Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Symbolic Indians vs. Smiling Indians

Classes have begun again at the university where I teach, and I asked students in my American Indian literature to talk about their impressions of American Indian cultures and the source of those impressions.  At least one person mentioned this famous public service announcement, which I vividly recall from the 1970s:

Famous Sicilian-American
It features an actor who is known widely as Iron Eyes Cody (1904-1999), but he was named Espera Oscar de Corti by his Sicilian immigrant parents.  That is, one of the most famous Indians of the 1970s was not an Indian. 

The students said such images helped produce their impression that American Indian cultures and mainstream America related to the natural world differently.  That led to an interesting discussion of how something true can be communicated through something false.

His presence on the screen was insulting to many American Indians, yet it wasn't surprising.  Cody was part of a long tradition of non-Indians appearing on the screen as Indians -- and taking work away from American Indian actors in the process.  Burt Lancaster, Charles Bronson, and even Audrey Hepburn have played American Indian characters.

The Unforgiven (1960)
I repeat.  Audrey Hepburn.  American Indian.

I played the commercial for my students and we agreed that however much we laugh at the commercial today, and however problematic is the casting of Cody, the commercial was effective.  Summoning the iconic image of the Indian as protector of nature was effective.  Showing a lone tear running down the face of the iconic stoic Indian was effective.

The student who is tempted to dismiss the commercial because it makes use of stereotypes is missing the interesting discussion about how icons and signs work.

In the real world, it does matter that Cody was not an American Indian because there was an American Indian actor quite capable of filling the role, and he had a family to feed and a career to build.

But within the world of the commercial's message and within the world of the dominant American culture that was communicating to itself with this commercial -- that is, the public service announcement was not targeting Indian Country -- the race of the person playing an American Indian did not matter.  His symbolic function overruled that.

It is like Rene Magritte's famous painting of a pipe, The Treachery of Images.  On it is emblazoned the message (in French) "This is not a pipe."  Of course it isn't.  It is a painting of a pipe.  Cody's PSA could be titled "This is not an Indian."  Of course it isn't.  It is a someone pretending to be an Indian.

Cody was playing the very familiar role in American culture of the Noble Savage.  In American culture, the Noble Savage's relationship to any actual living Indians is irrelevant.  He says more about the people using him to communicate than he does about American Indians -- as does mainstream America's inability to distinguish a real Indian from a fake one.

Understanding the symbolic/iconic function of Cody's stony face is not to say that such representations are OK.  They have real-world implications other than stealing work from American Indian actors.  The viewers of such representations are not aware that they are viewing signs and symbols; they think they are looking at real Indians and then expect Indians in the real world to behave in the same ways.

Two Strikes by Edward Curtis
As an antidote to Cody's stony face, I showed my students a wonderful short film, Smiling Indians.  It is made by two young men from Oklahoma, Ryan Red Corn (from the Osage Nation) and Sterlin Harjo (from the Creek Nation).

The film is ironically dedicated to Edward R. Curtis (1858-1952), a very famous American photographer who did much to create the whole tradition of the stoic Indian that made Cody's career possible.

The faces in Smiling Indians do NOT function so clearly as symbols or icons.  The faces are not participating in various narrative conventions of how American Indians relate to mainstream American culture.  They are images of Indian people being... people.

Human beings.  Not symbols.

Watch it and smile.

1 comment:

  1. Even if they are humble about it (and I've met both Ryan and Sterlin), these guys are doing a lot to combat stereotypes in Native American imagry. Harjo has done some great work (Good Night, Irene and Barking Water) in film and I look for more from The 1491's. Check out their work on Youtube... Thanks for sharing this!