In the mainstream, Native Americans are often subjected to certain tropes or stereotypes. We are all seen as part of one monolithic culture, usually an amalgamation of superficial elements of cultures across the continent; think Hiawatha with a kachina in a tepee beside a totem pole. Movies featuring us are often set in the past, or we are presented as a way for a white character to connect to the past. We are often the savage enemy or the noble savage helper for the white saviour (or some subversion of the white saviour, who is still the main character). We are sex objects, especially our women: we exist for the pleasure of the white man.
All of this, unsurprisingly, has a negative effect on Native Americans. Representation matters, and Native Americans have had few positive examples of representation in mainstream media. The “representation” we do have tells white people that it is alright to treat us the way they do. It tells them our culture(s) are a costume, not something to be respected and understood. It teaches that we were savage and that we don’t exist in the modern world. It normalises the sexualisation of Indigenous women.
With this in mind, I went to see the New Mutants movie. When the project was first announced, I was hopeful: one of my favourite comics series was being adapted to film, and Dani Moonstar (Northern Cheyenne) would be the main character. Native representation in the mainstream is rare — rarer still is good representation. Yet, I had reason for hope. Comic writer Chris Claremont’s representations of Dani and her culture were, for the most part, good. The movie was set around the present, so there was little cause for concern that she would end up a cultural artefact. Dani was not overly (or overtly) sexualised in the trailer. There was no white saviour. There were, of course, problems from the get-go; the whitewashing of Roberto Da Costa and Dr. Cecilia Reyes is probably the most prominent example. But I had allowed myself to be hopeful. I wanted my hope. I clung to it.
Then the movie came out. It wasn’t bad (certainly not as bad as some reviews made it out to be). It was, in fact, a good adaptation of the comics, and I enjoyed it, but the ways it represented race were occasionally problematic. It starts with Dani relaying a “Native American proverb” – a story about “two bears, forever in combat for your soul.” There are a couple of problems with this. First, generically calling the story a “Native American proverb” reduces Native culture and identity into one homogenous group. Second, the story that she is telling is a version of a story about two wolves that is often attributed to the Cherokee or Lenape people, but which is first attested in 1965 in the book The Power of Positive Praying, by John Bisagno. The story is not a proverb; it is presented as a conversation between a missionary and a Mojave man about what it is like to be both Native and Christian.
Besides that, there are two things in the movie that really bother me: the fact that everyone on the reservation Dani is from (presumably the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, which had a population of 4,939 in 2013) has been killed, and how racist the character Magik is.
The massacre on Dani’s reservation is disturbing both for what it is and how it’s presented. Throughout the movie, we learn that Dani was the cause of this massacre. There is something about that that just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The argument could be made that Reyes was just lying, but that doesn’t change the problematic way these deaths were shown. To me, the imagery of the frozen corpses when Dani is stuck in her mind is reminiscent of the Wounded Knee Massacre. Maybe it wasn’t intentional, but it hurts me that the pain Dani has inflicted on her tribe mirrors the pain inflicted on Native peoples by the Seventh Cavalry.
And then there is Magik. Her childhood was spent away from humanity, and yet somehow she can both identify Dani as Native American, and she knows racist slurs. I understand why Illyana would be antagonistic towards Dani as it makes sense narratively, but why does that antagonism have to be in the form of racism? Not only does that make Native viewers uncomfortable, it doesn’t even make sense.
But it is not all bad. Dani is not a stereotype; she is able to be a normal character who just happens to be Indigenous, and yet her indigeneity shapes who she is. She is played by a Native actor, although there was some backlash about Blu Hunt “not being Native enough” (which is its own conversation). She is the main character, and she is her own character. She has agency, something which many Native characters lack.
Now, some people have noted that the movie can make for good quarantine viewing, since all the characters are stuck in one place. But as a Native American, I saw the movie differently. I saw it as a story about escaping Indian Residential Schools.
For those of you who don’t know, Indian Residential Schools were schools that operated from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries to forcibly assimilate and “civilize” Indigenous children. There were many aspects of Milbury Hospital that reminded me of the schools:
- Dani Moonstar and the other New Mutants were brought there and told that they are dangerous, that they must be taught to control themselves. They have been told that once they complete a program, they will be able to leave and move on with their lives. They would not have a place in the world if they continued. Many students who attended residential schools left feeling that they had no place in the world. It was hard for them to go back to home when they had assimilated into white culture, but white society didn’t accept them either.
- Many residential schools were religious institutions. In the movie, there is a church right next to Milbury Hospital, and though the students aren’t forced to convert or attend, Rahne has been indoctrinated by the church to believe that who she is should be a matter of shame, that her identity is wrong. Students at residential schools were often similarly indoctrinated.
- The gravestones in the movie were reminiscent of the unmarked graves that so many now forgotten Indigenous youth were buried in.
- Dani’s attempted suicide is a reminder of all the children who committed suicide at the residential schools, and of the continuing link between generational trauma, suicide, and the cruelty of residential schools.
- They were trapped at Milbury, as many Native youth were at the residential schools they attended. Children were fenced in, and running away often resulted in harsh punishments. The New Mutants were told that the nearest town was twenty miles away; many Native American children were taken far from their homes, so that if they were to try to run away, they wouldn’t be able to find their way back.
- Reyes is indoctrinated, echoing how a number of Native Americans became teachers in residential schools, teaching what they had learned — that Natives are savages, etc. Reyes is trying to pass this on in a similar way.
Ultimately, the movie ends with victory. The New Mutants will not forget the experience — remember Dani using the breathing exercises Dr. Reyes taught her? — but they can move forward and heal, and make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else. Reyes doesn’t get a chance, but these new mutants, this younger generation, does. This is powerful, because we as Native Americans are still trying to heal from the intergenerational trauma of colonialism and genocide and boarding schools. This movie offers Native viewers the chance to see characters overcome colonialism and have the chance to move on.
If you were looking for good representation of a Native American in a mainstream film, this probably isn’t the movie you were waiting for. But if you just happen to be looking for a good superhero or teen film, you will also be able to see one of the better examples of Native representation in mainstream media. And Indigenous viewers get to see colonialism and its proxies literally smashed by a bear.