Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Native American Religion in Pop Culture


Lately I’ve noticed a lot more of those Native American memes as I scroll through my various web feeds (maybe it’s because Thanksgiving is coming up?). You know what I’m talking aboutpretty little pictures of serene and wise (and sad) Native Americans with some kind of superimposed message about listening to your elders and/or being one with the Earth. For some reason, a significant number of people really love spreading those around (I’m looking at you, elderly relatives). I’m not really sure why—maybe it’s something to do with looking for meaning in an increasingly post-Christian world. There are so many problems with those little memes; I won’t go into them all here. But some filmmakers have taken on a similar attitude. How do film versions of Native American religious beliefs match up to the real thing?

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I Guess Whitewashing is Okay Again

There have been many issues around race and comic book movies over the years. Marvel I feel has been the most notable with casting black actors in typically white roles. Alicia in Fantastic Four was black instead of the usual blonde-haired, blue-eyed character she is in the comics. Nick Fury, now played by Samuel L. Jackson is black, and perhaps the most controversial, Idris Elba played the Norse god Heimdall in Thor.

One black person and one woman, yep, that’s not tokenism at all.

I am not always a fan of casting actors to play characters that are not the same race as the actual character, but in the case of minority actors playing typically white characters I understand. Comic books have always been very white and I understand wanting to include more minorities in these movies. Casting black actors as white characters can, however, be just as racist as not casting them at all. Almost every character who is now a minority character is usually a minor character. Alicia was barely in Fantastic Four, Heimdall, though played well by Elba, and given a bigger role in the movie, is still just a minor character. Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury is probably the best role given to a black actor as Nick Fury is actually a main character and an important one, but even then Fury usually takes a back seat to every (see all) white characters in the Avengers. In this way, these movies seem to promote tokenism more than genuine portrayals of black characters.

Where are the movies featuring minority superheroes? Why is there still no Static Shock movie? Or Mister Terrific? There are rumors of a Luke Cage movie and talk of a Runaways movie, which would have a very diverse cast, but so far these works have barely gotten off the ground.

But the real racism comes along when characters that are supposed to be black, Latin American, Asian, or Native American are white washed or portrayed by white actors.

It amazes me that everyone flipped out that Idris Elba was portraying Heimdall, but very few people have gotten up in arms over Bane being played by Tom Hardy.

Tom Hardy is British, and yes, Bane’s father is Sir Edmund Dorrance who is also British, but Bane is not just British. Bane is from the fictional Caribbean Island of Santa Prisca in a prison called Priña Dura, which means “hard rock” in Spanish. Bane is even designed to look like a Mexican wrestler. So Bane is a biracial character that grew up in Latin America, so why is he being played by a white actor, and why does everyone seem to be okay with this? Could Nolan really not find any Latin American actors to play Bane?

This isn’t the first time Nolan has whitewashed characters nor will it be the last. In Batman Begins, Liam Neeson and Ken Watanabe played Ra’s al Ghul. Ra’s al Ghul, according to the Batman comic Birth of the Demon, was born to a tribe of nomads somewhere in the deserts of Arabia. Liam Neeson is from Ireland and Ken Watanabe is from Japan… yeah, I don’t think either of those is remotely Middle Eastern either.

If the rumors are true, then in The Dark Knight Rises this will be happening again.

Yes, she looks very French. I see it now.

Marion Cotillard is a French actress who will be playing Miranda Tate in the new Batman movie, but rumor has it that Miranda Tate is actually Talia al Ghul, Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter. If this is true then once again we’ll have a Middle Eastern character being played by a European actress.

With diversity being such a problem in comic books why are we changing the ethnicities of characters that already are a different ethnicity than from white European?

Of course the movie industry is no better when it comes to diversity. Disney has recently decided that instead of coming up with an original idea for a new movie they are simply going to reboot The Lone Ranger, with Johnny Depp playing the Native American character Tonto.

Now the original Lone Ranger radio and TV show was nowhere near racially sensitive, but today I expect better. I would feel a lot better about The Lone Ranger movie if Tonto was actually played by a Native American.

Now Johnny Depp is apparently at least kind of Native American.

“I guess I have some Native American (in me) somewhere down the line. My great grandmother was quite a bit of Native American, she grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian.” (via The Stranger)

Johnny Depp’s ethnicity however is mostly French American and culturally he isn’t Native American at all, leaving some people asking if Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto is no better than Al Jolson’s blackface.

Tonto is part of the Potawatomi Native American Nation, but so far the pictures of Tonto do not reflect anything remotely authentic. Instead audiences will be treated to yet another stereotypical portrayal of a Native American character played by a white actor.