Reservation Reelism: Redfacing, Visual Sovereignty, and Representations of Native Americans in Film

May 15th, 2012 | By | Category: 23-4: Investing in Education, Empowering Tribal Communities, Media Reviews

University of Nebraska Press (2010)

Review by Michael W. Simpson

An exceptional addition to the growing scholarship on American Indian representation in film, this book complicates the dichotomy of powerful Hollywood and Native victims.

Reservation Reelism is about film, imagination, self-representation, identity, and perception. Its author, Michelle Raheja, describes ways early Native actors interacted with the powerful forces that produced the image of the Hollywood Indian. She also shows that early Native actors worked on and off screen to create cinematic, cultural, political, and geographical spaces to disrupt dominant discourses.

Raheja analyzes concepts such as redfacing, the virtual reservation, and visual sovereignty. She explores various questions, including: Why did so many Native actors participate in movies with negative representations? Did Native actors have any impact on the roles available to them? By expanding film studies to include the cultural work of American Indians, how can American Indian film history be re-conceptualized?

Chapters within the book focus on issues such as how silent-era films complicated the sexualized maiden and invisible drudge stereotypes of Native women, how the Italian- American actor Iron Eyes Cody underscored the vanishing Indian stereotype while also opening up public discussions on contemporary issues, how contemporary Native filmmakers use the ghost figure to suggest alternative views of spirituality and prophecy, and how YouTube and other Internet sites open up the work of contemporary media artists by circumventing conventional circuits.

The book engages and draws upon critical theories and offers fresh insights. Tribal colleges should add this work to their collections.

Michael W. Simpson, J.D., M.Ed, is a teacher, lawyer, and social justice advocate and a Ph.D. candidate in American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona. He may be reached at

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