Watching cowboy movies with Indians

  If you want to become fully aware of just how biting Hollywood’s stereotypes can be, I suggest you watch a western in a roomful of Native Americans.

I did this. I was visiting my friend Stanford Addison, a Northern Arapaho horse trainer who lives on the Wind River Reservation in central Wyoming. One evening, he decided to watch The Missing. The movie stars Cate Blanchett as a New Mexico pioneer. Her daughter gets kidnapped by an extremely unpleasant Apache shaman and his group of thugs. As she starts the search, Ms. Blanchett discovers the pinafored bodies of her neighbors strewn on the garden path, left by assailants who are in the habit of dipping eagle talons in rattlesnake venom and pressing them into the alabaster necks of their victims. Not long afterward, she finds her lover, dismembered and stuffed into a hide pouch, swinging gently over a campfire.

One of Stanford’s nephews appeared in the doorway at this point and asked. "Are the Indians the good guys or the bad guys in this movie?"

His cousin, one of five family members watching in the darkened room, replied, "We’re always the bad guys."

I shifted in my chair, feeling my throat contract with the strangeness of seeing a western, for the first time, through Native American eyes. I was clearly the only one who was suffering. Everyone else sat, relaxed, in their plastic chairs. Addison, who was paralyzed in a car crash 25 years ago, lay unperturbed on his bed, stroking his new pit bull pup, a silky little female with blue eyes and light brown hair. Her nature ran so counter to the reputation of her breed that Addison had named her Shy.

Just then, on the screen, Cate Blanchett spat, "Indians!" with pure disgust and fear. The Apache shaman blew some dust into the eyes of a white man who started bleeding from his eyeballs, and commenced dying in dusty, noisy agony. I got up, saying it was late and I needed to go.

"You just can’t take it, can you?" Stan laughed.

I said, "You’re right. I can’t."

But a larger lesson lay in store. A few weeks later, one of Stan’s nephews and I decided to go to the movies in Riverton. Riverton is a town that’s had its share of troubles. The white supremacist World Church of the Creator relocated there a couple of years ago. It didn’t take long for it to turn tail and go back to Illinois, but the fact that it moved here, to a town that is located on the Wind River Reservation (although it isn’t legally part of it) says a lot about which race has dealt out the suffering in this country and which race has received it.

When I went to pick up Daniel, his cousin Aaron and uncle JR both said they wanted to go, too. We were running a little late for the chosen movie — The Passion of the Christ. That was fine with me. I wasn’t in the mood to see Jesus get beaten to death in slow motion, and Hidalgo was starting 20 minutes later. Perfect. Any takers? Nope.

By the time we walked in, about 15 minutes late, any hope of seeing Jesus unbloodied and whole had evaporated. I had been instructed to keep a close eye on JR, because he had gone into a coma after a car accident about 20 years ago. He had come out of it remarkably well, but at 40 he was still prone to taking unannounced, lengthy walks through the high desert.

"When he don’t turn around, we call the BIA cops," Stan told me.

JR’s 73-year-old mother, Stella, was more direct. "Watch him," she told me sternly as we left. So I watched JR, and JR watched Jesus get peeled like an onion by the Romans. Riveted, JR didn’t move a muscle.

Eventually, buoyed by sheer gratitude that the end of the movie was near, I relaxed enough to actually watch the crucifixion scene. The cross was hoisted and Jesus delivered the line that clinched the movie: "Father, forgive them. They know not what they do." A single tear dropped to the dirt, splashing as perfectly as physics and cinematography would allow.

I was surprised to feel tears in my own eyes. On the way home, my companions talked about how they’d loved the movie. I said how much the crucifixion line had touched me.

"Yeah," said Aaron. "It reminds me of me."

Of Native Americans?

"Yeah."

Because of what white people have done to your people?

"Yeah," said Aaron. "Yeah," echoed Daniel. "Yeah," said JR.

Lisa Jones is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org), where she is writing Stanford Addison’s biography.

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