In conjunction with the television series We Shall Remain, airing Mondays on PBS in the coming weeks, NPR is presenting four radio stories reporting on contemporary Native American lives. This story is the second of four that will air within the next month.
Native Americans have a long history of one-sided portrayals in Hollywood, including such stereotypical characters as the war-whooping savage or the grunting tribesman.
After decades of being shoved into these stereotypes, many Native American artists are trying to write their own scripts.
Charlie Hill is a comedian and member of the Oneida Indian Nation of Wisconsin. Despite the existence of modern, real-life icons among Indians — runner Billy Mills, an Olympic gold medalist; Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell; activist Winona LaDuke; and Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist N. Scott Momaday — a TV stereotype still stands out in Hill's mind.
"I remember as a little kid playing the Lone Ranger, my little brother and I. He had to be the Ranger because he was smarter. We're taught that."
The Native American character in the 1950s show The Lone Ranger, Tonto, was played by actor Jay Silverheels. Hill notes that Tonto belonged to no tribal nation; he was "just a generic Indian that was created by the white man."
"We're indoctrinated, we don't know better. Jay Silverheels — I think if he came around in another era, he might've been offered better parts," Hill says. "But in the part of Tonto, he was just, 'Ugh, me not know,' a grunting savage."
Hill says he has been a victim of stereotyping as well. At TV gigs in the 1970s, writers would try to make him do what he calls "ugh and mug" for the cameras, or wear bell-bottomed buckskin suits with platform moccasins.
"I would hear that from other comedians or people — 'You've got a great gimmick, being Indian.' Well — great, my parents are gimmicks," Hill says. "And then I wouldn't get hecklers, I would get people with [a war whoop]. Or I would play in Vegas and I'd be in the lobby afterward, and people would go, 'Oh, you were the Indian on the show last night.' Like that's a part I played."
While a lot of that stuff seems way in the past, Hill says that today, you don't have to look any further than professional sports for stereotypes. In one routine, Hill imagines a world with team names such as the Pittsburgh Negroes and the Milwaukee Krauts — an obvious reference to the NFL's Washington Redskins.
At the other end of the stereotype spectrum are romantic notions of Native American spirituality: New Age drum circles, power crystals and silken dream catchers.
Amid the stereotypes, occasionally an honest, three-dimensional portrayal comes through. Elaine Miles, a Cayuse/Nez Perce Indian, played Marilyn Whirlwind on the 1990s TV show Northern Exposure. She says she idolized the Mazola girl when she was younger.
"I used to tell my mom, 'I want to be like the Mazola girl,' 'cause when I was little and growing up, I had really long, long, hair. I'd walk around with a little basket that my mom had, and I'd put corn in it and do the whole commercial," Miles says.
Miles laughs a little about looking up to the Mazola pitchwoman, but adds the actress was a genuine Indian who wasn't savage, grunting or second-fiddle. Through her character Marilyn and others, Miles hopes she has represented herself and her culture well to future generations.
"I [know] some young kids that grew up with Northern Exposure that say I was the coolest thing on TV when they were growing up," Miles says. "That makes me feel so old, but they remember me, and that's the same way I am with the Mazola girl."
Miles says she wants more roles that counter stereotypes of Indians. But comedian Hill says he'd be out of work if all misperceptions of native people disappeared.
"All this stuff used to make me angry, but as I got older I realized they're just writing my act for me. And what I do in my act, what I say is, 'I'm not white-bashing, this is just a little spiritual spanking they should've got a long time ago,' " Hill says.
But if Hill thought he'd left Tonto back in his childhood, he's in for a surprise. Hollywood honcho Jerry Bruckheimer is planning a Lone Ranger movie, with Johnny Depp reportedly signed on to play the loyal Indian sidekick.
Brian Bull reports from Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison, Wis.