Indian Paint

Director: Norman Foster  
Johnny Crawford, Jay Silverheels, Pat Hogan

I believe I have said this before, but I will say it again: I feel fortunate enough to be born and raised where I am. When I tune into the news whenever I turn on the TV or surf the Internet, I read a lot of reports coming from many different countries. And often when I digest these reports, I realize that while I am not totally satisfied by my lifestyle, things could clearly be a lot worse. If I lived in a country like Argentina, I would have to face an extremely high percentage of my fellow citizens being out of work, which may include me. If I lived in a country like India, I would have to face so many of my fellow citizens living in poverty, one of them maybe being me. Yes, even though my country may make countless rotten movies, overall I am glad to live where I am. But I also feel fortunate that I live in my country at this particular time. Sometimes I wonder what life would be like if I lived in my country (or the neighboring United States) around 150 years ago, during the reign of the cowboy. While I do love watching westerns, I know that from what I've seen from them illustrate a world that, if I was suddenly placed it, would have me greatly struggling to survive. Racism and intolerance was rampant. It was an age of injustice, with lynch mobs and other people taking the law into their own hands. Streets were unpaved and muddy, and people didn't seem as interested in bathing as much as people nowadays do. Riding a horse from one location to another took so much longer than hopping into a vehicle and being able to speed much quicker to your destination. And it was a time when long woolly (and itchy!) underwear was the thing for men to wear, even during the intense heat of the summer.

Those and other things about the west that was eventually won would have been bad enough. But sometimes I wonder what would life have been like if I were born in North America during a period that was several hundred years earlier - long before European explorers crossed the Atlantic and started to settle in the new world. In other words, I would have been born a Native American. Thinking about it for a considerable length, I have concluded that it would have been an often tough lifestyle for me. Before I go further, please don't think that I am putting down Native Americans or their traditional lifestyle. I am speaking from a viewpoint of someone who has lived a more modern lifestyle all of his life. Native Americans all those years ago didn't have another kind of life to compare to their lives. They just knew their own lives, and were accustomed and adjusted to it. Anyway, with all the advantages I have had in my life, I can't help but figure I would have a tough time if I was transported back in time several hundred years ago. I need glasses - how did Native Americans deal with fellow tribesmen who were short-sighted? What would happen if my appendix started to burst, or if I got cancer? Native Americans didn't have the medical knowledge to deal with such emergencies, at least to my knowledge. Transportation would also be a a problem, because I would have to get around only on my two feet. And there is the fact that unlike the peaceful portrayal of Native Americans that many movies and books claim was the norm, there was actually quite a bit of warfare happening between different Native American tribes long before the white man came along.

There's no doubt about it - if I were suddenly transported back to the world of the traditional Native American, I probably wouldn't survive for long. So I can't help but admire Native Americans for having survived and kept their rich cultures alive for thousands of years. I should also Indian Paintadd that I have had somewhat of an interest in traditional Native American life for quite a few years now. I am interested in not only how they lived, but how they tackled the various challenges that came up in their lives hundreds of years ago. However, I have often found it hard to find concrete answers - especially when it comes to motion pictures. Though there may be a few others, the only movie until recently that I could immediately name that portrays Native Americans before the white man came is the interesting 1981 movie Windwalker. But recently I found Indian Paint, which also portrays Native Americans in the same way, though this effort is more of a family film. The movie takes place in the American Great Plains, hundreds of years before the white man first appeared. In the Arikara Native American tribe we are introduced to the movie's central figure, a teenaged native boy by the name of Nishko (Crawford, The Rifleman), who is the son of the tribe's chief (played by Jay Silverheels of The Lone Ranger). Life seems good for Nishko when we meet him - he has just got his first horse, a foal that he names Mecapo, and during his warrior training that's to prepare for potential future attacks by a rival tribe, he wins the tribe's prized Thunder Bow. But soon life takes a bad turn for not just Nishko, but also for the others in his tribe. The Arikara settlement is raided when Nishko and his fellow warriors are away from the village. Nishko's mother is bitten by a rattlesnake and is dying from its poison. Later on, Mecapo flees the village when his mother is killed by a mountain lion, and risks being captured along with a number of other wild horses by Comanches. Can Nishko overcome these and other problems in order to not only set everything straight, but to become a man in front of the eyes of his fellow tribesmen?

As you can see, Indian Paint differs in a number of ways from your typical western, not just that its focus is on Native Americans, but having its central figure played by a youth. The first question that will probably pop up in the minds of potential viewers is just how accurate it is in portraying Native Americans and their traditional culture. Well, I have to admit that I am not an expert in this field, though I have learned a bit about Native American culture over the years. The makers of this movie definitely did get some details correct. For one thing, they don't make the common mistake of showing the various Great Plains tribes in this movie as having totem poles - totem poles were just with the tribes of the Pacific Northwest. Nor do they make the error of portraying Native American tribes as being a peaceful bunch until the white man appeared - as I pointed out earlier, there was a lot of warfare between tribes going on at this time. Some critics have pointed out that horses were not native to the Americas, and that the white man brought them over from Europe. True, though it's possible that the events of the movie were taking place when European explorers were still only in Central America, and escaped horses could have made their way to the Great Plains. Some viewers might think the movie gets wrong the practice of scalping by these Native Americans. It's often thought that the practice of scalp taking was introduced to Native Americans by European settlers who came much later than the events of this movie. However, my research uncovered that there's evidence that some Native Americans engaged in the practice before the white man came. One definite error, however, is one shot of the movie that clearly shows modern day fence posts in the background. How nobody behind the camera saw this modern day detail in front of their eyes is unbelievable.

Despite a few other errors like the one I just told you, for the most part the details of Native American life in Indian Paint do feel authentic. Maybe Native American experts could find a few more nitpicks than I did, but for the most part I think the average moviegoer will be comfortable with the movie's recreation of Native American life. It also helps that veteran director Norman Foster, shooting in the actual Texas wilderness, more often than not gets the viewer to really feel what a culture in the middle of nowhere with primitive technology must feel like. However, at the same time he seems unable to overcome some serious problems with the screenplay that he wrote. The main problems that he has are that the various characters are lacking in depth. For example, we in the audience are told that the neighboring Snake tribe has long been bothering the Arikara tribe in an awkward bit of exposition that doesn't sound like anything someone would say about an enemy that everyone in the Arikara tribe would know was a great enemy. The Snake tribe, once they come in the movie, never talk or show anything that might make even just one of them a character. It isn't much better with the various people in the Arikara tribe. Though you might think that that the chief of the tribe would be a great character if they got Jay Silverheels to play him, you would be mistaken. He doesn't get that much dialogue at all, either with or without his character's son in a scene, and he ends up being a very bland character. Even worse is the depiction of his wife, who is also Nishko's mother. Although the movie devotes a considerable amount of time to this character's poisoning by snake bite and her son's attempts to please the Great Spirit so she may recover, believe it or not we not only don't get to see her get bitten, we don't even see her once as her son makes an effort to please the Great Spirit. When she does recover, we are told this instead of getting to see it, and we never do get to see her up and about for the remaining running time of the movie.

But the most badly written character of all in Indian Paint has to be that of the main character, Nishko. I know that his character is a youth, and youths don't always think in a mature fashion, but his character commits a number of actions that I think even kids in the audience will disapprove of. Shortly after his village has been raided by the Snake tribe, with three of the female villagers carted off by the Snake warriors, Nishko seems more concerned with the welfare of his horse instead of the three women. Later, on more than one occasion, Nishko worries his family and his tribe by being alone for an extended period in the wilderness in order to tend to his horse. Nishko seems so obsessed with his horse that it's frequently hard to find any feeling for his fellow man in his character. That's off-putting by itself, but what makes it worse is that Crawford speaks almost all of his dialogue in the same neutral tone; there's seldom any feeling of great emotion in his voice. The blame for this seems to fall on director Foster and not Crawford, because this particular problem is also found with the other actors. Not one bit of dialogue in the movie feels charged with emotion. There are additional problems with Foster's direction. The movie for the most part feels earnest but very dull, the cinematic equivalent of cod liver oil. Even children, which this movie seems aimed at along with their parents, will be restless and bored despite their often more forgiving attitude towards movies compared to their parents. And while the movie seems aimed at a family audience, there is material that parents may object to their children seeing, ranging from a significant number of people getting killed in violent battle to the gory sight of a dead horse that has been killed and chewed up by a cougar. Indian Paint had real potential to be an interesting and entertaining look at Native American culture before the white man came, but little of this potential ultimately made it to the finished product. If your kids show an interest in Native American culture and want to see a movie about it, they would be far better off watching Windwalker.

(Posted August 18, 2015)

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Check Amazon for source novel by Glenn Balch

See also: Against A Crooked Sky, Cheyenne Warrior, Navajo Joe