Saturday, March 12, 2005


Editor's note: This paper was submitted by our good friend Barbara Ellen Witemeyer of Albuquerque after reading the post on "Hau, Kola". Thanks again, Barbara.

Thanks to Hollywood films, everyone knows that one Indian greets another by holding up his right hand, palm forward, and asking “How?” To which, according to a popular joke from my childhood, the answer was: “scrambled.” But “How” is not a question.
In fact, in the Lakota language, the greeting is “Hau” or “Hau Kola” which translates as “Hello friend.” In a John Ford movie, regardless of tribal affiliation, the greeting is usually “Yatahay,” a distortion of the Navajo “Ya’ah’tee,” roughly, “It is good.”
However much they may aspire to accuracy and authenticity when making films with Indians in them, directors (and their producers, in particular) are making films for profit. This obliges them to use the most economical resources at their command, and to cater to the expectations of their paying customers. After getting Frank Nugent, the scriptwriter for Fort Apache (1948), to do intensive research, director John Ford then allegedly told him to “forget everything you’ve just read, and we’ll start writing a movie” (Nolley, 76). Often filming in Monument Valley, Ford used local Indians to play whatever tribe was specified in the storyline. Hence the Sioux warrior who greets John Wayne with the Navajo phrase “Yatahay.”

But that was in the 1940s, and within the last decade steps have been made towards giving the Indian actors their own voices, and not just what Ted Jojola calls “the stereotypical ‘hows,’ ‘ughs,’ and ‘kemosabes’ of tinsel moviedom” (Jojola, 12). European films with multi-language characters have for some time used different languages, with sub-titles where appropriate. With films like The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Dances With Wolves (1990) there is a lot of “real” Indian language spoken, although it is not yet entirely accurate. In The Last of the Mohicans, for instance, a Navajo friend revealed that there was some Navajo spoken, although the tribes portrayed were the Huron and Delaware from the far Northeastern states. Most of the Indian dialog was in Delaware (rather than Mohican), and sub-titles were used. Interestingly enough, when Duncan was bargaining with the Delaware chief, the language used by both was French, and since this was supposedly being translated from Nathaniel’s English, no subtitles were used. The story required the duplicity of mistranslation in this case so that Duncan be allowed to sacrifice himself to gain freedom for the others.
This evolution towards dual-language dialog in films with multi-cultural story lines has not happened overnight. The history of moving pictures spans more than one hundred years, and Indians have featured in them from the early, silent days. Many changes in these characters’ spoken dialog have taken place over time. Of course, the Indian did not get even an English voice until the advent of sound in 1926.
Until that time, silent film title-card panels were for the most part descriptive rather than detailing actual quoted speech. And most titles were written, not surprisingly, in standard English. To give an Indian flavor however, the viewer/reader was occasionally introduced to “um-speak.” You-um know-um what that-um means! Another favorite was the expression “heap,” for example, “heap big.” This made-up language was only one of the techniques used to convince the audience that the actors were “real” Indians, although, in fact, those with speaking parts seldom were.
In the early films, all major “Indian” characters were played by non-Indians. Non-Indians wrote the dialog, however, to be spoken by actors whose first language was, more often than not, English. Many of the film Indians were played by actors of Italian or Mexican descent, such as Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland, and later, Sal Mineo. They all spoke in English and were cast because of their darker eyes and skin color, which naturally meant they looked authentically “Indian.”
Non-Indian leading men, such as Richard Dix (in Redskin (1929), and as Nophaie in The Vanishing American (1925)) and Jeff Chandler (as the Apache chief, Cochise in Broken Arrow (1950)) had to be heavily made-up to even approximate their Indian character. Once talking pictures arrived, in order to portray an intelligent Indian, to meet his white counterpart on equal ground, it was necessary for him to speak good English. Richard Dix—a silent actor— didn’t even speak in his non-Indian roles.
The Vanishing American was made in 1925, the year before sound and a couple of years before speech was added to movies. Therefore, only the occasional title card butted into the visual action. Actors relied heavily upon body language and facial grimaces, especially those expressive eyes, to convey their feelings. So when a young Navajo boy sees his horse taken by whites, he cannot protest. The moviegoer reads: “Even in his short life, Nasja had learned that the white man must have his own way—that the Indian can only watch and endure, and dumbly wonder” (Riley, 61). Even in a silent film the Indian was denied his voice.
In 1930 a “semi-documentary” about the Ojibways called The Silent Enemy came out. It was a silent film, “released without sound”. However, the leading actor, Chauncy Yellow Robe, was given some say when he “appeared in the talkie short which preceded the feature….[describing] how The Silent Enemy was made” (Friar, 177).
Once sound became a regular technical feature of films, Westerns suffered. No longer could horsemen of any color dash across vast open spaces shouting (in captions) “They went that’a’way” or “Me shoot ‘um soldier.” The sound equipment was too cumbersome and bulky, and studio pictures were the norm.
With sound, however, the movie-going public could actually hear the “DUM-dum-dum-dum” drumming, the “warhoops and the ‘Ugh, me want ‘um firewater. Ugh, me take ‘um scalp’” dialog of silent card panels (Friar, 178). Ugh-speech was to become the standard Indian film language, even for non-Indian actors. In the 1947 film Black Gold, supposedly based on a true story, “Anthony Quinn ‘ugs’ his way through as the Indian hero” (Friar, 178).
Jay Silverheels, one of the first featured actors who could truthfully claim to be a real Indian, was a Canadian award-winning athlete before breaking into films in 1938. At first in the traditional Indian role as an extra, falling off horses in Westerns, he advanced to feature films as the main Indian actor, and eventually, to world-wide recognition as the Lone Ranger’s sidekick, Tonto. Faithful, resourceful, and intelligent, Tonto was still forced to communicate with the Lone Ranger in Ugh-speech. In fact, it sounded even more ridiculous in view of the actual words spoken that, in contrast, were extremely cogent and intelligent. I suppose one could say that it is to the Lone Ranger’s credit that he did not undertake to teach his loyal companion to speak “correctly,” and in fact did not seem to find any fault with the stereotypical “Indian” speech of his co-hero. Poor Tonto never got a chance to speak his own tribal language, since the pair rarely met other Indians. We never learned to which tribe he belonged either.
In the situations where Hollywood Indians appear in a tribal group situation, it is often the case that the actors come from different tribes. At the very least, the language spoken by the film Indians may not be their mother tongue. There are worse case scenarios, too. In The Only Good Indian, Friar quotes a 1939 New York Times article by Cullison Cady relating how a director decided
[the] sound track of Indian dialogue on a certain strip of film…didn’t sound “Indian enough.” To solve the problem, he had the Indians speak English in a retake, and then ran the sound track backward. The verdict on the resultant gibberish was thoroughly acceptable.
(Friar, 179)
Lots of Indians who wanted film work came to Hollywood from Canada as well as from many different tribes across the United States. One only has to look at the actors who are familiar names today to get some idea of the variety of language groups represented: Gary Farmer, Six Nations (Canada); Wes Studi, Cherokee; Russell Means, Ogalala Sioux; Graham Greene, Oneida; Rodney S. Grant, Omaha; Chief Dan George, Canadian Squamish; Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Dakota; Tantoo Cardinal, Cree/Metis; Irene Bedard, Cree-Metis/Inupiat; to name but a few.
And, career actors that they are, they turn up in all kinds of guises. For instance, Wes Studi and Rodney S. Grant played Apaches in Geronimo: An American Legend (1994); Studi was a Huron in The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Grant, a Sioux in Dances With Wolves; in Maverick (1994), Graham Greene plays an Indian, hired by a rich Russian to play a savage Indian, complete with warbonnet and warhoops, but decidedly aculturated when “off duty,” and he is a Sioux in Thunderheart (1992); Chief Dan George was a Cheyenne in Little Big Man (1970); and in Tony Hillerman’s Dark Wind (1991), Gary Farmer becomes a Hopi. For the most part, in these roles they seldom had to speak anything but English.
The 1990 film Dances With Wolves includes Graham Greene, Rodney S. Grant, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, and Tantoo Cardinal in the Lakota Sioux tribe; Graham Greene was even nominated for an Academy Award, though probably not for speaking Lakota.
The dialog coach for Kevin Costner’s film was a Lakota actress, Dorris Leader Charge. She had to teach the Indian actors from other tribes to speak Lakota. The “authentic” conversations in the Indian camp were then given English subtitles. Since there are gender differences in the Lakota language, one wonders how the film’s “authentic” dialog learned from a woman sounded to male Lakota-speakers.
Lou Diamond Phillips is a case in point. Of Filipino and Hawaiian origins, he was cast as the lead, a Navajo policeman, in the film Dark Wind shot on Navajo and Hopi land. Because it was felt that an Indian actor should have been chosen, there was much criticism of his being given the part. It is said he claimed some Cherokee blood, but this was not widely accepted. In any case, he was far from being a Navajo and would have had to learn whatever phrases in that difficult language his character had to speak in the film. His co-star Gary Farmer (himself not Navajo) allowed that “Lou did a commendable job with the language.” For Farmer, “the most poignant thing about The Dark Wind is that it will be the first time American audiences will hear Navajo and Hopi spoken in a movie theater.” Not, perhaps, entirely true, but most of the earlier attempts were minimal at best, and often led to misunderstandings or even incomprehension. This was the case in many movie romances between different races.
Throughout the history of movies with white-Indian contact, there have been romantic interludes. Most are with white men marrying (in one form or another) the beautiful Indian maiden. This almost always led to her demise, since the general public was not prepared to accept miscegenation; in any case, the poor child of nature would have perished in city surroundings so what use to take her back East. But this mix-matching led to some swapping of languages as the couple learned about each other. In Across the Wide Missouri (1951) trapper and mountain man, Clark Gable, marries an “Indian” girl and lives with her people. He plays a Jews harp and sings “Skip to My Lou.” His young wife, played by Mexican actress Maria Elena Marques, attempts to win his approval by imitating him, but her efforts to sing “Can’t get a red bird/a blue bird will do” result in a silly babble. She obviously has no idea of the actual words or their meaning, but being Indian she is allowed to be a bit childish and it just makes her rather endearing. The fact that she has adapted to life without comprehensible language seems rather to emphasize her intelligence.
This same quality of acceptance in a silent, mixed marriage is portrayed in John Ford’s 1956 film The Searchers. The unfortunate Look (played by Beulah Archuletta) becomes wife to young Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), a mixed-blood, through a misunderstanding due to his ignorance of her Plains Indian language. John Wayne, as Ethan Edwards, understands and speaks the language, but he does nothing to help out the situation. He only translates the information that her name is “Wild Goose Flying in the Night Sky” and not “Look” which Marty is always saying. She thinks that is what he wants to call her, and is willing to answer to it. Because of the lack of common language, Look is considered dumb, in all its senses, and treated as a joke. The inference regarding Ethan Edwards, however, is that he is clever because he speaks the Indian language. As usual, the whiteman is portrayed as more intelligent than the Indian.
An evenly matched, but mixed couple swapping mother-tongues forms a significant portion of Dances With Wolves. Language coach, Dorris Leader Charge also taught Costner and his (white) leading lady, Mary McDonnell, the Lakota language. In the film, though, the woman, Stands-with-a-Fist, who was taken by the Lakota as a child and therefore still understands and speaks a little English, has the task of teaching John Dunbar. Reluctantly and with bowed head, Stands-with-a-Fist obeys her adoptive father, and the learning of language from each other also becomes a language of love. As they become more adept at understanding the spoken words, their unspoken words become equally clear. No subtitles are used here.
Subtitles play no part in the bulk of TV commercials, but even here there is occasionally a play on language. Take for example the appearance of renowned Jemez Pueblo artist, Jose Rey Toledo, in a pizza commercial some years back. Jose Rey had appeared in several movies including Flap (1970) starring Anthony Quinn as the drunken Indian, Flapping Eagle, and a vampire movie, Nightwing (1979). According to Joe Sando, the Pizza Hut commercial was
[o]riginally intended to be shown only in California, [but] it was so funny and appealing that it was aired in many other regions as well [including Albuquerque]. The scene showed him dressed in his pueblo costume eating a pizza, walking away, saying, “I am going back to my native country, Italy.”
Jose Rey was grinning broadly as he made his exit, no doubt pleased at getting his own back on the many Italian actors that were given roles as Indians in the past.
With the advent of Diana Reyna’s Surviving Columbus, an all-Pueblo documentary, shown first in 1992 as a half-hour PBS pilot for the Columbian Quinticentennial, and then released as a full length television feature film to great acclaim, the Indian voice was at last heard across the land. Reyna, a Taos artist and alumna of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, directed this documentary which told the other side of the conquest story. It used both English and the native Pueblo languages. Joe Sando, Jemez Pueblo historian, spoke English, as did the late Alfonso Ortiz of San Juan and Ed Ladd from Zuni. But the venerable, 100 year old, Zuni Religious Leader who talked about the first contact with Estefanico spoke in his native Zuni language. We listened to the music of the words, not the meaning. Acoma journalist and broadcaster, Conroy Chino, featured prominently in Surviving Columbus as the narrator; he also shared domestic scenes with his family at dinner. It was interesting to hear the variations of language use between members of the family: the mother spoke in Acoma with English words here and there; the grandmother spoke exclusively in Acoma; Conroy himself spoke a somewhat hesitant Acoma. I asked him about this and he explained that his mother was very conscious of the non-Acoma speaking camera crew, and therefore added some English words so as not to exclude them. His own tentative speech, Conroy told me, was the result of having been away in California for some years where he spoke English all the time, and had gotten out of the habit of thinking in Acoma.
And now, we are having an upsurge of movies where English is spoken all the time, but by Indians. However the difference is this. These are their own movies, and they are telling it like it is. In Harold of Orange (1984), Charlie Hill (Oneida) uses Harold’s extensive command of the English language to run rings around and get the better of the “Anglos”; he uses not only the right words, but intersperses them with tongue-tripping mysticism that the gullible Anglos expect from “real” Indians. The road buddy movies, Powwow Highway (1988) and Smoke Signals (1998) were made a decade apart. The former paired a genial, reservation Indian, Philbert Bono (played by Gary Farmer in an early starring role), and a savvy Vietnam vet activist, Buddy Big Toe (A. Martinez). They were “real” Indians, in a real time, Indian-off-the-Rez movie, but the film was written and directed by non-Indians. While Smoke Signals was a similar road adventure shared by two Rez Indians, and the characters were similarly mismatched—the traditionalist, dreamer and the angry, alienated one—the difference here is that the writer (Sherman Alexie, Spokane/Coer d’Alaine) and director (Chris Eyre) are both Indians. They put together and produced an Indian movie, about Indians, for Indians, that is almost entirely in English, but at the same time shows Indians as they are, today. Real movie Indians, not “Hollywierds.”
A relic of the Lone Ranger days, the debate about just what “Tonto” and “Kemosabe” mean may not be over, but ugh-speech has gone with the wind, and the hero and his sidekick—now both Indians—can speak their minds, in their own words, in whatever language they choose to use. With luck this will mean better understanding by today’s moviegoers, whatever the language they use. So, if an Indian asks you if you like eggs for breakfast, and the next time you meet he says “How” – don’t answer “scrambled,” but say, “Hello friend.”