Livy Vasano & Lisa Jakubowski once stated, “Popular culture, as expressed in film, literature, television and entertainment, consistently misrepresents Aboriginal peoples…contemporary literature advances competing stereotypes of Natives. On one hand, they are condemned as hostile savages attacking white settlers, as ‘Dirty Indians’ – irresponsible, lazy, superstitious, drunk, and perpetually on welfare. On the other hand, they are romanticized – the ‘noble red man’ in harmony with nature, the hero of freedom, simplicity and dignity.” This quotation is not true in relation to the treatment of Aboriginal people in the movie Little Big Man. While it is irrefutable that the film presents many of the common Aboriginal stereotypes described in the quotation, the ultimate purpose of the movie is to tear down those stereotypes. The film accomplishes the shattering of these stereotypes by using the strategy of the introduction, development, and finally, the reversal or undercutting of those stereotypes.
The stereotypes of the ‘Dirty Indian’ and the ‘noble red man’ are introduced from the beginning of the film: viewers are shown the aftermath of a merciless and destructive Pawnee attack on a group of white settlers. The visual expression of the attack, which includes burning wagons, dead bodies and scattered debris, reinforces the stereotype of bloody and hostile Aboriginals. Next, a lone ‘Cheyenne brave’ hero (Shadow That Comes in Sight) rides into the scene with a proud and dignified manner. He surveys the attack and saves the lone survivors Jack and Caroline, bringing them to the Cheyenne tepees. Shadow is viewed as a ‘noble red man’ in the film. The inclusion of both popular but contradictory stereotypes creates a discrepancy where the audience gradually realizes that the incomprehensibility of describing and predicting all Aboriginal behaviour with a set of pigeonholes and typecasts.
A key method used to reverse the stereotypes of the Aboriginals was to contrast the American lifestyle with the Aboriginal way of life. Compared to the serene and family-like atmosphere of the Cheyenne, Jack finds the American frontier society riddled with lies, hypocrisy, weak family bonds and a lack of morals. Instead of irresponsible and drunk Natives, the audience views the adulterous Mrs. Pendrake, the dishonest salesman/conman Merriweather, the sister who abandoned Jack, and the overconfident and cruel General George Custer. As Old Lodge Skin states, “White man kill everything, even themselves.’’ As an ironic reflection on ‘dirty Indian,’ Jack spends more time in the mud and dirt and as an alcoholic in the frontier towns than in his tepee. The film successfully reverses the image of the ‘Dirty Indian’ with the unveiling of the image of corrupt or ‘dirty White’ society.
Furthermore, as mentioned in the quotation, a popular stereotype of the ‘savage Natives’ is the characteristic of initiating attacks on the white American population. This is also a stereotype played on in Little Big Man, which include the Pawnee assault on Jack and his family, and the Cheyenne confrontation with a group of white soldiers. However, this stereotype is quickly reversed in all forms: the white troops quickly overpower and kill the struggling Cheyenne in battle. As well, in the second half of the movie, the white army or frontier is shown to continuously and mercilessly assault the Native groups, brutally massacring numerous defenceless Native women and children for land, as seen in the unprovoked death of Sunshine and others at the Washita River. The director Arthur Penn is successful in challenging the stereotype of the savage Indian with logical evidence, utilizing the documented historical events during the advancement of the American frontier, broken land treaties, and the one-sided massacre of the Natives by the American army.
Another technique the film Little Big Man employs to dispel Native stereotypes is the constant display of humanity within Aboriginal peoples. The Cheyenne kindness is first expressed when they adopt Jack into their tribe while their continuous and repeated acceptance of him is demonstrated each time he strays back into their camp. Additionally, the director uses humour to portray the Natives in a relatable manner to the audience, as seen in the doesn’t-like-horses sex jokes between Old Skin Lodge and Jack. Moreover, the major Native characters in the film are multi-dimensional, with unique individual motivations and characteristic behaviours: Shadow That Comes in Sight is an efficient warrior and hunter, Burns Red in the Sun easily gets sunburned, Younger Bear is very competitive and Little Horse has distinctive interests, representing the variety between individual humans in real life. Ultimately, Little Big Man is successful in representing the indigenous peoples as ‘Human Beings,’ which is also the namesake of the Cheyenne tribe.
The briefly-addressed context behind Jack’s narration is also essential in highlighting the film’s purpose of shattering the stereotypes of native people- the film begins after an uneducated journalist visits Jack, the narrator, to ask about his thoughts on the near eradication/extinction of the Native peoples. Instead of answering the question directly, the journalist receives a re-telling of Jack’s youth, chronicling from his initial contact with the indigenous peoples. The journalist, having finished listening to Jack’s tale about the treatment of natives, and the audience, who are almost finished watching the film, both leave with a fresh perspective on American history and the perceived stereotypes of natives. Although the film may not have resulted in the complete destruction of the brave Indian warrior image or the “dirty Indian” typecast, the journalist, mirrored by the audience, is left speechless; rapidly re-evaluating and re-assessing the validity of Aboriginal stereotypes.
While it is true that the film Little Big Man does employ the stereotypes of Native Americans, the delivery and intent behind the film clearly demonstrate the director’s purpose of demolishing those stereotypes. Therefore, the quotation does not apply to Little Big Man as it is not a supporting example of the quotation’s statements. Instead, the film attempts to address the issues brought up within the quote by leading its audience to re-evaluate the stereotypes of Native Americans presented in history, current society, and in media or popular culture.