“All my life I’ve been mostly alone. I wanted it that way. But then when I saw you in the wikiup, and you touched me, and you prayed for me, I felt bad being alone.”
–Tom Jeffords (Jimmy Stewart) to Sonseeahray in Broken Arrow

No decade has been more celebrated for its Westerns than the 1950s, and perhaps no Western subgenre among the many that flourished during that remarkable decade has been less recognized or well defined than the “squaw man” film.  With its roots in the earliest feature-length Western filmed in Hollywood, the 1950s “squaw man” film nonetheless comprises a significant and surprising group of Westerns.  Its heroes are typically mountain men, trappers, traders, and scouts—historically, men whose relations with Native Americans, whether commercial, social, familial, military, or all of these, often depended on their Indian wives.  In Patricia Limerick’s words, “Indian women . . . by marrying [white] traders, bridged the meeting of cultures in the fur trade,” a fact that immediately rectifies “the image of the utterly self-reliant, single male fur trappers and traders.” (1) And, as historian Sherry Smith documents, the worlds of white men and Indian women were, in fact, more closely connected in some ways than those of white and Indian men—certainly more than much mythology of the West, with its emphasis on lone gunfighters and cavalrymen to the rescue, would lead us to believe. (2) As dramatic characters, Indian women, like their historical counterparts, bridge opposing cultures, and they thereby broaden narrative contexts, making it possible for “squaw man” Westerns to encompass alternative perspectives on Native American experience and history.   Indeed, during the 1950s, where the “squaw man” Western exists, it shifts the Western’s centre, away from the tension between the call of the wilderness and the pull of domesticity or civilization, associated with women from the East, and toward a questioning of the dualities that traditionally shape the Western as a whole, be they racial, cultural, religious, geographic, or gender-based. (3) This essay traces representative films and themes of the “squaw man” film’s sound era history in order to define and illuminate this resonant but under-acknowledged Western subgroup.

To be sure, within movies and without, the term “squaw man” is a contentious one.  According to merriam-webster.com, the term “squaw man” first appears in writing in 1866, and the meaning is as follows: “Often disparaging, a white man married to an American Indian woman and usually living as one of her tribe.”   Key issues shape this term, issues that also inform most Westerns with significant “squaw man” characters:  The first concerns the inversion of white social hierarchies.   The “squaw man” takes his name from a woman, and from a Native American woman at that.  If the “squaw man” in a Western feels an allegiance to his wife’s people, this allegiance may motivate other whites to challenge his loyalty to the United States, or to white culture, and, at times, his manhood as well—the assumption being that a casual liaison would be preferable to marriage, as a temporary arrangement conforms with notions of white male independence, superiority, and control.  From a political point of view, the “squaw man’s” knowledge of the cultures in conflict (and often their languages) not only positions him to mediate disputes between them but may also form the grounds of a critique of the assumed racial, religious, and cultural superiority driving the conquest of the West.  If “squaw man” Westerns rarely challenge Manifest Destiny altogether, they often rely on the “squaw man’s” perspective both to expose some of its methods as unconscionable and to differentiate white technological superiority from any sort of moral superiority.  Perhaps most importantly from the perspective of film genre, they also counter the dominant image of the Western celluloid hero as a self-reliant, self-sufficient loner with images of cross-racial connection and interdependence, images that nudge legend a bit closer to history.

Further complicating the term “squaw man” are the offensive meanings the word “squaw” has for some Native Americans and the legacy of negative stereotypes attached to the “squaw” from 19th-century American popular culture.  Although usage outside the films discussed here inevitably affects how they are experienced, my focus is on usage within the films I analyse, where the meaning is fairly consistently “a young American Indian woman.”  “Squaw” may refer to the beautiful daughter of a chief as well as to women of less elevated status.  It may refer to a mixed-raced daughter and serve as a synonym for “wife.”  Its racist and sexist connotations exist in these films largely in the minds of antagonists, and are generally to be questioned.  Regardless of the movie “squaw’s” social position, the trait that unites these women characters to a remarkable degree is their power and clarity of vision, whether they are reading the Western landscape and its challenges or the tug and pull of human desire.  In the words of Little Deer, in The Oregon Passage (Paul Landres, 1957), her eyes are “crystal balls.”  Indeed, the “squaw” typically possesses a more powerful gaze than the man she partners, and this trait is foregrounded through both camerawork and dialogue.   Thus, even though the narrative is typically focalised through the “squaw man’s” eyes, the “squaw’s” gaze proves indispensible to the framing of events.  And even though the subgenre relies on profoundly problematic images of Native American women—images extensively analysed by M. Elise Marubbio (4)—their presence nonetheless can serve as a steady reminder of the “squaw man’s” dependency.

Addition elements shape the subgenre with some consistency.  First is a focus on the issue of the “squaw man’s” divided identity and loyalty, derived from the American legacy of war, conquest, and racial prejudice.  This conflict between allegiances characteristically overrides the Western’s standard tension, between the attraction of the wilderness and that of white civilization.  A counterpoint to this focus on conflicted loyalties is the drive to bridge differences, mediate disputes, and forge commerce and community.  The “squaw man” Western also tends to unsettle gender and racial norms and hierarchies, sometimes positioning the “squaw” as more active and capable than the white man she marries.  This situation creates both comic potential and the grounds for exposure of prejudice.  In dramatic Westerns, the subgenre is very often lethal to the “squaw,” whose death may come, for example, as a result of her action on behalf of her husband’s needs, or from white men carrying out horrifying massacres or individual revenge killing, or from Native Americans resentful of her actions on behalf of whites. (5) When her death precedes the dramatic action of the film, it motivates that action but also avoids the necessity for direct representation of interracial romance—even that created by the casting of an ethnically European woman in racial drag. (6)

What may be most surprising about the “squaw man” films I will discuss is that their history does not follow a progressive political trajectory.   A set of 1950s Westerns, including many B movies, represents a peak of the sound era, and this peak later gives way to films of the 1970s and beyond in which a singular white hero, or male bonding between a white and nonwhite, overshadows the Native American wife’s place in the “squaw man’s” story.  In these later, generally better known films, the “squaw” either motivates action through her death or facilitates action through her practical skills, whether survival, linguistic, or domestic.   That is, in the 1950s, when genres in general were being revised to gain a more critical perspective on American history and mythology and on race relations, the postwar Western tends to humanize Native Americans, including women—a group that had also, historically, been seen in more humanized terms than Native American men. (7) After that decade, following the pattern of Hollywood’s Vietnam films, “squaw man” Westerns tend to internalize conflicts, using the “squaw” to enlarge the white male protagonist’s psychodrama.  And when the “squaw man” loses his wife, he becomes the most visible victim of the crimes committed against Native Americans.  As Frank Tomasulo argues, Hollywood Vietnam films represented that war insularly, as a war America fought against itself. (8) In “squaw man” films of this era, the “squaw man’s” interiority becomes similarly paramount, and his “squaw” wife exists primarily within his mental and emotional mise-en-scène.    Additional dimensions and dynamics of the subgenre will emerge as I survey its history.  Inevitably, I will under-interpret all of the Westerns I discuss, since my goal is to offer a general outline of the “squaw man” subgenre and its conventions, to indicate how pervasive it is, and to spotlight films whose basic stories may well be unfamiliar. (9)

As a movie tradition, the feature-length “squaw man” film begins with Cecil B. De Mille, who made no fewer than three feature-length versions of Squaw Man (1914, 1918, 1931), all based on a play by Edward Milton Royle.  Co-directed by Oscar Apfel, the 1914 version launched De Mille’s career.   The basic story focuses on an English nobleman, Captain James Wynnegate, who stands wrongly accused of an embezzlement his cousin committed.  Wynnegate takes the blame, flees his homeland and the blonde woman he loves, and settles in the American West.  His kindness to a young Ute woman being mistreated by an evil rancher later motivates her to save his life, when the rancher tries to kill him.  The Englishman and the Ute form a couple and have a child, a son who enjoys the warmth and happiness of his extended Native American family.  Like later “squaw man” films, De Mille’s films engage issues of compromised masculinity.  For while Captain Wynnegate is saved by a Native American woman, just as Captain John Smith was supposedly saved by Pocahontas, in Wynnegate’s case, it is a white rancher who wants to kill him, not Native Americans, and he is in too sorry a state to defend himself.   He is passive; the Ute woman is active: she perceives the threat and kills the menacing rancher.  Moreover, Squaw Man is a Western-maternal melodrama, not the mythic tale of an Indian princess who recognizes masculine nobility or supposed racial superiority in a white man from afar.   That is, the Ute “squaw” not only saves Wynnegate’s life from the rancher’s bullets, but also, to protect her family, ultimately sacrifices her own life, when the sheriff comes to arrest her for murder six years after the rancher’s death.  Her suicide frees Wynnegate to be reunited with the Englishwoman he loves and return to England, where his cousin has confessed to the embezzlement on his deathbed, and where the “half-breed” son can receive an Oxford education.  In this way, the film relies on the familiar display of virtue through self-sacrifice typical of maternal melodramas, as well as classic Western action, again carried out not by the white man but by his “squaw.”  In fact, as Joanna Hearn perceptively argues, the “squaw” here enacts the same function that the lone hero Shane will later perform: using violence to make the world safe for a white family from whose world he will be painfully excluded—a key difference being that Shane survives. (10) And if the “squaw’s” role resembles Shane’s, apart from her death, Wynnegate’s partly mirrors that of the less “masculine,” more socially integrated family head played by Van Heflin.  This will not be the only time the “squaw man” film proves lethal to the “squaw.”  Indeed, as Scott Simmon explains, “The Squaw Man [1914] turned out to be a harbinger of the spirit in which Indians would be incorporated as characters into silent features”—that is, in “interracial romance tragedies.” (11) Like many Westerns, the film also casts doubt on the “blessings of civilization” the heroine’s young son is about to receive.

Undoubtedly having seen at least one of De Mille’s silent “squaw man” features, as well as earlier, short “squaw man” films by D. W. Griffith, James Young Deer, and others, Buster Keaton parodied the subgenre in a silent short called The Pale Face (1922), and his parody, like most parodies, helps to identify generic traits, even as it provides the familiar rewards and pleasures of comedy.   The small, peaceful Pale Face (Keaton) of the film’s title stumbles onto a Native American village while chasing butterflies, a porkpie hat on his head, and a net in his hand—not exactly the picture of self-possessed Western masculinity.  Initially pursued by the Native Americans, he later joins them and takes action on their behalf, fighting to defeat villainous white oil men, intent on the theft of their land, and earning the name “Little Chief” in the process. (12) The squaw who attracts him—or “squab,” as he calls her—is the Big Chief’s daughter, and the Pale Face wins her hand at film’s end, making his happy assimilation to the tribe complete.

It was twenty years after the release of De Mille’s talking version of Squaw Man that the environment proved right for narrative and character developments within the genre more thoroughly based in the American experience than De Mille’s had been.  Tomahawk (George Sherman, 1951) and Yellowstone Kelly (Gordon Douglas, 1959), to cite two key examples, are more steeped in frontier history than De Mille’s work and typify traits of the “squaw man” movie. Their protagonists are based on famous trappers, Jim Bridger and Yellowstone Luther Kelly.  Trappers such as these knew the West inside out, intermingled with Native Americans, learned their languages, and often married them, for good reason.  Sylvia Van Kirk observes, “The Indian wife possessed a range of skills and wilderness know-how that would have been quite foreign to a white wife.” (13) Trappers also developed a wide array of skills, including medical knowledge.  They worked as army scouts, especially after they had over-trapped and depleted the animals whose fur and skins they took.  The historical Bridger had three Native American wives; in Tomahawk, the Bridger character mourns one—contrary to history, a Cheyenne, and a victim of the horrific Sand Creek massacre.  Bridger’s loss underlies his struggle among conflicting allegiances.  The record for the historical Yellowstone Kelly, with regard to his relations with Native American women, is elliptical, but the film dramatizes the development of a single, serious relationship, one between Kelly and a beautiful Arapaho woman desired by Native Americans and whites alike. (14)

Kamiah in Across the Wide Missouri

Kamiah in Across the Wide Missouri

Two films from the early 1950s portray the world of trappers, traders, and mountain men of the 1820s and 1830s, before the action of the films just mentioned, and their fictional characters provide a useful point of departure:  Across the Wide Missouri (William Wellman, 1951), based on a 1948 Bernard DeVoto historical study, and The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952), based on the 1947 A. B. Guthrie, Jr., novel.  Both films display a world relatively free of the stigma attached to the “squaw man,” in a time before the term appears to have existed at all.   Both focus on an international group of men, mostly French and English-speaking, intent on returning a Blackfoot chief’s daughter to her people in exchange for special access to their land and leverage in the business of trapping and fur trading.   In this way, both conform to Hearne’s claim that, “Mixed-race relationships, especially between Native women and white men, are one way in which the landscape and resources of the American West were represented cinematically as available for sexual, economic, and sociopolitical exploitation.” (15) Both films also grant agency to the chief’s daughter, rescued from a tribe hostile to her people. (16) That is, her desires, status, and various skills, and her choice of husband propel both narratives.  In The Big Sky, she chooses Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin), a one-time Indian hater who competes with his best friend Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas) for the Blackfoot Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt) and wins.  Once reunited with her people, Teal Eye welcomes Boone to spend the night with her, and the next morning, Boone’s wiser, more knowledgeable uncle (and the film’s voice-over narrator) explains that by Blackfoot custom Boone and Teal Eye are married.  The surprised Boone protests his lack of a say in the matter, then leaves Teal Eye and her people, with his uncle fearing she might take her life, as another Blackfoot had done after her white husband abandoned her.  Boone, however, regains his emotional bearings and, with his uncle’s blessings, sets off to return to Teal Eye and her people, thereby gaining redemption at film’s end.

Across the Wide Missouri

Across the Wide Missouri

In Across the Wide Missouri, Flint Mitchell (Clark Gable) presents gifts and asks for Blackfoot Kamiah’s (María Elena Marqués) hand in marriage not in response to her earlier virtual proposal but in order to gain access to her tribe’s beaver-rich land.   She accepts him, and then expediency yields to love, commitment, partnership, and eventually the birth of a son—Kamiah having shown Flint and his fellow trappers a short-cut through the mountains back to her people’s land and also blazed the trail through the snow.  Shortly after the son is born, Kamiah’s father’s successor as tribal leader kills her—a price exacted for her allegiance to a white.  Her son, as an adult, provides the film’s disembodied voice-over narration, which functions above all to lionize all the mountain men of this era, epitomized by his father: “His story is more than his story.  It is the story of the mountain men, of giants who walked the West.”  If white paternity trumps Blackfoot maternity here and paves the way for conquest, the values of community, co-operation, and social integration in both this film and The Big Sky trump the individualist ethic associated with Western loner heroes.  In Delmer Daves’s Drum Beat (1954), protagonist Johnny MacKay (Alan Ladd) claims that white men marry Indian women because there are no white women around, and his choice of a white wife over a Modoc one confirms this perception. (17) In contrast, Across the Wide Missouri and The Big Sky depict capable, active, highly observant Native American women as nearly ideally suited to their sociable, wilderness-loving, trapper-trader white husbands.

Dancy and Julie in Tomahawk

Dancy and Julie in Tomahawk

Set initially in the year 1866, the year that saw the first recorded use of the term “squaw man” and the beginning of “Red Cloud’s War” (1866-1868), Tomahawk represents a very different world.  It casts Van Heflin in the role of Bridger, whom the Lakota admiringly call “Tomahawk,” and who, true to history, works as an Army scout. (18) It uses Heflin’s rugged gravitas to address issues of racial hatred and the white man’s greed and treachery.   Bridger is accompanied by his sister-in-law Monahseetah (Susan Cabot), whose name evokes a future event—the Washita River Massacre of 1868, an indiscriminate slaughter of mostly Cheyenne women, children, and old men carried out under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer.  There, according to Captain Frederick Benteen’s historical account, Custer took a young survivor named Monasetah (so spelled) as his sex slave, and then invited his men to take their own women from the captured “squaw round up corral.” (19) Tomahawk’s Monahseetah recognizes a soldier whom she saw killing her people at the Colorado Sand Creek massacre of 1864—historically, an attack which played a crucial role in uniting Plains tribes behind Red Cloud—and she identifies that man for Bridger.  (20) He is Lieutenant Rob Dancy, a protégé of the notorious John Chivington, leader of the Sand Creek attack. Cowardly, self-indulgent, and coldly handsome, the tall, yellow-haired Dancy serves as a stand-in both for Custer and for Chivington, and his face contrasts sharply with the faces of the film’s many Native American actors and extras, including John War Eagle as a memorable Red Cloud.  Dancy’s reckless killing of a skinny Sioux kid for trying to steal a horse flouts orders and sets off a series of retaliatory attacks.  Dancy and especially Bridger attract the interest of Julie (Yvonne De Carlo), a travelling performer mystified by Bridger’s love of the wide open spaces and the people who inhabit them.  Trying to alienate Julie from Bridger and appeal to her prejudices, Dancy tells her that Bridger is a “squaw man,” “a man who marries a squaw,” and accuses him of spying for the Sioux.  Thanks to Dancy’s bragging about his exploits with Chivington, Julie is able to confirm that Dancy was at Sand Creek and that he may have killed Bridger’s Cheyenne wife and son.  And thanks to Monahseetah’s sharp-eyed attention, Bridger is able to save Julie’s life when she foolishly leaves the fort.  Near the film’s end, when Dancy is shot—not by Bridger but by the young friend of the Sioux boy Dancy had slain—Dancy’s dying words confirm his guilt.  He admits that he killed Bridger’s family under Chivington’s orders, and Chivington knew who they were.  A final battle scene shows Red Cloud’s men, previously victorious in skirmishes, now falling like sitting ducks as they charge soldiers armed with Springfield-Allin breechloader rifles.  An unarmed Bridger is at commanding officer Colonel Carrington’s side, and he reminds Carrington that this triumph is a technological one, nothing more.  The film’s disembodied male voice-over then counters the image of Sioux defeat by extolling the merits of the Sioux Treaty of 1868 that Red Cloud ultimately won.  The Sioux are shown reclaiming their land by razing Carrington’s hated fort.  Their victory serves not only as retaliation for Sand Creek but also as an anticipatory, symbolic retaliation for Washita, and for the suffering and deaths of the women and children at both.

Bridger and Monahseetah in Tomahawk

Bridger and Monahseetah in Tomahawk

Set in 1876 and based on a Heck Allen novel, Yellowstone Kelly casts the physically imposing, 6’6” Clint Walker in the role of Yellowstone Kelly, a trapper who refuses to scout for the military, and Edd “Kookie” Byrnes (the “heartthrob” from the television series 77 Sunset Strip) in the role of neophyte trapper Anse Harper.  The film deals with military folly, prejudice, and white relations with the Sioux after Little Big Horn, but centers on polymorphous erotic looking. The initial pairing of Kelly and Harper as potential trapping partners is framed to suggest homoerotic sparks, not just bromance, until the beautiful, wilderness-wise Arapaho Wahleeah (played by Andra Martin, a woman of Swedish decent, in full-body bronze makeup) escapes from her Sioux captors, moves into the trappers’ cabin, and sizes Kelly up.  After Harper’s death at the Sioux’s hands, Kelly heeds Harper’s dying words—a plea that Kelly should renounce his lonely, insular way of life and accept Wahleeah for his mate.  She has proven better at reading the weather than he is and equally good at reading him; moreover, her actions even persuade the Sioux to leave her to Kelly.   Bromance, including interracial bromance, trumps romance in many Westerns.  Examples include Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, 1976), which pair scene-stealer Chief Dan George with Dustin Hoffman and Clint Eastwood respectively; and Shanghai Noon (Tom Dey, 2000) which pairs Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan.  Wahleeah’s role in Yellowstone Kelly, like Teal Eye’s in The Big Sky, is all the more remarkable given the classic Western’s mythic emphasis on male solitude and/or homosocial bonding.  In addition, with his height and powerful torso, Walker physically dwarfs the actresses with whom he is paired, and here his build serves visually both to quash any hint of “squaw man” emasculation and, even more, to engage Wahleeah’s active, curious “female gaze.”  For Marty’s accidentally named and inadvertently acquired Comanche wife “Look” in The Searchers (John Ford, 1956), such “looks” are not part of the bargain.  For her part, Wahleeah gives Kelly a lesson in the power and meaning of looking.  Like The Big Sky, Yellowstone Kelly also depicts a white man’s gradual romantic attachment to a Native American in a couple formation that survives the film’s end.

Wahleeah in Yellowstone Kelly

Wahleeah in Yellowstone Kelly


Yellowstone Kelly and Wahleeah

Yellowstone Kelly and Wahleeah

Although 1950s “squaw man” Westerns often idealize the trapper, The Oregon Trail (Gene Fowler, 1959) represents him in more conflicted terms.  Set in 1846, it depicts two fictional mountain men who took Indian wives: One, George Seton, has become the sympathetic leader of a wagon train on the Oregon Trail, after a hostile tribe killed his family; the other, Gabe Hastings, is a duplicitous, brutal “renegade” in league with the Indians, and he conforms to negative 19th-century “squaw man” stereotypes.  (21) Hastings beat his Native American wife while she was alive, just as he beats his mixed-race adult daughter Shona (Gloria Talbot) in the present.  Enraged to the point of derangement about the slaughter of the buffalo, Hastings also aids Indians in an attack on whites in a fort—children included.   After witnessing the attack, Shona renounces her Indian identity and rides off to form a couple with the film’s protagonist, Neal Harris (Fred MacMurray), a reporter on assignment from New York.  Rather than depicting an idealized mountain man, or an individual “squaw man” with divided allegiances, the film thus depicts two mountain men with opposite allegiances.  It vilifies Hastings’ choice to “go red” and affirms Shona’s choice to “go white.”  While The Oregon Trail rides roughshod over Native American rights and identity, the film seems relatively comfortable with miscegenation—as long as it is ultimately white-identified.  To be sure, one pioneer on the wagon train uses the term “squaw man” (perhaps ahistorically) to disparage Seton, but Seton’s expertise as leader is partly rooted in intermarriage, and it clearly serves white social and economic agendas.

Filmed two years earlier than The Oregon Trail and Yellowstone Kelly, Sam Fuller’s Run of the Arrow (1957) also represents the “squaw man” in conflicted terms.  It casts Rod Steiger as an Irish-Southerner, Private O’Meara, who at the beginning of the film fires the last shot in the Civil War.  His utter disgust with the outcome of that war drives him westward, where he “goes native,” joins the Sioux, becomes a “squaw man,” and rejects allegiance to the U.S.  Eventually, he has to reconsider where his loyalties lie.  Framing the issue are the words of his elderly mother and his Sioux wife.  His mother (played by Olive Carey, who plays Laurie’s mother in The Searchers) disavows him early in the film, due to his jubilation over Lincoln’s assassination and his inability to let go of his hatred for Yankees; his Sioux wife ultimately reminds him that he is not one of them, because he cannot make peace with their brutality towards the invading whites, intent on building a fort on Sioux land.  The two key women in his life thus fundamentally challenge his identity and sense of belonging, bracketing his story with question marks.   His wife’s negation of his place as an assimilated “squaw man” presumably leaves him to return to “his people,” and the couple ultimately head east.  Yet the questions raised by his tangled allegiances, at film’s end, afford no easy answers.  Like America in general after the Civil War, he looked to the West to find his way, only to be engaged in further conflict and division, and unlike Clint Eastwood’s Libertarian Josey Wales, he does not ultimately articulate common ground with Native Americans through a shared opposition to Washington.  Throughout Run of the Arrow, Fuller also denies the audience easy identification with O’Meara, adding a further layer to the problems of identification and allegiance that give this “squaw man” Western its provocatively dissonant tone.

“Squaw man” Westerns also encompass narratives about cattle ranchers involved in conflicts of familial succession.   The remarkable Gunman’s Walk (Phil Karlson, 1958), for example, deals with father/son, brother/brother conflicts in the wealthy Hackett family.  The film spotlights injustices which Native Americans face in the American legal system and a town’s need for gun control as well.  Younger brother Davy Hackett (James Darren) dislikes guns, refuses to carry one, shoots poorly, and treats the local Sioux with respect.  He rejects the values held by his wild, trigger-happy, bigoted older brother Ed (Tab Hunter), just as he rejects the values of their father Lee (Van Heflin), a widower and powerful rancher accustomed to buying off trouble and flouting the rules. (22) In defiance of town law, Ed and Lee wear their guns in town.  Both Hackett brothers are attracted to a pretty “squaw” schoolteacher, Clee Chouard (played by Anglo Kathryn Grant), who is the daughter of a Sioux mother and French father.  She prefers Davy over Ed—even before a fatal incident in which Ed forces her brother Paul off a cliff, as the two men race on horseback to try to lasso a coveted wild white mare.   Ed is charged with murder, and the charge is backed by Sioux witnesses to the event, but racial prejudices against the Sioux and Lee’s money get him off in court.  Lee and Ed’s assumptions of exceptionalism and privilege, based in part on vast, long-standing land-holdings, together with their fierce competitiveness and Ed’s patricidal impulses, drive the narrative toward a climax in which Ed’s reckless gun play goes too far.  He kills an unarmed deputy.  Lee is finally forced to shoot and kill his favourite son to prevent him from killing again.  With Ed’s death, Lee realizes that his old gun-centered way of life belongs to another era.  Lee ultimately affirms Davy’s rejection of the way of life that made the Hacketts a law unto themselves and also sheds his disdain for “squaws” and “squaw men.”   Lee’s epiphany and belated embrace of Davy and the mixed race Clee, now Davy’s wife-to-be, conclude the film, which affirms gun control, interracial marriage, and equality across lines of race, money, social status, and, to some degree, even gender.

Gunman's Walk

Gunman’s Walk

Injustice in the legal system, social prejudice against the “squaw man” and the “half-breed,” and conflicts over familial succession also shape Broken Lance (Edward Dmytryk, 1954), a Western very roughly based on the Joseph Mankiewicz film noir House of Strangers (1949), itself an adaptation of a Jerome Weidman novel.  Like Gunman’s Walk, Broken Lance focuses on a wealthy, tough-minded cattle baron, accustomed to working outside the law—here, Irish immigrant Matt Devereaux (Spencer Tracy), who came to the U.S. to flee the potato famine.   His three oldest sons are white and resent his youngest son Joe (Robert Wagner), named after Chief Joseph and born of Matt’s second marriage, to a Native American simply called Señora (Katy Jurado, in an Academy Award nominated performance)—a form of address intended to make her Indian identity more palatable to the community at large.  Elegantly costumed in native jewelry and attire, Señora oversees their beautiful home and tries to keep peace among the men.  When a copper operation owned by a big Eastern mining company pollutes the water and kills some of his cattle, Matt, his sons, and his hired hands confront the company’s employees, one of whom disparagingly calls him a “squaw man” and Joe a “breed.”  Trouble ensues, Joe serves prison time, and in his absence the oldest son, Ben (Richard Widmark), takes control of the ranch.  Matt dies trying to stop the transfer of power.  He could not leave his ranch to his wife, as he wished, because, as his lawyer explains, “The government doesn’t allow an Indian to own land.”  Even if she is not permitted to own her own land, however, Señora lives (!) to see Joe free, having survived both prison and Ben’s attempt on his life.  In accordance with the film’s title, Joe ultimately breaks a lance at his father’s grave, a gesture that symbolically lays conflict and killing to rest. (23) Joe rides off with his white bride, the independent-minded daughter of a bigoted governor, to make a life together elsewhere.  The film cuts to a shot of the stately Señora Devereaux, ready to rejoin her people, and then to a wolf, an animal Matt had respected and protected, just as he tried to protect the water.  The legacy of peace, bought at a price, comes from Joe’s mother and from his namesake, Chief Joseph, who sought it for the Nez Percé, a people forbidden to regain their homeland.  The legacies of dispossession and of despoiling the land for profit come from the whites.  Reflective of its film noir roots, Broken Lance presents its story through a flashback structure that reinforces the sense of a family, and a nation, haunted and hobbled by the past.

Set against the backdrop of the Camp Grant Massacre of 1871—in which over one hundred Apaches, mostly sleeping women and children, lost their lives to an informal army of Anglo-Americans, Latinos, and Tohono O’odham Indians—The Last Wagon (Delmer Daves, 1956) is unusual insofar as it portrays familial friction between “half-breed” and white siblings who are half-sisters, young women who are ultimately reconciled through the wisdom of Comanche Todd, its buckskin-clad, “squaw man” protagonist.  In sharp contrast to Broken Lance, the film casts Richard Widmark in this “white Indian” role.  The non-Christian son of an itinerant preacher who died when he was eight, Todd was found by a Comanche chief, who raised him as his son. (24) Todd took a Comanche wife who bore him sons of his own.  Three Indian-hating brothers named Harper then raped her and killed her and the boys, prior to the events shown in the film.  As the film begins, Todd kills them to avenge his family but is captured by a fourth Harper brother, a racist Sheriff.  Their path crosses that of a wagon train, led by the humane Colonel Normand (Douglas Kennedy), who is accompanied by his two melodramatically-coded daughters, one born of a Navaho mother—Jolie (Susan Kohner, soon to appear in Imitation of Life), who wears a brilliant red dress and sympathizes with Todd—and the other born of a white mother—Valinda (Stephanie Griffin), who wears a pale, striped dress, hates Todd, and is prone to racist hysterics and fits of jealousy.  The wagon train suffers an Apache attack that leaves only a handful of survivors, including Jolie, Valinda, two young men, and a pair of siblings who are drawn to Todd—down-to-earth Jenny (Felicia Farr), with whom Todd falls in love, and young Billy (Tommy Rettig of Lassie), who is eager to have the kind of Comanche education Todd promises him—“He’d learn more than he’d ever find in books,” Todd claims.  By the film’s end, Todd’s twenty years of experience fighting the Apache enables him to see the group to safety and spares him the conflicted allegiances typical of the “squaw man,” since the Apache are Comanche enemies and the film is uninterested in murdered Apache women and children.  Although Todd teaches Valinda tolerance and Jolie pride in her identity, and he earns the respect of “Bible-Reading Howard,” the military judge (and historical Apache fighter) who sets him free to form a family with Jenny and Billy, Todd is a far cry from Tomahawk’s Bridger.  After his initial capture, Todd insists that there are “two sides to every story,” and he gets to tell his in court, but it is a reckoning in which the Apache count only as a common enemy.  Deepening the unintended irony is the fact that, as Limerick writes, the Camp Grant Massacre exemplifies the inadequacy of the “two sides” formula for understanding the West’s complexity: “When it comes to the number of perspectives, interpretations, rationalizations, memories, omissions, and evasions, both intended and inadvertent, that come into play in the history of the encounter between Indian peoples and Euro Americans, ‘two sides’ is an astonishing undercount.” (25)

The Last Wagon

The Last Wagon

Duel at Diablo (Ralph Nelson, 1966) is distinct from these 1950s “squaw man” films due to its 1960s flavour, registered in music, cinematography, dialogue, casting, and graphic scenes of torture and violence, yet it, too, blends familiar conventions and themes and offers an important postscript.  Like De Mille’s Squaw Man movies, it develops a maternal melodrama, this one centered on blonde former captive Ellen Grange (Bibi Andersson), who struggles to hold on to and protect her half-Apache child, a four-month old boy who looks not “half breed” but fully Apache.  Further, Ellen struggles to find a place for herself, when the world of the whites and that of the Apache both scorn her.  Also like The Squaw Man and The Last Wagon, Duel at Diablo spotlights a “squaw man”—here, buckskin-clad scout Jess Remsburg (James Garner)—whose Native American wife’s death makes way for narrative developments that align him romantically with an ethnic European—namely, the former captive and Apache widow, Ellen Grange, a so-called white squaw. (26) Ellen stirs Jess to love at first sight, in the movie’s splendidly filmed opening sequence, but she remains the legal wife of white businessman Willard Grange (Denis Weaver), who loathes both the taint she bears and the captors who took her.  Knowing that Ellen’s past as a captive is bad for his business, he tells her, “Any decent woman would have killed herself before she let them turn her into an Indian squaw.”  But Jess tells her the opposite: that death “comes soon enough” on its own.  Jess sympathizes with Native Americans, possesses the mixed loyalties typical of the “squaw man,” and understands the contempt Ellen endures, because, as a “squaw man,” he has endured it, too.

As the narrative ultimately reveals, loathing and revenge drove Willard to murder and scalp Jess’s Comanche wife before the action of the film begins—the murder and scalping serving as an act of displaced vengeance against the Apache for stealing his wife.  (And historically, such random retaliatory acts were common among whites uninterested in differentiating among American Indians.  Whites practiced scalping, too.)  Jess, in turn, pursues a quest to avenge his Comanche wife’s murder, and with Apache-like brutality, but his quest finally leads to no such killing.  Instead, he allows Willard to take his own life, after Willard has endured terrible torture at the Apaches’ hands.  If the film seems a little too neat and conventional in its romantic pairing of Jess and Ellen, its blending of a captivity narrative with a “squaw man” story nonetheless works toward a vision of racial integration, as seen in the film’s final image of Jess, Ellen, and her Apache son forming a new kind of family, protected by the U.S. Cavalry, which has successfully defeated the Apaches in the “duel at Diablo,” thanks in part to the leadership of an African-American horse-breaker named Toller (Sidney Poitier), whose presence forms an unmistakable reference to the Civil Rights movement. (27) When Ellen asks Jess if the Apaches will stay on the reservation now, he replies, dryly, “Why should they.”   He knows that the reservation is a “hell hole.”  He knows that the whites have lied to, tricked, and cheated the Apaches, and such treachery is not going away.  As in Tomahawk’s final battle, U.S. forces here ultimately achieve a purely military victory, not a moral one.

“Squaw man” Westerns persist into the 1970s and beyond, yet, ironically, given the trend toward politically progressive genre revision, including social critique and antiwar protest, the role of the “squaw” within them shrinks, and the subgenre consistently proves fatal to her. (28) To cite two key examples, Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man and Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972) frame an Indian woman’s brief story within her husband’s improbably long one, and her story effectively enlarges his.  Her death, that is, drives him to express his full capacity to see, suffer, act, and endure—into extreme old age or even legendary immortality.  (A Man Called Horse [Elliot Silverstein, 1970] is an exception.  The protagonist, an English nobleman-turned-Sioux, has already succeeded in becoming the film’s top warrior (!) even before his Sioux wife’s death near the end of the film.)  Thus, even though these revisionist Westerns complicate many classical Western stereotypes and myths, they also interpret “squaw man” conventions to the detriment of the “squaw.”  Elisabeth Bronfen’s book Over Her Dead Body, using other art forms as examples, defines the pattern this way: such narratives kill off a woman so that the character of the man who loves her can find its full expression. (29) As The Outlaw Josey Wales illustrates, this narrative “murder” is hardly limited to “squaw man” Westerns, for there, Josey’s white wife is dispatched even before the opening credits, and it marks traumatic Westerns as well. (30) However, when the “squaw’s” death is wedded to an increasing emphasis on the white man’s character and personal experience of events—that is, when the narrative magnifies the focalization of events inherent in the subgenre—the white “squaw man,” ironically, emerges as the most visible and significant victim of a crime committed against a Native American.  When the “squaw man” is played by an actor with major star power, the effect is magnified still further.

Based on Thomas Berger’s novel, Little Big Man casts gifted Dustin Hoffman as Jack Crabb, a white who grows up among the Cheyenne after his parents are killed by another tribe.   The Cheyenne name him “Little Big Man,” because he is both small and courageous.  (He is not based on the Sioux Little Big Man, who was a friend of Crazy Horse and later involved in his killing.) (31)  Like Keaton’s Little Chief, Little Big Man bears an ambiguous masculinity, sometimes played for comic effect, and often linked to cultural commentary:  He’s a terrific shot but cannot become a gunman because he abhors killing.  He learns how to live as a trapper, but he cannot remain one because of his compassion for animals.  He becomes a lusty Christian and the object of a Christian woman’s lustful gaze, but he cannot sustain the requisite hypocrisy.  From the film’s opening sequence, Hoffman’s Jewish identity also rounds out Jack’s.  When a white historian at his bedside describes Native American history by using the words “genocide” and “extermination,” it provokes the reportedly 121-year-old Jack to narrate the film’s picaresque story, told in eye-witness flashback, about his efforts to assimilate to the American West.  This setup implicitly connects Jewish and Native American experience.  And among Jack’s memories the most poignant is the horrifying episode in which Custer’s men slaughter his fragile-looking, fecund Cheyenne wife Sunshine (played by Hong Kong-born Aimee Eccles) and their new-born son at Washita, as part of Custer’s drive toward just such extermination of the American Indians.  Little Big Man’s family’s fate recalls Bridger’s family’s fate at Sand Creek in Tomahawk, but in contrast to Tomahawk, Penn’s film dramatizes the ruthless slaughter as his protagonist witnesses it, and the scene evokes images from the war in Vietnam as well.  The episode is a powerful one, motivating in Jack a familiar drive for vengeance.  (Ultimately, he cannot kill Custer, because Jack abhors killing.)  Yet the episode’s placement within Jack’s overall picaresque trajectory also creates an uneasy conjunction of focuses, stories, and jarring shifts of tone.  The sweeping narrative enables Jack to experience the world not only as a Cheyenne, but also as a plethora of white man’s Western identities (store owner, snake-oil salesman, town drunk, etc.), identities subject to the film’s absurdist humor and critique.  Moreover, throughout his experiences, as Leslie Fiedler explains, Jack is faithful only to one of his many loves—Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), “who is his friend, brother, father, grandfather.” (32) Within this much wider context, the short-lived Sunshine seems, finally, far too much eclipsed.

A year later, with Robert Redford in the lead role, Jeremiah Johnson was released, a biopic about a singular, solitary mountain man/trapper living in the Colorado Rockies.  Based loosely on the life of famous mountain man “Liver-Eatin’ Johnson”—he reportedly ate the livers of the Crow he killed—the film tells the story of an apparent Mexican-American War veteran, or perhaps deserter, who chooses to become a mountain man, apprentices under a misogynistic old trapper and former “squaw man” (Will Geer), and, less by choice than by circumstance, adopts a traumatized boy named Caleb who does not speak.  During a gift exchange, and to the great amusement of a white fellow traveller, Johnson also accidentally becomes a “squaw man.”  He is given, and formally marries, a Flathead chief’s daughter named Swan (Delle Bolton), whose language he does not know.  It seems enough that she cooks, smiles, and sews.  The mountain man, his wife, and son gradually form an idealized family, living within Crow territory, until Johnson makes the mistake of crossing a Crow burial site as he guides some U.S. soldiers to rescue white “Christian” families.  Here, his torn allegiances—respect for Crow beliefs, compassion for whites in harm’s way, regardless of their religion—pull him in the wrong direction, and he becomes the accidental enemy of the Crow.  Angered by the violation, the Crow kill Swan and Caleb during his absence and thus set in motion the mechanisms of vengeance that drive the remainder of the film.  At this point the dead wife and son become a structuring absence, deepening the sense of isolation and loss that defines the loner hero.  He burns his home and retaliates against the Crow; they, in turn, try to kill him, in a series of single-man, guerilla-warfare attacks, represented partly in a montage of mayhem.  But all is not lost: he survives the onslaught, and finally the Crow decide it is over and create a special site honoring his death-defying powers.  The lyrics of a song at film’s end suggest he may still be roaming the mountains.  The film thus works as an existential parable, with its hero’s social isolation made more profound, his death-defying reputation larger, and his integration into the wild more complete, by the loss of his “squaw” and his son.

In more recent decades, conventions of the “squaw man” subgroup live on in a variety of guises, including, most famously, in Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner, 1990), an internationally successful, politically problematic “white squaw man” Western.   “Squaw man” conventions also appear in the multicultural comedy Shanghai Noon and the science fiction environmental parable Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), to name two. (33) Yet the 1950s remain this Western’s most important decade of the sound era, and despite the many ways these movies may look, sound, and be dated, naïve, nostalgic, and fraught with white bias, denial, and self-justification, they nonetheless collectively realign the traditional Western world at its core: In place of the classic conflict between the wilderness and domesticity, they portray the West itself as domicile, already inhabited by Native Americans whose cultural codes and ways of life in part govern the “squaw man’s” marriage and his livelihood.  In place of, or juxtaposed to, the woman from the East as “civilizing” force, they portray the white man’s Indian wife as a connecting force, as wilderness guide, as conduit for trade, and as economic and domestic partner.  In place of cowboys or cavalry versus Indians, they portray the trapper, trader, scout, and rancher (or his son) resisting those dichotomies and the legal and illegal double standards that support them.  In place of the lone hero who has to do what a man has to do, they may even portray a hero who finds himself—married—to an Indian.

My thanks go to Kent Casper, Philip Joseph, and Diane Waldman for their comments on earlier versions of this essay.


  1. Patricia Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, W. W. Norton, New York, 1987; reissued with a new Preface, 2006, pp. 237 and 5.  See also Sylvia Van Kirk, “The Role of Native Women in the Creation of Fur Trade Society in Western Canada, 1670-1830,” Susan Armitage and Elizabeth Jameson (eds), The Women’s West, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1987, pp. 53-62.
  2. Sherry L. Smith, “Beyond Princess and Squaw: Army Officers’ Perceptions of Indian Women,” in The Women’s West, Susan Armitage and Elizabeth Jameson (eds), University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1987, p. 63.
  3. For an eloquent description of the classic Western hero—a role the “squaw man” largely rejects—see Robert Warshow’s 1954 essay, “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner,” Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (eds), Film Theory and Criticism, 6th ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004, pp. 703-716.
  4. M. Elise Marubbio, Killing the Indian Maiden: Images of Native American Women in Film, University of Kentucky Press, Lexington, Kentucky, 2006.
  5. Again, see Marubbio on the idealized, self-sacrificing, mythical Indian princess, a character type who often appears in the “squaw man” Western subgroup.
  6. Not only do 1950s “squaw man” Westerns almost invariably cast white actresses as Native Americans, but they also tend to depict ethnically European women who are coiffed, made-up, under-garmented, and attired in ways more reflective of 1950s tastes than of any frontier reality.  It is hard to say which of these looks—the Native American construct or the Euro-American construct—is more absurd, although the casting of Audrey Hepburn as a Kiowa in The Unforgiven (John Huston, 1960) may require the greatest suspension of disbelief of all.
  7. Smith , p. 73.  As Smith explains, the humanized images found in Army officers’ accounts differ significantly from the “squaw” and “princess” stereotypes of 19th-century popular culture. Rayna Green documents and analyzes the latter in “The Pocahontas Perplex: The Image of Indian Women in American Culture,” Massachusetts Review, no. 16 (Fall 1975), pp. 698-714.
  8. Frank P. Tomasulo, “The Politics of Ambivalence: Apocalypse Now as Prowar and Antiwar Film,” Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud (eds), From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film, Rutgers University Press, New York, 1990, p. 151.
  9. Aspects of these films which deserve further interpretation include their resonance with issues of black/white racial anxieties, Cold War red-baiting, the stereotyping of red-sympathizers as emasculated, and the postwar U.S. government push toward Native American relocation. For relevant insights, see especially Marubbio, Chaps. 2, 4, and 5.
  10. Joanna Hearne, Native Recognition: Indigenous Cinema and the Western, SUNY Press, Albany, New York, p. 61.  Hearne provides an excellent analysis not only of De Mille’s film but also of other Westerns sympathetic to Native Americans, including a number of “squaw man” films.  My approach differs from hers and from general investigations of Western stories of interracial romance in that I focus on the “squaw man” himself, both as a counter-type to the conventional loner hero and as a figure who realigns generic conventions as a result.
  11. Scott Simmon, The Invention of the Western Film: A Cultural History of the Genre’s First Half Century, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003, p. 81.  See also Glenn Frankel’s discussion of the 1914 version of The Squaw Man in The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, Bloomsbury, New York, 2013, p. 213; and Michael Marsden and Jack Nachbar, “The Indian in the Movies,” William C. Sturtevant and Wilcomb E. Washburn (eds), Handbook of North American Indians, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1988, pp. 607-616.
  12. The Joel McCrea vehicle The Oklahoman (Francis Lyon, 1957) also deals with an attempted theft of oil-rich Native American land, but this film flirts with rather than fulfills “squaw man” conventions, as its middle-aged protagonist ultimately resists the young, sexually forward, motherly Native woman who cares for his children.
  13. Van Kirk, p. 56.
  14. Famous trapper/mountain man/“squaw man”/ military scout Kit Carson is not the subject of any significant Western filmed in the 1950s, perhaps because his terrible role in the conquest of the Navaho disqualified him as a revisionist Western hero.  For a discussion of his marriages to Native Americans and his work as an army scout, see Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, Anchor, New York, 2007.
  15. Hearne, p. 58.
  16. The rescue of an Indian woman, taken against her will by a hostile tribe, also motivates the action in The Oregon Passage (Paul Landres, 1957).  In that film, Lieutenant Niles Ord, a white soldier who is one-sixteenth Cherokee, rescues Little Deer from the warring Black Eagle.  The grateful Little Deer provides Niles with valuable information about the terrain and native customs, and about love, and she wins Nile’s heart by film’s end.  Historically, marriage between officers and Indian women was officially discouraged, and the film is unusual in portraying such a marriage as a likely outcome.  The character of Niles may have been inspired by the historical Lieutenant E. O. C. Ord, who wrote home to his wife from Fort Walla Walla about “good looking squaws,” whose attractions, he claims, made him long for home (quoted in Smith, p. 70).  Fort Massacre (Joseph Newman, 1958) also develops a soldier/“squaw” romantic relationship.
  17. Conversely, in Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950), middle-aged Tom Jeffords feels love only for the much younger, short-lived Sonseeahray (Debra Paget), whom he marries in an Apache ceremony. The historical Tom Jeffords, in contrast, appears to have remained a bachelor.
  18. As Bob Drury and Tom Clavin document, Bridger’s nickname, given to him by the Arapaho, was actually “Blanket” (The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2013, p. 236).  Although Drury and Clavin’s book on Red Cloud does not mention Tomahawk, it vividly traces key historical events that shape the film.
  19. Quoted in Smith, p. 70.  To be sure, Benteen was a detractor of Custer; his contempt creates questions about his objectivity, as Smith explains.  For an account of the Washita massacre, see S. C. Gwynne, The Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History, Scribner, New York, 2010, pp. 239-240.
  20. Tomahawk’s approach to the Sand Creek massacre contrasts sharply with that of a later, more problematic “squaw man” Western titled Ride out for Revenge (Bernard Girard, 1957).   The 1957 film, based on a Burt Arthur novel, takes place in a town in the Dakota Territory named Sand Creek.  This Sand Creek is filled with Indian haters and threatened by Cheyenne intent on massacre, after whites there murder a peaceful Cheyenne chief, in retaliation for earlier killings of white settlers.  The film creates a kind of Romeo and Juliet romance between the town’s ex-marshal, Tate, and the chief’s daughter, Pretty Willow, who survive to form a couple at film’s end.  Tate ultimately tells Willow that the displacement of the Cheyenne and theft of their land are a part of how “things change” and that change simply has to be accepted.  She imagines a future in which change continues and the land is stolen from the whites.  Although Ride out for Revenge enlists sympathy for the Cheyenne and criticizes racial hatred, the film’s attempt to create a moral equivalency between the killing of Native Americans and the killing of whites distorts the genocidal politics of the Colorado Sand Creek massacre and of the Western conquest as a whole.  For a brilliant analysis of this kind of historical distortion, see Janet Walker, “Captive Images in the Traumatic Western,” Janet Walker (ed), Westerns: Films Through History, Routledge, New York, 2001, pp. 219-251.
  21. See Angela Wanhalla for a discussion of the negative “squaw man” stereotype, a summary of recent research on the historical “squaw man,” and a comparative analysis of his New Zealand counterpart—all in “Rethinking ‘Squaw Men’ and ‘Pakeha-Maori’: Legislating White Masculinity in New Zealand and Canada, 1840-1900,” Leigh Boucher, Jane Carey, and Katherine Ellinghaus (eds), Re-Orienting Whiteness, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2009, pp. 219-234.
  22. Last Train from Gun Hill (John Sturges, 1959) also deals with a wealthy cattle baron who operates beyond the law, a man named Belden (Anthony Quinn), whose son rapes and murders the “squaw” wife of his best friend, law-and-order marshal Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas).  Matt is so successful at keeping the peace in his own territory that one kid complains, “Shucks, you don’t even get to hear a gun in the territory anymore,” but when Matt goes to the aptly named Gun Hill to confront the Beldens, gunplay dominates, Matt insists on a slow, cruel death for Belden’s son—delivered not “Indian” style but “white” procedural justice style—and he succeeds as “only one man.”  In effect, Matt emerges not as a “squaw man” but instead as a classic, lone Western hero.  It is rather Belden, the décor of his home, and his jewelry which suggest the cattleman’s ambivalent appropriation of Native American people and things.  “There is nothing prettier than a Cherokee squaw,” he claims, a remark that has paved the way for his son’s casual acts of rape and murder.
  23. The gesture also echoes Cochise’s breaking of an arrow, as a peace symbol, in Broken Arrow.
  24. On Comanche incorporation of white children into their families, see Gwynne, pp. 102-107.
  25. Patricia Limerick, “Forward,” Karl Jacoby, Shadows at Dawn: An Apache Massacre and the Violence of History, Penguin Books, New York, 2008, pp. 13-14.
  26. Similarly, mixed race Hondo Lane (John Wayne) has lost his Apache wife prior to the beginning of Hondo (John Farrow, 1953), and this loss opens the way for him to fall in love with Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page), a blonde woman whose no-good husband married her for her land then abandoned her—historically, the sort of fate more likely to have befallen a Native American woman.  Hondo perceives similar character traits in Angie and his dead “squaw” or “wife,” two words he uses interchangeably.  Meanwhile, an Apache leader directs Angie to choose a brave for herself, to be a surrogate father to her courageous young son.  Hondo, Angie, and her son ultimately form a family.
  27. Family formations such as the one pictured here are central to Hearne’s analysis of the Western’s concern with family, Native children, and nationalism.  See especially p. 10.  It is also worth noting that James Garner’s star image, like those of Clint Walker and Buster Keaton, includes the idea that he is or may be part Native American, a possibility that adds another element to these actors’ “squaw man” images.
  28. On the general characteristics of the 1970s Western, see David Cook, Lost Illusions: American Cinema in the Shadow of Watergate and Vietnam 1970-1979, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2000, pp. 172-182.
  29. Elisabeth Bronfon, Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity, and the Aesthetic, Routledge, New York, 1992.
  30. On the traumatic Western and Eastwood’s film, see Walker, p. 220.
  31. On the historical Little Big Man, and on Sioux marriage customs, see Thomas Powers, The Killing of Crazy Horse, Knopf, New York, 2011.
  32. Leslie A. Fiedler, The Return of the Vanishing American, Stein and Day, New York, 1968, p. 162.  Fiedler writes about the novel here, but his analysis applies equally to the film.  Fiedler points out narrative corollaries to Jack’s enduring love for “grandfather”: Jack’s lack of sustained commitment to any one woman and his “ability to satisfy sexually all women, including and especially Indian ones,” while his wife is off giving birth (p. 161).
  33. For recent “squaw man” novels that deal critically with white theft of Indian land, including contemporary land grab schemes, see Margaret Coel’s well-researched Wind River Reservation novels Wife of Moon (2004) and Blood Memory (2008).

About The Author

Susan E. Linville is Professor Emerita, Department of English, University of Colorado, Denver, USA.

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