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How Hollywood failed America’s indigenous people

Kim Bartley’s insightful documentary Pure Grit contrasts starkly with the way Native Americans have traditionally been depicted

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Caricature: Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger

Caricature: Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger

Sharmaine Weed and Savannah Martinez in Pure Grit

Sharmaine Weed and Savannah Martinez in Pure Grit

Masterpiece: Henry Brandon in The Searchers

Masterpiece: Henry Brandon in The Searchers

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Caricature: Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger

In the 1990s, I travelled through the Lakota reservations of South Dakota with a photographer, visiting historic sites such as Wounded Knee Creek and Rosebud, talking to tribal leaders and getting the lie of the land. What struck us first was the suspicion in which Native Americans were held by white Americans living around them. In Pierre, the state capital, a motel owner shook his head and advised us against visiting the reservations in the first place. “You don’t want to go out there,” he muttered darkly, before admitting he had never done so himself.

On the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations, once the locals had satisfied themselves we were not FBI agents, they told us about their closely knit community, high unemployment, poor opportunities and the mixed blessing of the casinos, which had brought in jobs but also attendant vices. The country around was rough and rocky, the unfarmable ‘Badlands’ on to which the great Lakota nation had been pushed by rapacious settlers, prospectors and cattle barons. And that situation had been replicated in states across America, as the country’s original inhabitants were shoved aside and conveniently forgotten about.


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