Showing Natives in a New Light

A Subversive Lens Recasts Vintage Hollywood Stereotypes
Written by
Illustrated by
Deja Jones (Photo: Pamela J. Peters)

Have you ever seen a real Indian? There is perhaps no stereotypical trope in American popular culture, and especially in Hollywood--where most of our shared cultural images come from--quite like Cowboys and Indians: from the days of Buffalo Bill's vaudeville act, to all the embarrassing permutations of kitschy warpaint and feathers reglia from every classic Western thereafter, natives have for centuries served as the ultimate Other--the backdrop of the noble savage or historical vestige against which American nationalism and identity are defined and sharpened. 

Janae Collins (Pamela J. Peters)

Now the camera is getting turned around, and presenting a rising generation of indigenous stars in an alternative frame, emancipated from the caricature of Americana and unbound by the historical freeze-frame of the "Western frontier." In #RealNDNZRetakeHollywood, a pioneering photographer puts her indigenous perspective in the director's seat and spotlights native America through a reimagning of classic Hollywood characters. Navajo photographer Pamela J. Peters fuses the fantasy of the Hollywood universe with a subversive, playful frankness in her depictions of almost-famous actors in the form of vintage icons of the Big Screen. They're sexy, sophisticated, and of course, somewhat artificial, but in reclaiming that power of artifice, reinvention and mystique that for so long as been denied to the "Indian" stock character in Hollywood, Peters approaches a higher kind of authenticity--one that operates in the realm of dreams--as the best of Hollywood always has.

The glamor, the frivolity, the sweeping romance of cinema's golden age: it's all there, but placed in the hands, and faces, of a new cast. These actors are recasting their cultures and communities fiercely and without apology.

Peters's artist statement speaks to a certain kind of charm offensive:

Photographing “Real NDNZ” in the elegant clothes and iconic poses of James Dean, Audrey Hepburn, and others from the classic period of Hollywood film—rather than in the buckskin, feathers, and painted faces featured in most Hollywood films—deconstructs time-worn, demeaning representations and opens up new possibilities for seeing Indigenous peoples as contemporary, creative people.

The seven participants are actors from the following tribes: Dakota, Cherokee, Crow, Blackfeet, Shoshone, and Seminole. Noah Watts is an extremely talented actor musician. His intuitive talents, mysterious, yet cool features and mannerism makes me think of James Dean or Elvis Presley. Shayna Jackson is an adorable, graceful and elegant actress that exudes the spirit of a classical Audrey Hepburn. Deja Jones, as a young talent has radiant beauty that resembles an exotic Ava Gardner, and I see Kholan Studie, a young upcoming actor with a fine demeanor that has the ability range of acting in dramatic and comedy which is why I saw him as a young Tony Curtis. Krista Hazelwood, embodies the young sassy and confidence of a young Eartha Kitt, while JaNae Collin, sultry classic beauty is much like a Jane Russell or, when partnering with her boyfriend Brian Vallie (Crow), invokes the eccentric rebellious Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty’s Bonnie and Clyde match-up.

Kholan Studi (Pamela J. Peters)

Fame is fleeting of course, but a stunning image can last forever. And by framing native actors in this light, Peters sheds light on a history in which indigenous people have long been shunted out of the foreground. By splicing two spheres of Hollywood imagery, a new kind of portraiture emerges, crystallizing in the light of both history and fantasy.

JaNae Collins, Brian Vallie (Pamela J. Peters)

The idea of the relic stereotypical Indian needs to change and this project is an intervention of the negative representation of Indians that has been the norm in mass media. Even today, films such as The Ridiculous Six and The Revenant only showcase Indians as relics of the past with storylines with as Indians as obstacles to progress. I, however, would like people to think critically about my photos, and hear the young performers’ stories about how they navigate an extremely competitive field of entertainment.  Furthermore, I want society to know that we are many nations, with many stories, and that we can make a conscious choice to reshape perceptions of modern Indians today.”

We can see "real Indians" everywhere, if we dare look hard enough. If we dare to flip the script.

--August 13, 2016



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