There are 621 Native American tribes in the United States. But until recently they all seemed the same to Hollywood -- one-dimensional.
In conventional old Hollywood movies, American Indians were most frequently portrayed as cowardly drunks or leering savages. By the late 1960s, the liberalism of the time was reflected by showing the Native Indians as stoic pacifists. But now a new wave of diverse films holds promise that the Indian nations may finally be presented as the vast canvas of humanity that they are.
"We are as varied as the rainbow," says Michael Barefoot, a Dallas resident and a member of the Hopi Nation, who has worked as senior medic on the sets of feature films and miniseries.
"We have had warriors and artists, hunters and poets," Barefoot says. "We are as varied as the Europeans are in their culture."
Mainstream Hollywood's awareness of that fact has been growing slowly. In the past several years, earnest but low-budget (and sparsely attended) films such as "War Party" and "Powwow Highway" focused on events seen through the eyes of American Indian protagonists. Currently, several big-budget endeavors feature Indian themes and Indian characters:
* An ABC miniseries, "Son of the Morning Star," will depict the battle of the Little Big Horn from the viewpoints of two women. One of the heroines is Libby Custer, wife of Gen. George Armstrong Custer; the other is a young Indian woman, Kate Big Head. With Rosanna Arquette as Libby and Kimberly Norris as Kate, the miniseries will air this winter. It promises to present a different perspective than that seen in 1941's "They Died With Their Boots On," with Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan, which was filled with the expected cliches of the time.
* In the recent film "Young Guns II," Lou Diamond Phillips stars as Chavez Y Chavez, a Mexican-Indian who is one of the most intelligent and sensitive members of Billy the Kid's gang. In the sequel, screenwriter John Fusco has delved deeper into the character's Indian culture, emphasizing the wry Indian sense of humor.
* Fusco also is preparing the screenplay for "Thunderheart," a contemporary thriller about a half-Indian detective investigating a group of murders on a reservation. The film is to be made for Robert DeNiro's production company, Tribeca Films.
* November marks the debut of one of the fall's most anticipated films, "Dances With Wolves," starring and directed by Kevin Costner. Almost three hours in length, the film tells of white settlers during the Civil War who begin a Western journey into Indian territory. Costner portrays Lt. John Dunbar, who hopes to witness the Indian's last frontier before it becomes a thing of the past.
* Director Errol Morris, whose docudrama "The Thin Blue Line" created a sensation in 1988, is working on an adaptation of Tony Hillerman's novel "Dark Wind," about a pair of Navajo detectives. The film is being produced by Robert Redford who plans a series of films based on Hillerman novels, all of which feature the same Indian characters.
"It's very easy to say that this is a trend,' says Fusco. "Something akin to the cycle of farm films, the cop-and-dog movies and the body-switching comedies. That sort of thing happens because of leaks in the industry.
"But I don't really believe that. What I really feel is that all these Indian projects are being made with integrity," says Fusco, who was adopted into a Lakota Sioux tribe and adheres to Indian religion and philosophy. "It's happening hand in hand with the current earth awareness, and Native Americans always have a lot to say on that subject."
Barefoot says its part of the general resurgence of interest in all cultures.
"Look at the emphasis on African-American and Asian cultures," he said. "People want to be comfortable with their roots, and many people are realizing that there were people here in the beginning who were not savages. They had families and art and culture. We are such a young country. When we were filming "Son of the Morning Star" in Montana, we discovered artifacts from the battle.
"Some wounds have just healed recently, allowing people to look back safely," he says.
"The nation's consciousness has changed," says Jim Wilson, who is co-producer of "Dances With Wolves" along with Costner. "From a financial standpoint, studios feel safer about films with American Indian subjects. Everyone is concerned with dealing with the environment now. After all, prior to 'Platoon,' not many studios wanted to deal with Vietnam. If 'Dances With Wolves' is a success, you can expect clones."
Fusco says, "Basically every film until 'Little Big Man' had offensive moments," referring to Arthur Penn's critically acclaimed 1970 comedy-adventure starring Dustin Hoffman. "If Indians weren't presented as savages, they were presented as quiet, stoic souls, avoiding the true Indian character that revolves around a wonderful, wry humor."
"Little Big Man" also was the first film in which Barefoot saw "more than the tiniest kernel of truth."
"I heard Native American languages spoken on screen, and it was thrilling. For the first time, I thought to myself, 'I'm an Indian, and I'm going to tell people,' as I was walking out of the theater."
The creators of "Dances With Wolves" seem to have come across their slant almost by accident.
"We're neither trendsetters nor trend followers," says Wilson. "Kevin and I were just looking for a character-driven story, and we read one that we loved. And it just happened to be about American Indians.
"It's based on a book by Michael Blake, and he's one of a dozen writers we keep tabs on. We knew about it while it was being written. Of course, its emotional slant is very sympathetic to the Indians, but history bears us out."
All the Indian parts in the current and upcoming films are to be played by Native Americans. In older Hollywood films, including the revered "Little Big Man," they were played by Asians or Hispanics, a fact that irritated American Indian actors as well as viewers.
What's more, in "Dances With Wolves" 30 percent of the dialogue is spoken in the Lakota language, with subtitles.