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Assuming you mean Native Americans as opposed to Indians from India, Hollywood has generally portrayed Indians as savages (in the Westerns from the old days). I think this is not so true anymore, partly because there aren't really Westerns anymore.
The reason that this happened is that this was the predominant view of Indians in those days. Our national myth was that settlers spread civilization across the frontier, fighting off the Indians. It was useful for us to think of Indians as savages who deserved to be taken off their land.
For decades when westerns were popular, Hollywood treated Native Americans in a stereotypical fashion.
"Indians" in the movies are usually underhanded, backstabbers, treacherous, untrustworthy, bloodthirsty, and savage. They steal or kill women and children and are the enemy of civilization. They are also often drunkards.
Hollywood made movies this way, first of all, because doing so made money. If people didn't pay to go see bad Indians losing to good white men Hollywood wouldn't make movies showing it.
Secondly, the stereotypes exhibited in movies were stereotypes held by many Americans. In some areas of knowledge, one cannot underestimate the stupidity of the American public. Movies often reflect public beliefs.
Simplistic minds enjoy simplistic entertainment.
As the above answers indicate, many movies Hollywood painted Native Americans as villains. That's typical of simplistic thinking, the need to present films that make money on conflicts that feature good over evil, and the tendency of all of us to point out the bad in others in an attempt to avoid our own shortcomings, failings, and nefarious intentions. Yes, movies can serve as the ultimate escape mechanism for our national psyche.
But Hollywood cannot be seen as a monolith: it has made a myriad of films over a long period of time. Numerous films have flipped the coin and have shown the white man to be the evil doer and the Native American to be the victim.
Here are some movies that illustrate the danger in generalizing about prejudice and bias in Hollywood. They all show that Native American are people, too.
Dances with Wolves
Lakota Woman - Siege at Wounded Knee
Bambi in Arapaho
Spirit of Crazy Horse
Last of the Mohicans
Flags of Our Fathers
Heart of an Indian
An interesting book that may help you expand your discussion of cinematic representations of Native Americans is Celluloid Indians by Jacquelyn Kilpatrick published by University of Nebraska Press. While obviously concerned with classic westerns and the stereotypes they created, the book also covers other film genres and analyses Native American characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), The Emerald Forest (1985), War Party (1988), Powwow Highway (1989), Clearcut (1993), Last of the Dogmen (1995), The sunchaser (1996), Dead Man (1995). Kilpatrick points out while more sympathetic to American Indians, Hollywood films of the 1980s and 1990s still "failed in one or more ways to portray Native peoples realistically." She detects a cultural and communication gap between the filmmakers and the people they are representing.
The last chapter of the study "The American Indian Aesthetic" addresses how Native American artists are trying to close this communication gap, entering the industry themselves and offering their own images of their peoples. Only once Native Americans start to occupy positions of power within the film industry, will the misinformation and derision caused by mainstrean representations be reversed
All of the above posts give excellent answers to your questions. As a youngster growing up in the 1960s, the Western was one of my favorite film genres. It provided action, great scenic settings, and colorful uniforms and costumes. Their depiction of cowboys, Indians, settlers and soldiers were primarily for entertainment purposes, and factual representations were rare. However, the Western has slowly dissolved into obscurity, primarily because of the usually one-sided presentations of the Native Americans as the bad guys--violent, murderous and barbaric. A thorough read of objective history texts provide a different side of their plight, however. Today's movie goers and film buffs are far more savvy than those of previous decades, and the antiquated view of Native Americans has no political correctness in today's world. The best Westerns of recent years, such as Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992), leave Native Americans out of the story line. Others, such as Last of the Dogmen (1995), present a more realistic and more sympathetic view of the plight of Native Americans--one that will probably continue in the few Westerns made in the future.
Native Americans were usually stereotyped or romanticized in movies. I think it is a remnant of our rugged pioneer days. Americans love their cowboys, and with cowboys come Indians. Few early American films featured Native Americans accurately, but lately that has been corrected in some Native American-specific films that try for historical accuracy.
I don't think we can restrict the stereotyping of Native Americans to the genre of film, unfortunately. I agree with #7 that the two major ways in which Native Americans are presented are that the are made into villains or romanticised. I thought even Dances with Wolves, which tried to correct the balance, fell into this trap by presenting some groups of Indians as villains.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto and a Fistfight in Heaven is a movie based upon a Native American novel. This movie produced by Native Americans portrays the people realistically.
Recently, Turner Classic Movies hosted a Native American producer/screenwriter who narrated several movies that gave more positive portrayals.
Let's just say that Hollywood is treating Native Americans better "now" than they were "then," ... and call it a day. I have to say that I find it very ironic that you are using the term "Indians" instead of "Native Americans" in your question itself, just because the word "Indians" now has a fairly negative connotation associated with discrimination (i.e. gone are the days when we would sit "Indian Style" in kindergarten, ... now they favor "criss-cross apple sauce").
In regards to the "Indians" of Hollywood's yesteryear, the stereotypical villains dressed in outlandish garments in the vein of the children's game "cowboys and indians" come to mind. Unfortunately, this image from Hollywood served as the iconic indian for everyone who lived mid-20th century. Not politically correct. A bit offensive to Native Americans today.
With the advent of movies such as Dances with Wolves, however, Native Americans were portrayed not only as honorable, but as true-to-life as the director could muster (even using the correct language with English subtitles). These days, lots of research is done on everything from the dancing, to the calls/sounds/chants, to the eating habits of Native Americans.
Any time film gets closer to approaching actual truth where a culture is concerned, ... it's a good thing!
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