Acting against racism
”The educational system of the dominant culture doesn’t let our children know that American Indians existed in the 20th century. There’s a danger in letting Hollywood define us.” — Russell Means
Russell Means makes his acting debut as Chingachgook, the wise adoptive Mohican father of Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) in director Michael Mann’s recently released The Last of the Mohicans. Active in the militant American Indian Movement (AIM) since the late 1960s, the controversial Means, 52, was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Oglala Sioux in South Dakota. He was one of the leaders of the 70-day siege at Wounded Knee in 1973, an incident which arose out of an AIM dispute with federal and tribal authorities.
What am I doing working in the movies? I have been asked whether my decision to act in The Last of the Mohicans means that I’ve abandoned my role as an activist. On the contrary, I see film as an extension of the path I’ve been on for the past 25 years — another avenue to eliminating racism.
On Saturday afternoons in Vallejo, Calif., my younger brother, Dace, and I would go to the Esquire Movie Theater and watch those damn cowboy-and-Indian flicks of the ’40s, the ones where the bugle sounds and the cavalry charges in and starts killing Indians willy-nilly while everyone in the audience cheers. Dace couldn’t watch; he’d bury his head in his hands. When you’re 8 or 9 years old, as we were, you think that maybe this time the Indians are going to win, that this movie will be different. Then, afterward, we’d leave the theater, and honest to God, we had to fight back-to-back, just the two of us, against Mexicans, Filipinos, Chinese, and blacks, as well as the whites. There were all these neighborhood kids saying, ”Hey, Indians, we’re going to whip your ass.”
So when I first received the script for Mohicans, I was pleased that the Indians were more fully developed characters — unlike the cardboard figures in Dances With Wolves, a.k.a. ”Lawrence of the Plains.” Despite his good intentions, actor/director Kevin Costner utilized almost every known stereotype except the drunken Indian — even though the white man he plays eventually throws his lot in with the Indians because they’re so much more spiritual and decent.
In Mohicans, on the other hand, the Indians are depicted as equals with the white man; they interact both socially and economically. Few people realize that in the 18th century, on the frontier in the Atlantic Northeast, Indians and whites actually visited each other’s homes. I also love the politics of the film: At a time when the French and English are vying for the economic wealth of North America, frontier characters discuss individal liberty as opposed to government control, which fits right in with my own, libertarian philosophy.
Mohicans is also historically and culturally reliable, except for one scene that I objected to but that Michael Mann insisted was necessary. I call it ”the African village scene,” because it resembles those set pieces that appeared in old Hollywood movies about Africa. The king or tribal chief would be sitting on his throne, with the masses clamoring for the blood of the white princess, and then the white prince comes and saves her. In Mohicans we have two white princesses (only one of them is saved). Despite my objections, the scene stayed in the movie. You don’t see those scenes in films about Africa anymore — Africans have become quasi-independent and somewhat more influential in the world — so Hollywood has transferred those stereotypes to the Indians.
On the set the problem I had wasn’t with Mann, who had his hands full, so much as with the assistant directors, who unconsciously fell back on racist stereotypes. They’d yell things like, ”Indians over here!” I finally said, ”Don’t refer to us by race. If you do, then say, ‘Indians over here, white guys over there, and the Jews behind the camera.”’
That approach may have led to a blowup on the set. Difficulties began in the third week, when over 900 Indian extras were brought in to North Carolina from all over the country. They were quartered at an abandoned Boy Scout camp. It was known as Camp Mohican, and it resembled a concentration camp. The buildings were made of cinder blocks, and six to eight people stayed in rooms designed for two. Since the camp was so isolated — 30 miles from town on a dirt road — and the extras had no transportation, they were stuck out there in the summer heat and 90 percent humidity. Most of the Indian extras’ scenes were at night, so they had to spend the hottest part of the day in these hellholes with no way of getting out, buying a Coke, or even seeing a doctor. (Doctors were often needed because of the extensive stunt work in the battle scenes.)
Union rules don’t apply in North Carolina: It’s a right-to-work state, which is why people make films there. So, first the technicians went on strike, demanding better conditions and a union contract; they received both. Then the Indian extras struck, and Daniel Day-Lewis, Eric Schweig, and I were the only cast members out on the picket line. I was asked to take a list of their demands to Hunt Lowry, the producer, and he agreed to everything. The strike was over in about four hours, but the press reported it as if I were the leader.
My camaraderie with Daniel extended beyond the picket line. Since he was playing my adopted son, he felt we should try to establish a father-son relationship. Daniel told me his own father (poet Cecil Day-Lewis) was older when he was born and died when he was young. My own father died when he was only 51 and was also distant; that became a point of bonding between us. Daniel never stepped out of character. He carried his musket with him everywhere, even at night. It was total immersion, and it carried over into a real feeling for his Indian-reared character.
In general, the principals involved with the production strived for sensitivity, though there were problems. I thought the breechcloths were too small. I told Mann that Indians never wore them that small, but he insisted the costumes were accurate because he’d seen one on a dummy dressed up like an Iroquois in a museum — a white museum, I reminded him. He let me wear the size I wanted, but he left the others small, probably to titillate the women in the audience.
Still, I consider these things minute compared to Mann’s genius and the overall good that will come from the movie. Because the educational system of the dominant culture doesn’t let our children know that American Indians existed in the 20th century, there’s a real danger in allowing Hollywood to define us. For all my criticism of Dances With Wolves, I still realize it was a breakthrough. It renewed interest in the American Indian, and Mohicans is part of turning a corner. And when Wes Studi, a Cherokee who plays the villainous Magua, wins an Oscar, you will know we have made a quantum leap forward from Dances With Wolves.
Now, the hope is in ourselves. We Indians have to make our own movies.