For Native Americans, Old Stereotypes Die Hard 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 stereotypes, some Native American artists are trying to write their own scripts.
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For Native Americans, Old Stereotypes Die Hard

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For Native Americans, Old Stereotypes Die Hard

For Native Americans, Old Stereotypes Die Hard

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In conjunction with the PBS series, "We Shall Remain," we've been exploring issues of Native American sovereignty and identity. For many Native Americans, Hollywood long ago created an identity crisis. Either they're war-whooping savages like these in the 1948 movie "Fort Apache"…

(Soundbite of movie "Fort Apache")

(Soundbite of war cry)

…or they're the grunting but musical natives in Disney's "Peter Pan."

(Soundbite of movie "Peter Pan")

Unidentified People: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

SIEGEL: After decades of being shoved into these stereotypes, a lot of Indian artists are trying to write their own script.

From Wisconsin Public Radio, Brian Bull reports.

BRIAN BULL: There are modern, real-life icons from Indian country. There's runner Billy Mills, an Olympic gold medalist; the old senator, Ben Nighthorse Campbell; activist Winona LaDuke; and Pulitzer Prize winning novelist N. Scott Momaday. But trumping all of those is the image of the red man on the silver screen.

Mr. CHARLIE HILL (Comedian; Member, Oneida Indian Nation of Wisconsin): 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.

BULL: Charlie Hill is a comedian and member of the Oneida Indian Nation of Wisconsin.

Mr. HILL: We're indoctrinated. We don't know better. Jay Silverheels, I think if he came around in another era, he might have been offered better parts, but the part of Tonto, he was just, ugh, me not know, a grunting savage.

(Soundbite of television program "The Lone Ranger")

Mr. JAY SILVERHEELS (Actor): (As Tonto) You are alone now, last man. You are a lone ranger.

Mr. CLAYTON MOORE (Actor): (As the Lone Ranger): Yes, Tonto, I am a lone ranger.

Mr. SILVERHEELS: (As Tonto) Kimosabe, me help you fight outlaw.

Mr. HILL: He just didn't belong to any Indian nation. He was just a generic Indian that was created by the white man, in white man singular. I don't know who that guy is, but he's screwing everything up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BULL: Hill says he's been a victim of stereotyping as well. Doing TV gigs in the '70s, writers would try to make him do what he calls ugh and mug for the cameras.

Mr. HILL: I would hear it from other comedians or people, you've got a great gimmick being Indian. I said, well, great, my parents are gimmicks. And then I wouldn't get hecklers, I would get people with…

(Soundbite of war cry)

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.

BULL: While a lot of that stuff seems way in the past, Hill says, today, you don't have to look any further than professional sports for stereotypes. Hill takes them on in his Club Red radio skits.

(Soundbite of radio program "Club Red")

Unidentified Man #1: In the AFC in the first quarter, it's the Milwaukee Krauts three, the Pittsburgh Negros nothing. In second-quarter action, the Miami Cubans are walloping the Cincinnati Czechoslovakians 38 to three.

Unidentified Man #2: And Jim(ph), I don't want to hear anything from you about bounced checks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BULL: 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. Hill's got a shtick for that, too.

(Soundbite of radio program "Club Red")

Unidentified Man #3: Out of the mists of time comes a fragrance for men that will put her in your power: Shaman Cologne.

Unidentified Woman #1: I dreamt we were lovers in another life. Then I knew it the night he wore Shaman.

BULL: Amidst all these stereotypes, occasionally an honest, three-dimensional portrayal comes through. One famous one, Marilyn Whirlwind, one of the best-remembered characters from the '90s TV show, "Northern Exposure."

Elaine Miles played Marilyn. She's a Cayuse/Nez Perce, and she remembers her first role model, created by Madison Avenue.

Ms. ELAINE MILES (Actress): Oh, the Mazola girl. She was for a commercial for the Mazola corn oil. She'd come out with a basket full of corn, and she had really long hair.

(Soundbite of Mazola corn oil advertisement)

Unidentified Woman #2: We knew all about the goodness of maize, corn, before America was America. You call this Mazola margarine because the corn oil in Mazola comes from maize…

Ms. MILES: I used to tell my mom, I want to be like the Mazola girl, you know, because when I was little and growing up, I had really long, long, hair, and I'd walk around with a little basket that my mom had, and I'd put corn in it and do the whole commercial.

BULL: Miles laughs a little about looking up to the Mazola spokeswoman, 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's represented herself and her culture well to future generations.

Ms. MILES: Because I have some young kids that grew up with "Northern Exposure" that say that I was the coolest thing on TV when they were growing up, and that makes me feel so old, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

You know, but they remember me, and that's the same way I am with the Mazola girl.

BULL: Miles says she wants more roles that counter stereotypes of Indians, but comedian Charlie Hill says he'd be out of work if all misperceptions of native people disappeared.

Mr. HILL: 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.

BULL: 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 signed on to play the loyal Indian sidekick.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Bull.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

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