John Wayne was accused by some critics of being racist because of his presumed belief in white supremacy in America. His intimate association with the Western film, which has traditionally ignored or, at best, under-represented all ethnic minorities, was used by his critics as further proof of his racism. Most of all he was attacked by Native Americans and Sfrican Americans.
Leaders of the Native American community rejected his rationale for white hegemony: “When we came to America, there were a few thousands Indians over millions of miles, and I don't feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from these people, taking their happy hunting grounds away.” “There were great numbers of people who needed new land,” he explained, “and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.” He not only believed that the whites were “progressive,” but that they were also doing “something that was good for everyone.”
It therefore astonished him that the Indians indignantly protested his views of the necessity of eliminating what he considered handouts to the Indians. Later, by way of apology, he explained that the writer of Playboy and himself “were kidding around about the Indians in Alcatraz,” and that he said not-too-seriously “he hoped they'd taken care of their wampum, so maybe they could buy Alcatraz like we bought Manhattan.”
“I can't imagine any Indian,” Wayne said in his defense, “not realizing that over the past forty years I've done more to give them human dignity and a fine image on the screen than anyone else who has ever worked in pictures.” “Indians were part of our history,” he elaborated, “I have never shown the Indians on the screen as anything but courageous and with great human dignity.”
To substantiate his point, Wayne used some of his Westerns as examples: “My Indian in Hondo” was a great guy, my Indian in Fort Apache” was a great guy. I assume the Indians know that I have a great deal of respect for them.”
The fact remains that the Indians have been mistreated in American film for generations. Most Westerns did not deal with the White racist policies, the violations of treaties with the Indians, their confinement on reservations, their exploitation by white agents, and the disintegration of their whole culture. New trends toward more equitable treatment of the Indians did not begin until the early 1950s, echoed again in the late 1960s.
Broken Arrow” (1950) is considered to be a turning point, because the narrative depicts the “Indian problem” from their” point of view; Jimmy Stewart plays an army scout who brings about peace between the white man and the Apache. But despite the fact that Cochise was established as a hero, he was played by a white actor (Jeff Chandler), as was the trend in the l950s.
In retrospect, Wayne's Westerns were no different from other mainstream Westerns. In Fort Apache,” for example, one of the major conflicts between Wayne and Fonda concerns their approach to the Indian problem. Unlike Fonda's racist hatred and commitment to their extermination, Wayne sympathizes with their plight, describing the Indian Ring in Washington as “the dirtiest, most corrupt political group in our history.”
In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” Wayne defeats the Indians by guile, stampeding their horses, rather than by violent conquest. And in Rio Grande,” he is contrasted with the white villainous trader, who objects to peace because he knows it means an end to his illicit traffic.
The critic Jon Tuska regards Hondo” as Wayne's closest personal statement of his view of the Indians. To begin with, Hondo was married to an Indian woman who died. The movie also depicts favorably Vittorio, the Indian chief, justifying his anger, following the treaty violations by the whites. “There's no word in the Apache language for lie,” Wayne says, “an' we lied to 'em.” Finally, the film comments on the sad passing of Indian culture: Hondo regards the end of the Apache as “an end of a way of life, and a good one.”
Tuska also views McLintock!” as an unofficial sequel to Hondo,” because both were written by James E. Grant and both show the Indians's loss of their dignity, culture, and homeland. By contrast, The Searchers” was probably Ford–Wayne's strongest case in defending the purity of the white race.
The British critic Alexander Walker sees in it a more extreme example of inbred hatred of non-Americans than in any of Wayne's earlier Westerns, which he explains as a product of the McCarthy era, when the film was made. In this narrative, Wayne cannot accept Debbie's choice to live with the Indians because he considers it “unclean” and “morally degraded;” as if saying, women must keep “pure” because the continuity of the white race depends on them.
Furthermore, he continuously taunts Martin, his companion, for being partly Cherokee, thus impure. Still, as Beaver suggested, the Indians are not depicted as “the blackest villains,” and even Wayne, who hates them, basically admires their expertise, persistence, and survival skills.
Wayne is in fact closer to the Indians than any other white character in the film, understanding their ways and even speaking their language. The other white characters are described as bigoted, ineffectual, and treacherous, thus not entirely positive.
From the late l960s on, in tune with the times, Wayne's Westerns had their share of token Indian characters. In The War Wagon,” an Indian (Howard Keel) is one of his allies in his vengeance plan, and in The Undefeated,” his adopted son (Roman Gabriel) is a Cheyenne Indian. In the narrative of Big Jake,” an old Indian friend helps him to find his kidnapped grandson. In Cahill, U.S. Marshal,” Wayne has an Indian sidekick (Neville Brand).