of time on screen per category underlines the claim that diverse images existed and that negative images were not the dominant impression during the silent era. Most Indians on the silent screen were 'good' images (see chart), the warrior taking the most screen time, followed by thechief, the maid, and the villain. Even though the category including families and familiar situations beyond warfare is relatively small, the important thing is that it exists. In the Western genre, Indian mothers, Indian kids, playing Indians, and laughing Indians are entirely absent, leaving an image of savagery and constant warfare. The twelve or so minutes devoted to an alternative image of Indians in these six movies allow the viewer to perceive Indians, and ergo Native Americans, as people “just like them”. The purposefully diverse selection of movies aims at a representation of all major genres throughout the silent era. Six movies out of several hundred is obviously little more than a peak at what regular cinema-goers might have seen on the silent screen and more similar studies would be desirable.
“I think that the cinema was created to film first nation people.”
First Nation film historian André Dudemaine, Reel Injun (2009)