Rhinestone Cowboys, Part 5: Beat the Devil around the Stump

Image: Robert James Russell.

“We must stand as one or they will kill us. When one hunts for a rattlesnake, one may find it. But it bites before one can ever see it.”


Chief Yellow Hawk / Wes Studi
Hostiles (2017) / 133 minutes run time

Image: Original 5x7 watercolor and ink by Robert James Russell.

A week and a half after I watch Hostiles, two Mohawk youth are reprimanded by the Colorado State University campus police for simply being non-white and “suspiciously” hanging around a place they had every right to be — they were prospective students, like all the others that day, excitedly touring the facilities. And yet, they were relegated to the role of outsider — cast as villains in some narrative they were hopelessly, futilely, a part of, by a white woman who felt they were out of place.

New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis — ethnically Māori — is a Hollywood mainstay; you may not know his name, but you know his face. Versatile, Curtis is most often cast in villainous roles, from Mexican gangsters to innocent Middle Eastern fathers to Jesus of Nazareth himself. A talented performer, this speaks to the larger issue we see in Hollywood films featuring non-white actors: the assumption that all non-white skin colors are the same, that all non-white ethnicities are the same. That no one, no one at all, cares about who’s playing what as long as his skin’s the right color.

You know him — you do: Wes Studi is a prolific Native American actor who has starred in countless films and TV shows, such as The Last of the Mohicans, Dances with Wolves, The New World, Mystery Men, Heat, Penny Dreadful, Geronimo: An American Legend. And, yes, there is a common thread here: Studi is most often cast in the role of Native American, running the gamut of different tribes — Cherokee himself, he has played Pawnee, Cheyenne, Paiute, Huron, Powhatan, to name but a few. Like Curtis, Studi is a versatile and supremely talented actor, and the roles he has played over the years are critically important — important, too, to be played by a Native actor. This is not to admonish the man’s living, his craft — not in the slightest. But he seems to be, to the Hollywood studio system, interchangeable — all things at once.

What precedent does this set to the average filmgoer — to see the same actor, again and again, in different roles? As different people? To be all “others” at once?

I always come back to this question: What is the truth of the American West? And, perhaps in tandem with this: What is it we choose to ignore about the West?

Even discussing the term “myth” is problematic; when white writers use this term, it, in essence, erases the historical context of actual peoples and events. No longer is this history, but a myth-making redux: we perpetuate the idea that anything and everything in the West is tall tale. Historically, though, even this mythology of the West is troubling because it is still widely embraced. This, then, gives it untold power — it doesn’t matter that these un-truths were fabricated by authors whose job it was to sell a place, make it dangerous, give us old-fashioned heroes and villains and damsels; what matters, simply, is that it became something worth believing for a huge chunk of the population.

Hostiles is a film banking on its white stars to carry it — there’s no reason the film shouldn’t be a study of Yellow Hawk (Studi) navigating his way back to familiar family land, taken now, owned by ranchers. Instead, we get a film about the grief of Capt. Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale), a white man who is torn apart by what he’s seen and done himself out there on the range — he does, quite expectedly, come to respect Yellow Hawk and his family and to learn more about himself in the process. And while the film is emotionally effective and more poignant than most entries in the Western genre, giving a great deal more screen time to its Native leads, it still focuses squarely on the guilt of the white oppressors and asks for our pity. Even here, Yellow Hawk and his family are nothing more than props to help the white actors get from Point A to Point B.

Hollywood studios have a long history of racism, believing audiences won’t come out in droves and pay for films featuring mostly non-white casts. (In 2018, Marvel’s Black Panther helped to dismantle this notion mightily, and perhaps it will be the start of more inclusive, diverse casts, stories, and POVs in films.) And yet, it’s not hard to imagine an utterly better film where Wes Studi is the lead, where every action and pivot point in the story depends on him, where he is a fully-realized character not dependent on tired tropes, a character steeped in nuance and hopes and fears and drives.

If we understand the cowboy to be a state of mind — that within the Western genre, it’s less about who the cowboy is and more about the entitlement that comes with the title (even the anti-hero cowboys get the reward / the girl / the respect of the town / some peace of mind) — it’s critical to understand how Native peoples have been portrayed, and how perilously reinforcing this is.

Countless white actors portrayed Native Americans during the birth of film, most often sinister characters with bad intentions to steal away the hero’s girl (and / or some pure, young woman from a nearby town) — and reading between the lines, the themes are heavy-handed here, at best. The women represented civility, and the Native Peoples represented the fear of the destruction of society, reverting them all back to some primal state in the wilderness. But, perhaps more surprisingly, there is a litany of black and Italian and American Jewish actors who portrayed Native Americans, as well, their skin color — shocking! — dark enough to warrant their casting in the role (lest they actually cast a Native person). (Most famously, and perhaps ludicrously cringeworthy, Burt Lancaster playing Massai, the last Apache warrior, in the 1954 film Apache. ) It has gotten better — there are far more Native actors, directors, producers and stories driven by Native Peoples — and yet why has it taken this long to move so slowly up the ladder at all?

The West is a verifiable, physical, and literal place. We can trace its borders. We can see much of it, still today, unchanged from the stories we read or the films we watch: towering mesas and cacti and rolling hills and vast expanses of striking nothingness, where no man has disturbed natural splendor yet. But more importantly, the West is also a state of mind; within the genre, it’s a place where fantasies are enacted, history rewritten, where freedom abounds. And this notion of entitlement comes, it seems, quite simply from the vast open space. It was, in the 19th century, to most, a garden paradise — an open slate, a place where class stratification didn’t exist, a homogenous society where anyone could strike it rich and gain respect.

It was this aggrandizement coupled with the notion of endless free land that helped drive American expansion westward, and these same pioneers didn’t — or, perhaps, couldn’t — believe they were actually part of a much larger narrative, one driving Native Peoples out from their land, colonizing the space for the government: to allow it new dominion.

The pulp stories — and tall tales — that lived on before westward expansion and through today are, too often, harmful stereotypes. We learn in history classes so little about the West and then fill that vacuum with everything gobbled up in popular culture — it’s unlike any other genre in any other medium, perpetuating dangerous misunderstandings and racist stereotypes.

You can still walk into any grocery store and find countless products featuring Native American logos. Each year, you can still see American high schools and professional sports defiantly clinging to Native American mascots amid pressure to change — “It’s a form of respect!” they always say. “We are not racist,” they say. You can still watch reruns of Bugs Bunny cartoons where he’s wearing Native garb, talking in faux-Native accents. You can still watch reruns of the Three Stooges’ Whoops, I’m an Indian!, too, lambasting Native Peoples’ very existence. You can still find Native Peoples being told they don’t belong in perceived “white spaces,” like at Colorado State, because, they’re told, there’s no place for them there, none at all.

Westerns will never, in all likelihood, regain as much popularity as they had during the birth of film; however, the iconography is still universal, the themes easily recounted. We all know what a cowboy looks like. We all think we know — unfortunately from negative interpretations, ignoring actual history and culture and, often, humanity — what a Native American looks like. This Western mythos is rampant in our cultural lexicon, buried so deep most of us aren’t even aware of its existence, how much we’ve pulled — not from reality, but from the whims of fiction.

The Western genre, then, unfortunately, is a first and last resort for so many. If we continue not to teach (in depth) the history of this space and its peoples, all that was done to them, why we were there at all, then it’s critical that films and books in the genre take a bolder, more responsible approach in their storytelling. If this, then, is how the masses will digest and learn about Native Peoples, about women in the West, about the true history of the numbers of black and Mexican cowboys, about the trials and tribulations of everyday life, isn’t that worth a shot, at least, to make them more truthful and respectful and inclusive? To be sensitive to the actual truth of history?

Because when we talk about the West, when we talk about cowboys and boomtowns and Texas Rangers and virtuous white settlers and devious outlaws and sage Native American chiefs and / or sidekicks and games of faro and poker and colorful language and Spencer rifles and six-shooters and WANTED posters and aching freedom, the longing to be disappeared in the American Wilds … it’s vital to know what it is we’re actually talking about — and what we’re not talking about at all.

ROBERT JAMES RUSSELL is the author of the novellas Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing), and the chapbook Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press). He is a founding editor of Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find him online and on Twitter.

Bibliography

Cameron, Ian, and Douglas Pye. The Book of Westerns. Continuum, 1996.

Everson, William K. A Pictorial History of the Western Film. Citadel Press, 1975.

Fenin, George N., and William K. Everson. The Western: From Silents to Cinerama. Bonanza Books, 1962.

Katz, William Loren. The Black West: A Documentary and Pictorial History of the African American Role in the Westward Expansion of the U.S. Touchstone, 1996.

Keene, Adrienne, and Amanda Tachine. “Native Americans Aren’t Welcome in the United States. What Happened at CSU Is Proof.” Teen Vogue, TeenVogue.com.

Parkinson, Michael, and Clyde Jeavons. A Pictorial History of Westerns. Exeter Books, 1984.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land. Harvard University Press, 1971.

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