Native Americans are chief among the casualties of American westward expansion, and their depiction in Westerns remains a serious point of contention among critics of the genre. Critic Jane Tompkins contends that there are "no Indian characters, no individuals with a personal history and a point of view" in the Westerns; she believes that Indians function as "props, bits of local color, textural effects...a particularly dangerous form of local wildlife." (1) There is an abundance of film which supports Tompkins's point of view. However, to suggest that there are no films which attempt to treat the subject in a serious manner ignores some of the evidence, particularly during the silent film era.

The Mended Lute, 1909

The Indian, not the cowboy, was the first subject of silent Westerns. Interestingly, most of these early films were not violent tales of battle with white soldiers or massacres of pioneer families, but rather stories of life within the Indian community, albeit as white directors imagined that life. William Everson comments that most of the early Westerns which centered around Indians were idyllic love stories. Titles included Grey Cloud's Devotion, Silver Wing's Dream, Little Dove's Romance, and A Squaw's Love. Everson writes, "during this period the Indian became accepted as a symbol of integrity, stoicism, and reliability, with the Indian figure and the Indian head used constantly as an advertising trademark on fruit, tobacco, and other goods." (2) At this point in silent film, the Indian was the noble savage, and his interaction with whites was sympathetically portrayed. In 1907's Daniel Boone, an Indian woman helps Boone rescue his two daughters who were kidnapped by her tribe. The Redman and the Child filmed in 1908 depicts an Indian rescue of a white child. The Indian has found a bag of gold nuggets; he gives two to a white boy, who is later accosted by outlaws and forced to reveal the source of the gold. The outlaws kill the boy's grandfather and kidnap the child. The Indian, who witnessed the killing, swears revenge for the murder of the grandfather, saves the boy, and paddles away in his canoe with the sleeping boy at the close of the film.

Mona Darkfeather

In 1912's At Old Fort Dearborn a young Indian woman sacrifices her life for her white lover; a similar theme is carried out in Kit Carson's Wooing Carson marries an Indian and then leaves her to return to white society. The sense that the Native American was getting 'the short end of the stick' continued in films like Justice of the Redskin, a short film portraying an Indian who is falsely accused of a white girl's murder.

D.W. Griffith, who would later be held in contempt for the racist overtones of The Birth of a Nation, was one of the first directors to attempt a sympathetic portrayal of Indians in film. In his 1909 film The Indian Runner's Romance a brave must rescue his tortured girlfriend from the outlaws who are holding her to obtain the secret of some valuable mines. The Redman's View, another 1909 Griffith film, begins with two Indians in love whose community is suddenly invaded by whites. The Indians are driven away and the whites take the Indian girl as a slave. The brave is unable to rescue her because he must help his aging father across the trail. When the father dies, the brave returns to rescue the girl, and both are captures. Death looks to be imminent when one of the whites speaks up on their behalf and they are allowed to go in peace. Griffith would go on to make more stereotypical Westerns later in his career, films with the typical senseless Indian massacre. These films, including 1911's Flaming Arrows in which pioneers are attacked by Indians without warning, became the norm.

In 1914 William Cody played himself on screen in The Adventures of Buffalo Bill. Produced by Cody, the drama covered several historic battles in an attempt to give an account of the resistance to the Sioux. General Nelson Miles, a Civil War veteran who later captured Geronimo, acted as technical advisor to the project, and the U.S. government showed its support by lending Cody some cavalry troops. After the film's release several Indian spokesmen objected to Cody's portrayal of Wounded Knee, arguing that he omitted the killing of hundreds of Indian men and women. (3)

In later films there was some attempt at authenticity; William S. Hart even tried his hand at Indian sign language in his films. Although he wasn't entirely accurate (Indians suggested he signed like a woman) he and others like Colonel Tim McCoy brought at least some flavor of authentic Indian culture to the screen. McCoy, who had had previous contact with Indian tribes as a government agent, was the contact person for Indians during the filming of The Covered Wagon in 1923. McCoy got 500 Plains Indians to work as extras on the film; they brought all their own equipment for the sets (teepees, etc.), living and sleeping in them when not filming. McCoy was the only person on the set who could speak to them in sign language, so each morning he would tell them what the day's story would be. (4)

The demonization of Mexicans in the silent films was even more thorough than that of the Indians. In 1910's Indian Scout's Revenge a Mexican is helped by a family of pioneers. He has designs on the patriarch's daughter, and when she rejects him he wreaks havoc on the family. Captured by Mexicans, filmed in 1914, illustrates the 'nightmare' suggested by its title. In The Challenge of Chance a professional prizefighter was cast in the lead role; in the 1919 film he must defend his ranch against an unruly band of Mexican insurgents. In countless films like Arizona Cat Claw and Desert Gold, both filmed in 1919, the Mexican can be counted on as a ruthless bandit immune to civilizing influence or moral consideration. Double evil is presented in the person of a villain who is half-Mexican, half-Indian in 1917's The Gun Fighter.

Scene from 1911 filmThe Deerslayer

Ironically the flamboyant Tom Mix gave one of the earliest sympathetic portrayals of Mexicans onscreen. His 1914 film The Mexican is the story of an impoverished Mexican ranch hand who is fired and taunted by his white coworkers. Later he gains their respect and regains his job when he saves the life of the rancher's baby. In The Lone Wagon (1923) a Mexican protects a family of pioneers from the Indians, and in 1924's Fighting Fury a Mexican seeks retribution on three ranchers who unjustly killed his parents.

Whenever a Mexican or an Indian was in a leading role, a white usually filled the part; authentic members of these groups usually had to content themselves with opportunities as extras. Although films attempting to break Indians and Mexicans out of the demon role do exist, they, like all the silent Westerns, are the product of white male producers and directors, and accordingly reflect those sensibilities.

The Silent Westerns: Home Page


1   Jane Tompkins, West of Everything, 8.

2   William K. Everson, American Silent Film, 241.

3   Larry Langman, A Guide to Silent Westerns, 4.

4   Thames Television, Out West, VHS videotape.