Great Plains Studies, Center for

 

Date of this Version

Winter 2008

Citation

Great Plains Quarterly Volume 28, Number 1, Winter 2008, pp. 63-66.

Comments

Copyright 2008 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Abstract

THE PERSISTENCE OF POPULAR MEMORY: THE CINEMATIC CONSTRUCTION OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN

These two books, while having significant subject matter in common, are very different in style. Buscombe's small volume serves as an effective review of much that has already been written about cinematic representation of "Injuns," offering some useful new interpretations, but apparently not primarily with a scholarly audience in mind. Marubbio's book is very much a specialized work of scholarship, with a much narrower focus, being essentially the first full-length treatment of the cinematic representation of Native American women.

Buscombe is known for his works in film criticism, where he has frequently focused on the Western as a genre. It seems logical that he would now turn his attention to the representation of Native Americans, who have long been one of its key fixtures. Indeed, he begins with a helpful chapter on the formation of the Western, tracing its roots in the theatrical and literary traditions of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, with an appropriate nod to captivity narratives, dime novels, and Wild West shows. None of this is really new; as Buscombe himself acknowledges, there has been so much written on Native American representation that it is hard to offer a truly fresh take. Buscombe, like Marubbio, makes it clear he is not especially interested in the question of whether movie representations are "accurate"-we all know they are not. Rather, both authors are concerned with the nature of the constructed representation of the Indian and what that tells us about American culture generally.

In his first chapter, Buscombe runs through the Westerns of the early twentieth century as he establishes the development of the genre's key elements: the focus on the quest of the white male hero, a figure who often encounters Indians in a very narrow range of roles, and his part in the taming of the frontier. He stresses the familiar trope of the Vanishing Indian, who is either fighting the inevitable demise of his culture (and is thus "bad"), or is nobly assisting the white colonizer (and is thus "good"). As Marubbio does in much greater detail, he points to the very limited range of representations of Native American women. They often symbolically represent both the savagery and the nobility of the untamed land and function as brokers between white and Indian (although ultimately always to the benefit of whites), following the archetype of Pocahontas.