Through a Native Lens is a column from film critic and citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma Shea Vassar, who will dive into the nuance of cinema’s best and worst cases of Indigenous representation. This entry looks at the insulting anti-Native dialogue in the Marvel Comics adaptation The New Mutants.
This has been a weird year, full of headlines and events that only make sense in the era of an unexpected global pandemic. Other projects were pushed to much later dates due to the coronavirus, but The New Mutants already jumped through too many hoops to allow for any more setbacks. Its release this past August introduced an anticlimactic piece of entertainment to the world, topped with lackluster character development and plenty of anti-Native dialogue.
Danielle, a.k.a. Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt), is a Cheyenne teenager who finds herself at a mysterious institution after a natural disaster destroys her entire reservation. There are four other mutants under the care of Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga), including two other girls, Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams) and Ilyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Each of these teenagers has unexplainable powers that are a result of natural mutations, but Dani has yet to figure out what her supernatural gift is.
Shortly after hitting the screens at limited movie theater locations and drive-ins, the internet was buzzing about the insults hurled at Dani by Ilyana. To be honest, these put-downs are laughable and horribly written. For example, here is a moment of an actual conversation from the film:
Ilyana: You don’t know how to grow weed, do you?
Ilyana: What kind of Indian are you?
Ilyana: I wasn’t actually asking.
Ilyana is angsty, which is evident in her teenage rebel attitude and ripped black tights. Still, the entire film is full of underdeveloped exchanges, especially between these two girls. There are appropriate ways to explore adolescent bullying that doesn’t result in unintentional awkwardness for the viewer. However, the line we most need to unpack is the following:
Ilyana: Hey, Standing Rock, want a buffalo wing? Your people love buffalo, don’t you?
Again, the lazy writing is so bad it reaches out and physically slaps the audience across the face. Still, the worst aspect is in the complete undermining of one of the biggest Native movements in the United States in the last few decades.
Ironically, in 2014, the same year in which director and co-writer Josh Boone pitched his idea for a horror exploration into the New Mutants comics, Energy Transfer Partners announced its plans for what would become known as the Dakota Access Pipeline. The route would cross onto the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation as well as under Lake Oahe, a prominent water source for not only the Standing Rock people but also other Native communities in the area.
It is important to note that even if the plans did not cross into the Standing Rock land, the uprising against something as monstrous as a 1,200 mile pipeline would have still been met with resistance. The fact that it crossed treaty boundaries and disturbed sacred land as well as water sources only magnified the anger. The question surrounding any oil pipeline is not if it will leak, but when.
Although resistance and legal action against the Dakota Access Pipeline have existed since the idea was conceived, 2016 is the year that is usually recognized when talking about the Standing Rock protests. Camps were set up and allies trekked out to South Dakota to show solidarity as tribal nations filed lawsuits against the pipeline.
Even in these early days, those who were taken by authorities were subject to brutality and strip searches before being allowed out of custody. The aggression towards the land protectors and their allies only escalated. Rubber bullets, attack dogs, pepper spray, freezing water: these were all forms of retaliation that were purposely used to deter those who were standing up to protect the land.
The next year brought new troubles for those against the Dakota Access pipeline. Four days after his inauguration, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that advanced the pipeline’s construction. Later in 2017, oil began to run through the pipeline and resulted in at least five separate leaks in just twelve months. Many of those who were advocates for the pipeline dismissed the leaks as minor, not taking into account the long term effects that any and all fracked gas has on both the environment and the people living in the areas.
So, with all this in mind, why does Ilyana choose to weaponize “Standing Rock”? Because this incredibly huge moment in recent history is one of the only cultural touchstones that many people have regarding Native people. In fact, all of the racist comments hurled at Dani are based in stereotype because that is all the writers know: Pocahontas, marijuana, buffalo, and Standing Rock.
Dani Moonstar is a comic book character created by two white men, Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod, then brought to the big screen in this newest movie by another white man. Casting Blu Hunt, a Lakota actor, as Dani was a great step in the correct direction, but the shallow development of her character overpowers the entire film. Plus, it is evidence that Native representation was not the goal for the main character’s arc.
The biggest detriment to the Native character is the lack of confidence that Dani has to fight against these bigoted comments that Ilyana is using against her. In fact, they are never addressed, instead just disappearing somewhere in the second act with the two girls becoming friends by the end.
So much has happened in the six, almost seven years since the New Mutants project started ping-ponging around, especially in the conversation of who has the power to tell what narratives. We are past the point when underbaked dialogue and uninspired writing cuts it for on-screen representation. Dani Moonstar deserves better.