In the 1956 movie The Searchers, two white girls are abducted from their family homestead during a raid by Comanche Native Americans. With their parents murdered and one sister raped and left for dead, the youngest girl remains with the Comanche for over five years. Throughout this time, her uncle, played by John Wayne, has been searching for her. Finding his niece now living as a Comanche and wife to the leader of the tribe, he attempts to kill her rather than leave her. In the end, she is “rescued” and returned to her family.
The film, a cinematic adaptation of a book written two years earlier by an American author of Western classics, Alan Le May, is well-known for its depiction of white racism toward Native Americans, and was used as a proxy during the civil rights movement (Native Americans as proxy for blacks), as well as its treatment of miscegenation. Yet despite its hateful narrative, The Searchers is widely cited as one of the best movies of all time.
Four years later, another book by Le May was dramatized in the movie The Unforgiven. The Unforgiven, though not held in nearly as high regard as The Searchers, delves even further into these problematic themes surrounding race, goodness, and family identity.
The Zachary family consists of mother, three sons and an adopted white daughter, Rachel, presumed rescued from a Kiowa raid on a settler wagon train. As the plot progresses, we learn that Rachel is, in fact, a Kiowa who was abducted during a raid on her village by the patriarch of the Zachary family. Rachel was brought back by the patriarch as a means of consoling his wife after the death of their own newborn daughter.
As they say, history is written by the victors. And in the United States, for the greater part of the twentieth century, the entertainment industry has touted narratives that vindicate, as opposed to liberate, those whose land has been stolen and people, massacred.
Again, the racism of the Zachary’s friends and neighbors toward Native Americans is depicted explicitly. Even Rachel, who was raised as part of this white settler family, is subject to it. One of Rachel’s adopted brothers, played by World War II veteran Audie Murphy, cannot handle the thought of his sister being a “red-hide nigger.” Rachel herself struggles with the realization that she is Kiowa. And when the Kiowa tribe attempts to recover her, she not only actively takes part in defending the Zachary homestead, but in the process, kills her Kiowa brother, thus solidifying her loyalty to whiteness and the Zachary family, and denouncing her ancestry by birth.
As they say, history is written by the victors. And in the United States, for the greater part of the twentieth century, the entertainment industry has touted narratives that vindicate, as opposed to liberate, those whose land has been stolen and people, massacred. Across our popular culture, they have been portrayed as vicious, bad, and somehow deserving of their tragic fate.
This is a common thread in the history of those who perpetrate genocide, in which victims continue to suffer the psychological trauma of the genocide. The continued depiction of the dishonest, disloyal, treacherous Armenians, for example, within the Turkish educational system perpetuates the stereotypes against them that have endured since the Ottoman Empire. To this day, being Armenian is a dirty word to many in Turkey and used as a weapon against political adversaries.
Like many of the Armenians in Turkey, native communities in America live in poverty, without rights, and without recognition; their realities invisible to the average citizen, yet their image continues to be appropriated again and again without their permission—distilled, as it were, and injected into the margins of American life. They are reduced either to performing as the ‘bad guy’ in a cult classic Western film or as a trivialized accessory to beloved American holidays.
Over the decades, Thanksgiving, it must be said, has taken on a life of its own, independent of the horrors committed against Native peoples. All the commercialization aside, it has essentially become a federally-mandated vacation, in which you are expected to get together with family and friends you love, and eat and be merry. To be honest, we need more of that. It’s just unfortunate that the cultural narrative upon which we engage in this merrymaking requires belittling the struggles of native peoples.
Regardless, we at the Armenian Weekly hope all our readers enjoy happy days this week with good friends and good food, and to, yes, be thankful for what we have; and thankful that Native communities continue to persist and fight for visibility in spite of it all. We hope that one day soon, they will be recognized as the authors of their own pasts, as well as their futures.