When Hollywood decided to tell the story of Lewis and Clark back in 1955 ("The Far Horizons"), filmmakers put Donna Reed - the epitome of white American womanhood - in a black wig to play the teenage Indian guide, Sacajawea.
Since then, movies such as "Thunderheart" and "Dances With Wolves" have made some progress, putting native American actors in to the cast. But overall, Hollywood films about native cultures have been told by whites, through the eyes of whites. Most have served only to underline the role that native Americans have played throughout the history of Hollywood in telling their own stories: virtually none.
Today, say native American artists, that is slowly beginning to change.
"There are certainly more opportunities today to begin the process of telling the native American story," says Hanay Geiogamah, director of the American Indian Studies program at UCLA. He points to several events, such as the Native American Film & Television Alliance Film Festival at the Gene Autry Museum in Los Angeles in December.
This Sunday, PBS airs "Skinwalkers," based on the novel by Tony Hillerman and directed by native American filmmaker Chris Eyre. Current films, such as "Skins" and "The Fast Runner," a critical favorite from Canada, the first movie by an Inuk, are written, directed, and acted entirely by native people.
In addition to their growing creative presence, native Americans are also getting involved in financial aspects of filmmaking. Several teams of filmmakers from Washington to Connecticut are taking films to local tribes for funding, says the professor, who is a member of the Kiowa tribe from Oklahoma, adding "that's not something anybody was doing even five years ago."
He traces the awakening to the appearance of a small, independent film, "Smoke Signals," in 1998. The film was written and directed by Mr. Eyre. It was a distinguished winner at the Sundance Film Festival, which has played a key role in helping to develop native American storytellers (see story, below), and was subsequently picked up by Miramax for wider distribution. It had a very modest box office, but garnered strong reviews. More important, its mainstream exposure went out like a beacon of inspiration to native American filmmakers around the country. "It got everybody stirred up," says Mr. Geiogamah.
Websites streaming homemade animation and short films have sprouted up on the Internet. Gregg Howard, a Texas-based native American storyteller, reports that he has seen a surge of interest in the oral storytelling traditions of native Americans. "More schools are asking for us," he says. He travels across the country to storytelling events and says he hears more requests for Indians to tell their own stories.
But anecdotes and inspiration are only half the equation, says Dallas-based filmmaker Steve Heape. Access and mainstream distribution are what will have an impact. He wants to correct what he sees as years of damage by the dominant entertainment industry. "I don't think Hollywood has ever done a good job of telling our stories on a commercial basis."
Mr. Heape and his partner, Chip Richie, have worked for five years to build a system of distribution for their films. They have built a company recognized as the 1999 American Indian Business of the Year by the American Indian Chamber of Commerce. The films are sold over the Internet, through the Smithsonian, and, in February, will appear in national TV syndication.
Eyre says that for native American storytellers to succeed in mainstream entertainment, audiences have to be willing to change. "People in middle America want to see Indians in their romantic way," he says. "They're not as interested in seeing Indians in 2002, if they're not Plains Indians with headdresses."
Cherokee actor Wes Studi, who plays Lt. Joe Leaphorn in "Skinwalkers," says the presence of contemporary Indians on TV is part of what will help make that change. "It's a kind of verification of the fact that we are part of this world as well in 2002, rather than only in the century past and the centuries past. This is important for the psyche of the American Indian."
The few who break into the mainstream entertainment industry say they feel the responsibility of helping ease the transition. "A lot of the actors and writers who are out there don't know there are opportunities, so I think we've got to send out the message," says Salteaux Indian Adam Beach, who costars in "Skinwalkers," and also played a native American opposite Nicolas Cage in this year's "Windtalkers."
Geiogamah is quick to point out that there have been others who, like the people at the Sundance Institute, have worked to tell native American stories with accuracy and respect. In the early 1990s, Ted Turner financed a series of documentaries, helping to inspire young filmmakers.
However, a screenwriting competition held this past year to find new scripts for TV may be an important cautionary tale for those who would rush to embrace Hollywood acceptance.
David Coryell, who served as judge, says very few of the scripts were any good. But surprisingly, adds the Syracuse University film professor, the one script he ended up recommending, "had nothing to do with native American themes. It was just another good Hollywood script."
Storyteller Gregg Howard says native American storytellers should listen to the truths of their traditions. He recounts an adage in Cherokee, then translates it: "Walk your own road - to walk another's will lead you nowhere."
Robert Redford has had a lifelong involvement with native American culture, beginning, as he says, with a road trip he took as a 5-year-old through the Indian lands of Texas just after the World War II.
"I was so impacted by what I saw, just the nature of it, that I asked [my mother] to stop the car so I could get out and talk to somebody," he says. The actor, turned director, and founder of the Sundance Film Institute spent time in and around Navajo and Hopi reservations. By 1980, Mr. Redford says, he was deeply involved in native American causes.
In spite of having no participants at the time, he opened a native American division at the Sundance Film Institute even before he had participants. A separate division was necessary "because up to that point, primarily native American art was [considered to be] beads and crafts and weaving and things of that kind, but film had not come forward."
Movies, he says, are a natural form for native American storytelling. "They have in their hands a tremendous asset, which is ... essentially a tradition of oral storytelling as communication through time, rather than a written document, and [they are] essentially very visually oriented because of their heritage being tied to land and their culture.
"I felt there were tremendous possibilities for them to tell their own stories, rather than what we had experienced through the years, which was being given the stories of native Americans through the eyes solely of either Hollywood or certain Anglo people, no matter how wellintentioned they were."
Redford says he had to wait until 1995 for the commitment to pay off, when Chris Eyre appeared and began work on the film that would become "Smoke Signals."
"This was a pretty thrilling moment," he says. "I saw this as the moment I think a lot of people have been waiting for, where we're going to see the shift from the native American culture being told entirely by another culture, starting to move towards the native Americans telling their own culture."