America, where representations of Indian men and women perform stereotyped Noble/Savage or Princess/Squaw functions, depending on their relationships with whites. The “princess” figure is a “convert” who rejects or is rejected by her own people for her transgressive attraction to white culture or white individuals, and who may die as a result. The “squaw” denotes a shameful sexuality that taints the men she associates with (hence the derogatory term “squaw man”).
Mixed-race relationships, especially those between Indian women and white men, are one way in which the landscape and resources of the American West were represented cinematically as available for sexual, economic, and sociopolitical exploitation. Silent Westerns and”Indian dramas” from 1908 to 1916 provide a remarkable window on Euro-American popular culture representations of the encounter between tribal peoples and the United States military and educational establishments.
These early Westerns, many of them now unknown or unavailable outside of archives, provide a composite narrative that depicts the white “family on the land” emerging from the “broken home” of a previous mixed-race marriage, and that equates children, land, and gold as the spoils of failed romance, not of war. The ordeal of separating children from their families and cultures through the Indian boarding school policy and the trauma of their return home as outsiders is fully recognized in silent Westerns, which were produced during a time when federal Indian policy encouraged both assimilation and removal from the land.
In these tales of interracial romance, captivity, and adoption, defining narrative features include doubling, mistaken identity, and the social and geographic displacement and replacement of persons. Such narrative strategies reflected the physical acts of displacement and replacement that have been hallmarks of U. S. American Indian policy, from Indian Removal and the Indian Wars through the slow erosion of reservation lands in the twentieth century.
Indian men and women ultimately choose to return to their tribes, depicting a latent, racially based “call of the wild” that could reclaim eastern-educated Indian and mixed-blood children from their new lives. Another turn-of-the-century catch-phrase for this idea that the assimilated or educated Indian would simply return to the reservation and abandon white teachings was “back to the blanket,” again emphasizing clothing as an indicator of racial and cultural allegiance.
The Derelict, emphasize the strength of Indian women and moral weakness of white men in cross-racial relationships. Hollywood’s silent era did not change the prevailing negative cultural stereotypes about Native Americans, but it did produce a large number of Westerns and documentaries that offered alternative viewpoints influenced by the indigenous writers and filmmakers, reform movements, and racial theories that were widespread at the time.
Films about mixed-race romance and mixed-race children in the first and second decades of the twentieth century articulated and influenced public opinion about Native American assimilation (particularly about the taking of land and children through the Dawes Act and the boarding-school system), as well as public and academic speculation about the nature of race and culture. The films consistently contrast the acquisition of land and export of gold, oil, and children from the West with the importance and value of family and even tribal obligations
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