Great Movie Indians
Our Favorite Movie Indians
From stars and sidekicks to silent sages and savage stereotypes, Hollywood hasn’t always depicted Native Americans fairly. But when the movies get it right, they leave us with some of the most indelible portraits of the indigenous West.
To compile a list of our favorite roles, we enlisted the help of Chris Eyre, one of the most prolific and successful Native American filmmakers of all time, with producing and directing credits that include Smoke Signals, Edge of America, Skins, and many others. Here are 15 of his and our favorite Native American characters in film.
Magua (Wes Studi)
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
James Fenimore Cooper’s arch badass has been portrayed by numerous actors (including Buster Crabbe in 1947’s Last of the Redmen), but it took Vietnam vet rifleman and Cherokee actor Studi to turn him into one of the most charismatic villains in cinematic history. Magua’s heart is definitely twisted, but with a nod here and small gesture there — he nearly reveals a shred of humanity when trying to save young Alice Munro from leaping to her death — Studi masterfully conveys the complex mixture of pain and pride that makes Magua so terrifying.
Iconic accouterment: The most intimidating Mohawk ever!
Defining dialogue: “When the Gray Hair is dead, Magua will eat his heart. Before he dies, Magua will put his children under the knife, so the Grey Hair will know his seed is wiped out forever.”
Kicking Bird (Graham Greene)
Dances with Wolves (1990)
As a Sioux holy man, Kicking Bird struggles valiantly through a mighty language barrier, bestows Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) with the immortal handle Dances with Wolves, then leads him to spiritual enlightenment. More important, he serves as the moral anchor for the 1991 Academy Awards Best Picture, for which veteran actor Greene also picked up a much-deserved nomination for best supporting actor.
“He’s a timeless character,” says Eyre. “You can think back to the 1860s and say, ‘I know there were some beautiful, well-rounded people in those societies that I would like to have met.’ And that’s who Kicking Bird is.”
Iconic accouterments: Spear and feathers.
Defining dialogue: “Of all the trails in this life, there is one that matters most. It is the trail of a true human being. I think you are on this trail, and it is good to see.”
Chief Bromden (Will Sampson)
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Physically and emotionally, the 6-foot-5 “Chief” looms over the 1976 Academy Awards Best Picture, then dominates the final 10 minutes with a bittersweet mercy killing of hisâ¨brother-in-arms McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) and dramatic escape from Nurse Ratched’s hellish mental institution. Sampson, an Okmulgee, Oklahoma, native and Creek Indian who died in 1987, will always be remembered for striking one of the most triumphant notes in movie history, not to mention starring in the most peculiar basketball scrimmage ever filmed.
“He seems to be the ultimate metaphor for all Native American characters to step beyond Hollywood’s “historic trauma genre” movies. His character not only survives but frees himself in the end of the movie,” says Eyre.
Iconic accouterment: One large marble hydrotherapy fountain, ripped from the floor.
Defining dialogue: “I knew you wouldn’t leave without me. I was waiting for you. Now we can make it, Mac. I feel big as a damn mountain.”
Mary Crow Dog (Irene Bedard)
Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee (1994)
As a mother-to-be from an impoverished South Dakota family, Mary Crow Dog is swept up in the American Indian Movement and becomes a central figure in this true story about the 1973 armed standoff between Native activists and U.S. government troops at the site of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. From Suzy Song in Smoke Signals to the voice and physical model for Disney’s Pocahontas, Alaska Native Bedard has enjoyed a distinguished career, but her breakout role remains her most memorable.
Iconic accouterment: Shampoo-commercial hair.
Defining dialogue: “I only go when all of us go. Men and women. If I have my baby here, then good. I’m here and that’s all there is to that.”
Tonto (Jay Silverheels)
The Lone Ranger (1956)
Grammatically challenged speech aside, this 1956 classic — the first big-screen treatment of the radio and television series — isn’t as politically incorrect as you might imagine. The bad guys are greedy white developers who scheme to break yet another treaty in order to move in on their Native neighbors’ silver lode. The steadfast Tonto (played by the legendary Silverheels, son of a Mohawk chief), rides like a Derby winner, saves his masked partner from an ambush, and helps avert a war between ranchers and Indians. Not bad for a guy who proclaims that trouble always finds him, even when he’s not looking for it.
“At the time, the series was very progressive,” says Eyre. “It took Indians from being purely antagonistic outsiders and included them in the fabric of protagonists and good guys.”
Iconic accouterments: Leather headband and fringed buckskin jacket.
Defining dialogue: “Kemosabe ... . That my friend. Indian word mean ‘trusty scout.’ ”
Buddy Red Bow (A Martinez)
Pow Wow Highway (1989)
As the militant center of perhaps the most realistic rez drama ever filmed, Buddy Red Bow is a joint-rolling Vietnam vet turned agricultural purchasing agent for the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana. His battles against the Man are temporarily interrupted when he recruits spacey/spiritual buddy Philbert Bono (Gary Farmer) to drive him to New Mexico to break his sister out of jail. The raucous road trip — which also serves as a fascinating 1980s time capsule of pre-casino tribal economies — establishes Red Bow as a thoroughly modern man struggling against the slings and arrows he long ago gave up.
“If you look at the history of Indian movies, there’s a huge gap in the ’80s,” says Eyre. “This was a great movie that hit a chord with people and served as an entree to the independent and more personal Native American films that followed it.”
Iconic accouterments: Cowboy boots, jeans, flannel shirt, Miller beer.
Defining dialogue: “Do me a favor — when the heat comes down, don’t start in with old legends and all that mystical horseshit, okay? It’ll only make things worse.”