Indigenous representation in media. A few images immediately come to mind, none of them particularly positive: Pocahontas, Tiger Lily from Peter Pan, Halloween costumes featuring feathered headdresses, cowboys and “Indians”, and the list goes on. Many of these depictions fall back on stereotypes like the “noble savage” or portray indigenous peoples as villains.
I’d like to zoom in on an example I’m looking at in other course. In FILM 308 Documentary Cinema, we’re studying early documentaries including Robert Flaherty’s celebrated but controversial film Nanook of the North. The film, released in 1922, was a critical and box-office success and is an enduring cultural product. Flaherty was an explorer who spent years living and working among Inuit peoples in the Canadian Arctic. The film was shot over the course of a year with help from the Inuit, who not only appeared on camera put also helped operate the camera.
In many ways, the film is ethnographic, following the day to day lives of people living up north. In fact, the film has been called an example of “salvage ethnography,” a particular branch of ethnography concerned with cultures that are disappearing or going extinct due to colonization or modernization. Flaherty was concerned with recording the lives of the Inuit as they were before the influence of modern Western society. To this end, some sequences in the film are staged: men are shown hunting a walrus with harpoons when in reality, by that point they had guns; and “Nanook” is shown biting a vinyl record when in fact Allakariallak, who played Nanook, was familiar with records and gramophones. (Additionally, it is worth noting that the family in the film was not a real family—they were cast to play the part of the family in order for the film to have characters and a narrative structure.) Flaherty’s goal was to capture the “true spirit” of the people.
In some ways, Flaherty’s work falls into the “noble savage” stereotype, and he chose not to depict the way the Inuit peoples had integrated new technologies into their way of life. However, the film also offers a genuine and touching glimpse into the life of a group of people whom Flaherty respected and a culture few people were familiar with. The successes of Nanook are likely due to the amount of time Flaherty spent with his subjects and the trust and collaboration between the filmmaker and the indigenous peoples whose story he put on screen.
Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, Eric Barnouw (2003)