Exploring Native America Through Hollywood’s Lens

Hollywood has a long and complicated history of portraying Native American peoples. In March and April, the Cleveland Museum of Art will play host to a special film series that examines not only this legacy, but also the contemporary filmmakers who are bringing a new perspective to the image of American Indians on screen.

Seeing Red showcases seven classic and contemporary films about North America’s indigenous peoples—most directed by current Native American filmmakers—that complement the museum’s exhibition Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection. Several of the films will be followed by a discussion led by Native American educator Marie Toledo (Jemez Pueblo), a Lakewood resident who organized Cleveland’s American Indian Festival from 1992 to 1999 in collaboration with Cleveland Public Theatre.

Toledo hopes the sessions result in lively dialogue. “In these films, you have Native people trying to show what they’re truly about, and it’s a different story than what Hollywood has always presented,” she says. “For example, the first program is Reel Injun (March 31), and it’s a great film that really hit home. It strikes right at the Hollywood story and how Native people are portrayed in movies. And I think that has really been one of the culprits behind existing racism and misperceptions regarding Native Americans today. Cinema shapes our world, and it certainly helped shape the way people think about American Indians.”

The films also tell stories about often neglected aspects of American history. As an example, Toledo points to another movie in the series, Alcatraz Is Not an Island (April 28). The documentary, in its Cleveland theatrical premiere, tells the story of the 1969 to 1971 occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native American “Red Pride” activists.

“I don’t really have a favorite film, but I do really like Alcatraz Is Not an Island,” Toledo says. “We hear in the voices of those who were there the struggles that took place to be heard and recognized. And, how this act laid the path for future American Indian activism.”

Toledo, who made suggestions about the films in the series, hopes visitors will be exposed to stories unfamiliar to them. “I tried to think of films that are not hugely popular, that people haven’t seen and don’t know about, but that are amazing films that tell stories of modern events,” she says. “They are events that are a part of American history, and people should understand them as a piece of our national identity.”

Other films in the series include Barking Water, Older than America, and In the Land of the Head Hunters. A complete list and more details are available on the museum’s web site.

All films will show in Morley Lecture Hall. Admission to each film is $8; CMA members, seniors 65 and over, and students $6; or one CMA Film Series voucher.

Watch the official trailer for Reel Injun.


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