Over the last few decades, however, Native women have begun to appear in multidimensional roles that not only take place in contemporary society but whose characters are pivotal to the story. Jana Schmieding is not alone. She draws from a tradition of Native actresses who, while few in number, have stood apart from males whether white or Indian. Many of these women – Irene Bedard, Elaine Miles, DeLanna Studi, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Sheila Tousey, Tantoo Cardinal, and Schmieding herself – have portrayed strong, independent characters. The problem is that viewers rarely recognized these women as Native Americans because many have performed outside the Western genre without their conventional tribal regalia or braided hair.
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In the recent Peacock TV comedy series Rutherford Falls, Jana Schmieding stars opposite Ed Helms as a modern-day Native American woman. Schmieding portrays Reagan Wells, who runs the cultural center of a tribe’s gambling casino and eventually becomes its associate director. “Until last year, when I was staffed on the show, I literally didn’t think that we would ever have a story about a modern Native woman on TV in my lifetime,” said Schmieding, who is Cheyenne River Sioux and one of the show’s writers.1
Schmieding and other Native actresses agree that until recently Hollywood had limited them to the Old West with little presence in contemporary society. For more than a century, the movie industry had confined Native Americans to the remote past, safely embedded in the nostalgic Western. A few feature films did explore contemporary stories, but historically movie audiences had shown a reluctance to embrace those stories.2
The lack of modern roles had left Native American women feeling trapped within an outdated patriarchal system and having little else in their lives other than relationships with their male counterparts. Arguably, Hollywood had cast many attractive non-Indian stars as Native women because their real appeal lay not in tribal identity or matriarchal power but in their on-screen beauty. From flapper-girl Clara Bow in Call Her Savage (1932) to the seductive Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun (1946) and the curvaceous Raquel Welch in The Legend of Walks Far Woman (TV 1980), these female characters seemed destined to serve as love interests for their male heroes.
Over the last few decades, however, Native women have begun to appear in multidimensional roles that not only take place in contemporary society but whose characters are pivotal to the story. Schmieding is not alone. She draws from a tradition of Native actresses who, while few in number, have stood apart from males whether white or Indian. Many of these women – Irene Bedard, Elaine Miles, DeLanna Studi, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Sheila Tousey, Tantoo Cardinal, and Schmieding herself – have portrayed strong, independent characters. The problem is that viewers rarely recognized these women as Native Americans because many have performed outside the Western genre without their conventional tribal regalia or braided hair.
Irene Bedard is a primary example. Today’s audience overwhelmingly associates her with the voice of the leading character in Disney’s animated feature Pocahontas (1995). But Bedard can’t seem to shake the image of the slender and attractive Indian maiden despite having earned 67 credits for movie and TV appearances.
One of them, TV’s Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee (1994), was Bedard’s breakout role. She played a character who held her family and community together during the 1973 Wounded Knee Occupation. The movie was part of a Turner Network Television (TNT) series The Native Americans: Behind the Legends, Beyond the Myths, co-produced by Kiowa playwright Hanay Geiogamah and released almost a year before Pocahontas. The story was based on Mary Crow Dog’s 1990 autobiography describing her youth and involvement with the American Indian Movement during the transformational 1960s and early 1970s. Bedard, who traces her heritage to the Native Village of Koyuk in Alaska, was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for her lead role as Crow Dog.
Elaine Miles of CBS’ Northern Exposure (1990-1995) also defied the classic image of the slim and sacrificial Pocahontas. Miles, who is Cayuse (part of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon), became one of the few Native women to appear regularly in a TV series. She portrayed a heavyset Alaska Native receptionist in a contemporary story that followed the adventures of a newly graduated physician from New York City who relocates to Alaska. His receptionist Marilyn Whirlwind (Miles) was a modern-day Alaska Native with a calm demeanor and her own brand of deadpan wisdom.
Other Native women have been able to carve a niche for themselves in sci-fi television. Their characters are far removed from the archetype maidens of Hollywood’s classic Westerns. The short-lived Netflix series Chambers (2019) featured Sivan Alyra Rose of the San Carlos Apache in a lead role. Rose portrayed a heart attack survivor who receives a transplant then had disturbing visions that led her on a quest to learn more about her deceased donor. Amber Midthunder of the Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux in Montana portrayed a female superhero in FX’s Legion (2017-2019) where her training in kickboxing and Tae Kwon Do paid off. She also played a resurrected being with psychic powers in the CW series Roswell, New Mexico (2019-2021).
Regardless of these women’s versatile roles, audiences rarely recognized them as Native because the stories are not situated in the Old West. Additionally, when compared to other women of color, Native women must struggle against a disproportionate lack of on-screen portrayals. A study by a UCLA research group published in 2020 highlights this problematic issue: the number of minority female characters in top films was 64 for Black, 21 Latinx, 25 Asian, 3 for Middle Eastern North African, but zero for Native American.3 That disparity becomes more evident when a 2020 San Diego State University study of women on-screen and behind the scenes in television included data for Black, Latina, and Asian women but none for Native Americans.4
DeLanna Studi, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and niece to actor and film producer Wes Studi, agrees that Native American actresses lag far behind other women of color.5 As chair of the SAG-AFTRA National Native Americans Committee, she has become a strong voice in an industry that historically has erected barricades for both minorities and women. Her first opportunity in a prominent and contemporary role was in the TV movie Edge of America (2003). The film was a Showtime presentation by Smoke Signal’s director Chris Eyre (Southern Cheyenne/Arapaho) and is based on a true story of a Black American educator who travels to a Navajo reservation high school to teach English and coach a girls’ basketball team. Studi portrayed Carla, a young rebellious Navajo woman who had lost her mother and lives with an abusive alcoholic father. Despite her hardships, Carla refuses to be victimized or objectified.
Studi’s memorable role was a far cry from her Hollywood predecessors whose image of an “Indian Princess” traces to the silent era. In these early films, the Native woman would rescue a white man and abandon her own culture. She became a nonthreatening symbol of frontier white aggression because she was willing to sacrifice her national identity and even her life for the good of the nation.6 A number of these women seldom survived a companionship with the man.
A popular example is The Squaw Man (1914), based on the successful 1905 stage play by Edwin Milton Royle and co-directed by Cecil B. DeMille and Oscar C. Apfel. Lillian Margaret St. Cyr (1884-1974), from Nebraska’s Winnebago Reservation, made her feature film debut in The Squaw Man. Known by her stage name “Princess Red Wing,” she first appeared in Kalem’s The White Squaw (1908) before establishing herself in approximately 60 one- and two-reel Indian tales. Her role in The Squaw Man as an Indian woman who marries a white man and tragically kills herself is often cited as the cinematic prototype for the Indian Princess.
Exceptions to the doomed Indian/white romances did occur, however. The Production Code of 1934 forbade relations only between the black and white races.7 Consequently, movies explored other types of intermarriages, especially between white males and Native women. The Heart of Wetona (1919), Behold My Wife! (1934), and John Huston’s The Unforgiven (1960) all featured happy Indian/white unions. Conversely, Foxfire (1955) showed a Native American man – an Apache mining engineer (Jeff Chandler) – marry a privileged white woman (Jane Russell). The problem was that while these romances seemingly ended “happily ever after,” they simultaneously confirmed America’s historical policy that advocated intermarriage as a means for Native people to leave their tribe and merge with the white race.8
Another prominent Native actress of the silent era, Minnie Provost (ca. 1869-1923), was hardly a white man’s fantasy of the slim and curvaceous Indian Princess. Provost, aka Minnie Devereaux or Minnie Ha-Ha, was a member of Oklahoma’s Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes. Her large frame dictated her Hollywood persona: she could easily steal scenes much like the heavy-set actress Marie Dressler at Keystone or portray a crusty but big-hearted servant similar to Kate Price at Vitagraph.
Provost’s versatile acting range extended from melodrama to slapstick. She appeared in blackface as the “nurturing mammy” for several of the Civil War-themed films by producer Thomas H. Ince. In The Coward (1915), her role was a typical housekeeper to a wealthy Southern family during the Civil War who comforts the Colonel’s grieving wife when their son dies.
But in Mack Sennett’s Fatty and Minnie-He-Haw (1914), Provost dominated her henpecked co-star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. She portrayed a heavy-set Indian woman who attempts to nab her equally overweight future husband (Arbuckle) by pushing him into her tipi and brandishing a dagger to demand marriage. When Fatty and Minnie try to kiss, their protruding stomachs become noticeable obstacles. In her own life, Provost openly defied any expectations of the romantic Indian maiden: she enjoyed puffing on her corn-cob pipe and would occasionally spew tobacco juice, leaving observers aghast.9
Provost appeared at a time when studio monopolies and censorship organizations had yet to dictate motion picture content. Consequently, filmmakers were able to experiment with a range of Native characters. In fact, the era had produced two Native American filmmakers – James Young Deer (Nanticoke) and Edwin Carewe (Chickasaw) – both of whom enjoyed prolific careers behind the camera.
But with the epic Western’s rising popularity in the 1930s, fewer challenging roles existed for Native women.10 These movies focused on untamed frontiers and heroic cowboys, which left little room to fully develop Native American characters. Not surprisingly, many of these Westerns presented Native women in one-dimensional roles.
Brave Eagle (1955-1956) featured perhaps the first Native American woman, Kim Winona, in a leading television role. The CBS series was about an Indian chief (Keith Larsen) who preached peace to intrusive whites and warring tribes. Winona was born Constance Elaine Mackey (1930-1978), and both her parents were from the Santee Sioux (Dakota) Nation in Nebraska.11 Unfortunately, her character seldom delved beyond her romantic interest in the (often shirtless) Larsen. With her long dark braids and slim figure, Winona unintentionally personified the archetype noble Indian maiden.
Another Native actress, Beulah Archuletta (1909-1969), is best remembered for her brief portrayal as “Wild Goose Flying in the Night Sky” or “Look,” in John Ford’s highly complex and problematic 1956 Western The Searchers. Look was a chubby Indian woman unwittingly purchased by one of the characters as his bride. She initially appears to supply comic relief but quite shockingly becomes a victim of the soldiers’ ruthless massacre of an Indian village.12
While Ford’s critics have bemoaned Look’s character, Archuletta’s tribal identity seems to have disappeared over the years. A recent discovery of her vital records shows that the actress was Pee-Posh (Maricopa) from Arizona’s Gila River Indian Community, home to World War II hero Ira Hayes.13
For Native actresses like Winona and Archuletta, their on-screen roles appeared frozen in an outdated vision of the American West. Several decades would pass before Native women could resist any kind of typecasting. With the rise of political activism and women’s rights in the 1970s, a heightened awareness of Hollywood’s Native women emerged. Singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie of Canada’s Piapot First Nation (Cree) would soon become the first Indigenous artist to receive an Oscar. She shared the award for her song “Up Where We Belong” in the 1982 movie An Officer and a Gentleman.
But the multitalented artist had already made her mark in Hollywood. She wrote and sang the theme song to Soldier Blue (1970), one of the era’s celebrated anti-Westerns with its graphic depiction of a Cheyenne massacre by U.S. soldiers. In 1975, Sainte-Marie joined the cast of the PBS children’s show Sesame Street and for many years was a series regular. One of her most memorable moments was when she normalized breastfeeding by nursing her son Dakota “Cody” Starblanket on the show while a curious Big Bird peered over her shoulders.
Sainte-Marie’s brief but noteworthy acting career included her portrayal of a matriarchal leader in TV’s The Broken Chain (1993). This TNT segment was also co-produced by Hanay Geiogamah and told the story of the Mohawk military leader Joseph Brant, who rose to prominence in the Iroquois League then sided with Great Britain during the American Revolution. Sainte-Marie portrays the clan mother whose position includes her right to select and remove sachems (chiefs) as well as to participate in councils and serve as a keeper of her culture. Sainte-Marie’s name was actually one of three front credits before the movie’s title, a privileged position usually reserved for the most important actors.
During that same era, Geraldine Keams (Navajo) made her movie debut in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) as the courageous and freethinking Little Moonlight. In this post-Civil War Western, Keams accompanies Clint Eastwood (Wales) and his entourage as he attempts to avenge the murder of his family by Union soldiers. Along the way he picks up a whole convoy of quirky stock characters including Lone Watie (Tsleil-Waututh actor Dan George of Little Big Man) and Little Moonlight, a tough Indian woman who fights off her captors and easily handles a gun. Later, she snuggles under a blanket with Lone Watie, which pleases the elderly man immensely. The actress enjoyed a long career in Hollywood and recently appeared in the first season of Rutherford Falls.
The on-screen appearances of Keams and Sainte-Marie have helped to open the doors for more portrayals of independent Native women. One of them, Sheila Tousey, played the Dartmouth-educated teacher and activist Maggie Eagle Bear in the contemporary mystery/drama Thunderheart (1992). The movie was inspired by true-life events on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s and featured Tousey, a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community in Wisconsin, as a single mother dedicated to her Lakota community. (Her character was based on the Native Canadian activist Anna Mae Aquash, murdered on Pine Ridge in 1975.) Tousey later had the opportunity to expand her portrayals when she played judge Danielle Larsen from 2003 to 2004 on television’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Her recurring character had a professional and powerful career, a rare feat for a Native American woman.
Another actress, the late Misty Upham (1982-2014), also carved her own niche in Hollywood by portraying contemporary characters. Upham was a member of the Blackfeet Nation and could maintain a brilliant screen presence simply by holding back her emotions. In fact, her acting style recalled that of Muscogee (Creek) actor Will Sampson in his role as the “silent” Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). For Frozen River (2008), Upham starred as a single mother opposite Melissa Leo. The two women – one Mohawk and the other white – smuggle illegal immigrants across the frozen St. Lawrence River at the international boundary between New York and Ontario. Frozen River had limited theatrical release, but Upham’s name appeared prominently on the screen before the film’s title.
The recent strides of women like Tousey and Upham suggest that their characters had begun to move away from the romantic depictions of Hollywood’s classic Westerns. Yet the real battle for Native women is to continue their on-screen presence in modern stories despite the fact that many Americans still seem to associate Indian characters with the Old West.
Tantoo Cardinal has been able to build an impressive career both inside and outside the Western genre. Cardinal, a member of Alberta’s McMurray Métis people, has appeared in more than 120 movies and TV series and received the Order of Canada, one of the country’s highest civilian honors. In Hollywood, she established her reputation with Dances with Wolves (1990) and Legends of the Fall (1994), then later appeared in A&E’s contemporary Western Longmire (2015–2017). By 2019, Cardinal had emerged as the tenacious casino boss on ABC’s Stumptown, a story based on a graphic novel about a female Marine veteran turned private investigator.
Cardinal strongly resists the meek and sexualized image of the archetype Indian maiden. One of her favorite portrayals is Bangor, the dauntless companion of Rip Torn who wages a losing battle against a power company’s attempt to snatch his land in Where the Rivers Flow North (1993).14 The story is set in 1927 in the Vermont wilderness, and Cardinal’s portrayal of the Native housekeeper/lover of the long-haired aging logger (Torn) is raw and outspoken and rejects any conventional notion of Native women.
Cardinal’s preference for strong, independent characters has resonated with Native American women in Hollywood. She serves as a reminder that Native women have a place in non-Westerns like TV’s Rutherford Falls and the FX series Reservation Dogs. The latter is a coming-of-age story that relates to the cool and hipster crowd of today’s Native youth. Lead actresses Devery Jacobs of the Mohawks of Kahnawá:ke Band No. 70 in Québec and Paulina Alexis of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation in Alberta join two other teenagers who steal and rob to escape their mundane life in a small Oklahoma town.15
Despite these inroads with cable and streaming services, Native women still struggle to establish their identity in contemporary stories. The next step is for the major broadcast networks and movie studios to catch up and recognize that these women are indeed here among the rest of us. Perhaps only then will the industry truly empower their voices.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from YouTube clips and trailers.
- The Wrap, 19 June 2021 (online). Another Native women, Sierra Teller Ornelas (Navajo), is Rutherford Falls’ showrunner with overall creative authority and management for the TV series. [↩]
- See boxofficemojo.com for a film’s domestic earnings, which reflect both the U.S. and Canada. Historically, contemporary Indian-themed films have fared poorly at the box office: Eskimo (1933), Run, Simon Run (1972), and Thunderheart (1992) all brought in low domestic earnings in North America. A notable exception was Billy Jack (1971), which spurred three sequels. [↩]
- Darnell Hunt et al., Hollywood Diversity Report 2020: A Tale of Two Hollywoods, Part 1: Film (Los Angeles: UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, 2020), 15. The report’s authors explain that they “coded” characters into categories of race and ethnicity. The category of “Native” is defined as global Indigenous peoples including Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, and New Zealanders (p. 45). [↩]
- Martha M. Lauzen, Boxed In 2019-20: Women on Screen and Behind the Scenes in Television (San Diego State University, Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, 2020). [↩]
- M.M. Lafleur, 8 Feb 2019 (online). [↩]
- Robert Tilton. Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative (UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 55. [↩]
- Much confusion has occurred over the definition of miscegenation in the Production Code of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc., 1930-1934. The 1934 Code stated only that “miscegenation (sex relationship between the white and black races) is forbidden” (Part II, Item 6). No mention was made of miscegenation between whites and any race other than Black Americans. [↩]
- Historically, attitudes toward Black/white marriages have been distinctly different from those of Indian/white marriages. Rather than viewing Indian/white intermarriage as a form of “racial contamination,” policymakers had explicitly supported it as an assimilation tool that would encourage the disappearance of Indian tribes. See Bethany R. Berger, “Red: Racism and the American Indian,” UCLA Law Review 56, no. 591 (2009): 626-627, 633. [↩]
- Picture-Play Magazine, Aug 1919, 184. [↩]
- Edward Buscombe, ed. The BFI Companion to the Western (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1988), 426 (Table 1). [↩]
- Winona’s parents, Elaine Grace Garvie and Elmer Marion Mackey, were both listed on the U.S. Indian Census Rolls and were Santee Sioux. See U.S. Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940, Ponca and Santee and Yankton Sioux Indians, South Dakota. [↩]
- Look’s character of comic relief turned tragic is a common narrative device in films that portray an innocent character humiliated as a kind of comic sidekick then killed off. The result is a poignant irony. A strong example is the Korean boy and his relationship with the callous Sgt. Zack in Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951). [↩]
- Beulah Archuletta, née Donahue, Delayed Certificate of Birth, Division of Vital Statistics, Arizona Department of Health, filed 14 July 1949. The birth certificate reveals that Archuletta’s correct birth date is 24 August 1909. According to the U.S. Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940 of the Pima Indian Agency in Arizona, Donahue was a member of the Gila River Indian Reservation. [↩]
- Alberta Native News, 11 April 2020 (online). Where the Rivers Flow North was an independent film with limited distribution. [↩]
- Seminole filmmaker Sterlin Harjo is the series’ showrunner and shares co-creator and executive producer credit along with Maori filmmaker Taika Waititi (JoJo Rabbit and Thor:Ragnarok). [↩]