Our inner Native American

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. The movie criticizes the contrast between “civilized” and “savage”.

PhD candidate Cui Chen studied books and films that attempt to break away from the stereotype of a “savage”.

“I’m gonna give you something you can’t take off.” In a memorable scene from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Aldo Raine (played by Brad Pitt) and his group of soldiers, the Basterds, scalp the heads of a group of recently murdered Nazis. At the end of the film, when Raine finally confronts German colonel Hans Landa (Christophe Waltz), he carves a swastika into the German’s forehead with a knife. 

According to PhD candidate Cui Chen, who has studied the concept of the “savage” in a western context the film is brimming with representations of Native Americans.

The “savage” continues to have a presence in Western literature and usually as a Native American. “Many people use Native Americans as stereotypes, although some have tried to strip away the term, but that’s impossible. In my view, the savage is like a ghost. The harder we try to get rid of it, the more it sticks.”

She studied books and films that attempt to break away from the stereotype of the “savage”, ultimately using two novels and two films: Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954), Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932), The Revenant by Alejandro G. Iñárritu and, of course, Inglourious Basterds. 

Each of these works attempts to make a break from the conventional image of the savage, according to Chen – often indirectly. After all, in Inglourious Basterds, there are no characters who are explicitly Native Americans. “But if you examine the history in the film, you can see it coming through.” She thinks there are other clues besides the scalping: for instance, the final confrontation takes place in the woods and there are characters like Donny Donowitz (aka the Bear Jew) with animal names like Native Americans have.

“It’s an interesting point that the story takes place in the Second World War and addresses the history of the Jews. But seen from the perspective of colonialism, the history of the Native Americans becomes obvious as well, though always indirectly.” Chen thinks it’s always limited too. “Because the voice of the Native American people doesn’t feature in it directly.”

That voice is present in The Revenant, which, in her view, tries to criticise the contrast between “savage” and “civilised”. She claims that this film questions the conventional distinction between wild Native Americans and civilised European colonists. In the film, the Native Americans are pictured as “exotic and inferior seen from an Euro-centric perspective”, she writes. But in contrast to the other works she examined, the Native Americans in this film actually have their own perspective. “People are curious about them, but they have their own agency, and watch the Europeans too.”

Anoushka Kloosterman

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