Oscar 2005: No Native Americans in Sight

Native American actors are nowhere to be found at the 2005 Oscar race, and they were nowhere to be found last year or the year before. There's no doubt that, of all ethnic minorities, the position of Native America thespians in the industry is the worse.

Reflecting the discrimination against Native Americans in American society, for decades, Hollywood has cast Native American roles with white actors.

In one of its weakest moments, the Acting Branch nominated Jeff Chandler for playing Cochise in Broken Arrow (1950). Chandler was a Brooklyn Jew (ne Ira Grossel), who achieved notoriety in actioners and melodramas due to his good looks and masculine appearance. As if to reward him for excellence, Chandler was cast again as Cochise in The Battle at Apache Pass (1952). In this film, a typical product of the 1950s, James Stewart attempts to bring peace between the white sellers and the Apaches, led by Cochise. A blend of action and earnestness, Broken Arrow was one of the first popular movies to try representing the Indians' side of the conflict.

The cast did feature some Native Americans, including Jay Silverheels, best known for playing Tonto on TV's “The Lone Ranger.” But the Apache leads were played by Caucasians–Stewart's love interest, an Indian woman, was played by white actress Debra Paget. Broken Arrow became a cause celebre for another, equally important reason. Its screenplay, credited to Michael Blankfort, was nominated for an Oscar, except that Blankfort served as a front to blacklisted writer Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood Ten.

The Image of the Native American in film changed with the 1970 revisionist Western, Little Big Man. Chief Dan George was nominated for a Supporting Oscar in this adaptation of Thomas Berger's comic picaresque novel about the events that led up to Custer's Last Stand. The Western was brought to the screen during the anti-Vietnam war period by Arthur Penn, who put white brutality and racism at the center of the narrative.

Dustin Hoffman played Jack Crabb, an American Candide whose adventures take him back and forth between the Red man's and the white man's culture. For a while, the comic tone is pleasantly askew with a gallery of amusing characters that included Faye Dunaway as a preacher's wife, Jeff Corey as Wild Bill Hickok, and Martin Balsam as a swindler getting dismantled. Pauline Kael described Chief Dan George's Indian chief as “part patriarch, part Jewish mother.” After the first hour, the massacres start coming, and the speeches, too. Author Berger suggested that the Indians looked like Orientals, but Crabb's Indian bride looked Vietnamese.

Two decades later, Graham Greene was one of several Native American actors to be hired by Kevin Costner for Dances With Wolves, in sharp departure from old Hollywood practices of using the likes of Jeff Chandler or Sal Mineo to play Indians. Experienced but unknown, Greene was soon in demand for TV and screen roles, but he refused to be typecast. The Supporting Oscar went to Joe Pesci for GoodFellas, but, as a result of his nomination–and the picture's success–Greene has enjoyed a viable career, including an appearance in Thunderheart as a contemporary Sioux lawman.