The treatment of the American Indian, or Native American, in the movies has mirrored the way this population has been viewed and treated in American history, and over time the view changed on the screen just as it has changed in society at large. At one time, there was little guilt over the way white society had exploited the native peoples or their land, while more recently there has been a growing awareness of the devastation visited on this population by the invasion of their land and the destruction of their culture by white settlers intent on making the land their own. The view of the Indian started with the English, who created an argument to justify English rights to native soil:
By denying the humanity of the Indians, the English, like other Europeans, claimed that the native possessors of the land disqualified themselves from rightful ownership of it. . . Defining the Native Americans as "savage" and "brutish". . . armed [the English] with a moral justification for doing so when their numbers became sufficient (Nash, Jeffrey, Howe, Frederick, Davis, and Winkler 32-33).
Indians were evoked as stereotypes in motion pictures with few exceptions until revisionist Westerns began to turn the tide the other way. A recent example is Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves (1990), a film that for all its sensitivity to cultural differences and to the importance of Native American culture makes major errors in depicting the history and culture of the Lakota Sioux tribe portrayed in the film.
Much of the history of the New World was a history of the clash between these values, with Europeans pushing the Indians off their land in order to exploit the resources and to assert ownership, as if God had given them the right to do this. The Indian point of view is found in Dee Brown's book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a history of the West told from the point of view of the Indian. The book is based largely on the records of treat...