The Idea of Native Masculinity and Femininity in Popular Culture, Ethnographic Films, and Native Perspectives and Filmmakers

The idea of what represents Native masculinity and femininity has changed a lot over the years and even more through different types of films involving them. The three types of films I will be comparing in this paper are Popular Culture, Ethnographic Films, and finally Native Perspectives and Filmmakers. Popular Culture films are often films such as westerns, which have a very settler centered viewpoint and commonly the natives in them are simply viewed as an important plot point but not overly complex or deep as characters, they often fulfill the Barbaric Savage role in these, for this film I have picked The Paleface.

Ethnographic Films on the other hand tried to represent the lives of American Indians as a way to record the histories of the people they are about, In these types of films the Native people often have very strong values and are the good guys of their story only becoming warlike for their own survival or to help others, not simply because it is their nature.

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These films while often not meant to be offensive can sometimes end up being not representing the Natives as coeval and thus painting them as a people of the past. This is why these movies often have the Noble savage, or the vanishing race archetype, for this category I have picked the first episode of the We Shall Remain series from PBS. Finally in the Native Perspective and Filmmakers category is where we get a sense of coevalness, this is due to the fact that the people who make these films truly live in the same world we do today, they are using these films as a way to save and let aspects of their culture live on while not forcing them to be old fashioned and appear to be less modern than those around them like in the Ethnographic Films.

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For this category I have chosen the film Crooked Arrows. The concept of Native Masculinity in The Paleface is very apparent and easy to pick out once you begin watching this film. In the very beginning of the film the tribe is shown being cheated out of their land. Then through editing the next scene they show the tribe deciding what they should do since they get a letter essentially evicting them from their land. While this is a very reasonable thing to be upset about their first instinct is to kill the first white man they see. This shows that they are representing the Masculinity as needing to protect their land however it also shows a barbaric and brutal side to their masculinity of them not willing to try and resolve things without violence.

After this there is one other major time that the masculinity of the Natives is represented, this is when they try to burn the white character at the stake. We as the audience see the white man line his suit with asbestos, which is fireproof, however through the editing the Natives who are chasing him do not. When they do try to burn him at the stake and he simply stands their not reacting they then determine that he is blessed and should be their new leader. This scene says two things about the Native people’s masculinity. Firstly, this represents them as a people who don’t think things through critically, and instead simply think he has powers that keep him alive. Secondly, this shows them as very animalistic in the sense that by staying alive through the burning at the stake he has essentially become the alpha male of the group and they all treat him like a chief, or leader and give him great respect. Both of these very strongly cause the men to be viewed as Barbaric Savages.

This film also shows a very old and traditional idea of Native femininity as well, when the white man is being burned at the stake you see a native woman seeming distraught at what she sees yet rather than doing anything about it she simply returns inside her the teepee. This shows that native women are seen as more compassionate and caring, not nearly as savage as their male counterparts. The next time femininity gets brought up is at the very end when the chief is thanking the white man for saving their land. The white man says that he likes the native woman from the film and the chief allows him to be with her as a reward. This shows that part of the idea of femininity was that they were thought of much more as a resource or commodity to the tribe, since the chief will just give her away as a reward to the white character since he helped the tribe. While the woman doesn’t quite represent the idea of a barbaric savage, the chief’s actions to use her as a reward furthers the idea that as a people they fit the barbaric savage archetype. In my Ethnographic film We Shall Remain While some aspects of masculinity and femininity remain the same the tone of how they are talked about changes greatly.

During the film a group of American Indians from the Wampanoag tribe approaches the settlers, Massasoit then makes a treaty with the settlers of New England saying they will each help the other if one of them is unjustly attacked. This represents the masculinity as a strong people, yet one that can be approached and reasoned with and who will honor their word when given. This shows a much higher level of intelligence and planning than they would be shown in pop culture movies. Later on in this film, after the destruction of the Pequot, Massasoit takes a gift of beaver skins to the settlers in an attempt to make sure his tribe is still on good terms with the settlers. This shows a side of Massasoit that acknowledges that the settlers are too strong for them to fight against and that the only way to continue is to assure that they stayed on the winning side of the ongoing battles. When it comes to Femininity however does not change as dramatically. When Phillip makes a statement to keep all Christian missionaries off their land, he made this official by marrying the daughter of a chief who opposed the treaty with the settlers from the beginning. This shows that the idea of Native femininity is still used as a tool or almost as a commodity to assure deals between men of the community.

However what is different from the Pop culture movies is that they also say when the Wampanoag are doing something that could cause trouble they leave all the women and children at home, which is why they initially trusted the settlers who came over with women and children. This shows that they think of the femininity as needing to be protected and guarded, very similarly to how the settlers view their own femininity in the westerns. Due to these views of masculinity and femininity this film seems to emphasize the Noble Savage archetype, since they are very honorable and much more civil but still shown as a people of the past, which is commonly found in these films.

The film Crooked Arrows takes a much more modern representation of the native masculinity and femininity. They do this by honoring and making important cultural values apparent, yet they don’t deny coevalness to the American Indians portrayed in the film. The first display of this masculinity occurred when Crooked arrow made the lacrosse sticks for the team. Joe asks how he can repay Crooked Arrow and instead of asking for money he simply says that if Joe wants to repay him he simply must return lacrosse to their people. This shows that they value the game as a ritual or symbol of their culture and that ultimately that culture means more to them than any money could. Later on during the film the team visits and elder who says they must go on a vision quest in order to find their spirit if they want to play better as a team. Through shot selection they show the players crawling inside a traditional sweat lodge and having visions that represent their roles in the game.

This shows that while they still have many traditional rituals and ceremonies they go through to find their masculinity as men that they have been adapted to a modern society and they are not a people of the past simply a different people who are still there today. This movie also gives a much more modern representation of native femininity as well, during the film there is a scene where the teacher reads a poem that has femininity views much closer to those in old western films, however the student brings up that it is a stereotype they must over come and that they are tough and strong on their own right. This is also a much more modern view of femininity and doesn’t mean that they are going against their culture but that they simply want to be strong members of their community and help to further the traditions of their true culture.

As you can see the roles of both masculinity and femininity have changed very dramatically through these different genres of movies. They started being portrayed very offensively with the men simply being animalistic and warlike while the women are essentially a commodity or property. However, once native directors were able to make their own movies to represent where their culture stands currently we can see that the masculinity represents honor, tradition, and trust in those around you, and the femininity represents those as well while also making the statement that they are their own people who can further their community, not simply help by starting a family like many of the older, and more offensive stereotypes show.

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The Idea of Native Masculinity and Femininity in Popular Culture, Ethnographic Films, and Native Perspectives and Filmmakers. (2022, Oct 30). Retrieved from

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