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Dec 14, 2022

Soldiers from the US Cavalry defeat the Plains Indians, securing new territory for their burgeoning empire. A group of settlers fends off an armed Indigenous tribe on horseback in their intrepid effort to conquer new lands. A Civil War hero decides to head for the frontier in its waning days, forging an undying friendship with the Native people there.

Each of these summaries describes a film made within the last hundred years that explores dynamics between white settlers and Indigenous people in North America in what we now know as the United States, and sometimes Canada. The problem, of course, is that these films, and so many others like them, don’t — to say the least — present this history accurately. Instead, since Hollywood’s inception, the viewing public has been primarily fed a diet of reductive, dehumanizing, and paternalistic depictions of Indigenous people.

But why have stories involving Indigenous people so frequently involved the perspectives of white settlers? Why are the vast majority of these stories confined to the genre of the Western, replete with shootouts and stagecoaches? What role does the U.S. government play when it comes to the stories we’re told about Indigenous people, how has the historically simplistic portrayal of Native people benefited the interests of the United States and Canada? And how — above all — was the expansion of US empire westward and, later, across the globe, inextricably linked to the Hollywood project of romanticized Western ideals.

On this episode, we examine the history of Indigenous depictions in Hollywood, looking at the ways the entertainment industry has sanitized the genocide and subsequent enduring abuses of Indigenous people, recycled centuries-old “noble savage” tropes, and argue that Indian dehumanizations wasn’t just an accidental byproduct of white supremacy, but was essential and central to the establishment of America’s sense of self and moral purpose.

Our guest is Anishinaabe writer, broadcaster and arts leader Jesse Wente.