In Walt Disney’s “Pocahontas,” a warrior is about to decapitate John Smith when a young maiden flings herself between them. “If you kill him, you’ll have to kill me, too,” she sobs. Her offer of sacrifice, her curvaceous figure and her virginal stature have come to symbolize America’s Indian heroine.
Our fascination with this Indian princess image was rightfully dubbed the “Pocahontas Perplex” by Rayna Green, director of the American Indian program at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Trapped within a patriarchal definition, Hollywood’s Indian women are rarely shown as having anything more important in life than their male relationships.
A major obstacle is that attractive non-Indian stars usually portray these roles. The character’s appeal lies not in her tribal identity or matriarchal power but in her on-screen pulchritude. Flapper-girl Clara Bow wiggles and screeches with delight as the wild, untamable Indian woman in “Call Her Savage” (1932). Jennifer Jones portrays the hot-blooded Indian temptress of “Duel in the Sun” (1946). Raquel Welch, the voluptuous Indian maiden of “The Legend of Walks Far Woman” (1980), strides through the wilderness in her tight buckskin frock and tosses aside her flowing hair.
If she fails as love interest for the male hero, she is abandoned property tossed aside by the white man for one of his own race. Death often awaits the rejected Indian wife. Typically, the white husband abandons his Indian spouse and snatches her children for a more “proper” education. Cecil B. DeMille filmed “The Squaw Man” three times (1914, 1918 and 1931). In each version, the white man returns to his Caucasian sweetheart and his Indian wife commits suicide.
Later Indian/white marriages represent Hollywood’s solution to hostile frontier relations. Debra Paget, James Stewart’s young Apache wife in “Broken Arrow” (1950), is killed when white renegades violate a peace treaty. But in “White Feather” (1955), Paget resurfaces as a Cheyenne maiden married to Robert Wagner. This time, the couple’s mixed-blood son enters West Point military academy.
In John Huston’s “The Unforgiven” (1960), “Kiowa-born” Audrey Hepburn actually kills her own Indian brother so that she can marry Burt Lancaster.
These Indian heroines represent the Pocahontas image par excellence. Even when happily married to their white husbands, they exist to satisfy their partners.
The heroine of “Thunderheart” (1992) at first appears a welcome departure from Pocahontas. Sheila Tousey, an actress of Menominee/Stockbridge-Munsee descent, plays a teacher-activist who discovers contaminated water on her reservation. Tousey’s character is educated, strong and outspoken: A single mother, she has dedicated her life to Native American issues. She even tells off FBI agent Val Kilmer. But alas, Tousey must die. The naughty Indian woman is found face down in a dry riverbed.
Tantoo Cardinal, an actress of Cree/Metis descent, recently gave a dynamic performance as Rip Torn’s indomitable Indian housekeeper in “Where the Rivers Flow North” (1992). Writer/director Sam Shepard created a surrealist story of three Indian women and their fight for dignity in “Silent Tongue” (1992).
But these independent, low-budget films enjoyed only a brief theatrical release and then faded into oblivion. Disney’s animated heroine, however, inhabits a blockbuster that defines a popular legacy of American culture--alas for real Indian women.