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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Phil Lucas: Reevaluating Hollywood's Images of Indians

By the time of his death in 2007, leading American Indian filmmaker Phil Lucas (Choctaw) had over 100 films to his credit in the roles of writer, director, producer, editor, actor, and cultural content advisor.  As if such a prolific film career weren’t enough, Lucas was also a dedicated teacher, having taught at the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation in Seattle, WA; the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM, where he also served as the head of the Department of Communication Arts; the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada; and Bellevue Community College in Bellevue, WA, where he taught until his death.

While processing the Phil Lucas Videotape Collection this summer, I was inspired to think about Lucas' dedication to education, not just in the classroom, but through his many documentary films.  His obituary in the Seattle Times noted that, as a young man, Lucas saw signs in rural areas that stated “No dogs or Indians allowed,” an experience that inspired him to strive in his work to help achieve racial equality.  Lucas’s films look both outward to educating the population at large about American Indian culture and life, and inward to educating the American Indian community about struggles and issues within, in order to help achieve this goal of racial equality.  Of all of his film projects that I was able to work with this summer, the one that highlighted Lucas’s dedication to education the most for me was Images of Indians (1979-1980), a five-part series that Lucas wrote, co-produced and co-directed.  The series was very well received, winning the Special Achievement Award in Documentary Film in 1980 from the American Indian Film Institute and the Prix Italia Award in 1981.

Narrated and hosted by American Indian actor Will Sampson, Images of Indians explores the problematic ways in which American Indians have been depicted in popular culture, from the dime novels of the 19th century through the Hollywood Westerns of the 1970’s.  While it is no secret that “classic” Hollywood westerns portray American Indians in a negative light, Lucas’s examination of these racist images not only points out fallacies and inconsistencies, but confronts head-on their origins and far-reaching ramifications for the American Indian community.  A moment that stood out for me while watching the documentary was an interview in which an Oklahoma radio disk jockey recalls interviewing a young American Indian boy; when asked who he cheers for in Westerns, the cowboys or the Indians, the boy answers, “The cowboys, because Indians are mean, and I’m a cowboy”.  In that moment, I realized that Images of Indians was not only aimed at educating a non-Native audience about the inaccurate portrayals of Native Americans that have influenced how they are perceived world-wide.  It’s purpose was also to educate those within the American Indian community, in order to examine how Hollywood portrayals, barely recognizable as their own culture, have shaped their self-images, as well as how others perceive them.  For equality to be gained, the problem has to be understood fully - not just how it exists on the screen, but how it manifests itself in the lives of its viewers, Native and non-Native alike.

Processing the Phil Lucas Videotape Collection has been a great learning experience for me, as an intern.  Not only have I learned more about the care and maintenance of audio-visual archival materials, but I learned a lot of about Phil himself from processing his collection.  His films illustrate how dedicated he was to the education of all people, inside and outside his community; the donation of his materials to the NMAI Archives Center assures that he will continue teaching far into the future.

Camille Tyndall
Media Archives Intern, National Museum of the American Indian Archives Center


  1. What a wonderful experience! I truly envy you!

  2. thank you for helping to preserve these treasures for future generations!