Michelle H. Raheja – Redfacing Redux: The Afterlife of Native American Images


Event Date 22 November 2012
The Court Room, Senate House
University of London
Malet St
London WC1E 7HU

 ‘Indigeneity in the Contemporary World’ Project presents:

Recasting Commodity and Spectacle in the Indigenous Americas symposium, 22-23 November 2012

Professor Michelle H. Raheja (UC Riverside) – Redfacing Redux: The Afterlife of Native American Images

For better or worse, Native American images have deeply influenced settler colonial visual culture since at least 1492. From engravings depicting the putative cannibalism and savagery of Indigenous peoples in the sixteenth through seventeenth centuries, to silent cinema and Western films in the twentieth century, to contemporary historical revisionist movies in the first decade of the twenty-first century, Native Americans have been central to European American colonial and nationalist fantasies. Indigenous peoples have also represented settler colonialism since invasion/contact as evidenced by the matachine dances and more recently in contemporary films by Native Americans that critique and re-present the distorted point of view offered up by most mainstream films. In particular, work by filmmakers such as Klee Benally, Marcelina Cárdenas, the Chiapas Media Project, Thirza Cuthand, Chris Eyre, Sterlin Harjo, Igloolik Isuma, Terry Jones, Shelley Niro, Sandra Sunrising Osawa, and many, many others has challenged entrenched stereotypes about Indigenous peoples and offered original, engaging, and insightful self-representations of historical and contemporary communities.

This keynote interrogates what kind of impact, if any, this growing body of important work has had on the general public in the United States and what kind of burden we place on Indigenous filmmakers by expecting them to undo the racist imagery that has been in circulation for the past 500+ years. As I detail briefly in Reservation Reelism (2010), one week after I submitted the revisions of the manuscript to the press editor, I intimately became aware of the persistent, sometimes violent afterlife of mainstream images of Native Americans, despite the resurgence in Indigenous filmmaking during the past twenty years. In November 2008, my daughter’s public elementary school reenacted a Thanksgiving spectacle with children dressing in phantasmic redface costumes and representing Pilgrims as friendly, harmless neighbours. When I queried her school about why this practice would persist in comparison with the much less offensive methods employed to teach histories of other marginalized peoples, the ensuing uproar instigated local and national news coverage; threats of violence against my family; and various forms of electronic harassment that persisted for over a year. Although I employ a very local and personal anecdote to frame my discussion of the afterlife of images of Native Americans, I use it to open up a conversation about the mode of production of Indigenous film, its distribution, and the mass public’s recalcitrant refusal to reconsider Indigenous history through a different lens.

Michelle H. Raheja is Associate Professor in the Department of English and Director of the California Center for Native Nations at the University of California, Riverside. Her work has been published in American Quarterly; American Indian Culture and Research Journal; Talking Back, Moving Forward: Native American/Indigenous Perspectives on Film; and Visualities: Perspectives on Contemporary American Indian Film and Art. Her book, Reservation Reelism: Redfacing, Visual Sovereignty, and Representations of Native Americans in Film was recently published by the University of Nebraska Press. Raheja is of Seneca descent and her research and teaching focus is on early American literature and Native American cultural studies and theory. Last spring she was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to research Sami visual culture in northern Norway and is currently working on two projects: a study of a turn of the twentieth century queer Native American circus performer and a monograph on images of Native Americans and cannibalism in contemporary post-apocalyptic American cinema.

Introduction by Professor Helen Gilbert (Royal Holloway), Director of the Indigeneity in the Contemporary World Project:












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