In a time when movies about American Indians are few and far between, some say they welcome projects that give them exposure and badly needed jobs. But is being represented, no matter how you're portrayed, really enough? Other members of the Indian community say no.
Witness the reactions after a recent screening of "War Party," an action-drama about three modern-day Blackfeet Indian youths who become full-fledged warriors after tensions escalate between Indian and racist white groups. About 160 members of the local Indian community "clapped and whistled several times" and were "real happy" about seeing some of their friends in the film, said Kevin Hart, secretary of the American Indian Registry for the Performing Arts, the group that sponsored the screening.
Countered Christina Wiktah, a screenwriter and member of the Wichita Indians: "It's a shame that Native American children so often see themselves portrayed as alcoholics, criminals and savages. It's understandable that per capita, the highest suicide rate in America lies among young Native Americans. These are children that need so desperately to have positive role models on TV and in film. What they don't need is another film that sends a message of suicide to them."
A "message of suicide" is exactly what Wiktah says "War Party" is about. In the film's climax, the two main characters (played by Billy Wirth and Kevin Dillon) decide to "go down as warriors" rather than surrender to a group of National Guardsmen who have them trapped in the hills. The modern-day braves face the gunfire of their trackers by riding their horses directly into the group to their deaths.
"It was surely the most depressing ending I've ever seen in my life," Wiktah said. "The only message this film seemed to convey is that suicide is the only way out."
Full-blood Creek/Seminole Indian Bob Hicks agreed: "We're always being portrayed as victims and we're always dying. Somehow they always like to see us dead. Somehow, it's that 'that's the only good kind of Indian' mentality."
But according to the film's director, Franc Roddam, his original ending was not so severe.
"The idea was that they faced death nobly," said the British film maker. "I wanted it to be glorious, like in a samurai movie. It was intended as an act of defiance, not violence."
But the film's emphasis was completely changed, Roddam said, when producer John Daly altered the film without Roddam's participation or knowledge. In Roddam's cut of the film, the Indians face the National Guardsmen's gunfire without firing a single shot, he said. Not so in the final version.
"Imagine my surprise when I went to see the picture (at a screening in Great Falls, Mont., for the Indians of the Blackfeet Reservation in nearby Browning, where the film was shot) and found that a gunshot had been added, so that the Indians fire first," Roddam said with a sigh. "Now, when the National Guard fires back, it looks as if the Indians are getting what they deserve. Which is not what I'd intended at all."
Through a spokeswoman, John Daly said that it wasn't his idea to add the gunshot from the Indians. "The idea came from one of the editors. But I thought it was a great idea and I still do."
Roddam added that a minute that was excised from the ending "takes away much of the texture of the sequence and intensifies the violence."
Some Indians at the screening complained about the portrayal of medicine man Ben Crowkiller (Dennis Banks) as the town drunk.
"A medicine man is regarded like a holy person--like a Pope," said Hicks, a film maker himself ("The Turn of the Country," "The Trial of Standing Bear"). "But here this medicine man was drunk on the streets. I was especially disappointed in that."
Added Adelle Allison, a Huron/Cherokee and communications director of the American Indian Registry: "Anyone who's a true traditionalist doesn't drink because it's not our way. It takes away from the whole concept of spirituality."
Despite what he called the unrealistic elements of the film (such as the drunken medicine man and the Indian youths' constant use of four-letter words), Hicks hopes the movie is "successful and makes money, because then we can have more movies about Indians. If it goes down the tubes then Hollywood will say, 'Indian movies can't make money' and no more will get made."
("War Party," opened last weekend to dismal business. Grosses were just $299,356 in 347 theaters, an average of just $863 per theater.)
Allison noted that while the lead characters were played by whites, many of the supporting roles were filled by Indians.
"It makes people very proud to see that we're out there and doing things, and many will get enjoyment from seeing our people working," she said.
Actor Monty Bass, who has a small non-speaking role in "War Party," agreed. For once, the Sac/Sox and Creek Indian said, Indians are presented in a way that can change the old stereotypes.