Racism Will Fall | What Native American History Teaches Us About the Limits of White Supremacy
Racism Will Fall
From Walt Disney to L. Frank Baum creator of the Wizard of Oz, a rich vein of prejudice runs deep through American popular culture. But resistance can win out, argues DR. DARREN R. REID, as is demonstrated in changing representations of Native Americans.
The Trump presidency is hardly the first time that far-right forces —xenophobes, paranoids and racists — have been ascendant in the US. Indeed, much of American history is concerned with the rise, dominance and eventual defeat of precisely those forces. From Jim Crow to the Red Scare, the development of the US has been rife with moments in which the ascendency of white supremacists seems to have overwhelmed its critics. But as the history-making process has repeatedly shown, resistance is not futile, even if it often fails. Sooner or later, Trump and the forces he represents will be defeated again.
Popular attitudes towards Native Americans are an example of the extent to which — and how quickly — seemingly intransigent bigotries can sometimes be uprooted. In the 19th century, acute racism toward Native Americans was so widely accepted that, for many, it became an accepted part of the national character. It was normalised to such an extent that their genocide became fodder for dinner-table conversations. In the press, atrocities were downplayed, misrepresented or outright celebrated. Genocide and white supremacy were in fashion.
When John Chivington massacred around 160 peaceful members of the Cheyenne tribe in 1864, many recoiled in horror. Congress even went so far as to condemn his actions. But other than that, Chivington escaped punishment from a nation that was complicit in his crimes. Some Americans were disgusted, to be sure, but they were unable (and often unwilling) to enact change. Genocide, by this point, was not only tolerated but positively celebrated and encouraged — including, it seems on occasion, by otherwise liberal and progressive icons of American culture.
In two now-notorious editorials in 1890-91 ten years before he wrote The Wizard of Oz, L Frank Baum declared that with the death of Chief Sitting Bull at the Wounded Knee massacre, ‘the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished, and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them. The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilisation, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by total annihilation of the few remaining Indians: Baum’s call for a final solution went on. ‘Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are.’
Even in victory, however, this ideology was ultimately — if belatedly — defeated by memory and the changing trends of history. That process was slow and the damage already wrought could not be undone. But at the very least America learned to stop overtly celebrating the genocides of its past, even showing signs of regret.
In 1909, Baum’s annihilation call was answered by legendary film-maker D W Griffith, whose silent film The Mended Lute presented a romanticised celebration of Native America. It was hardly an unqualified, progressive success, but it at least presented some of its subjects in a way that implicitly rejected their extermination. There is a melancholic nostalgia to Griffith’s film, a hint that America, for all its apparent glory, had been made poorer by its treatment of the `Indians’.
Old habits die hard, however, and the first half of the 20th century, albeit punctuated by increasingly sensitive portrayals of Native Americans, remained awash in anti-`Indian’ literature and film. This material retrospectively justified the genocide they had suffered, and though they were intermittently depicted with shades of positivity, the overall impression created by the media was a negative one.
Perhaps the most egregious example —for it remains a staple of happy childhoods the world over— was Disney’s 1953 film Peter Pan, in which the Indians were depicted as simple-minded buffoons, grotesques and submissive sex symbols. The song ‘What made the red man red?’ has the potential to stun modern adult viewers who return to the movie having missed its more disturbing implications when they viewed it as children. Jokes are made about how the Indians speak, how they think, how they look, and how they act. The young women are pretty and sexualised (see Tiger Lily’s oddly suggestive dance for Peter) whole the old women are twisted, cruel hags who make Wendy’s life a misery: ‘Squaw no dance. Squaw gettum firewood!’ Beautiful, passive objects in youth, haggard crones in old age.
But of Peter Pan illustrates how deeply normalised anti-Indian attitudes remained almost a century after Chivington’s massacre it also helps to mark a turning point. There is little progressive about Peter Pan’s depiction of its Indians, but in the years after its release, audiences began to accept (and even demand) narratives that were critical of America’s genocidal past. The mid-century turn was subtle, but films released in the second half of the century were increasingly willing to turn American heroes into villains – and those who were formally villains were increasingly likely to be seen through a far more sympathetic lens. Indeed, they were even seen as victims.
The 1970 film Soldier Blue exemplifies the changing nature of the American conscience. In it we see the United States deliberately attack a peaceful Cheyenne village whose chief, Spotted Wolf, attempts to rise above warfare and offer the hand of peace. Despite his gesture, the Americans massacre the village’s inhabitants, raping and murdering women in the aftermath and binding a few others up in chains.
The film’s protagonist, Cresta Lee, a white woman who sympathises with the Cheyenne, survives. Symbolically, she represents US innocence – that part of the national consciousness that understood the depth of the crimes being committed. She survives and is forced to watch as her best efforts are undone by the worst of her countrymen, a conscience marred forever by a sight that cannot be unseen or forgotten. And so the film forces its audience to take on Cresta’s mantle; it forces them to watch and behold the horror of America’s western founding – it practically screams at the viewer.
Just three years later, Marlon Brando had a Native American woman, Little Feather, decline the Academy Award he had won for his performance in The Godfather. Little Feather spoke with eloquence on Brando’s behalf, citing ‘the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry’ as the actor’s chief motivation for declining the award. She was met, much like Michael Moore decades later, with a mixture of boos and applause. America was split – anti-Indianism and its related strain of white nationalism was falling out of fashion. The response to Little Feather’s speech underlined the failure of the prior racist consensus.
Of course, Native American agency was instrumental in bringing about this ideological change. Native American activists took over Alcatraz Prison from 1969 until the summer of 1971, issuing a proclamation that focused attention on the conditions found in many reservations. In 1973, others occupied Wounded Knee, the site of that particularly notorious massacre in 1890, helping to bring attention to the current economic and social problems faced by many Native American peoples.
These actions made it increasingly difficult to think about them in purely archaic terms, as a set of peoples now destroyed, whose history had, effectively, come to an end around the turn of the century. No longer could the nation’s genocidal past be ignored, because events in the present demanded that it be revisited. Native American activism forced the country to look inward. The results were not always positive, but the culture was changing.
Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves in 1990, which won multiple Academy Awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture, exemplified that change. It was well meaning and well made, though it continued to condescend to the Native Americans. Still, compared to Disney’s Peter Pan it was an absolute revelation, a clear demonstration of the extent to which the country had changed.
In the period of a single human lifespan a profound transformation had occurred. The genocide of the Indians was now widely seen as shameful – despicable, even – a point of regret, not celebration.
Even if the country was not moved sufficiently to deal with the genocide’s long-term effects on its victims, a change had certainly occurred. Disney’s 1995 film, Pocahontas, was problematic, but it illustrates a seismic shift in perception.
The Native American example is a poignant one. It is impossible to argue that the damage done to American Indian peoples has been, or ever can be, undone. But it nonetheless serves as a reminder that, sooner or later, white supremacist ideology can again be pushed back below the surface. It may never disappear and the damage done by its rise may well be lasting, but its apparent immunity is not eternal.