Unlike Western literature, Western films tend to focus on Plains Indian tribes, the nomadic tribes in the plains settlers crossed to reach the West, with little distinction between tribes. The films also respond to film history, a history that coincides with political and cultural history of both Hollywood and the United States as a whole. According to Scott Simmon, American Indians were at the center of many early silent westerns, from The Red Girl (1908) to Hiawatha (1913). According to Simmon, “Indians may well have entered American film for the reason they came into the European tradition as a whole: Searching for stories to set in the landscape, pioneer filmmakers stumbled upon ‘Indians,’ the presumed men of nature” (4). Set in Eastern lush forests instead of desert plains, the narratives of these early silent westerns “are set entirely within tribal communities or feature a ‘noble redskin’ as guide or savior to the white hero” (4).
By 1914, however, Simmon asserts, American Indian actors and sympathetic narratives were no longer prominent in westerns at least partly because the “U. S. Army began planning, with some innocence, for America’s entry into World War I by requisitioning horses” (80). According to Simmon, “The subsequent history of Indian images in silent-era Hollywood becomes a story with two paths—one about war, the other about love—neither leading anywhere except Indian death” (81).
In spite of Simmon’s contention, at least a few westerns highlighting American Indian characters and narratives present a more sympathetic view of a possible comic evolutionary narrative, a narrative of environmental adaptation that reveals the ineffectiveness of a tragic evolutionary path and the intruder pioneers who seek destruction rather than adaptation. Although racially flawed, The Vanishing American (1925) and The Miracle Rider (1935) serve as two western films prior to World War II, which draw on this more sympathetic perspective.
The Vanishing American traces a history of domination of American Indians by pioneering intruders, including that of Booker (Noah Beery) a white Indian agent overseeing a Navajo reservation where he mistreats the Navajo and steals their horses. Nophaie (Richard Dix), an educated Navajo who fought in World War I, is torn between his people and his white teacher, Marion Warner (Lois Wilson), when he returns from the war, and ultimately is sacrificed as he fights against Booker to regain his people’s dignity. Miscegenation is avoided because of Nophaie’s death, but the film’s prologue, especially, foregrounds a history of conquest, one that is lamented even if painted as inevitable in the film.
The Miracle Rider, a Tom Mix serial, opens with a chapter that is also dedicated to the “Vanishing Indian.” The episode provides historical background that bifurcates American Indians willing to adapt to their environment from their white opponents, demonstrating how a tragic evolutionary narrative destroys both American Indians and their hunting grounds. They both valorize a comic evolutionary narrative, one from a silent big budget western perspective, the other from a small budget western serial point of view, but they both also demonstrate the futility of such a valorization.