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Native American Heritage on Film

November marks Native American Heritage Month – a time to celebrate the rich cultures and traditions of indigenous American peoples as well as to raise awareness of the unique challenges Native Americans face and have faced for hundreds of years. The moving image materials preserved and housed in the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center of the Library of Congress offer a record of many aspects of Native American culture and life, including traditional dances and ceremonies, arts and crafts, agriculture, hunting, and homemaking. From actualities and documentaries to silent fiction, there are a wealth of materials to draw from for those interested in how Native Americans are represented on film.

Buffalo Dance, Edison Manufacturing Co., [1894], loc.gov/item/00694114/.

Native Americans were the subject of several very early Edison films from 1894. Native American dancers from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, which was extremely popular in the last decade of the 19th Century, were filmed in Edison’s Black Maria Studio. These two short films – Buffalo Dance and Sioux Ghost Dance – are likely the first time Native Americans were filmed by a motion picture camera:

An actuality from the Theodore Roosevelt Association Collection also features traditional dances, filmed as Hopi Indians danced for Roosevelt when he visited Walpi, Arizona, in 1913 with a cousin and two of his sons.

In another short actuality, Indian Day School, we get a small window into a significant and often brutal experience in the lives of Native American children: school. Filmed in 1898, we see Native children walking in and out of a school house with a sign that reads, “Isleta Indian School, New Mexico.”

Indian Day School, Thomas A. Edison, Inc., 1898, loc.gov/item/00564534/.

The Moving Image Section also holds films that speak to Native Americans as they have been stereotyped and depicted in popular culture throughout the years, including in popular entertainment such as Wild West shows and fiction films from the silent era and beyond.

With the popularity of Wild West shows such as Buffalo Bill’s that featured staged battles as part of the entertainment, reenacted skirmishes between Native Americans and US soldiers were also part of fairs and expositions around the country. This actuality, Sham Battle at the Pan-American Exposition, filmed at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, features a staged battle similar to those of the Wild West shows. The scene is energetically described in an early 20th Century film catalog: “The battle was most exciting and realistic, there being about 250 American Indians clad in their picturesque dress and fully decorated in their war paint. About half the Indians were mounted upon spirited horses. The attack was begun by the Infantry rushing the Indians who made a firm stand and succeeded in repulsing the soldiers. The scene is replete with charges and many hand to hand encounters.”

Indians and Cow-Boys, Pathé Frères / Thomas A. Edison, Inc., 1904, loc.gov/item/2006640142/.

Stereotypes abound in Indians and Cow-Boys, a silent fiction film from 1904 in which a Native man is beaten by cowboys, causing a group of Native Americans to attack a stagecoach and capture its passengers in retaliation. The cowboys ultimately storm the village of the Native Americans and rescue the stagecoach passengers.

Several other silent films can be viewed in various Digital Collections available on the Library’s website, including the new National Screening Room.

Two extensive guides to American Indians in the film and video holdings of the Library of Congress are available from the Moving Image Research Center:

These guides would be the place to start for anyone interested in conducting research on Native Americans in film using the motion picture holdings of the Library. The films on these guides can be viewed in the Moving Image Research Center.

Want to know more? Send us your questions through Ask a Librarian.

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