Through a Native Lens is a new column from film critic and citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma Shea Vassar, who will dive into the nuance of Hollywood’s best and worst cases of Indigenous representation. This entry looks at the representation of a Native woman in John Ford’s The Searchers.
Native women are historically a joke in the eyes of Hollywood. Revisit almost any Western film with this in mind and you’ll see that it is not a new issue. The continued misrepresentation of Native cultures has perpetuated the current Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two-Spirit, and Trans crisis by selling harmful, underdeveloped, and inaccurate sketches of Indigenous characters in both classic and mainstream films.
There is no questioning The Searchers as a work of aesthetic and cinematic beauty. The classic Western features the iconic Monument Valley on the Navajo Nation, captured in Technicolor, with unique hues of rich blue skies and a rust-colored desert. Scholars and casual movie lovers alike have written about John Ford’s visual masterpiece through the years, adding additional layers to the movie. Despite frequent analysis published since the film’s release in 1956, the scenes involving Native actor Beulah Archuletta, in particular, have hardly been discussed in depth.
In the film, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), the second titular “searcher” who accompanies Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) through the West on his pursuit, sets up at a market. While attempting to make some deals and trades with the local Native crowd, Martin acquires a new blanket. His excitement regarding his new acquisition soon fades after realizing that the purchase of this blanket also secured him a wife. Ethan laughs at Martin’s noticeable frustration because of the situation. The Native bride, portrayed by Archuletta, follows behind on a horse, smiling. Ethan yells to the woman, “C’mon, Mrs. Pawley!”
When the trio set up camp for the night, the Native woman attempts to tell the men her real name, but they just call her “Look” because all of Martin’s sentences to her start with, “Look…” Before that, they’d simply and jokingly refer to her as Mrs. Pawley or the derogatory “squ*w.” Her only purpose in the film is to be laughed at, to break the uncomfortable tension that The Searchers is known for delivering to its audience.
This horrible treatment of “Look” at the hands of two cowboy-like figures for humor is a reflection of reality. As if the poor woman hasn’t been treated badly enough, she gets kicked down the hill after attempting to lay next to Martin. Ethan belly-laughs as the dust rises from her fall. The music is so upbeat, you forget this is not an early Chaplin film. The humor is no longer just jokes about Martin’s mistake, but now it includes the normalization of physical abuse upon a Native woman.
The fate of “Look” in the film is an example of how disposable Native women are in Hollywood storylines. The later discovery of her dead body at the hands of American soldiers should not come as a surprise to viewers since the film has no room for a female Native character to exist. And while this is true to the world of The Searchers, it bleeds into mainstream society.
The Missing and Murdered crisis is a real-world fear for femme-presenting Natives in both urban and reservation communities to this day. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the racial group of American Indian/Alaska Native makes up 1.7 percent of this country’s population. Yet Native women are murdered at rates ten times the national average. Sure, “Look” is a fictional character. Why compare the real-life statistics of today to a minor part in a film from 1956? This is the everyday experience that is regularly ignored by the media, excused by stereotypes placed on our communities, and normalized by fictional violence against Native women.
In 2013, Martin Scorsese wrote about his frequent re-watches of The Searchers, and he addressed the scenes involving Archuletta: “This passage seemed unnecessarily cruel to me,” he said, adding that with his most recent viewing, “It troubled me on an even deeper level.” But he also went on to state that films like this are important to make because of their “unfathomable and uncomfortable messages.”
The “Look” subplot is only there to be the sole instance of comic relief in this dramatic genre film. Her marriage, abuse, and eventual death are all just a reminder that Native women have been less-than in white society since the beginning of settler colonialism in North America. She is laughed at and disposed of, eventually forgotten in the midst of the hero’s journey that is the film’s focus.
While the film industry has allowed storylines like that of Look” since the beginning of the medium, we should no longer accept that narrative. Native filmmakers should be involved in every aspect of the production process as this will help eliminate the continued colonization of Native bodies for white audiences. Thankfully, we have seen instances of strong Native female protagonists in stories like Jeff Barnaby’s Rhymes for Young Ghouls and Niki Caro’s Whale Rider. Now, we as viewers can use what Ford got away with, in his time, to learn from the past and advocate for accurate and complex portrayal in upcoming Native storylines.