leaving tonto behind

I've been a journalist for 30 years. In that time, I've worked in radio, television and newspapers. Most of my time has been spent focusing on native issues and telling the story of aboriginal people to those who might not understand us all that well.

I’ve been a journalist for 30 years. In that time, I’ve worked in radio, television and newspapers.

Most of my time has been spent focusing on native issues and telling the story of aboriginal people to those who might not understand us all that well. Within that three-decade time frame I’ve seen and heard opinions about my people change. So, in that, it’s been a good career.

One of the things I’ve discovered through all that time is that for a few generations, most people got their information about Indians from one of three sources; movies, comic books or television. There wasn’t a lot of choice in available knowledge and the three prime reference sources existed for a long time – and so did the attitudes about the people. Until journalists like me came around, that’s where Canada learned about native people.

Sure, there were textbooks and everyone studied hunter gatherers and woodland cultures in social studies, but they only ever presented a cursory image of the people. I still remember the illustrations that accompanied those stories and how idyllic life in pre-settlement North America seemed to be. The history books we were offered all through school actually omitted information about Indians, so no one got a real idea of who the people were.

I remember that my biggest question during those years was, “But what was the name of the Indian at the front of the canoe?” It remains unanswered. Beyond the very marginal sort, the information about my people was absent from the Canadian knowledge base.

So it was Hollywood that gave most people their introduction to what became the first kind of Indian – the Hollywood Indian. According to the popular westerns we were always popping up over the edge of hillsides. One second we weren’t there and the next we were. All in full view of the wagon train pioneers or the cavalry. Then, further into the script of those old movies we were tumbling off our horses in a plume of dust or drumming late into the night. So the image of the Hollywood Indian was that we had no military tactics and we couldn’t ride, but we had a great rhythm section.

Comic books were also great resources for info on the second kind of Indian – the comic book warrior. In their artful pages we all wore war paint and loin cloths. The men were chisel- jawed with amazing pectorals and long, wild hair festooned with a clutch of feathers and the women were all sepia-toned princesses with shy, winsome smiles. Of course we all spoke in fractured English and if we did manage to make a white friend we were loyal as all get out. So, according to that knowledge base, we were guttural, underdressed but really dependable in a fist fight.

Television brought most people the third kind of Indian – the TV redskin. In that medium we were always cast as proud and noble-looking. We stood with our arms crossed across our chests and we used elaborate sign language that always seemed to create many sentences and contexts out of one simple motion that the savvy white man could interpret. If we did speak, most of us tended to sound like James Earl Jones. Darth Vader in buckskin. It didn’t help that they never cast Indian to play Indians – so that all people knew of us through television was that we were stoic, with deep, resonant, monosyllabic voices and great noses.

So for a long time there were three kinds of Indians: the Hollywood Indian, the comic book warrior and the TV series redskin. None of them told the truth or presented an accurate image but it was all that people had. Every popular form of media in previous generations was guilty of promoting these fractured images. Here in Canada, for decades, there was a war-bonneted Indian on the CBC test pattern. No one ever saw a Cree fisherman in a mackinaw and gumboots.

Fortunately, however, times changed and some of us made it into mainstream media. We began in radio and then slowly became visible in newspapers and television. The strange thing for most people was that we didn’t really look all that different from them. We were browner, sure, but we were also dapper, businesslike, professional and eloquent. We took a lot of them by surprise, but that again is an old Indian trick.

Nowadays, we produce our own movies and television. We have become recognized actors and celebrities, and in our own small way, we have effected an entirely new connotation for the phrase “the red carpet.” Some of us have even started producing or own comic books. Nowadays, there are more kinds of Indians that you can shake, well, a feather at.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday. He can be reached at richardwagamese@yahoo.com