Screen Indians in the EFL-Classroom: Transnational Perspectives


1By the time Hollywood started to produce its first cinematic pictures of ‘Indians’ at the beginning of the twentieth century, the captivity narratives, travel reports, paintings, frontier romances (most prominently Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales), dime novels, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show had already long and firmly shaped the image of Native Americans in the popular American cultural imagination. When Hollywood ‘took over’ this role of image-making, it not only perpetuated existing stereotypes and accelerated their distribution, but also continued to promote the image of the ‘Hollywood Indian’ worldwide. Starting with the letters of Christopher Columbus, Europe had had its own fabrications of Indian images long before the appearance of screen pictures, most influentially that of Rousseau’s ‘noble savage.’ In Germany, for instance, the Karl May novels have firmly rooted the romanticized and noble Apaches, particularly their heroic chief Winnetou, the epitome of virtue, in popular German culture. In the twentieth century, European film audiences have not only abundantly consumed Hollywood stereotypes, they have also created their own versions of ‘the West’ and ‘the Indian.’ Ironically, just when the popularity of the western was considerably declining in Hollywood, this genre climaxed in Europe: many of the Karl May novels were adapted to the screen in West Germany, the genre of the ‘Italo western’ emerged, and the Eastern German Film Academy (DEFA) produced their own Indianerfilme.

2While a worldwide blockbuster Hollywood movie like Dances With Wolves (1990), which triggered the re-emergence of Indians on the Hollywood screen, seems at first glance generally respectful of Native Americans, it still completely relegates them to the past and tells the story of “the Vanishing Indian”; and it tells it from an exclusively Euro-American perspective—from the perspective of a white man “going native.” No doubt, similar observations can be made about the westerns (a term used here in the wider sense) succeeding Dances With Wolves, such as The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), or Last of the Dogmen (1995). And although less widely distributed and less successful films, like Powwow Highway (1989), Clearcut (1991), and Thunderheart (1992), clearly opened up multidimensional perspectives, creating both more complex and contemporary Native American characters and settings, it would be a long time before Native Americans wrote, directed, and produced their own stories for large movie audiences. Only since the surprise success of Smoke Signals (1998), directed by Chris Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapahoe) and written and co-produced by Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene), have Native Americans begun to produce their own feature films. With Eyre’s Skins and Alexie’s The Business of Fancydancing (both 2002), two fairly successful all-Native American productions have succeeded Smoke Signals.

3This paper tackles the question of what different audiences ‘see’ when watching movies depicting Indians. In particular, what does a German movie-going audience—what do our students—see when watching Dances with Wolves or Last of the Mohicans as compared to an American audience? Does a German audience generally ‘see’ these films differently? (At first sight, they seem to be watching the same movies, of course.) One tends to argue that different people watching the same film also ‘see’ the same movie. Upon more careful investigation, however, this is not necessarily the case. This is particularly relevant to the representation of ‘Indians’—and I am using the term Indians here, since in Hollywood productions we usually do not get to see any Native Americans.1 Indeed, Hollywood movies are about imagined Indians, projections, appropriations made in alliance with the perceived ideas of a white mass audience. Thus, although Native Americans play a crucial and visible part in both American history and in American reality and everyday life, they are hardly ever ‘seen’ for who and what they are—actually living creatures (and, thus, cultures) who are as much part of dynamic cultural processes as are all other living cultures today. As will be shown, German audiences on both sides of the iron curtain have similarly appropriated Indians, ‘using’ them for their own purposes and within their own cultural frames of reference.

4That depictions of Native Americans are actually not about Native Americans is by no means a new insight and goes back at least as far as to Robert Berkhofer’s seminal study The White Man’s Indian (though Berkhofer does mention the genre of film only in passing). What has been neglected in the studies of the fabrication of Indians, particularly in the movies, is how—and for which purpose—different national cultures use representations of Indians in different ways as projective surface. For instance, while most Americans would probably be able to decipher many of the subtexts to Dances with Wolves immediately—American westward expansion, a policy of extinction of Native American tribes in the nineteenth century, and feelings of national guilt connected to that history—it is at least questionable whether the majority of Germans would actually ‘see’ the film within the same frame of reference. Being culturally conditioned in a different way and with Native Americans playing no historical, cultural, and social roles, most German mass audiences probably miss important layers of these films. In other words if we “see in Indians what we want to see, what we need to see,” as British film scholar Edward Buscombe puts it (16), then the “we” must clearly be different in different national cultures and reference systems. What, then, is the cultural perspective from which German audiences ‘see’ Indians?

Popular German Perceptions on the Screen (I)—The Winnetou Films: (West-) German “Indianthusiasm” and Vanishing Indian

5As mentioned above, the concept of the noble Indian has been powerful among Europeans at least since Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s reflections on the ‘noble savage’ in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among Men (1755). On the one hand, Indians roaming the open prairie symbolized freedom at a time when feudalism practically made every individual in Europe dependent. On the other hand, European audiences “could thrill themselves with stories of Indian savagery while remaining safe in their beds” (Buscombe 185). Against this background, the Leatherstocking novels of James Fenimore Cooper became extremely successful in Europe—and they have remained so throughout the twentieth century. Many European authors dealt with the American West and the ‘noble savage.’ In Germany this fascination culminated in the emergence of the Karl May novels in the mid-1890s. And culmination seems to be the right word, since, as Christian Feest’s research shows, more than a thousand fictional stories on Indians were published in Germany between 1875 and 1900 (cf. 37). In Germany, Charles Sealsfield, Friedrich Gerstäcker, and Balduin Möllhausen were the most popular writers prior to Karl May. Interestingly, all of these writers had some direct experience with the American West and with western tribal cultures. However, it was Karl May who would so powerfully and enduringly shape the image of the Indian for his German readers and later film audiences.2 It would be a good preparation for the showing and discussion of the films to confront students with the long history of German fascination with Native Americans in selected images and to thus open up the field.3

6Paradoxically, just when the American western was going into a long-term period of decline, the first of the eleven Winnetou films was produced in 1962 (the last one in 1968). The film version of the most successful Karl May novel, Der Schatz im Silbersee (The Treasure of Silver Lake) was the most expensive film ever made in West Germany. It was also the most successful of the season 1962–63, surpassing films like, for instance, the James Bond movie of that year, Dr. No. Whereas the Italian westerns of Sergio Leone attempted to deconstruct the western-genre and its underlying ideologies, the Karl May films returned to an earlier, more innocent world of virtue vs. villainy (cf. Schneider 149). The roles were reversed now in that the Indians, most prominently the impeccable Winnetou, always played by the French actor Pierre Brice, were turned here into symbols of innocence and virtue, while the whites were mostly depicted as corrupt and savage. The voice-overs at the beginning of each of these films time and again articulate the mission of Winnetou, assisted by his blood-brother Old Shatterhand (or, in a few cases, Old Surehand and Old Firehand): to establish peace between Indians and whites against white outlaws who are after the infamous Apache gold, land, or oil, and who currently threaten this peace. This idea of peacekeeping is as generalizing as can be: “friend and protector of all the helpless, but uncompromising enemy of all injustices” (voice-over in Winnetou I). Plots are highly formulaic but complicated, reminiscent of Cooper’s novels, with characters permanently captured, then rescued, then recaptured. As a rule, Indians are never funny, always stoic; they never laugh. But Winnetou always has an ecstatic smile on his face when he reunites with Old Shatterhand.4 And ethnographic accuracy is definitely not to be counted among the strong points of these movies.5 But we have to keep in mind that the Apaches are constructed in the popular image of the Plains Indians, most prominently the Sioux and the Blackfeet. Thus, these films are, after all, a fairly authentic representation of their audience’s fantasies.

7Winnetou proves to be exceptional in all categories: morality, reliability, loyalty, courage, military excellence, language, and social skills. He speaks perfect High German, though his language is somewhat awkward, and usually ends a speech with the words “Howgh, ich habe gesprochen” (“Howgh, I have spoken”). At the very beginning of Winnetou I it is made clear where these talents originate from: Klekhi-petra, the “wise man of the Apaches,” as he is called, is, of all possible options, a white German man who has, according to the novel, been living with the Mescalero Apaches for some thirty years since the failed Revolution in 1848 (a context not provided in the film version). He has completely ‘gone native’ and has obviously served as Winnetou’s teacher (i.e. speaking German, reading, writing) and spiritual guide. In various comments in the Winnetou-trilogy6 reference is made by Winnetou to the fact that his deeply rooted desire for peace and understanding between Indians and whites has been instilled in him by Klekhi-petra. When the old man dies by saving Winnetou’s life his mission of benevolence and peace is transferred onto the young Apache chief.

8The most prominent instances of what Hartmut Lutz has termed German “Indianthusiasm” (a translation of the German term Indianertümelei) are closely connected to the two protagonists. By choosing the French actor Pierre Brice for the role of Winnetou, producer Horst Wendlandt went for a star who needed to “go native” in order to play that part. As such, Brice virtually becomes Winnetou,7 perfectly fulfilling all the expected stereotypes of what an Indian is supposed to represent according to the German popular imagination. Eventually, this Indian of the popular German imagination ‘goes white’ by converting to Christianity.8 Similarly, Old Shatterhand9 also goes native, and he does so at an immense speed. When we initially encounter Old Shatterhand, he is merely “a greenhorn, a German, who has just arrived from the East,” as the chief villain Santer (Mario Adorf) puts it. Within a very short period of time, however, the alleged greenhorn defeats Winnetou’s father Intschu-tschuna, head chief of the Mescalero Apaches and experienced warrior, saves Winnetou’s life, becomes his blood-brother in a ceremony, leads the Apaches in Winnetou’s absence, and becomes the potential husband of Winnetou’s sister Nscho-tschi.

9As in the vast majority of Hollywood westerns, the vanishing theme is very prominent also in the Winnetou films. The tone is immediately established at the very beginning of the first movie of the Winnetou series, Der Schatz im Silbersee. This opening of the film should be shown in class: Independent of their age, the combination of visual images (particularly landscape and outfit), music/atmosphere, and spoken text will not be lost on the students. The voice-over speaks about the decimation of the native population ever since “the white man crossed the great water” and introduces Winnetou as “the last chief of the Apaches […] whose destiny is already clouded by the tragedy of a race revolting for one last time in an inevitably mortal battle.” Clearly, we are confronted with an ‘other’ culture that is very close to extinction. While this is the overall theme of colonial exploitation—and as a universal message definitely not wrong at a particular point in time—the theme of conquest and intrusion is never historicized; nor are locations and settings historicized.

10This lack of historicity is a major difference to Hollywood westerns, particularly the more recent ones like Dances With Wolves, The Last of the Mohicans, and Geronimo, as well as to the Indianerfilme produced in East Germany. Although the introductory voice-overs in all Winnetou films vaguely mention white settlers coming from the East, they do so only to stress time and again that with those settlers also adventurers, desperados, and criminals arrived in Indian country. There are hardly any historical markers that would at least make an attempt to historicize what we see. If there is an allusion to white settlers (note that there are no settlements, but settlers only), they remain completely in the background. If there is a frontier town, all we get of it is the saloon as the home of the villains.

11The question why the Winnetou films were so tremendously popular at just this particular point in time could very productively be addressed in the classroom and then be tied in with scholarly interpretations. Scholars like Hartmut Lutz, Katrin Sieg, and Gerd Gemünden, for instance, have pointed to the psychological dimension of Germans to impersonate Indians after the Holocaust. As Katrin Sieg writes in an essay about German Indianerclubs, impersonating Indians

[P]rovided Germans with a way both to mourn the vacancies left by the Holocaust and to refuse the role of the perpetrator in racial aggression. Indian impersonation thus facilitated the work of restitution, by allowing Germans to explore alternative notions of ethnic differences and to reject learned concepts of Aryan supremacy. Their identification with the victims of foreign invasion reflected (and displaced) the historical experience of Allied occupation, but it also constituted a form of historical denial. (220)

It seems to be legitimate to apply this assessment to the huge success of the Winnetou films as well. Thus, the complete identification with the figures of Winnetou and his blood-brother Old Shatterhand as the universal ‘good guys’ and the immersion of the audience into the process of going native have a cathartic or purgative function. Even in his “vanishing”—Winnetou dies at the end of the third part as a martyr figure for freedom between the races—there is assimilation through conversion to Christianity. It does not seem far-fetched to argue that these aspects, firmly established in a popular German tradition of “indianthusiasm,” have also influenced the ‘seeing’ of later Hollywood films like Dances with Wolves and Last of the Mohicans.

Popular German Perceptions on the Screen (II)—The DEFA Westerns: Historicization and Refusal to Vanish

12While the Winnetou films have by far not received the scholarly attention they deserve, the westerns produced by the DEFA, the federal film company of former East Germany, have even been more neglected. Fourteen Indianerfilme were released between 1966 and 1985. They have decisively shaped the image of ‘the Indian’ not only in East Germany but, due to their success, in Eastern Europe at large. Although the DEFA always distanced itself from the inventions produced by Karl May,10 a similar tradition of ennobling Indians cannot be denied. There also is an appropriation of the Indian, albeit in another political and ideological context. “Whereas the West German films are content to enact May’s adventure fantasies in a never-never land,” as Buscombe puts it, “the East German films attempt to tie their plots to a particular set of social and economic circumstances” (209). This different socio-political agenda is also expressed in the clear and concrete historical contextualization of these films, frequently the Mexican-American War of 1846–48, and the subsequent developments in the Southwest. This immediately changes the narrative from one of domestic territorial expansion (Manifest Destiny)—the one we usually have in Hollywood westerns—to one of imperial conquest. Accordingly, with very few exceptions only, Americans, be they the military, politicians, or businessmen,11 are generally depicted as aggressive imperialists or as capitalists supporting the imperialist cause. As usual, the Indians are in the way of progress, but—and in striking contrast to both the Hollywood western and the Winnetou films—more often than not they resist the latent threat to ‘vanish.’ Thus, for a West German film audience accustomed to Hollywood movies as well as the Karl May adaptations, the films offer some surprises.

13The beginning of the most successful of the DEFA Indian films, Ulzana (1974), for instance, stresses cultural survival through accommodation rather than cultural extinction. Also this opening sequence should be shown in class as representative of the overall agenda of the DEFA films’ appropriation of Indians and be juxtaposed to the opening sequence of Der Schatz im Silbersee. Showing General Crook the sophisticated irrigation system the Apaches have developed, Mescalero chief Ulzana explains much to the surprise of the American commander how the Apaches have managed to wrest two harvests from the arid Arizona soil in this region. Deeply impressed, Crook offers Ulzana to exchange the agricultural produce for guns and supplies, granted that the Mescaleros stay on their land.12

14In a similar vein, in the first film of the series, Die Söhne der Großen Bärin (The Sons of the Great Mother Bear, 1966), Tokei-Ihto, head chief of the Dakota Sioux, wants his people to raise cattle, because he realizes that compromises have to be made. He uses the phrase “zahme Büffel züchten”—to raise tame buffalo. Interestingly, the film ends with the Dakotas planning to buy land in the upper Missouri River region with the gold from their Black Hills. Thus, the final image here, too, is not one of vanishing but one of accommodation.

15In all of the DEFA-films, the Yugoslav actor Gojko Mitic plays the leading role. As with Pierre Brice in the Karl May adaptations, the makers went for a foreign actor for the chief Indian, presumably in order to indicate ethnic difference (cf. Buscombe 212). With his dark long hair, good looks, high cheekbones, and strong physical presence, Mitic was deemed an ideal cast; and, like his West German equivalent, he was a star in East Germany. A longer comment cited by Gerd Gemünden testifies to the high standing of Gojko Mitic in East Germany as well as to the ideological implications underlying the GDR film industry:

Director Konrad Petzold praised Mitic as a professional and an ideological role model. “[…] Gojko had no other choice than to portray Indians here in the East. He had, and as far as I know continues to have [in 1976], offers from the capitalist countries. It’s a sign of his straightforwardness and honesty that he chooses to work here [in the socialist East] exclusively. He is really serious about his work, and it is important to him to participate in the new discoveries and the new developments of this genre, according to our Marxist view of history.” [Mitic was depicted as] model Indian and model citizen. One commentator described the reaction of fans: “When Gojko was on the scene, we had mass rallies that weren’t even ordered from above.” (Gemünden 250–51)

Thus, if the Winnetou films indeed offer Wiedergutmachungsphantasien (fantasies of restitution for collectively committed crimes by Nazi Germany), the DEFA-films offer fantasies of anti-imperialism and antifascism. As Gemünden points out, Mitic had been “providing a role model for young citizens and relieving older ones from responsibilities they may not have been up to during the rise of Nazism and Hitler’s rule” (249). In addition, the films—and especially Gojko Mitic—also offered a space for more subversive action, as the above statement by the fan on the mass rallies indicates.

“Indians” as Projective Surface in a Transatlantic Context: Dances With Wolves

16Dances With Wolves was a giant financial success and won seven academy awards, including the ones for Best Picture and Best Director. It introduced a variety of different individual Indian characters, had Native Americans cast in the role, and assigned long speaking parts to these characters. Besides, the important Sioux characters, like the holy man Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), Chief Ten Bears (Floyd Red Crow Westerman), the warrior Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant), and Kicking Bird’s wife Black Shawl (Tantoo Cardinal), are believable, individualized, respectable, humorous, and intelligent people. In addition, and for the first time in a feature film, when the Indians speak, they use native languages and the words are translated into subtitles. Also with regard to the geography, costumes, village life, etc. Costner and his team got many things right. As Jacquelyn Kilpatrick has pointed out, this was a “refreshing change from the one-dimensional Native American characters in the Westerns of previous years” (124).

17In spite of Costner’s good intentions, however, the film falls short of many things. Most significantly, for Lt. John Dunbar, the white protagonist, the Sioux are merely a projective surface. Dunbar’s disorientation, alienation, and feeling of emptiness and valuelessness are healed, in a sense, by living in this traditional ‘other’ culture. Native Americans here are surrogates for values and feelings of belonging, family, harmony, etc., which this alienated war veteran cannot find in his own society and culture. Dunbar first becomes a leader of the Sioux in the battle against the ‘savage Indians,’ the Pawnee (who are so bad as to even scout for the American army), and, ultimately, together with his wife Stands With a Fist (also a white person, who was captured by the Pawnee and ‘liberated’ by the Sioux to live with them), is practically the last surviving, free-living Sioux.

18From the very beginning of the movie, there is something odd about the white protagonist. After having survived a severe wound in a Civil War battle against the Confederate Army, Dunbar tells his commanding officer that he wants to see the frontier “before it is gone” which turns him into “another white hero going in search of the Vanishing Indian” (Kilpatrick 125). Due to his contact and friendship with the Lakota he goes through a reverse process of hybridization that ultimately turns him into “a better Indian than the Indians themselves,” as Native American writer and scholar Louis Owens has phrased it (qtd. in Kilpatrick 126). The Sioux are largely represented as living on an ecological island, in harmony with the earth and its elements. As Dunbar, before he transforms into his new Indian self, Dances With Wolves, writes in his journal: “I’ve never known a people so eager to laugh, so devoted to family, so dedicated to each other, and the only word that comes to mind is ‘harmony.’” This alone might not be so disturbing, if the white people were not entirely and one-dimensionally be depicted as ‘savage’: With the exception of the two characters who go native, all other white characters are violent, dirty, ignorant, and desecrate the land. Thus, the way Costner decided to represent the Native people as likeable drove him to let Dunbar appropriate a native identity of innocence. His white identity literally merges into his Indian identity when he acquires his Sioux name: “When I heard my Sioux name being called over and over I knew for the first time who I really was.” This is a very revealing statement, since it not only represents his Indian identity moving center stage, completely taking over his white American identity; it also strongly suggests that until this moment he had basically had no identity at all! Shari Huhndorf has poignantly analyzed this more recent Hollywood appropriation of Indians in the act of going native as follows: “Since Dunbar’s perspective provides the film’s narrative center and thus the white audience’s point of identification, it also symbolically purges white America of its responsibility for the terrible plights of Native Americans, past and present” (4).

19Another aspect immediately criticized in American scholarly discourses is the choice of juxtaposing the good Sioux Indians with the bad Pawnees, fully re-inscribing familiar notions of the noble and ignoble savage. Again, this must appeal to European audiences familiar with the Winnetou figure, since his Apaches were basically depicted in the way the Sioux were thought to be like. Thus, in short, good Indians in Dances With Wolves are those whom whites can identify with; bad Indians threaten this process of identification; and bad whites, which occur in abundance, are needed, firstly, to romanticize the ‘noble Indians’ and, secondly, to identify with their noble characteristics more deeply.

20The plot device of having a white woman captive available as interpreter and potential wife for the white protagonist is another rather conventional feature, which links this movie to an old Hollywood tradition. An integration of Dunbar into the Sioux tribe to the extent of miscegenation was seemingly still too daring for Hollywood in 1990. (This does not even materialize in the ‘blood-brothers’-theme in the Winnetou series, in which, in good old Hollywood tradition, Winnetou’s sister Nscho-tschi has to die before she can marry Old Shatterhand.) Clearly, the film is not primarily about Native Americans, but about a white man’s spiritual journey at the end of which he is initiated into being a new, a different, an Indian man. Indeed, although Dunbar has only recently achieved the status of a Sioux warrior, the whole tribe soon depends on him as skillful buffalo hunter and as the most efficient fighter against the hostile Pawnee. In addition, immediately after his first buffalo hunt he turns into a storyteller to whom the whole tribe listens as some sort of celebrity, if not as a leader. Thus, as Shari Huhndorf points out, Dances With Wolves “actually reinforces the racial hierarchies it claims to destabilize, and it thus serves another primary function of going native. Although the film manifests some sympathy toward Indians, its primary cultural work in fact is the regeneration of racial whiteness and European-American society” (3).

21By the end of the movie, when the Sioux come to liberate Dances With Wolves from the American soldiers (who have captured and violently mistreated the protagonist), the audience clearly identifies with the Sioux. At least internally, we cheer on the Sioux for every soldier being killed. For sure, we do so for the treatment the Sioux have received as symbolized in—or projected onto—Dunbar/Dances With Wolves. We are somehow left to feel that justice has been served. Dunbar turns into the good white man who absolves a mass audience, an American one in particular, from its collective guilt.13

22In the film’s final scenes we see the military chase the Sioux with the help of the Pawnee, now partly clad in army clothes, and the epilogue informs us about the near fate of Dunbar’s noble companions following the Civil War: “Their homes destroyed, their buffalo gone, the last band of Sioux submitted to white authority at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. The great horse culture of the plains was gone, and the American frontier was soon to pass into history.”14 Any hopes for a potential future of Native Americans are disappointed. Clearly, all natives have practically vanished, except for Dances With Wolves and Stands With a Fist. These major themes of going native and vanishing must be very familiar to a popular German audience whose way of ‘seeing’ Indians is still strongly influenced by Karl May novels and the movie adaptations thereof. But do they understand—or can they ‘see’—the powerful force of collective guilt that drives Dunbar’s / Dances With Wolves’ / Costner’s decisions?

“We’ve existed too long as Hollywood Indians”15: Smoke Signals

23The success of Smoke Signals cannot and should not be underestimated. The fact that it is the first all-Native American feature film is commonly used by film scholars to depict its special position. As Beverly Singer argues, “[t]he production of Smoke Signals demonstrated that American Indians can make a good commercial product while telling a good story with Indians as central characters” (61). Indeed, storytelling is a crucial element of the movie. As represented by Thomas Builds-the-Fire, the storyteller in the movie, the truth or accuracy of these stories is not always the point, as fictionalized stories can be meaningful and more “true” than what is often taken as real (cf. Benshoff and Griffin 113).

24The movie begins on the Fourth of July, 1976, the bicentennial of the American Declaration of Independence, with a tragedy.16 On the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation Arnold Joseph (Gary Farmer), in a drunken stupor, accidentally sets fire to the home of the Builds-the-Fire-family and kills Thomas’s parents. The film thus subtly links America’s founding day with a tragedy that deprives a baby boy—and, symbolically, all Native Americans—of their fathers and their culture. Since Arnold Joseph saves Thomas’s life, he symbolically also becomes the father whom Thomas never had. Thus, the film is also about how contemporary Native Americans cope with the loss of fathers and, by implication, the loss—or, rather, the appropriation from outside—of a large part of their culture. But it is about more than merely coping: it also has powerful moments of re-appropriation through humor and subversion.

25Of the many comically subversive passages, the “Dances with Salmon”-sequence clearly stands out and offers itself to be studied in more depth in class.

Victor: […] I mean, how many times have you see Dances With Wolves? A hundred, two hundred times?
Embarrassed, Thomas ducks his head.
Victor (cont’d): Oh, jeez, you have seen it that many times, haven’t you? Man. Do you think that shit is real? God. Don’t you even know how to be a real Indian?
Thomas (whispering): I guess not.
Victor is disgusted.
Victor: Well, shit, no wonder. Jeez, I guess I’ll have to teach you then, enit?
Thomas nods eagerly.
Victor: First of all, quit grinning like an idiot. Indians ain’t supposed to smile like that. Get stoic.
[…] Victor: You got to look mean or people won’t respect you. White people will run all over you if you don’t look mean. You got to look like a warrior. You got to look like you just got back from killing a buffalo.
Thomas: But our tribe never hunted buffalo. We were fishermen.
Victor: What? You want to look like you just came back from catching a fish? It ain’t Dances With Salmon, you know? Man, you think a fisherman is tough? Thomas, you got to look like a warrior. (Alexie, Smoke Signals 61–62)17

Victor’s attempt at instructing Thomas “how to be Indian” (by simply playing the ‘stoic Indian’) is ridiculed a few moments later, when Victor’s ‘stoicism’ does not work at all with two American rednecks, thus showing the failure in his whole strategy. On a more subtle level this scene demonstrates that Victor himself, the tough guy, who initially thinks of himself as more traditionally Native American than Thomas (who, at the beginning, to him is just a clown), uncritically consumes the stereotypes created by the dominant society. Thomas, on the other hand, the somewhat odd tribal storyteller, is able to differentiate between Hollywood Indian fantasies and Native American (in this case Coeur d’Alene) realities, in spite of the fact that he is a fan of Dances with Wolves.

26Smoke Signals has been criticized, in particular by Native American scholars, for falling “into the clichéd stereotypes of mainstream Hollywood films,” “for letting the opportunity to make a high-profile film with a truly American Indian aesthetic pass […] by,” and for the implied acceptance of defeat (Kilpatrick 230-31). However, as Sherman Alexie emphasized: “I’m not interested in making movies that don’t appeal to a lot of people. So in some ways Chris [director Chris Eyre] and I are in the unique position of having to make this be a very accessible film in order for this to happen. […] This film has to be safer in a sense and we’re going to get taken to the rug [in Indian country] because of it” (qtd. in Kilpatrick 230). This more universal accessibility might be considered as the risk that had to be taken, or the compromise that had to be made, in order for an all-Native crew to produce a feature film on contemporary Native American life. The theme of Victor’s rediscovery of and reconnection with his father—and the young man’s forgiveness of his father’s failures—is a universal theme with which a large audience can identify, and so is the theme of friendship. However, setting, geography, cultural context, characters, as well as the cultural strategies of survival—storytelling, humor, and endurance—are unique Native American features; the same holds true for the use of time in the film. With the help of Thomas, Victor recognizes that the past, present, and future are closely interconnected. This development on the content-level is clearly supported, for instance, by the technique of flashback scenes and by avoiding sharp cuts in many sequences. Rather, the scenes from the past frequently merge directly with the present, showing that past and present are interwoven, forever affecting each other. And, ultimately, Victor also learns in a very quiet and unspectacular way to differentiate between superficial gestures and poses of Indianess and the important inner realities of his Native existence. That the film was a comparative success in the U.S. but, though making it to some of the bigger German movie theaters, not in Germany is quite revealing.18


27Without exception scholars who deal with major films representing Indians argue that in order to sell films to a popular American audience, Indians, up to very recently, needed to be ‘banned to the past,’ thus denying them to have survived into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. For that purpose, the western still seems to serve as the ideal film genre.19 The second major component necessary for the success of these films at the box office seems to be that these movies need to be told (and viewed) from within a European-American perspective—a perspective authenticated through a white protagonist gone native.

28It seems to be a general pattern for white audiences to identify with the process of going native. And maybe this is the reason why films such as Dances With Wolves and Last of the Mohicans are universally successful. No doubt, we need more films like Smoke Signals—and the use of these films in the EFL classroom—to make larger audiences aware of the fact that so far feature films dealing with Indians are, by and large, just the perpetuation of old stereotypes. Chris Eyre’s follow-up to Smoke Signals, Skins, and Alexie’s debut as filmmaker with The Business of Fancydancing, for instance, are promising signs of the continuation of this newly established trend. Only by dedicating more time to these more recent films produced by Native Americans can we show our students—through the most accessible medium available—that Native Americans have not only survived into the twenty-first century but are, against many odds, actually thriving again through humor, storytelling, and subversive creativity.


1   As Comanche writer Paul Chaat Smith says: “If it’s true that Indians have been deeply involved in the movie business, it’s also true that those films aren’t really about Indians in the first place” (qtd. in Warrior viii). Similarly, British film scholar Edward Buscombe has argued that a movie depicting Indians is “not about what Indians are really like, or what really happened to them, so much as it is about how white people have chosen to represent them in the most popular and hence influential medium of modern society. [F]ilms made by white people for white audiences will inevitably produce an image of Indians designed to serve a white agenda. We see in Indians what we want to see, what we need to see. But those wants and needs can be quite complex, and can change over time” (16).2  Even if the Indian is doomed to extinction in the Karl May novels and film adaptations thereof, the Winnetou myth that May created has nevertheless proved amazingly long-lived: his books are still in print; with the Karl May Verlag there is a publishing house solely devoted to May’s work; the Karl May Festspiele, a festival and pageant at Bad Segeberg in the state of Holstein, attracts 200,000 people annually; another festival takes place in Hohenstein-Ernstthal, May’s home town in Saxony; there is also a Winnetou festival in the town of Gföhl in Austria; there is a regular Karl May magazine, Karl May & Co; a Karl May Foundation (Karl May Stiftung) in Radebeul to which also the Karl May Museum belongs. It is safe to say that generations of German children and young adults have grown up fantasizing about a life in freedom, adventure, and nature based on May’s novels.

3   One could start with a poster or a sequence from Bully Herbig’s Manitou’s Shoe (Der Schuh des Manitou; 2001), in order to open up the unit and then attempt to trace the German enthusiasm for North American Indian cultures retrospectively. By including some of the prominent paintings by Carl Bodmer (which he produced during his journeys to the West with Prince Maximillian of Wied in the 1830s), portraits of Sitting Bull by Rudolf Cronau (which were widely published in German newspapers and magazines at the end of the 19th century), advertisements and photographs of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show (which toured Germany in 1890/91 and 1906), and posters of the Völkerschauen (especially Hagenbecks Tierpark) and Circuses (e.g., Sarrasani) promoting ‘real’ Indians (both of which were extremely popular in the early 20th Century), the German history of romanticizing the ‘noble savage’ could be nicely exemplified.

4  The homo-erotic tendencies of this have been frequently hinted at, most recently in Herbig’s comedy Der Schuh des Manitou.

5  The outfit Winnetou wears at all seasons, always fully clothed in buckskin, would have been far too hot in the dry and hot climate of the Southwest; the Buffalo, about which Winnetou permanently talks and which suggest that the Apaches are a nomadic tribe, were not really central to the tribal subsistence of the Southern Apaches; so-called wickiups, circular brush lodges—not teepees—were the main housing facilities of the Southern Apaches; the totems permanently displayed actually belong to the tribes of the Pacific Northwest; there could never have been one chief of the Apaches, as Winnetou is supposed to represent, but the Apaches were (and are) divided into many tribes, etc.

6   The trilogy is composed of Winnetou I (1963; Apache Gold), Winnetou II (1964; Last of the Renegades), and Winnetou III (1965; The Desperado Trail).

7   Brice not only plays the leading role in all of the eleven films, he also performed as Winnetou at the Karl May Festival and Pageant at Bad Segeberg from 1982 to 1986 and 1988 to 1991, and he was the festival’s director from 1991 to 1999.

8   In essence, the final part of the trilogy, Winnetou III, deals with this conversion. After hearing the church bells of Santa Fe ringing twice in the film (the second instance conveys Winnetou’s death vision, thus anticipating his departure as a martyr for the peace between Indians and whites), Winnetou finally converts to Christianity in his dying scene.

9  Interestingly, whereas in May’s novels the quasi-mythic Germanic traits of Old Shatterhand are heavily emphasized, in Lex Barker’s film interpretation of this role his German roots are only mentioned in passing and his characteristics are that of a universal American hero.

10   It is important to note that Lieselotte Welskopf-Henrich’s series of novels, Die Söhne der Großen Bärin, six volumes published between 1951 and 1961, was not only turned into the first of the DEFA-westerns but was also taken as a foil for all subsequent films. Welskopf-Henrich (1901-79), a historian by trade, had extensive stays among the Lakota Sioux, studied the life and traditions of this tribe, and was even honored by the Lakota for her ethnologically valuable research (see Otto and Otto).

11   There appear relatively few American settlers and farmers in the DEFA-westerns. Instead, if such common people are depicted, they are usually Mexican farmers (as those oppressed by American imperial aspirations), who are conventionally represented as more likeable.

12   It does not matter for my argument here that this suggested exchange does not materialize, due to corruption and racial hate among American politicians, businessmen, and leading officers. At the end of Ulzana, after they were brought to a reservation on completely barren land, the Apaches escape the reservation for better lands in Mexico.

13   Many of the insights related to the issues of going native and the vanishing theme in Dances With Wolves can easily be applied to other films of the 1990s representing Indians, such as Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans, Walter Hill’s Geronimo: An American Legend, and Tab Murphy’s Last of the Dogmen.

14   It is noteworthy here that Costner decided to exchange the usually less romanticized Comanches from Michael Blake’s novel with the same title with the Sioux, who are often taken as the epitome of nobility in the European-American imagination.

15   This statement by director Chris Eyre stems from an interview with Walter Chaw.

16   Again, this opening could be separately shown and subsequently discussed with the students.

17  The entire clip is available on

18   The film was only shown in some of the smaller movie theaters in the big cities. In the city of Hamburg, for instance, it was cancelled after the minimum running time of two weeks.

19  A look at the earnings seems to support that. While Dances With Wolves ($184 mill.) made an outstanding profit and The Last of the Mohicans ($ 73 mill.) was rather successful, the thriller Thunderheart, set on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s, and in spite of stars like Val Kilmer, Graham Greene, and Sam Shepard, was a comparative failure. Interestingly, Smoke Signals was a comparative success, cashing $ 6.7 million in spite of the fact that it was a low budget production (cost: $ 1.9 million [cf. Aleiss 159-61]).


Works Cited

Aleiss, Angela. Making the White Man’s Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005.

Alexie, Sherman. “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock.” The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. New York: Harper, 1993. 24–36.

—. Smoke Signals: A Screenplay. New York: Hyperion, 1998.

Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin. “Native Americans and American Film.” America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality in the Movies. Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. 96–115.

Berkhofer, Robert F., Jr. The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present. New York: Vintage, 1978.

Blake, Michael. Dances With Wolves. New York: Fawcett, 1988.

The Business of Fancydancing. Dir. and screenplay: Sherman Alexie. FallsApart Productions, 2002.

Buscombe, Edward. ‘Injuns!’ Native Americans in the Movies. London: Reaktion Books, 2006.

Calloway, Colin G., Gerd Gemünden, and Susanne Zantop, eds. Germans and Indians: Fantasies, Encounters, Projections. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Chaw, Walter. (Interview with Chris Eyre). 23 May 2008

Clearcut. Dir. Ryszard Bugajski. Screenplay: John Forsyth and M. T. Kelly. Cinexus Capital Corporation, 1991.

Costner, Kevin, Michael Blake, and Jim Wilson, eds. Dances With Wolves: The Illustrated Screenplay and Story Behind the Film. New York: Newmarket, 1990.

Dances With Wolves. Dir. Kevin Costner. Screenplay: Michael Blake. Orion Pictures Release, 1990.

Feest, Christian. “Germany’s Indians in a European Perspective.” Germans and Indians: Fantasies, Encounters, Projections. Ed. Colin G. Calloway, Gerd Gemünden, and Susanne Zantop. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. 25–43.

Geronimo: An American Legend. Dir. Walter Hill. Screenplay: John Milius. Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1993.

Gemünden, Gerd. “Between Karl May and Karl Marx: The DEFA Indianerfilme.” Germans and Indians: Fantasies, Encounters, Projections. Ed. Colin G. Calloway, Gerd Gemünden, and Susanne Zantop. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. 243–56.

Huhndorf, Shari M. Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn. Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

Last of the Dogmen. Dir. and Screenplay: Tab Murphy. Carolco Pictures, 1995.

Last of the Mohicans. Dir. Michael Mann. Screenplay: Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe. 20th Century Fox, 1992.

Louis, Adrian C. Skins. New York: Crown, 1995.

Lutz, Hartmut. “German Indianthusiasm: A Socially Constructed German National(ist) Myth.” Germans and Indians: Fantasies, Encounters, Projections. Ed. Colin G. Calloway, Gerd Gemünden, and Susanne Zantop. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. 167–84.

Otto, Till, and Uli Otto. Auf den Spuren der Söhne der Großen Bärin: Untersuchung zum historischen und kulturgeschichtlichen Hintergrund der Jugendbücher Die Söhne der Großen Bärin von Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich. Regensburg: Kern, 2001.

Powwow Highway. Dir. Jonathan Wacks. Screenplay: David Seals and Janet Heaney. HandMade Films, 1989.

Der Schatz im Silbersee (The Treasure of Silver Lake). Dir. Harald Reinl. Screenplay: Harald G. Petersson. Jadran Film, 1962.

Der Schuh des Manitou (Manitou’s Shoe). Dir. Michael “Bully” Herbig. Screenplay: Michael “Bully” Herbig and Alfons Biedermann. herbX Medienproduktion GmbH, 2001.

Schneider, Tassilo. “Finding a New Heimat in the Wild West: Karl May and the German Western of the 1960s.” Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western. Ed. Edward Buscombe and Roberta E. Pearson. London: British Film Institute, 1998. 141–59.

Sieg, Katrin. “Indian Impersonation as Historical Surrogation.” Germans and Indians: Fantasies, Encounters, Projections. Ed. Colin G. Calloway, Gerd Gemünden, and Susanne Zantop. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. 217–42.

Singer, Beverly R. Wiping the War Paint off the Lens: Native American Film and Video. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Skins. Dir. Chris Eyre. Screenplay: Jennifer D. Lyne and Adrian C. Louis. First Look Pictures, 2002.

Smoke Signals. Dir. Chris Eyre. Screenplay: Sherman Alexie. First Look Pictures, 1998.

Die Söhne der Grossen Bärin (The Sons of the Great Mother Bear). Dir. Josef Mach. Screenplay: Lieselotte Welskopf-Henrich. Bosna Film, 1966.

Thunderheart. Dir. Michael Apted. Screenplay: John Fusco. Tribeca Productions, 1992.

Ulzana. Dir. Gottfried Kolditz. Screenplay: Gottfried Kolditz and Gojko Mitic. Deutsche Film Akademie (DEFA), 1974.

Warrior, Robert. Foreword. Wiping the War Paint off the Lens: Native American Film and Video. By Beverly Singer. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. xii–xi.

Winnetou I (Apache Gold). Dir. Harald Reinl. Screenplay: Harald G. Petersson. Jadran Film, 1963.

Winnetou III (The Desperado Trail). Dir. Harald Reinl. Screenplay: J. Joachim Bartsch. Rialto Film Preben-Philipsen, 1964.


Karsten Fitz is Professor of American Studies at the University of Passau, Germany. He received his PhD from the University of Hannover, Germany. His dissertation, Negotiating History and Culture: Transculturation in Contemporary Native American Fiction, was published in 2001 (Lang). Fitz has also published essays on Native American Literature and nineteenth-century visual culture in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Amerikastudien / American Studies, Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, and various conference volumes. His upcoming book, The American Revolution Remembered, 1830s to 1850s: Competing Images and Conflicting Narratives, will be published in the American Studies Monograph Series (Winter).

Suggested Citation

Fitz, Karsten. “Screen Indians in the EFL-Classroom: Transnational Perspectives.” American Studies Journal 51 (2008). Web. 26 Feb. 2024. DOI 10.18422/51-06.


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