Just Another Movie About a Myth

A commentary about myths perpetrated by Hollywood.

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Hostiles is Hollywood’s latest Western movie that was released January 21. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I was curious as to whether this movie was different from other Westerns I’ve seen. A typical Western is cowboys fighting the savage Indians or Native Americans. Was this latest movie any different?  This is a synopsis from Tribute.ca.

Embittered U.S. Cavalry officer Captain Joseph J. Blocker is given the task of accompanying Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk and his family from Fort Berringer, an isolated Army outpost in New Mexico, back to their tribal lands in Montana in the late 1890s, in order to make sure they arrive safely without incident. Yellow Hawk, who has spent seven years in captivity, has cancer, and wants to die in peace on his own land.

Blocker hates “Indians,” having slaughtered many of them himself, and having nearly died at the hands of a Kiowa. Although he sees them as nothing but savages, he’s still forced to accept the assignment. Once he and his soldiers get out of sight of the fort, he orders that the Chief and his family are put in chains.

Here is the trailer

 

I’m saddened to say Hostiles is just another Western portraying the aboriginal people as savage, uncivilized people who need to be wiped out or at the very least civilized. I grew up watching movies that portrayed Native Americans as savages. The Oxford Dictionary defines savage as barbaric, primitive or uncivilized. Because of Hollywood stereotypes, I believed Native Americans were inferior to Caucasians. We never studied First Nations (FN) culture in school. This video clip shows Hollywood’s portrayal of the FN people and consequently reinforcing stereotypic beliefs which are still alive today.

It seems this movie is no different. The Guardian’s review seems to agree with me.

It sometimes looks as if [Scott] Cooper [the director] thinks that his film can acknowledge and cancel the historical issues of white oppression simply by turning the violence levels up to boiling point, so that the shock of its cruelty, and the virulence of toxic masculinity, combined with the emollient beauty of the surrounding natural world and a growing emotional tenderness between Rosalie and Blocker, will somehow dissolve the great historical wrongs within a romantic narrative of learning and personal discovery…A flawed, but interesting drama.

I had hoped that in this 21st century Hollywood would at least begin to show the world the truth about FN people. Everything I’ve learned and taught (I taught Social Studies for many years) says that aboriginal people were highly civilized thus refuting the myth that when the European settlers arrived in the “New World”, they encountered bands of primitive, uncivilized, pagan savages.

Allow me to prove my point. Wikipedia’s Indigenous people in Canada says the First Nations people had settled and established trade routes across what is now Canada by 500 BCE–1,000 CE. Communities developed each with its own culture, customs, and character. Many Aboriginal civilizations established characteristics that included permanent urban settlements or cities, agriculture, civic and monumental architecture; a reference to the Mound Builders.  Mound Builders were inhabitants of North America during a 5,000-year period who constructed various styles of earthen mounds for religious and ceremonial, burial, and residential purposes. Most notably, this article says the Indigenous people had complex societal hierarchies, meaning First Nations people had a division of labour in which its members of society were more or less specialized in particular activities and depended on others for goods and services;  a system regulated by custom and laws.

Ojibwa Chief George Copway whose Ojibwa name was Kah-Ge-Ga-Gah-Bowh meaning “He Who Stands Forever.” He lived from 1818-1863 and was a writer, ethnographer, Methodist missionary, lecturer, and advocate of Native Americans. Chief Copway is reported to say;

“Among the Indians there have been no written laws. Customs handed down from generation to generation have been the only laws to guide them.  Every one might act different from what was considered right did he choose to do so, but such acts would bring upon him the censure of the Nation….  This fear of the Nation’s censure acted as a mighty band, binding all in one social, honorable compact.”   (source)

An ancient Cherokee proverb says: “When the white man discovered this country Indians were running it. No taxes, no debt, women did all the work. White man thought he could improve on a system like this.” (source)

This Iroquois Prayer gives us an understanding of the Psyche of some the FN people.

We return thanks to our mother, the earth, which sustains us. We return thanks to the rivers and streams, which supply us with water. We return thanks to all herbs, which furnish medicines for the cure of our diseases. We return thanks to the corn, and to her sisters, the beans and squash, which give us life. We return thanks to the bushes and trees, which provide us with fruit. We return thanks to the wind, which, moving the air, has banished diseases. We return thanks to the moon and the stars, which have given us their light when the sun was gone. We return thanks to our grandfather He-no, who has given to us his rain. We return thanks to the sun, that he has looked upon the earth with a beneficent eye. Lastly, we return thanks to the Great Spirit, in whom is embodied all goodness, and who directs all things for the good of his children  (Source: Huffington Post)

Do these quotes sound like they’re from an uncivilized, savage people? Definitely not. They reveal a people who had a strong connection and respect for the land. They describe a people who were highly organized and structured. That would not be the case if they were savages. They were not barbaric which Meriam-Webster defines as marked by a lack of restraint. FN people showed much restraint when it came to the land and using its resources.

Most western movies portrayed the FN people as wild, savage killers; not a peaceful people. Did the various aboriginal tribes fight with one another? Yes. This was a way to settle disputes, but their preference, like us, was to live in peace.

Duhaime’s Encyclopedia of Law tells of a peace accord, roughly 1100, between the Cayuga, Mohawks, Senecas, Oneidas and Onondagas Indians (collectively, the “Iroquois”). This accord is also referred to as the Oral Constitution of the Five Nations Indian Confederacy. But it is known to the aboriginal people of North America as the Great Law or Great Law of Peace.

The website, The Great Peacemakers explains that the accord

… protected the independence and liberties of each individual, each clan, and each nation while uniting the five nations into a confederacy, committed to inward well-being and outward strength. Raw materials and hunting grounds were to be shared. All religions were to be accepted. Unauthorized search was prohibited. Immigration into a nation within the League was welcomed regardless of ethnicity, but predicated upon acceptance of the Great Law.

It reminds me of the European Union, an organization that enhances common citizenship rights and improves cooperation, among other things. It is difficult to refute that the FN people were uncivilized. The Free Dictionary defines civilized as  ” having a highly developed society  and culture”.  The Great Law verifies just that.  It seems to me that Hollywood should be making movies that celebrate the truth about First Nations people instead of keeping a myth alive. But then again, maybe that would not be the makings for a very exciting movie.

Author: Sommer season all year

I am a retired school teacher. I taught high school for 35 years.