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Cinema Journal 39.4 (2000) 3-26 

"White Man's Book No Good":
D. W. Griffith and the American Indian 

Gregory S. Jay *


Abstract. D. W. Griffith made some thirty short films on Indian subjects during the Biograph years. Yet these mostly melodramatic treatments have received little critical attention. Analyzing films such as The Call of the Wild, A Romance of the Western Hills, and The Massacre, this essay explains how the apparently sympathetic representation of the Native American still adheres to the logic of white supremacy eventually enunciated in The Birth of a Nation.

Ask film scholars about the representations of race in the films of D. W. Griffith, and most of their responses will center on the portrayals of black Americans in his 1915 epic, The Birth of a Nation. Yet, in the hundreds of short films Griffith made for the Biograph Company in the years leading up to Birth, he portrayed many other faces representative of America's ethnic and racial diversity, including those of European immigrants, Mexican Americans, and Jews. African Americans are notably absent from these one-reelers; however, a striking body of work focuses on Native Americans. Often ignored by Griffith scholars, these films constitute a significant record of the role played by popular culture in mediating white-Indian conflicts after the turn of the century, when the Indian became one of the most prevalent subjects in silent cinema.

Griffith's Indian melodramas provide rich material for analyzing the meaning of white representations of Native Americans and suggest how those images function in white America's construction of a national identity. These films, and in particular The Massacre (1912), also offer a key to understanding the vision of race and nation expressed in Griffith's work during his Biograph years and that eventually shaped his most famous film. 1

Sympathy for the Devil. Daniel Bernardi has claimed that there is "a lack of scholarship on the racist practices in Griffith's Biograph films." 2 Critics have observed, however, that "American Indians make up the principal minority group represented in the Biographs, and the treatment of them was almost consistently sympathetic." 3 In his biography of Griffith, Richard Schickel observes that many of the Biograph shorts

were set in various vanishing American Wildernesses and reflected the prevalent nostalgia...about the loss of these unspoiled lands to civilization. Some of these films [End Page 3] were notable for their extremely sympathetic treatment of the Indian as a natural nobleman, and that, too, represented a recognition of shifting popular attitudes, a first, guilty observation that the Red Man had been ill used in the century just past.... No doubt [Griffith] was influenced toward these subjects by the romanticizing of the savage and of the natural environment which coincided, in this period, with the nation's first awareness that the frontier had finally closed, that it had just lost something it had always taken for granted--untamed, untouched lands to the West. 4

This brief summary of Griffith's thirty or so films on the Indian and the West provides one of the more substantial commentaries on this topic in classic Griffith scholarship. Schickel assesses the war against the Native American and the expropriation of Indian lands rather tamely, often in passive constructions that disguise the active agency of the white man.

Schickel's mention of the "romanticizing of the savage" leaves open the first question about such romanticizing: was it part of the "sympathetic treatment" of the Indian or a way of rationalizing white policies of exploitation? Highlighting such ethnographic romances as The Mended Lute and The Indian Runner's Romance, along with the aesthetically innovative The Redman's View (all from 1909), Schickel does not mention two films Bernardi correctly highlights, The Call of the Wild (1908) and A Romance of the Western Hills (1910), which depict the Indian as incapable of "civilization" and predisposed to savage regression. In discussing those two films, it will be important to analyze the relationship in them between nobility and savagery in order to assess the films' sympathies. While Bernardi is surely right to situate Griffith's Biograph films within a history of whiteness that subjugates the racial other in "hopes of maintaining the unity of the family, the purity of the white woman, and the power and divinity of the white patriarchy," we nevertheless must account for the sympathetic modes of representation also at work in these films. 5 As Roberta Pearson notes, the "relatively sympathetic view" of the Indian presented in The Massacre belongs to a larger cultural discourse that criticized the white man for breaking treaties, expropriating Indian land, and perpetrating massacres that often stirred Indians to revenge. 6 While these themes are indeed treated in these films, as I shall argue, it is the Civil War that structures the logic of Griffith's representation of the Indian wars and thus complicates the way he represents the victimization of Native Americans.

The second, related question about Griffith's treatment of the Indian concerns the apparent contrast he creates between their treatment and that of African Americans. Schickel notes this disparity with odd surprise: "Curious! Griffith could sympathize with, and romanticize, a race he did not know, yet was full of unconscious racism toward blacks, whom he knew better." 7 Setting aside the misleading apologetics in terming Griffith's racism "unconscious," how do we explain this apparent contradiction? The early Biograph shorts give us little to go on, since African Americans are almost totally absent. A "low-down negro" (as usual, a white actor in blackface) does chase two white daughters in The Girls and Daddy, rehearsing that stock story of the sexual threat posed by the black brute Griffith would frequently revive (and which he mutates into the Indian assaults in The Massacre and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch [1914]). 8 There was also His Trust [End Page 4] and His Trust Fulfilled (both 1911), a two-reeler depicting the southern fantasy of the faithful servant who stays with the plantation family after the Civil War. Its blackface hero is the only African American character featured prominently in the Biograph films before The Birth of a Nation.

Griffith's apparent eagerness to fulfill the audience's hunger for films about Indians contrasts sharply with the omission from his Biograph oeuvre of the standard material about blacks so popular in the silent cinema. Partly because of the intimate links between vaudeville, minstrel shows, and early cinema, silent films from the 1890s through World War I depict the most outrageous racist stereotypes. A sense of this racism can be gleaned from some of the titles: Dancing Darky Boys, Coontown Suffragettes, Rastus in Zululand, The Wooing of Aunt Jemima, Sambo's Wedding Day, The Watermelon Contest, The Octoroon, The Pickaninnies, and The Nigger--not to mention the various adaptations of Uncle Tom's Cabin9 Since Griffith did not produce such films, whatever comparison we draw on the issue of his racial representations has to be based on his Indian melodramas and later work, notably The Birth of a Nation. Is there an unaccountable difference here, or is there more consistency in Griffith's representation of Indians and blacks than Schickel observes? In answering this question, the key film turns out to be The Massacre, which brings the story of the Civil War and of the Indian wars together in a narrative that closely anticipates the argument of Birth.

The Cultural Work of Popularity. Few subjects were as popular in the early years of silent film as the Native American. 10 Literally hundreds of documentaries, shorts, and features on Indian topics were produced from the turn of the century through 1920 by major film pioneers and studios. There are a number of obvious reasons for this popularity. The American Indian had been a fixture, so to speak, of white popular culture throughout the nineteenth century, a staple of captivity narratives, songs and ballads, poems and fiction, travel and sketch books, painting, photography, dime novels, and plays. Spectacles, such as traveling "medicine shows," which featured "Wild West" entertainment along with the elixir, were among the important influences on early cinema. Probably most famous was Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, which began in 1883 by reenacting Indian attacks on cabins and wagon trains in visuals that would be repeated throughout the history of cinema. Although the first shows featured whites in redface, by the late 1880s Cody had enlisted Sitting Bull and other famous warriors for his cast. Eventually, these shows were themselves filmed in some of the earliest documentaries, marking the smooth transition from the live to the cinematic spectacle. Thomas Edison filmed one in 1898, Biograph in 1902, and Buffalo Bill himself shot one in 1910.

The Native American presented an ideal subject for the early movie makers; exotic, mysterious, dangerous, and historic, the Indian immediately and powerfully fascinated the gaze of white people, who for centuries had produced cultural representations of the racial other in a variety of artistic, intellectual, and scientific genres. Since the camera loved action, the Indian-white conflict offered countless possibilities with which we are now all too familiar: the chase (whether on horseback or in canoe), the battle, hand-to-hand combat, the circling of the wagons, the burning of [End Page 5] the settler's home, the scalping of the victim, the terrorizing of the innocent white woman, and the bashing of babies' heads. These stock narrative episodes--taken from literature, painting, journalism, photography, and medicine shows--were quickly adapted to the dramatic pace and visual power of the new medium. Estimates are that fifty Indian/western/cowboy one-reelers were released in 1909, and between one hundred and two hundred such films in each year through 1914.

There were other reasons, however, for the popularity of the Indian films of D. W. Griffith. One had to do with their assimilation into the genre of melodrama, so popular in the era. What strikes the modern viewer first, in fact, is that most of these films are less reminiscent of later westerns than we might expect and more reminiscent of nineteenth-century sentimental fiction and drama. The ability of the melodrama to represent so expertly stark confrontations of good and evil proved to fit Indian subjects nicely, and not simply because the Indians were evil and the whites were good. On the contrary, many of the films create sympathy for the Indians, who are often the victims of the whole catalogue of historically documented white oppressions: assaults, murders, and the expropriation of land. Most of Griffith's Indian melodramas intend to represent Indians as the victims of white immorality.

The role of women in Indian films is another key element in explaining their popularity. What whites called the Indian "squaw" had been a central feature in the popular imaginary about Native Americans ever since John Smith started telling tales about Pocahontas. In the nineteenth century, white singers crooned songs about Pocahontas and Minnehaha from widely sold lyric sheets. Popular literature evolved the stereotype of the docile squaw who tragically falls in love with the white man, often sacrificing herself for him or her tribe. Griffith himself appeared in a Pocahontas pageant staged in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1907 and depicted the stereotype in many films.

The story of the Indian squaw caught between cultures would become a standard plot in silent cinema, in which she was played by Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, and other budding stars. Griffith's predilection for narratives involving damsels in distress, then, connected in interesting ways with the self-sacrificing romance of the stereotypical squaw tale, as in such Biograph one-reelers as The Girl and the Outlaw (1908), A Romance of the Western Hills, The Broken Doll (1910), and Iola's Promise (1912). These films gendered the racialized other as feminine, turning the political struggle between whites and Indians into a romantic tragedy that usually followed the dictates of the prohibition against miscegenation, bolstered by the Darwinian conviction that the Indian was a vestige of an ineluctably doomed primitivism.

It would be a mistake to contextualize early films about Indians only as they intersected with cultural history or cinematic developments. Sitting Bull's short career in Cody's show did not save him from the very real wars against the Indian that still raged. In fact, in 1890, reservation police shot and killed Sitting Bull during the Ghost Dance troubles, and on December 29 of that year the Seventh Cavalry slaughtered between 150 and 300 men, women, and children at Wounded Knee. When General Miles took twenty-five Indian leaders from Pine Ridge to Illinois as prisoners, Buffalo Bill took advantage of the opportunity; after some hard lobbying, the prisoners were released so that they could appear in his next [End Page 6] European tour. The transition from military warfare to the oppression of the culture industry was that immediate.

The invention of American cinema at the end of the nineteenth century coincided with what, in 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner famously called the "closing of the frontier," a thesis that again implied the Last of the Mohicans Syndrome: the belief that Native Americans were inevitably vanishing, like leaves blown by the autumn wind, before the power of white America's manifest destiny. A pervading myth about the final days of the Indian spread throughout U.S. culture in these decades, prompting, for example, the photographic work of Edward Curtis, who thought of himself as documenting (in artificially staged scenes) the last images of a vanishing race. The review of Griffith's The Redman's View in the New York Dramatic Mirror stated that "this remarkable film is clearly intended to be symbolical of the fate of the helpless Indian race as it has been forced to recede before the advancing whites, and as such it is full of poetic sentiment and artistic beauty." 11 This evaluation clearly documents how aestheticization functioned as part of the legitimation narrative of white nationalism in the United States: the feeling cinema produced vis-à-vis the Indian's disappearance was "poetic sentiment and artistic beauty," not, say, moral outrage or political anger. The plot could readily depict the Native American as a victim of white greed and violence as long as the manner of representation adhered to the aesthetics of poeticized sentiment, thus transforming the represented action into something felt to be ordered, harmonious, fixed, and even perversely delightful.

In terms of its cultural work, the Indian film translated the political struggle between the Indian nations and the United States into a domestic tragedy (or farce) played out among individuals. In other words, it rendered as personal what was in fact a structural and systemic conflict, based in political economy and legalized racism. 12 This mode of dramatization positioned viewers as subjects of a melodrama rather than as subjects of political history, centering their experience in personal emotions and abstract universals seemingly unconnected to contemporary political decisions. 13 Thus, Griffith's vaunted sympathy for the Indian may be understood as an aesthetic effect produced by the modes of sentiment and melodrama, wherein feeling for a victim in a domestic plot does not necessarily translate into sympathy for Native Americans as the victims of structural plots involving political and cultural genocide. The viewer can feel sympathy for the individual victims without questioning the larger dominant narratives of white manifest destiny and racial superiority that these films presume.

As the review of Redman's View suggests, Griffith's Indian films were clearly received against the backdrop of a continuing debate, in Washington and across the country, over policy affecting Native Americans. The "Spectator's Comments" column of the Mirror published a week after the review notes that "the injustice that the red race has suffered at the hands of the white is held up to our eyes in convincing picture language, and the conclusion is conveyed that they are now receiving as wards of the nation only scant and belated attention." 14 The extensive Indian territories set aside in the West during the pre-Civil War removals became the targets of white settlement and railroad incursion. White arguments about [End Page 7] whether the Indian could be "civilized" were often really arguments about land; avowed champions of the Native American cause promoted the policy called "allotment," in which each Indian family was to be allotted acreage on which to start a farm and so bring the Indian into conformity with a Jeffersonian way of life. Not coincidentally, the allotment plan effectively dissolved the tribe as a political entity, along with the tribe's right to ancestral or treaty lands. Allotted lands were easy prey for white lawyers and speculators.

The Dawes Act, instituting allotment as federal policy, passed the Congress in 1887. In aiming to dissolve the tribes and assimilate the Indian to the status of individual farmer or laborer, the act made the vanishing of the Indian as a separate people, culture, and political economy the official law of the land. Accompanying the law was the imposition of reservation schools and of the boarding school movement, whereby Native American children were relocated from their families and tribes, sometimes violently, to what amounted to reeducation camps. No wonder popular culture in the decades that followed represented the Indian largely in the past tense, endlessly repeating tales of savages who could not be civilized, of primitive but noble hearts capable of sacrifice but not reason, of a people whose ill treatment was an unfortunate but unavoidable result of their own status as an anachronism.

Indian policy and Indian films also belonged to the larger effort to imagine the American nation as the new century dawned. "It was during the silent era," writes Virginia Wright Wexman, "that Westerns took on the project of delineating a myth of national origin." 15 The cultural dominance of the Anglo-Saxon imagined itself under siege by the new immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, prompting the development of an ideology of the pan-European "melting pot" as the ideal of American identity. 16 The undoing of Reconstruction by southern whites found its greatest legal victory in 1896, when the Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation. In the United States, political and cultural discourse constructed an imaginary character for the nation that identified citizenship with whiteness and whiteness with a much broader spectrum of ethnic groups from Europe. At the same time, the "melting pot" intentionally and consciously excluded people of Asian, Mexican, and African descent.

The long history of efforts to assimilate the Indian into white culture continued to fail, or to produce the not-unlooked-for result of the Indian's impoverishment and disempowerment. Popular film participated in, as well as documented, these processes of ethnic and racial encounter, although what became predominant were middle-class and bourgeois images of the evolving standard of what constituted white American normalcy. Measured against those well-dressed images, the leather-stockinged and befeathered Native American was visually out of place. In A Romance of the Western Hills, Griffith presents a climactic fight between an Indian brave and a city slicker who punch it out in a Pasadena backyard. Whatever moral superiority the plot assigns to the Indian appears more than offset by the incongruous juxtaposition of his costume with the hat and suit of his antagonist.

On screen, the silent-era Indian served both as a nostalgic reminder of what was purportedly passing away and a focus for perceiving the superior qualities of the dominant culture. As the western overtook the melodrama as a popular [End Page 8] representation of Native Americans, fear and hostility replaced nostalgia as dominant emotions in the white viewer's perception of the Indian, who increasingly was shown as a fearsome savage. Something of that changeover can be glimpsed in Griffith's development from The Massacre, with its sympathy for Indian victims, to The Battle of Elderbush Gulch, in which the Indian attack on white innocents begins to conflate Indians and blacks as the terrible other in the white subject's imagination. The onslaught of ignorant and vicious pictures about Indians became so alarming that, in 1911, tribal leaders held a protest against them in Washington and demanded action from President Taft.

It would be misleading, however, simply to dismiss as hypocrisy the expressions of sympathy for the Indian in white cultural discourse at this time, including in the movies. The film reviews of the era reflect the continuing national debate about white mistreatment of the Indian as well as the standard denunciations of the Indian's nature. Among the most powerful and popular of the white protest texts was Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 novel, Ramona, which tells of the Indian's displacement from tribal villages in California and features the murder of a full-blood Indian hero by a white ruffian. Ramona herself is an adaptation of the Indian squaw, this time as a half-breed.

Jackson's extraordinarily popular race melodrama became a popular play and the basis for what is still an annual pageant in Southern California (although, as in the case of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the play now reinforces rather than resists the stereotypes criticized in the original novel). In 1905, a young actor named Lawrence Griffith (a.k.a. D. W.) played the role of the hero Alessandro in a local California production. Griffith filmed his own powerful one-reel Ramona in 1910. 17 His other Biograph shorts on Mexican and Southwest themes employ plot lines similar to his Indian melodramas, including nostalgia for the supposedly doomed culture of the past (the Hispanics) and criticism of white violence.

Griffith Goes Native. By most counts, Griffith directed about thirty Biograph short films with significant Indian content (see Appendix). Most utilize plots and motifs designed to produce feelings of outraged moral sentiment in the audience and so seem to support some version of the view that Griffith's Indian melodramas are sympathetic toward Native Americans. Of course, attributing the choice or treatment of subject matter in these films to Griffith alone presents difficulties, since the scenarios were often assigned and/or written by others (although, from what we know of Griffith, we can assume he exercised considerable autonomy). Indian films were a staple of the new medium, and the number Griffith shot was not remarkable in comparison with other studios. Four of these films date from 1908, Griffith's first year as a director. His early and sustained commitment to the genre may surprise, considering his background.

Aside from his travels as an actor and his brief sojourns in the West and in California, Griffith had no experience with or knowledge of Native American communities. He seems mainly to have adapted standard material from rival studios or other popular media, reshaping these according to his own concerns (whether ideological, psychological, or aesthetic). When Griffith made a second [End Page 9] series of Indian films in Cuddebackville, New York, in 1909, he did bring along James Young Deer and his wife, Redwing, two popular Indian actors of the time who served as consultants on the dances and costumes and as players in the films. 18 After 1909, Frank Woods (who collaborated with Griffith at Biograph and who eventually wrote the scenario for The Birth of a Nation), did much of the research on Indian subjects, although all reflect Griffith's thematic obsessions.

How different Griffith's Indian films were from those of other directors at the time would be the subject of a much longer study than is possible in these pages. I would observe in passing, however, that Griffith's work looks very different from films such as Frank Moore's beautiful Hiawatha (1913) or Douglas Fairbanks's dashing The Half-Breed (1916), which Griffith helped produce. These movies lack the focus on intimate quarrels, family romance, and stylized melodramatic gesture typical of the Biograph pictures.

I would emphasize that Griffith's Native American melodramas are not cowboy-and-Indian films, or (for the most part) westerns. 19 Even the films featuring Indian warfare lack cowboy heroes; instead, the victimized Indians are usually pitted against land grabbers, miners, or the army. What distinguishes Griffith's work in the Indian genre is the way his plots and narratives revolve around nostalgia for lost paradises: the antebellum South, the pastoral world of the Indians, the innocence of childhood, and the mother. Frequently the plots turn on lost-and-found objects (puppies, babies, girls) in a pattern that begs for Freudian analysis. It is this pattern that informs the family romances of the Indian films, in which the Indian's eventual exclusion from the white family promises both a return to the womb and an emergence into the future--hence the recurrent motif of rebirth.

In sum, in most of Griffith's Biograph Indian films the Indians elicit white melodramatic sympathy and the white miners, pioneers, and soldiers are often depicted as rapacious scoundrels. On closer analysis, however, this sympathy appears directed toward a creature considered doomed by its very nature, its nobility a primitive defense against the complexity of modernity. These films (and, quite explicitly, the Biograph Bulletins by Lee Dougherty used to promote them) argued that although the Native Americans had many fine natural qualities, they were incapable of civilization and thus of any real nobility. This plot line is presented most dramatically in The Call of the Wild.

The film opens at an elegant Victorian-style party. A handsome dark man enters and woos a lieutenant's daughter. It turns out that he is George Redfeather, a respected friend of the lieutenant and an honors graduate and football hero from Carlisle Indian College (an obvious allusion to Jim Thorpe, who had gained fame the previous year). Yet the prospect of miscegenation and of the Indian's transgression of the line between races horrifies the lieutenant and his daughter, who indignantly repulses him (is this crisis made possible by a lost mother?). Here is the Biograph Bulletin description of what ensues:

With pique he leaves and we next find him in his own room, crushed and disappointed, for he realizes the truth: "Good enough as a hero, but not as a husband." What was the use of his struggle? As he reasons, his long suppressed nature asserts itself and he hears [End Page 10] the call of the wild: "Out there is your sphere, on the boundless plains, careless and free, among your kind and kin, where all is truth." Here he sits; this nostalgic fever growing more intense every second, until in a fury he tears off the conventional clothes he wears, donning in their stead his suit of leather, with blanket and feathered headgear. 20

On screen, the action is frantic and shocking, as Redfeather repeatedly gulps from a whiskey bottle while ripping off his tuxedo and baring his naked breast. This supposed regression and subsequent scenes of drunken Indians reinforce all the usual stereotypes, as does the conclusion, in which Redfeather ultimately recognizes the superior purity of white womanhood, which he helps to save from the other "savages" who are chasing her. In the process, he is redeemed from drink and rapacity, though not enough to join "civilization" or to become her husband. Instead, Redfeather becomes the agency for the restoration of the lost object of white maidenhood, a theme close to the heart of any red-blooded son of the South.

In The Call of the Wild, the noble world of the pastoral Indian belongs to the past, and he cannot be reborn as a white man for the future. While the film mourns this loss, it also repeats the stereotype of the Indian's savage nature, in the usual form, by making the person of color the stand-in for white sexuality's repressed desires (and perhaps for the lieutenant-father's desires for the daughter). As we have come to expect, white sexual savagery is transferred onto the Indian, just as in The Birth of a Nation the white master's institutional rape of black women is covered over by the hysterical plot centering on fear of the lustful black brute. The self-sacrifice of the brave in this scenario forms a kind of male version of the Pocahontas myth. In the economy of race, family, and nation here, the white daughter is restored to the father after the self-exorcism of the threatening other, the man of color played in redface. As in minstrel shows, the makeup both distances the audience from the character and expresses viewers' participation in his identity and desires. 21 National policies about the Indian are legitimated by family romance plots, with miscegenation operating as a kind of coincidental passageway between them. The lost-and-found object is the white daughter, who at once represents a phantasmal racial purity from the past and the body from which a future purity must come.

Although The Call of the Wild at first seems quite different from Griffith's more sentimental Indian tales, we have to think again. The stereotypes of the Savage and of the Noble Red Man are not unrelated or paradoxical opposites; rather, they are two sides of a single, unified theory of the "Noble Savage." In this conception, Native Americans (and other non-European entities) belong to primitive racial groups that, whatever their virtues, have not and cannot achieve the level of civilized behavior evolved by whites. According to this view, the savages' nobility does not contradict their primitiveness but confirms it. While this nobility elicits sympathy, it does not claim equality. To be blunt, this ideology sees the Indian's nobility as that of a fine animal, as an instinctive and unreflective grandeur, not as the product of sophisticated reason, ethical thought, or a philosophy or religion deserving study and respect. To effect this denial of the Indian's claim to possessing an ethical, religious, and cultural identity deserving respect, the plot of the [End Page 11] family romance reduces the Indian to a child. The psychoanalytic narrative strips away the subject's claim to maturity in order to "reveal" his truth as an undeveloped id, a naked body of immature desires who must follow a desexualizing narrative plot that returns the woman from the position of available daughter to the position of the father's possession (also, in this imaginary, the position of the mother).

For another example, consider A Romance of the Western Hills, described in the Biograph Bulletin this way:

There is little wonder why the Indian is so stoical and misanthropic towards the white man, when we consider how he has been treated. True we have endeavored to civilize him, but this has only made more vivid his hopelessness. The Indian might have been made the white man's best friend, but the white man did little to inspire his confidence. This Biograph subject is a powerful illustration of one of the many indignities the redskin suffered. A party of tourists visits the Indian village and is charmed with the pretty little Indian girl, who offers for their consideration ornaments and beads. A book of civilization falls into her hands and naturally the girl is fascinated by the apparent mysticism of it, but her lover, a young brave, tells her "White man's book no good." This, however, does not dissuade her, as her slight association with the white people has made their sphere appear to her enthralling, hence when she has the chance of living in their world she is elated. 22

The film depicts the relation of whites to Native Americans not only as colonial but also as picturesque; the whites are tourists, consuming the spectacle of the Indians and of their landscape. The gaze of the tourist, like our gaze as filmgoers, is fascinated by the "romance" of these western hills and by an eroticized drama of desire, transgression, and possession. Here, form appears to contradict content. The film may show, and so suggest an endorsement of, the Indian's rejection of the white man's book. But this act is framed and captured by the white man's camera, which subordinates the Indian's resistance to its own vision of picturesque obsolescence. Although the Indian brave tosses the white man's book down a hillside, this lost object is retrieved by the Indian maiden, whose own plotted loss and return reiterates the loss and return of white purity.

The Indian maiden (Mary Pickford) gets bartered away by her father in exchange for a watch, recalling countless tales of Native Americans selling their lands and loved ones for a few trinkets. Ideologically, this traffic in women reverses the historical plot that goes unrepresented: the white man's taking of Indian lands. Instead of picturing that political economy, the film substitutes a melodramatic romance that moves the tale of white-Indian relations into the privatized, eroticized, domestic realm as the scene shifts to the patio and gardens of a city home. As an allegory of white-Indian relations, then, this move into romance distracts us from the spectacle of white conquest of land even as it condemns the white man's attempt to conquer Indian women, although, as usual, this latter narrative will end up a cautionary tale against miscegenation. Stylistically, Griffith makes spectacular use of hilltop settings to render our imperial gaze pleasurable, solidifying our identification with the tourists. The Native American becomes an aesthetic element whose hopeless domination by the cinematic apparatus parallels the Indian's "hopelessness" in the face of the onslaught [End Page 12] of "civilization." Here the cinematographic innovation borrows heavily from past pictorial representations of the West, once more positioning the white viewing subject as the visionary of a manifest destiny.

The "romance" in the film's title, then, suggests both the white vision of the romanticized Indian and the romantic plot involving the Indian maiden and her beloved, who has fruitlessly warned her against the seductions of the white man's book. This scene of romantic instruction gives way to the seduction tale set at the solid-brick home of the civilized whites. Momentarily Anglicized, the Indian princess appears in white women's clothes, apparently "civilized," but her costume (like George Redfeather's) only hides her ignorance of her ineluctable nature and of what civilization really offers her kind.

White viewers can, via Pickford, enjoy the sensation of playing Indian while following a plot whose conclusion is that the process is not reversible: Indians cannot play or be whites (which, of course, is a law of movie casting as well). The film conflates the position of the Indian and of the girl, both innocent savages in the ways of the seductive white man (in contrast to the white woman, who enters the seduction triangle later on and quickly understands the rake's corrupt character). Here the standard plot of the seduced-and-abandoned maiden bolsters the argument against miscegenation. Make no mistake: A Romance of the Western Hills is not Pamela, Jane Eyre, or Emma. Unlike her British forerunners, the virtuous Indian maiden will not reform the rake or attract the proposal of a decent white suitor. In contrast to the outcome in standard sentimental romances, her virtue will not eventually be incorporated within a new domestic sphere as a modifying force to refine masculine civilization. Rather, her virtue is wild, an uncivilized, savage quality that makes her unfit for the white world.

After saving her white suitor (Pocahontas style) from her vengeful Indian lover, the maiden returns to her own tribe with her appropriate mate. Again we have the lost-and-found object in a plot that opens up an entertaining moment for racial and sexual transgression before returning everyone to their rightful places (A Midsummer Night's Dream goes west?). While Griffith uses Indian virtues to criticize the shallowness and callousness of some among the whites, the film concludes--like Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia or Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin or the Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson--that racial differences are ineradicable and thus best handled by a policy of separate spheres, of separation or segregation. The romance of the western hills will thus be, once more, the national romance of a West made white and of Indians who, despite their virtues, are anachronisms suited at best to be the objects of ideological and cinematic tourism, vanishing and reappearing endlessly in the lost-and-found world of cinematic consumption.

The convergence of Romance's plots of cultural and sexual seduction appears to validate the Indian brave's warning to resist the ways of the whites. Yet this very convergence derails the critique of whiteness. White knowledge turns out to be bad only because Native Americans, like women, cannot because of their nature, comprehend or master its ways. Instead of examining the content of the white man's book (reading its scripts for imperialism, patriarchy, capitalist exploitation, [End Page 13] and racism, for example), the film targets the innocence of the Indian and of the woman as the problem and as a state to be preserved and protected (but not empowered). The scenario that sends the Indians back to nature (and, presumably, to oblivion) still belongs to the white man's book, which turns out to be a pretty good script for recovering from cultural (and personal) loss through the proxy melodrama of the Other's vanishing.

The Race for the Nation. The viewer of Griffith's Indian melodramas has to be struck by the relative absence of the overt racial hostility for which The Birth of a Nation became infamous. As the analyses above suggest, however, this difference may be largely superficial, having to do with the stereotypes available to the director for his visual lexicon. If we look at Griffith's films not in terms of their degrading or sympathetic stereotypes but as narratives of white supremacy, then the common agenda of his Indian films and of The Birth of a Nation becomes much clearer. In both cases we have narratives of miscegenation, family romance, national reunification, and racial hierarchy. In analyzing The Massacre, we will see how the plotting of white nationalism provides the general scenario that directs Griffith's representations of Indians as well as blacks. This scenario includes contriving an image of the vanishing Indian, whose removal (physical and psychic) lessened the need for the kind of vicious caricature typical of Indian representations in much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (though by no means did it disappear). Nostalgia for the Noble Savage or sympathy for the plight of immiserated tribes was largely a luxury commodity made possible by the lack of everyday contact between white America and Native Americans, especially in urban areas where cinema audiences were growing.

The situation was very different for white and black Americans. At the turn of the century, only a few extremists still advocated the colonization of blacks "back to Africa." Black Americans lived in social, economic, political, and sexual relationship to white Americans in both rural and urban areas, North and South, East and West. The apartheid-like system of segregation under Jim Crow regulated the presence of black Americans, albeit presence as a caste. Negotiating that presence meant constructing a very different set of cultural images than for American Indians, for whom constructing the absence of a people was the order of the day. To maintain and justify segregation, a massive cultural industry continually produced narratives about "Negro inferiority," rape, jezebels, and mammies--in short, an active misrepresentation designed to keep a people in their (useful) place. The horrific power of these images in popular culture is hard to recapture today, except in such formats as Marlon Riggs's documentary Ethnic Notions (1986).

Griffith's background as a son of the Confederacy determined his thinking not only on black Americans but on Native Americans as well. The romanticism that led to idyllic images of the plantation South could be linked to incipient nostalgia for the vanishing Indian; like the Confederacy, Indian tribes were victims of the U.S. Army, or of low-class carpetbagging whites who bore little resemblance to the aristocratic Camerons of Birth. Thomas Cripps argues that the "salient difference" between filmic representations of Indians and blacks "centered on the presumption of [End Page 14] an ancient Indian culture" that merited ethnographic attention and produced cultural nostalgia; by contrast, African and black culture were never viewed from this perspective. 23 Yet the very nostalgia of Griffith's Indian films could be conflated with a racist nostalgia for a phantasmal white past, and indeed the triumph of sentimental plantation nostalgia over Reconstruction's assault on white supremacy coincided with the birth of the cinema. In Griffith's antimodernist imagination, the native tribes were a simple people of noble spirit deeply tied to their land, a land stolen and/or ruined by the soldiers of the North. Melodrama lent itself to both Confederate and Indian mythographies because it focused attention on the family rather than on the larger sociopolitical or economic contexts of the time.

The Massacre defies easy analysis because of the way Griffith elicits sympathy both for the Confederate and the Indian. Shot in 1912, it was one of Griffith's final Indian films and the first to take up two reels (running about twenty minutes). From a film history perspective, The Massacre demonstrates Griffith's growing skill at telling a larger story. The canvas extends in time over some twenty years, from the Civil War to the beginning of the end of the frontier. Geographically, the space covered spans the distance from the Old South to the "American" West, following the trail of pioneer settlers in search of a new home and of Indians mourning the loss of their ancient one. Griffith's narrative opens with the war that almost cost the United States its status as a united nation and ends with the figurative conclusion of the Indian wars, which along with Reconstruction, gave white America both the means and the myth required to achieve national reconciliation. The subordination of the black and the vanishing of the Indian were the twin stories underwriting the birth of the nation, and Griffith filmed both.

In The Massacre, two southerners ride off to the war after wooing the same lady. The newly wed husband is killed, leaving the rejected suitor, Stephen, to take the news home. Delivery of his message completes the demise of the bedridden wife, whose lively infant daughter is left to Stephen to raise. Years pass, and Stephen prepares once more to propose, this time to the daughter, who has fallen for another man. Cut off again from home and family, the lost Stephen joins the army and heads west as a scout, while the daughter, her husband, and their newborn child join a wagon train. The repetition of Stephen's loss of his beloved intimates the compulsion of this plot line for Griffith, who will have to sacrifice Stephen on the altar of remasculinization before the story can end.

The Massacre continues Griffith's sympathetic portrayal of the Indian's victimization, extending the domestic Indian melodrama into the genres of the Civil War picture and the western. Both the plot and the camera's gaze solicit the sympathy of the white viewer, although the way we are addressed implies regional and gender differences in the white audience. The story of Stephen the Confederate veteran and western scout is thoroughly melodramatic, once more reprising national political struggles in terms of a family romance. As Wexman observes, "Nationalist ideology as portrayed in Westerns is wedded to the ideal of the romantic couple." 24 Stephen, like James Fenimore Cooper's scout, Natty Bumppo, before him, is left out of the couple, however, for he is the stand-in for the viewer's position as a knowing subject who can find a place only through partial identification with a (marriage) [End Page 15] plot that excludes him. The girl and her new husband become the paradigmatic couple of the new American West, not unlike Alice and Captain Heyward in Cooper's TheLast of the Mohicans. It is for them and their baby that the West must be won, for their manifest destiny that the Indian wars must be fought, and in them that the dying scout can be remasculinized and reborn. According to this history, the Indian wars provide white Americans with a chance to unite against a common enemy and so be reborn from the great wound of the Civil War.

That infant plays a key role in the film's symbolic argument and in the story of Griffith's work as a manipulator of the cultural rhetoric of racial melodrama. Although this white baby holds center stage, it will have a red counterpart (compare figs. 1 and 2). As Griffith proceeds to juxtapose white and Indian domestic scenes, he makes one of his most dramatic appeals for sympathy toward Native Americans; however, that sympathy will not protect them from the massacres they suffer off screen. We should not forget that, although the film, like many westerns, climaxes with an Indian attack on white settlers, this focus distracts us from remembering that the real story of the West is the ongoing massacre of the native people. White narratives of the West have as one of their chief ideological features this transference of the trope of the massacre from the body of the Indian to that of the white man. The two massacres shown in The Massacre will follow this transference and sequence precisely, thus making sympathy for the Indian an emotion whites must ultimately sacrifice for the good of the family. [End Page 16]

As the new white family prepares to join the wagon train, the camera dwells full-face for an extraordinarily long time on the baby's rounded white countenance, signaling innocence in its smiling gaiety. This close-up eclipses whatever mission of pioneer colonization the family is about to embark on, and substitutes the image of the child for any other sign of the family's values or intentions. Here, we can watch Griffith developing his contribution to the technique of the close-up, which he works into the mode of melodrama. Theorists of the close-up remark on how it stops the narrative flow of the action by freezing our gaze, soliciting our desire to dwell on a figure even as we also desire to get on with the story. The history of film turns in part on how filmmakers handle this basic tension between narrative diegesis and the tendency of film toward iconography, so that Griffith's use of the child's beaming white face (which must have seemed huge to nickelodeon audiences as it filled their screens) draws us into the tension between the desire for timeless purity and the need for a plot to achieve it. There may even be a kind of lost-and-found dynamic in the play between the objectified close-up and the plot that both removes and restores it.

This iconographic infant has its counterpart in the Indian papoose, for the melodrama of the white pioneer family has its parallel in the melodrama of the Indian family about to be slaughtered. The cross-cutting between these two families produces a natural transfer of sympathy as the white audience's emotions of familial [End Page 17] love and parental concern are first solicited on behalf of the white family and then suddenly are attached to the Indians. Like Harriet Beecher Stowe before him (oddly enough), Griffith uses the emotions made available by domestic melodrama to move the viewer to an unlooked-for and perhaps unwanted sympathy for the Other, a sympathy made possible by focusing on the supposedly timeless truths of the domestic sphere and the universal emotions that structure it. This ideological close-up, however, might be said to freeze the gaze of the spectator within the domestic sphere, preventing the eye from following the larger narrative of white supremacy into the political realm that makes this family's personal drama possible.

As the white family's wagon rolls off, the next intertitle announces a "surprise attack on the Indian village." Here the film reverses the usual sequence of the conventional Indian massacre narrative by depicting white people massacring Native Americans at the beginning of the story. The sympathetic icon for this reversal is the Indian family, shown in its teepee. The anxious mother bounces her child on her back while the doting husband comes in and out, apparently worried about the as-yet-unseen and unsignaled attack. The scene at the teepee and village, however, contrasts sharply with that of the white pioneer's hope-filled outing. The juxtaposition of the two infants reinforces the viewers' knowledge of a story they already know: the Indian baby's manifest destiny is to die, while the white baby's destiny is to be saved--or to become a savior. We can see the film's different attitudes toward these children in the loving iconicity of the lingering shots of the white baby and the fleeting and dark shots of the Indian child. The teepee is a place of fright and concern, as the father and mother exchange worried conversation about the impending attack. If only for a moment, the film honestly depicts what the coming of the pioneers means to the Indian family.

IMAGE LINK=Figure 1.IMAGE LINK=Figure 2.IMAGE LINK=Figure 3.When the first massacre begins, the soldiers shoot down the Indians indiscriminately. Retreating warriors climb a hillside, enabling Griffith to include one of his classic aerial shots, this time of the village under attack by swarming cavalry. The aggrieved husband has all the motivation he needs now for the second massacre. As in other Biograph shorts, the aerial shot identifies the camera's (and the audience's) gaze with that of a subject in the foreground, this time the wailing warrior holding his arms in the air in grief. The spectator's gaze fuses with the warrior's vision, the shot working both at the cognitive level, to display a full view of the scene, and at the emotional or interpretive level, to render the meaning of the scene. At the conclusion of the massacre, Griffith leaves this perspective to descend to the battlefield, where the camera dwells for an unbearably long time on a pan shot of dead Indians on the ground. The bodies include that of the woman and child (as well as a lone bereft dog, another Griffith signature) (see fig. 3). One of the most powerful graphic images in Griffith's Biograph films, the shot owes much to the popular Civil War battlefield photographs produced by Matthew Brady's studio. The extraordinary time dedicated to this shot should be compared with the long time spent on the white baby's face in the departure scene. The innocence and hope in the latter is destroyed in the former, the transference mediated by the shots of the Indian mother and her papoose. What this sentimental direction misleadingly overlooks, however, is the agency of white hope in the death [End Page 18] of the Indian family. As a kind of symbol of manifest destiny, the white baby represents a future that we are asked to care about emotionally yet that is never possible for the Indian baby, who remains distant and obscure in its wrapping. The Native American family may be represented as an object of sympathy, but again it is as part of a scenario of doom and death.

IMAGE LINK=Figure 4.That the pioneer baby represents the white future comes out later in the tale during the Indians' revenge attack on the wagon train. The encircled settlers, cowboys, preachers, and gamblers die one by one until the baby and its mother lie beneath a heap of corpses, which protect them from the Indians' bullets. The white-hatted father brings the cavalry to the rescue, just in time to find the trembling hand of the wife reaching up out of the pile (see fig. 4). Not coincidentally, an intertitle tells us that this day of the second massacre is also the white baby's birthday. In a scene of explicit parturition, the father pulls both mother and child from the bodies of the dead. Mother and child are reborn through the father, and the white family is made whole after its sundering by war. Robert Lang argues that "it is the body of a woman that is the object par excellence of the Griffith melodrama's spectacle," to which we might add that it is usually the lost body that lies at the center of the fantasy. 25

This rebirth from the wound can be read at the level of history, revisioning the Civil War and its aftermath, and psychoanalytically, as Griffith's obsession with saving girls and women from the taint of sexuality (again the wound and the inevitable eroticization of the innocent). Once more, the tale leads to the restoration of [End Page 19] the lost object and the reconstitution of the patriarchal family. A history of rejection has been overcome or purged. Stephen's various losses--the deaths of the first husband and wife, the South's loss in the war, and the Indians' loss of their lands and lives--become a strange concatenation of events that are implicitly identified with one another and made to evoke similar viewer emotions. With the restoration of the white nuclear family after the apocalypse of the second massacre, the film ends on a note of bloody hope. It marks the past losses as inevitable but redeemed. The whites will rise again, but no Indians or blacks will haunt the intimacy of their domestic economy.

At this point, it is worth summarizing Griffith's sympathies, particularly as they involve his interweaving of the story of the Old South and the story of the New (or for us the Old) West. The girl's orphan condition and Stephen's decision to go west are precipitated by the South's loss of the Civil War and the ensuing social upheaval. I would argue that the defeat of the South is the first of the massacres implicitly referred to in the film's title. Further, the tale of white-Indian confrontation in the West conflates two other stories dear to Griffith's [End Page 20] heart: (1) that of the North's massacre of the South and (2) that of the white man's purification of America through the massacre of Reconstruction, when Jim Crow and lynch law became the black parallel to Indian removal.

That the first massacre visibly staged in the film shows the Indians murdered by the cavalry may be a bit shocking (to white viewers), as this reversal of the expected sequence comes so early in the history of cinema. But recall that the stories of Indian massacres, a hugely popular genre in American culture since at least the time of Mary Rowlandson's eighteenth-century captivity narrative, often included accounts of the slaughter of Indians by whites. In 1826, Catharine Maria Sedgwick had similarly reversed the sequence in her novel Hope Leslie. There, an Indian princess, Magawisca, recounts the massacre of her people by the whites before the reader can go on to enjoy an Indian attack on a Puritan family's cabin, with all the usual grisly details of mothers split by hatchets and babies smashed by fiendish warriors.

Griffith inherited a long tradition of Indian massacres ready for adaptation to the screen. What motivated his decision to reverse the expected sequence and so produce sympathy for the Native American? And did this reversal ultimately survive the ideology of the plot's commitment to white supremacy and national reconciliation? In this regard, the film demands that we focus on the conflation of the Old South and the Old West (or is it the New South and the New West?). Griffith's Indians are Confederate Indians, murdered by the same U.S. Army that killed the father of Stephen's adopted daughter, that indirectly caused his beloved's death, and that ransacked the pastoral splendor of the antebellum world. The Indian people and the people of the Old South are thus figuratively confederated, identified as victims of a common enemy. Moreover, the comparison suggests that these confederates shared certain features: both were closely tied to land and family, living preindustrial lives in harmony with ancient traditions, before northern modernity intruded. This romantic and pastoral imagination of the Old South implied by its comparison to the Indian Old West parallels, of course, stock political myths about the South, which compared it to a Sir Walter Scott novel or to King Arthur's Camelot. Such comparisons mobilized the narrative myths of literature and popular culture to do the work of historical and political revisionism. The same can be said for Griffith's imagination of the Confederate Indian.

In this reading, the scenes at the Indian village before the slaughter of the innocents stand in for the absent footage of antebellum plantations. Stowe's central argument--that the immorality of slavery centered on its violation of the mother-child relationship--appears reborn in the soldiers' killing of the Indian mother and child. Thus, the film does not ask the audience literally to hope for the revival of the antebellum world (as will indeed become the scenario in coming decades, culminating in Gone with the Wind [1939]). As an allegory of the birth of a nation, the second massacre in The Massacre solicits our concern for mother and child and for the family's future in a way that brings our emotions back home from their alien dwelling in the Indian teepee. Having utilized those emotions to make his political points about the Confederacy and Indian removal, Griffith now withdraws them for reinvestment in the manifest destiny of white America. [End Page 21]

Conclusion: "White Man's Book No Good." Just as the cavalry rides to the rescue in The Massacre, so the Ku Klux Klan will three years later in The Birth of a Nation. Griffith claims that in considering Thomas Dixon's novel The Clansman, he

skipped quickly through the book until I got to the part about the Klansmen, who, according to no less than Woodrow Wilson, ran to the rescue of the downtrodden South after the Civil War. I could just see these Klansmen in a movie with their white robes flying.... We had had all sorts of runs-of-the-rescue--East, one week; West, the next. It was always a hit.... Now I could see a chance to do this ride-to-the-rescue on a grand scale. Instead of saving one poor little Nell of the Plains, this ride would be to save a nation. 26

Retrospectively, Griffith provides his commentators with the widely accepted view that technical, formal innovation drove his choices in making Birth, not an interest in politics or ideology. Such a position proves untenable on many grounds, beginning with Griffith's problematic assumption that the Klan rode in order to save the nation. The melodramatic confederation of the South with "little Nell" suggests a feminization of the white nation in Griffith's imaginary, a fitting narrative given Birth's repetition of the stereotypical tale of the blonde virgin assaulted by the black beast.

Michael Rogin observes that American literature "established its national identity in the struggle between Indians and whites," while "American film was born from white depictions of blacks." 27 This distinction presents an intriguing thesis, but it tends to underplay the determining force of white supremacy in the cultural work done by early Indian melodramas such as Griffith's. Rogin later writes that "Griffith's new nation is born not from northern victory in the Civil War but from the ride (derived from The Battle of Elderbush Gulch, his own western movie) of the Ku Klux Klan." 28 It was The Massacre, however, not Elderbush Gulch, that first rehearsed this ride, and, unlike the later film, it documents the connection between the Indian-white wars and the Civil War.

In demonstrating how The Massacre prepares the way for The Birth of a Nation, I hope to have shown that the distinction Rogin wants to draw is hard to sustain, given how the struggles between Indians and whites and between whites and blacks follow the same scenario. I do not for a moment wish to minimize the differences but to point to the commonalities in their origin, especially their shared source in the social construction of whiteness by the American culture industry. I also hope to have shown, at least speculatively, that the psychological and political dynamics of redface echo those of blackface to a degree that demands much more attention as we examine the production and reception of silent cinema. In observing that D. W. Griffith's Indian melodramas and The Birth of a Nation follow the same script, however, we should not forget the injunction of resistance: "White man's book no good."

Appendix: D. W. Griffith Short Films with American Indian
Subjects: The Biograph Years 

Dates indicate year of production. For illustrated descriptions of the films, see Eileen Bowser, ed., Biograph Bulletins: 1908-1912 (New York: Octagon, 1973). [End Page 22] Subtitles are supplied from the bulletins. For production information and credits, see Cooper C. Graham, D. W. Griffith and the Biograph Company (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1985).

The Redman and the Child: A Biograph Story of an Indian's Vengeance (1908)

The Red Girl: Another Soul-Stirring Story of Life on the Frontier by the Biograph (1908)

The Call of the Wild: Sad Plight of the Civilized Redman (1908)

The Girl and the Outlaw: Sad Outcome of a Pretty Girl's Love for a Brute (1908)

The Mended Lute: A Stirring Romance of the Dakotas (1909)

The Indian Runner's Romance: A Thrilling Episode in the Black Hills (1909)

Comata, the Sioux: A Story of an Indian's Constancy (1909)

Leather Stocking: Freely Adapted from the Tales of James Fenimore Cooper (1909)

The Redman's View: A Biograph Story of the American Aborigines (1909)

A Romance of the Western Hills: Civilization as It Appealed to the Indian Maiden (1910)

Ramona: A Story of the White Man's Injustice to the Indian (1910)

A Mohawk's Way: Biograph Subject of the James Fenimore Cooper Type (1910)

The Broken Doll: A Tragedy of the Indian Reservation (1910)

The Song of the Wildwood Flute: Incorporating Authentic Indian Customs (1910)

The Heart of a Savage: A Redman's Sacrifice through Gratitude (1911

Was He a Coward? He Proves His Mettle Where It Counted (1911)

The Chief's Daughter: On the Cactus Fields of Southern California (1911)

The Indian Brothers: The Story of an Indian's Honor (1911)

The Last Drop of Water: A Story of the Great American Desert (1911)

The Squaw's Love: An Indian Poem of Love in Pictures (1911)

Iola's Promise: How the Little Indian Maiden Paid Her Debt of Gratitude (1912)

A Temporary Truce: A Story of the Early West (1912)

The Tourists (1912) [attribution to Griffith uncertain]

The Female of the Species: A Psychological Tragedy (1912)

A Pueblo Legend: A Mythological Story of the Indians of the Southwest (1912)

The Chief's Blanket: A Story of an Indian's Sacrifice (1912) [attribution to Griffith uncertain]

Heredity: The Call of the Blood Is Answered (1912)

The Massacre (1912)

The Yaqui Cur (1913)

The Indian's Loyalty (1913)

The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1914)


Gregory S. Jay is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he teaches courses on multiculturralism in the study of literature, history, and visual and popular culture. His most recent book is American Literature and the Culture Wars (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997). 


* I was able to view most of Griffith's Indian films at the Motion Picture Reading Room of the Library of Congress. I am very grateful to the staff for their cooperation and assistance. Funds for travel and for the purchase of videotapes were generously provided by a grant from the University of Wisconsin Institute on Race and Ethnicity. An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the University of Kentucky; thanks to David Lee Miller, Dana Nelson, and their colleagues for excellent feedback. The manuscript also benefited greatly from the suggestions of Patrice Petro and Mitchell Breitwieser and from two excellent readers' reports from Cinema Journal.

1. Information on titles and release dates for the Biograph Indian films is provided in the Appendix to this essay.

2. Daniel Bernardi, "The Voice of Whiteness: D. W. Griffith's Biograph Films (1908-13)," in Bernardi, ed., The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 104. Bernardi notes that Tom Gunning's otherwise excellent book on Griffith's years at Biograph "neglects a discussion of race almost entirely." The book's analysis of The Redman's View, for example, is insistently formalist, despite Gunning's intention to rehistoricize the silent era. See Gunning, D. W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991). Similarly, Scott Simmon's recent The Films of D. W. Griffith (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993) completely ignores the Indian films, although they would fit centrally into his thesis about Griffith's concern with family melodrama. No book on Griffith that I have seen devotes more than passing comments to his Indian movies. Thomas Cripps provides some outstanding pages on Griffith's Indian films in his Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 33-37. There is also a short section on Griffith in Ralph E. Friar and Natasha A. Friar, The Only Good Indian...The Hollywood Gospel (New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1972), 113-22, an informative book that severely criticizes the film industry's practices. Kevin Brownlow briefly answers the Friars with a more positive account of Indian representation in early cinema; see his The War, the West, and the Wilderness (New York: Knopf, 1978), 327-38. See also Richard Abel, "Our Country/Whose Country? The 'Americanisation' Project of Early Westerns," in Edward Buscombe and Roberta E. Pearson , eds., Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western (London: British Film Institute, 1998), 77-95. Abel's historical research demonstrates the role of the Western and Indian films in the making of American whiteness, and offers provocative theses about how Native Americans figured as images for immigrant assimilation.

3. Edward Wagenknecht and Anthony Slide, The Films of D. W. Griffith (New York: Crown, 1975), 13.

4. Richard Schickel, D. W. Griffith: An American Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), 119, 139. As Ella Shohat and Robert Stam write, "The elimination of the Indian allows for elegiac nostalgia as a way to treat Indians only in the past tense and thus dismiss their claims in the present, while posthumously expressing thanatological tenderness for their memory." Stam and Shohat, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multi-culturalism and the Media (New York: Routledge, 1994), 118.

5. Bernardi, "Voice of Whiteness," 120.

6. Roberta E. Pearson, "The Revenge of Rain-in-the-Face? or, Custers and Indians on the Silent Screen," in Bernardi, Birth of Whiteness, 275.

7. Schickel, Griffith, 140.

8. See Eileen Bowser, ed., Biograph Bulletins, 1908-1912, (New York: Octagon, 1973), 59, and Bernardi, "Voice of Whiteness," 122.

9. See Jim Pines, Blacks in Films: A Survey of Social Themes and Images in the American Film (London: Studio Vista, 1975).

10. See Friar and Friar, The Only Good Indian; Gretchen M. Bataille and Charles L. P. Silet, eds., The Pretend Indians: Images of Native Americans in the Movies (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1980); Michael Hilger, From Savage to Nobleman: Images of Native Americans in Film (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1995); and Peter C. Rollins and John E. O'Connor, eds., Hollywood's Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1998).

11. Quoted in George C. Pratt, Spellbound in Darkness: A History of the Silent Film (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1973), 64. The reviewer comments further that "the conduct of the red men will appear to some to be wanting in truth" because they "make no real effort to resist or retaliate." Pratt attributes this and other reviews and columns on Griffith to Frank Woods. As Schickel notes, Woods later helped initiate and draft the project that became The Birth of a Nation, demonstrating that he shared Griffith's capacity to "sympathize" with Indians while demonizing African Americans. See also Woods's favorable review of His Trust and His Trust Fulfilled in Pratt, Spellbound in Darkness, 86-87.

12. Pearson puts the theoretical question this way: "Do ideological constraints demand that popular narratives individualize historical agency in order to resolve/disguise contradictions, or does the narrative structure of popular texts demand that individual agents be substituted for larger structural forces?" Pearson, "Revenge of Rain-in-the-Face?" 290.

13. I do not mean to ignore critical scholarship that claims political force for melodramatic modes, only to characterize the privatizing direction taken by the plots of melodrama in Griffith's work. For a helpful discussion, see Robert Lang, American Film Melodrama: Griffith, Vidor, Minnelli (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989).

14. Quoted in Pratt, Spellbound in Darkness, 66.

15. Virginia Wright Wexman, "The Family on the Land: Race and Nationhood in Silent Westerns," in Bernardi, Birth of Whiteness, 131.

16. For a good revisionist history of how "melting pot" ideology participated in the social construction of whiteness, see Michael Lind, The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution (New York: Free Press, 1996), 55-97.

17. For an excellent study, see Chon A. Noriega, "Birth of the Southwest: Social Protest, Tourism, and D. W. Griffith's Ramona," in Bernardi, Birth of Whiteness, 204-26.

18. Griffith occasionally used Indian actors in leading parts in films with an ethnographic ambience. Young Deer starred in The Mended Lute and Chief Dark Cloud in Song of the Wildwood Flute. In the melodramas, however, Griffith used white actors in redface. Brownlow, The War, the West, and the Wilderness, 330-34.

19. Thus, Griffith's Indian melodramas differ from the ideological script Wexman outlines in her study of silent westerns. "Most of D. W. Griffith's early Westerns," she notes, "are distinguished by their lack of attention to the rights of Anglo landowners, possibly because, as a Southerner, Griffith associated the image of the family homestead with plantation culture rather than with the Western pioneers." Wexman, "Family on the Land," 158.

20. Bowser, Biograph Bulletins, 31.

21. On the psychology of blackface and its use in the early years of film, see Michael Paul Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). My approach to Griffith is also heavily indebted to Rogin's "'The Sword Became a Flashing Vision': D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation," in Rogin, "Ronald Reagan," The Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 190-235, although I find some claims in this essay problematic.

22. Bowser, Biograph Bulletins, 185.

23. Cripps, Slow Fade to Black, 34.

24. Wexman, "Family on the Land," 130.

25. Lang, American Film Melodrama, 62.

26. Schickel, Griffith, 212.

27. Rogin, Blackface, White Noise, 15.

28. Ibid., 76.