‘Reel Injun’ attacks stereotypes with actor interviews, movie clips

The panel discusses Dr. Beverly Singers presentation about Native Americans portrayal in media

Eric Coulter

The panel discusses Dr. Beverly Singer’s presentation about Native American’s portrayal in media

Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond takes a look at stereotypes of Native Americans through the history of cinema with his documentary “Reel Injun.”

Grand Valley State University showed the film on Wednesday as part of American Indian Heritage Month along with a panel discussion about cinema and Native Americans. More than 80 students, faculty and staff were in attendance to see the film.

According to the film’s website, there have been over 4,000 films made about Native Americans that have defined how they are seen by the world.

In “Reel Injun,” Diamond travels across America and looks at how the myth of “the Injun” has influenced the understanding and misunderstanding of Native Americans. There are candid interviews with directors, writers, actors and activists.

The film uses clips from classic and recent films, including “Stagecoach,” “Little Big Man,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Atanarjuat the Fast Runner.”

“We’ll never be able to change the fantasy of who and what Indians are,” said actor Adam beach in the film. “That fantasy will always be there, we will always be on the cover of novels saying ‘Cheyenne Warrior.’”

During the post-film discussion, panelists talked about their views of the film and answered questions about Native Americans and the future.

Shannon Martin, an Ojibwe and Potawatomi Indian and director of the Ziibwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways, Dr. Julia Mason, a professor of women and gender studies at GVSU, Levi Rickert, a Potawatomi and president of Wamimi Inc., and Dr. Toni Perrine, a film and video professor at GVSU, each served as panelists for discussion.

All four agreed that the film was a great addition to the culture and helps to get the Native American voice out into society.

“I’m happy the movie was made,” Rickert said. “It brings attention to the Indian people. I think that it’s long overdue.”

Even with the general consensus that the film was great, Martin and Mason both said they felt there were some things missing from it.

Martin said they did not include “Blazing Saddles,” which starred Mel Brooks as a Native American, or “Soldier Blue,” which contains graphic scenes of Native American genocide.

“(‘Soldier Blue’) really traumatized me just as much as ‘The Little Big Man’ movie,” she said.

Mason felt the film took on a big task to cover the representation of Native Americans through film and giving context of that history.

“I think they could’ve done more with the representation on American Indian women, but I think the complexity of what they are talking about is really important,” Mason said.

Perrine said she enjoyed the positive message in the end with Native Americans taking a stand for their heritage.

They also discussed the root of the word “injun,” the idea of more Native Americans on television and whether audiences would accept Native Americans on television as “normal” people.

“I think there’s probably a majority of people who still appreciate the romanticized version of Indian people,” Martin said. “It’s a version that is safe. Personally, what indigenous people want to see are more films like ‘The Whale Rider’. We want to see more documentaries that are truth-telling and cinematic story-telling.”

Rickert said it is important for Native Americans to step up and take responsibility for their voice in society.

“In a sense we have no voice,” said Rickert. “Quite frankly, I’m glad GVSU is having this program because it’s allowing us to have a voice. We have to tell our stories.”

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