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Typecast: Representations of the Indian Princess and Easy Squaw in Recent North American Film

The filmic representation of First Nations peoples has largely been comprised of various incarnations of the historical Indian stereotype, such as the noble savage; the wise medicine man; the bloodthirsty warrior. Two such recurring characterizations have lead to repea ted portrayal of Aboriginal women in one of two limited ways: Native women usually appear on screen as either the romanticized "Indian princess" or the baser "easy sqaw." Since the debut of silent films at the turn of the century, these stereotypes have been entrenched in the collective consciousness of the North American people because of the regularity with which they are seen on screens both large and small. Just as the narrowly-drawn male representation of the historical Indian has been commonplace, so, too, is the convenient pan-Native female. These depictions are static, stopped in time and easily accessible to the viewer's experience. Tonto, the Lone Ranger's faithful sidekick, is as familiar to us as Disney's recent Pocahontas, and yet half a century has passed between the creations of these cinematic efforts. North America as a whole has undergone great economic, social, political and geographic change in the 20th Century. Our world now is a much different place than the world of the old West. Yet the historical Indian, as described by Daniel Francis in his cultural criticism, "The Imaginary Indian," is still the primary frame of reference for images of Aboriginal people in film. Movies are a part of our everyday experience, cinemas and multiplexes familiar and ubiquitous. They exist as North American cultural institutions, but seldom speak to cultures other than the dominant. And, because a film must first exist as a written work, they enforce the convenient stereotypes found in early and contemporary literature. Indian princess and the easy squaw live on in new cinema because they are first written. These female characters are not created from the same stuff as Louise Erdich's Fleur Pillager in the novel Tracks, but rather echo the false and flimsy "beauty queen," Princess Buttered-on-Both-Sides, found in Monique Mojica's play, Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots. This filmic literature undercuts human dimension, presents lies as facts, and serves to entrench the superiority of the white European Christian patriarchy, as is illustrated in Janice Acoose's critical text Iskwewak Kah' Ki Yaw Ni Wahkomakanak: Neither Indian Princesses nor Easy Squaws.

In North America, the films we see are overwhelmingly American-made. The motion picture industry was created and is run almost entirely by wealthy, powerful white American men. Dramatic motion pictures exist first as text, second as image. They are the result of the writer's ideological norms and values, but unlike books are usually filtered through the internal agendas of tens, if not hundreds or thousands, of other people before they reach the writer's audience. Scant few scripts produced today feature representations of truly original characters. The moviegoing public (which embodies the vast majority of Canadians) is most often subjected to dramatic treatment of the same well-used images over and over again. If we picture "Indian woman," we as participants in modern societal popular culture likely imagine the princess or squaw, and that picture likely came to us because we saw it in a movie. These images appear unbidden and, generally, unquestioned. This is because those two stock types are already a part of the collective unconscious. This throwback to a blanket characterization of Indigenous women that was false to begin with has arguably been perpetuated most often in movies in the case of the Indian princess stereotype. North American films have had a love-hate relationship with the princess, using her over and over again as either the symbolic sacrifice or the peacemaker or both. Sadly, the princess or as Francis calls her, the first Miss America has never been allowed to grow up or enter the modern world; as this century draws to a close and visions of "Bladerunner" and the Jetsons dance in our collective head, manipulated visions of the historical romanticized Indian princess are still being manufactured by the motion-picture machine. Less prevalent, but no less important, is the image of the "easy squaw," that stock character appearing most often as a pawn, meant to be shamed, traded or conquered in passing. Acoose maintains that, after invading North America, the Europeans eliminated any societal roles for Indigenous women except those which supported the already-subjugated positions females held in Europe. The Native woman, therefore, was either "elevated beyond a normal Indigenous woman's status" and became a princess (pg. 43) when she could further the white man's cause, or degraded to a "shadowy, lustful archetype" (pg. 44), the squaw, when the Europeans needed a reason to assert power. This represents the historical basis of the Indian princess and easy squaw stereotypes that are cultural "givens" today. These images have been, and continue to be, utilitarian in nature; in film, as in literature, they exist solely to facilitate the development of other, more important characters (primarily white and male). Most telling is the lack of character development these female voices are allowed in dramatic representation. On page 52 of her book, Acoose writes, "Are we (Indigenous women) not still individuals with unique characters and spirits?" As the following synopses illustrate, even now Native women are seldom permitted to tell their own stories; they speak only to tell another part of the white man's tale.


Pocahontas (released 1995; animated feature)

This Disney product is perhaps the most infamous modern representation of the Indian princess on film. The story as exists here on film is a fabrication only very loosely based on actual events. Its historical misrepresentations are well-documented, such as the age difference between the movie character and the real-life person it purports to represent. Physically, this princess is a grown woman, her body voluptuous well beyond the figure a pubescent girl at the turn of the century would possess. Her fringed, off the shoulder buckskin dress is very small, so small it can barely contain her body at all. It is, in fact, several inches shorter than the dresses worn my the other women seen in her cartoon village, and is deeply slit on each side clear to her hip. This style of dress, of course, was not present in the last century, not even in bordellos. The viewer encounters this Disney princess paddling a canoe and singing very early on in the movie this is part of the historical princess stereotype that has been represented in film repeatedly over the years. Pocahontas appears to have a special power over the elements and the animal kingdom, and radiates a magnetism seemingly irresistible to all. Her hair has a life of its own, and swoops and swirls over hear head independent of wind. While she is a beautiful cartoon, it is important to note that her body as drawn is representative not of a real girl, but of an impossibly-dimensioned Barbie doll, and her face made to resemble a Filipino model (reported on Entertainment Tonight).

Pocahontas' mission in this film is to save the white man (John Smith, in this case) from certain death and disgrace; this purpose is unchanged over decades of princess images. Yet although the characters profess great love for each other, theirs is a relationship which never comes to fruition. She appears here to enhance the virtues of the male character to whom she is attached, and to act as the liaison between the noble savages of her tribe and the largely well-intentioned and benevolent purveyors of civilized progress, the Europeans.

The production values of this animated film are very high, and the Disney name carries great weight in popular culture. A great hullabaloo was made upon release of this picture about it being based on a true story. This movie was seen by millions of children all over the world on its release, and is viewed by many millions more in video format. Translation: Disney's Pocahontas may well be the first and most formative experience a child has with Native representation in film, and that representation is widely accepted as truth.


Pocahontas (released 1995; animated short)

This animated version of the Pocahontas story is not feature length, but was released to video by Sony Music Entertainment the same years as the Disney version came to the big screen. It depicts a girl seemingly closer in age to the real-life Pocahontas, although her age is never stated outright. She is dressed in blue, though, and with her dark hair and enormous round eyes she calls to mind a cartoon Virgin Mary, complete with character associations of purity, compassion and chastity. The narrative of the story is skewed in this version, as well, in order to demonstrate the kindheartedness of the white European man (for example, this cartoon has Pocahontas returning to her people from England with John Smith at the ship's helm; in real life, Pocahontas died of smallpox before she could sail from London, married to someone else). As in the Disney version, the princess offers her life to save John Smith. She is the symbolic sacrifice to the whites, the interpreter between their world and her own.


The Edge (released 1997; live action feature)

Replete with legends and images attributed to generic-Cree culture, this movie presents its princess image after only a short time. A fashion photo-shoot is depicted in one scene, and a white model beautiful, blonde, tall, light, lithe poses for the camera while dressed in "princess" garb. She wears a very short, sleeveless buckskin dress that is heavily beaded and fringed, a headband across her forehead that is likewise beaded and feathered, cosmetic "paint" on her cheeks and an arrow through her teased and piled-up hair. As the story is told, she is so dressed in order to capture the essence ("unselfconciousness," it's called) of a photo of a First Nations man the fashion photographer admires.

This is appropriation and perpetuation of a stereotype on more than one level. It is first the Euro-born, historical Indian, next the romanticized princess and, as the narrative unfolds and the fashion model character revealed as an adulterer, the "easy squaw" becomes part of her by insinuation. Finally, all of these are spackled overtop the skin of a very white and unrealistically-perfect woman.


A River Runs Through It (released 1993; live-action feature)

Here we have the Hollywoodization of the easy squaw in modern cinema. Mabel, the lone First Nations character seen in the film, is used as one of two sources of sexual heat in this movie (the other belongs to a white prostitute). While her character is veiled as the catalyst for rebellion or activism, the social accountability necessary to negotiate the depth of that endeavour is entirely absent. Mabel speaks little, drinks hard, and is blatantly sexually aggressive. Notedly, when asked what she does for as living, she answers, "I sell bait." The euphemism is not lost on the audience.

The only images of women in this film are images of either virtue or debasement. No surprise that the only Native woman depicted falls into the latter category. As Acoose writes on page 45 of her text, this kind of pseudo-creative characterization fosters "...attitudes which view Indigenous women as easy squaws, or whores whose only purpose is a sexual one." No depth is afforded the character of Mabel because it isn't needed for her to fulfill her function; she, as a stereotype, already exists. We know her type. Here, she is created solely to illustrate a shallow facet of the lead male character played by Brad Pitt. She is not a fully-formed character in and of herself.


Last of the Dogmen (released 1993; live action feature)

In this tale of the historical Indian preserved outside of time and thrust into modern civilization, we see a variation of the Pocahontas character; instead of saving a white man, the Indian girl saves his dog. Is the child a princess? That isn't explicitly stated, but her characterization draws heavily on the familiar image of the Indian princess. For example, she wears a buckskin dress far more ornate than the other women and girls in the tribe. She also ministers to what can be seen as a narrative appendage of the lead male, his dog, and in a minor way tends to the man himself. As with other princess depictions, this character exists to act as liaison between the historical Indian and the white man.

At the end of the movie, this pre-pubescent princess is left with the most sentimental vestiges of the white man's visit: She gets to keep his dog and his cowboy hat. Like Pocahontas, she is the virtuous tie between the primitive past (when the land belonged to the First Peoples) and the progressive future (white colonization).


White Fang 2: Myth of the White Wolf (released 1993; live action feature)

This story doesn't even attempt to step outside of stereotype in any of its characters, white and Aboriginal alike. The princess representation is encountered early on, within the first 15 minutes of the film, and although hers constitutes the female lead role, she is afforded little development. Repeatedly, the character appears in dreams as an angel figure with decidedly Christian overtones, dressed in flowing white robes. She is chosen by the chief to save her tribe from starvation. Painted in preparation for her quest, she is seen paddling a solo canoe and singing, dressed in ornately beaded buckskin. Her hair is very carefully cut and styled. In the story, she saves a young white man, thinking he is the human incarnation of the wolf she seeks. Of course, they fall in love and he ends up saving her people.

This character is repeatedly referred to as a princess, a Haida princess, so her regal stature is referenced quite overtly. Most telling, her name is Lily -- symbolically, a flower that is white, pure, noble. In fact, the only significant character in this movie with a so-called Indian name is the white male lead. He is called White Wolf by the tribe. Everyone else gets Christian names like Moses or Peter.

This is a children's movie, and once again none of the stereotypes are explained. They don't need to be, because they are already present in the child's imagination.


Legends of the Fall (released 1994; live action feature)

There are only two images of Native women in this film -- a young princess-type and her mother. Both live in a white household; the mother is the maid and the daughter is raised with the white children. Using Acoose's definition, though (elevated beyond an ordinary Indigenous woman's status, pg. 43), the daughter is a princess figure. She "saves" the white man (once again, Brad Pitt), but not from outside harm. This time, the princess saves him from himself.

The character, named Isabelle 2 after the absent white woman of the house, says almost nothing at all but smiles a good deal. Symbolically, she is often seem wearing white, and is virtue made real in this film. She produces a son to carry on the white man's family name. She dies tragically, and her death is her husband's undoing; without his princess to elevate his behaviour, he is once again a desperate man. The character exists only briefly to round out the male lead, to show that he has good points, too. Because the princess stereotype is already imbued with virtue, the male character here receives his virtue by association.


Buffalo Girls (released 1995; made-for-TV movie)

In this TV movie based on the Larry McMurtry novel, a Native woman appears only for a moment. Only a moment of her is necessary, however, to gauge her narrative purpose. We see her in heavily beaded "ceremonial dress," with ribbons in her hair. She is young and beautiful, and appears in a mostly white milieu. Why? Because she is the new bride of an older white man. This princess incarnation does not speak, but smiles adoringly at her new husband. She is married to legitimize the man and provide him with a helpmate, as he seeks a wife and is scorned by the white woman he loves. This is a period drama, and so is yet another representation of the historical romantic ideal of the Indian princess.


Dance Me Outside (released 1995; live action feature)

Although this movie (based on a WP Kinsella book) insinuates itself as a representation of "whole" Aboriginal characters, variants on the princess and easy squaw are found even here. The male lead's older sister, Illianna, could be argued as a princess stereotype. She carries many of the vestiges of the historical princess -- is married to a white man, moves to live among white elite, and, though this is a contemporary story, her clothing and jewellery are expensive-looking. Her husband is seen as "identifying with" her people. She fits the princess mould.

The character of Margaret, on the other hand, can be seen as the easy squaw. On screen for less than 2 minutes, she wears a lot of makeup, is vain about her appearance, and to make a Native man jealous, she asks a malevolent white stranger to "dance her outside" where she is subsequently raped and murdered. The implication is that she is done in by her own sexuality.

Acoose, in her text, comments directly on these two characters, and on the effects of such misrepresentation. On pages 74 of her book, she writes, "...Kinsella's constructions of Indigenous women foster cultural attitudes that legitimize violence and abuse of Indigenous women." Indeed, it is important to note here that all of the films previously cited were written and directed by white men, and as such may be interpreted as an act of enabling the suppression of real Aboriginal women's voices. In fact, the end result of feeding these pictures into the collective experience is the continued denial of Aboriginal woman as being fully human, and an underlying justification of political, social, economic and spiritual oppression (Acoose, pg. 65).

These stereotypical generic Indian women - void of cultural difference and personal depth - represent great danger to First Nations women in North America because they are so very shallow. Acoose cites Gordon Johnston when she states that, in regard to fictional representation, many of us are not able to distinguish between real people and constructed characters (pg. 85); the line between what is truth and what is fiction becomes increasingly blurred. If such images as the princess and easy squaw are accepted as being widely recognized and easily accessible characters, then the real women who must live as the physical manifestations of these imaginary beings are forced into the same narrow and restrictive boxes. They are made into "shadow creatures," seemingly unreal and less than human, mere constructions to whom the normal dignities of everyday life are not afforded. The need of the European patriarchy to classify and render powerless all women -- reduce them to some form of either the madonna or the whore -- has lead directly to the picture of the Indian princess and the easy squaw that take up residence in the collective consciousness of North Americans, and is so easily accepted on film. She is not Erdich's Fleur Pillager, not Mojica's Contemporary Women or Marie/Margaret/Madeline. Instead, she is a movie slut; she is Mojica's Princess-Buttered-on-Both Sides; she is the living embodiment of a Disney cartoon. North American popular culture is predicated on the assumption that convenience supersedes the inclination to critically examine and evaluate what it is we see. The Indian princess and the easy squaw live because we let them.

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Email: tkobayas@ucalgary.ca