Reel Injun examines Native American portrayals in Hollywood cinema


This Friday, the Weisman Art Museum and the WAM Collective (the museum’s student group) are screening Reel Injun, Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond’s documentary exploring how indigenous people have been portrayed by Hollywood over the years. The viewing and discussion will be led by filmmaker, artist, and indigenous media advocate Missy Whiteman.

Reel Injun is part of a movement of Native filmmaking that challenges persistent negative portrayals of Native Americans. “If I saw this film as a young person it would have helped me make that decision to create the stories we want,” says Missy Whiteman, who will be leading the film discussion on Friday. "[Filmmakers like Neil Diamond] are able to tell these stories, to realize the structure and system we’ve been buying into doesn’t support us.”

Whiteman has used the film when working with young people, as well as in her consulting work with reservations, schools, and nonprofits.

“It shows a cultural and historical perspective of how media has played a part in manipulating the perception and identity of Native people,” she says. “The first step to making that change is to not be ignorant.”

After the film screening, Whiteman will lead a community conversation. “It’s a beautiful film,” she says. “We would like people to address these issues in their own life. If you see racism, it helps to have more knowledge and ways for you to address it within the scope of your world.”

The screening and talk comes at a moment when Minnesota faces a tipping point of its own legacy of Native portrayals. As detailed in Sheila Dickinson’s City Pages feature about the State Capitol renovations, many critics feel now's the perfect opportunity to replace the building's artwork, as it features tired stereotypes of Minnesota’s Dakota and Anishinaabe peoples.


Interestingly,  the event also acts in conversation with the Andy Warhol "Cowboys and Indians" exhibit, a collection of prints that play off of stereotypical imagery of Native Americans and cowboys, which has its own issues. While Warhol seems to be aware of the problematic nature of the images he reproduces in his work, he does little to disrupt or critique.  

As the gallery didactics note, Warhol’s “Cowboys and Indians” prints are not his best-known works, but speak to his fascination with celebrity and other images. Portraying icons of the Wild West — from historical figures like General Custer and Annie Oakley to John Wayne, Hollywood’s most famous “cowboy” — Warhol glamorizes their appearance with bright colors and an almost cartoonish visage.

Meanwhile, his depictions of Native Americans regurgitate tired tropes. Geronimo’s face is yellow and scowling. The print's colorful outlines almost seem to be making fun of him. Another print, Mother and Child, uses a postcard photograph titled Bright Eyes/Squaw and Papoose as a source. While it’s possible that Warhol was aware that these portrayals of Native Americans were negative, simply reproducing them with some slight alteration in color does little to dismantle those images.


Reel Injun 

Weisman Art Museum

1 p.m. Friday

"Cowboys and Indians" runs through July 31.