“Savages and Romantics: How Hollywood Soundtracks Construct Native Americans” by Yang Kaiyuan

Many activists and scholars have long advocated the need to correct visual stereotypes of Indians based on the works by Edward Curtis and Hollywood movies (King 2003, Reel Injun 2009). Surprisingly, the aural aspect of stereotyping Native Americans is often overlooked. In fact, nearly all soundtracks are carefully engineered, planned and executed in each film production to help achieve directors’ agendas. Film music facilitates in setting up locations, constructing characters and splicing scenes. Most importantly, given that film music is highly effective in conveying emotions (Cohen 2001), the types of music that are used to construct cinematic Indians can significantly influence viewers’ emotions and perceptions towards real-life Indians.

Hollywood has, since its earliest days, produced an extensive number of films depicting Native Americans. These characterizations of the Indian range from the ignoble and uncivilized in Northwest Passage (1940) to the noble and sympathetic allegorical “Native Americans” in the sci-fi blockbuster Avatar (2009). Overall, representations of Native Americans have changed from mono-dimensional savages in the Golden Age to the diverse, humanized Native Americans characters portrayed in more contemporary films. However, despite the change in the way Indians are portrayed in Hollywood films, I argue that musical scores subtly perpetuate old stereotypes, which construct Native Americans as “Other” using darker, dissonant harmonies and primal percussive sounds. Furthermore, such music has grown to use more native music to construct “Otherness” and more Romantic music to humanize Indians. These soundtracks marginalize and prejudicially stereotype Native American music, even as some of the films themselves attempt to dispel such stereotypes of Native Americans.

Brownrigg (Brownrigg, “Film Music and Film Genre” 25) argued that Romantic music is the root of Hollywood film scores and due to its pervasiveness, Romantic musical scores are both geographically neutral (Brownrigg, “Hearing Place” 309) and time neutral (Brownrigg, “Film Music and Film Genre” 25) to the viewer’s ears. Romantic music is mostly diatonic in its tonal system. Conventionally, major scale suggests a bright and triumphant mood, while minor scale suggests a dark and struggling mood. A Romantic score features instruments in a Western orchestra and the piano. On the other hand, authentic Native American music is distinctively different. Traditional Native American music has both static and complex rhythms; their tuning systems have several different modes. They feature instruments such as drums, wind instruments, rattles, and string instruments; they sing in varying nasality, tessitura, and vibrato depending on their tribes (Parthun). Due to this natural disparity between native and Romantic music, film scores can easily construct “Otherness” by deploying elements of native music.

Early Ages

In the influential Golden Age Hollywood, roughly from 1930s to 1960s, when movies were constructing Native Americans as villain savages, simplified versions of native music were blended into otherwise Romantic film scores. Such musical representation was characterized by a change in tonal system, harmonies, and instrumentations. In Northwest Passage (1940), Fort Apache (1948), and The Searchers (1956), when Native Americans appear on screen, the film scores change from Romantic orchestral sound in major mode to mainly percussive sound with dissonant intervals and native modal melodies. The percussive sound features steady drumbeats by tom-tom or other similar unpitched drums. Tritone intervals are featured in Fort Apache and The Searchers. Tritone is an interval four whole-tones apart, and has long been deemed “evil sound” in Baroque period churches. In those movies, especially in The Searchers, a four-beat “THUMP-thump-thump-thump” rhythm, which has been a stereotypical primal rhythm in cinemas, was played in scenes involving Indians. Apart from these scenes, the rest of the scores were Romantic orchestral sound characterized by conventional orchestration. Military band music featuring fife, snare drum, and bugle underscores a considerable proportion of screen time involving US armies. By using these dissonances and primal rhythms, early films made the Indians scenes stand out aurally, suggesting a connection between the viewers’ aural perception of “Otherness” and evilness and their subconscious negative perception of Native Americans.

With the growing concerns of Native American rights issues being raised in the 1960s, Hollywood films started to humanize, rather than demonize, Native American characters. There are still films such as Ulzana’s Raid (1972) and The Missing (2003) that continue to depict most Indians as savages and “Otherness” throughout. But up until now, films such as Soldier Blue (1970), Pocahontas (1995), Bury My Heart at Wounded Knees (2007), and Avatar (2009) explore Native Americans as victims of Western racism and oppression. Some films such as A Man Called Horse (1970), Dances with Wolves (1990), Black Robe (1991), and Apocalypto (2006) depict a noble and humanized Native American group to contrast another evil and savage group while focusing on the internecine struggles among different Native American nations.

All the films listed above use varying degrees of native music in their films scores to convey a sense of “Otherness,” in line with the convention exemplified in Golden Age films in which Indians were predictably mono-dimensional villains. All of the movies lay out the “Otherness” for the viewers to see at the very early stage of the story arc. Visually, it is usually done by depicting Indians in vastly distinct appearances and habitats or committing violent activities. Aurally, just like in Golden Age, the sound of “Otherness” is conveyed as well. In Soldier Blue, for example, Indians enter into the narrative in a graphic battle scene. With the emergence of Indians into the frame, the music changes to pure percussion with off-beat accented and fast paced drum beats and rattles. As the Indians attack the US soldiers, the brass, drum, and rattle sections of the orchestra accent on the THUMP-thump-thump-thump rhythm. In Pocahontas, the movie introduces Indians to the viewers in the title sequence by showing the Indian tribe, and the music is accompanied by tom-tom drum and rattle ostinato, a pentatonic melodic line, and occasional ululating. Or in the case of Ulzana’s Raid, viewers’ first encounter of Indians is the ambush of wagon scene. The music creates the “Otherness” by suddenly featuring offbeat drums and rattle with irregular rhythm, and the trombone and the drum feature a prominent tritone (Eb-A) interval. In all these films, this simplified dissonant and percussive soundtracks draw on the old conventions about Indians’ “Otherness” in the musical scores, showing a consistency of such aural stereotyping.

Aligning the Audiences

As each story progress, depending on whether the Indian characters were intended to be sympathized with, the relative proportion of Romantic and native music adjusts accordingly to heighten or lessen the “Otherness” of Native American characters.

In films that continue depicting Indians as barbaric and ignoble, such as Ulzana’s Raid and The Missing, this stereotypical dissonant percussion mimicking Indian music continues throughout the storylines. For example, in Ulzana’s Raid, Indians continue to be portrayed as brutal and violent, and the corresponding underscore continues to feature Indian musical elements such as rattle and arrhythmic drum beats, along with the atonal melodies and dissonant tritone sounds. In The Missing, in later scenes depicting Indians as evil and brutal, such as extracting venom from snakes and abducting civilians, the music continues featuring panflute and drums playing tribal rhythms, along with high-pitched shrieking of human singing mixed with wolves howling. The musical representation of Indians used in these films heightens the conventional stereotyping of Native American music throughout the narrative even though the “Otherness” has been conveyed across to viewers in the beginning of the story. Arguably this consistency in negative soundtracks makes directors easier to tell dramatic and entertaining stories that depict Native Americans in negative light.

In films that explored Native Americans as victims of Western racism and oppression, namely Soldier Blue, Pocahontas, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knees, and Avatar, Romantic orchestral music is used to lessen the “Otherness” and evoke empathy towards Native American characters as the narrative progress in the screen time. Apart from the initial “Otherness” encountered by the viewers, films use favorable character development to make Indians to be sympathized with. The corresponding soundtracks are also overtaken by Romantic orchestral music to lessen the “Otherness.” In Pocahontas, after the introduction of Indian tribe in the title sequence which clearly deploys stereotypical Indian music, the same stereotypical native music was deployed again when the tribal shaman performs witchcraft while predicting the future, as the soundtrack accordingly features tom-tom drum beats to heighten this “Otherness” of an Indian witchcraft. But as the main love story unfolds, the score of Pocahontas is taken over by Western Romantic music. The sci-fi Avatar, while ostensibly depicting extraterrestrials, is a clear allegory for Native Americans, and who director James Cameron even suggests were modeled on Sioux (Phillips 2010). In Avatar, when the natives were displaying primal and barbaric qualities first capturing Jake early in the movie, the music also features pan-flute, tom-tom, and rattle accompanying, clearly drawing on the stereotypical Indian musical score. However, as the story progress, the rest of the movie develops the native in positive light and the soundtrack remains in Romantic idiom. Native music is used to construct “Otherness,” but when Indians are intended to be sympathized with, it gives way to Romantic music.

In films that show two contrasting and contentious groups of Native Americans, namely A Man Called Horse, Dances with Wolves (1990), Black Robe (1991), and Apocalypto (2006), one group is more sympathetically constructed than the other. Usually, the sympathetic group is more rational and peaceful, displaying many favorable Western family and personal values. Accordingly, the more sympathetic native group is accompanied with more Romantic music, while the less sympathetic native group is accompanied with more stereotypical native music. In Black Robe, Chomina’s tribe who are exposed to Christianity are depicted as noble savage, while the Iroquois tribe who still believe in shaman are depicted as ruthless and barbaric. Throughout the film, the music accompanying most of the storyline, including Chomina’s activities, is Romantic, occasionally featuring Baroque styles such as counterpoint. However, during viewers’ first encounter with Iroquois which is the scene when Chomina’s tribal group went back to rescue Priest LaForgue and were attacked by Iroquois, the music changes to tom-tom drums striking steady and fast rhythm with trombones and trumpets playing tritone and dissonant intervals. And when the priest and Chomina’s group are captured and taken to the Iroquois camp, the music becomes purely percussive with drums and rattle playing rhythm. In Dances with Wolves, Pawnee are constructed in a less favorable light than Sioux, and when Pawnee are killing white settlers or in battle, their ignobility is scored with heavy drum bass and more dissonance, as opposed to when Sioux are engaged in action, the music is in the Western Romanticism orchestral sound. In Apocalypto, the forest-dwelling Mayans, who were portrayed as victims, become the sympathetic heroes while the urban Mayans are portrayed as sadistic, ruthless and ignoble. Later in the film, the forest Mayans’ underscore becomes less percussive and more Romantic to construct the characters’ emotions and inner struggles.

Music for Distinguishing Good and Bad Indians

Whether the films are showing Westerners clash with (allegorical) Native Americans or internecine struggles among Native Americans, two characteristics of the soundtracks stand out. One is when the films are depicting Native Americans as “Other” visually and ideologically, the soundtracks change to stereotypical dissonant percussive sound accordingly. This reduction of native music originated from the Golden Age, and persists in contemporary movies. However, since Golden Age movies, I observe that this musical stereotyping involves more and more native music elements. As compared to earlier time in which only tom-tom drums and conventional primal rhythms were involved, over the years, various native instruments such as different kinds of rattles and drum, native vocal singings, and more complex and native rhythms have been used in soundtrack. This can be due to the maturation of the film industry in US that calls for refinement of film elements including film music, and also due to growing demand for more authenticity in period drama films. While the effort by film industry to recreate a realer native music underscoring natives in films is laudable, clearly Native American music is still primarily deployed to heighten the “Otherness” intended. And it can very well be the case that preciously with the growingly desensitized audience, movies have to turn to newer sounds for the same storyline to be as entertaining and dramatic as before. Thus this “Otherness” inflation is very likely driving this change in the soundtracks underscoring Native Americans that I have observed.

Two is that more sympathetic Native Americans and activities are scored with more Romantic musical elements. Unlike during the Golden Age in which Indians were depicted as mono-dimensional villains, over the years, Native Americans were depicted more dynamically and authentically. More sympathetic Native American characters were shown in films, and some films even create a number of Native American characters with considerable depth and appeal. However, native music elements continue to convey “Otherness” of Native Americans when required, they are not used to depict humanized or sympathetic Native Americans. Romantic music, being time- and geography- neutral, is used for garnering sympathy and relating the stories and characters to the viewers.

Hollywood and Stereotypes

Movies, especially commercial ones, have less interest in making the world on screen realistic and comprehensive than responding to the demand of the market. Viewers want heroes, characters they can root for, an illusion on screen that is larger than life, and an experience of entertainment. Movies have many tools such as music, costumes, production design, script, directing, cinematography, editing, acting and casting at their disposal. The pressure of revenue and the need to tell a story means movies often end up with taking the easy way out with at least one of the above tools. In music’s case, the same scene and characters take on vastly different meanings if we simply switch between positive or negative sounding film scores. Interestingly, what I have observed for Native American in films is a reverse. We have positive or negative storylines and characters that make the soundtrack take on different meanings. Originally in Golden Age, Western dissonant and dark music was used to depict Native Americans in negative light. But gradually the Western dissonant music was substituted with native music for the same negative scenes involving Native Americans, thus marginalizing native music. Not only has the rich and diverse Native American music culture been reduced and stereotyped over the years in cinema, this process has also become a prejudicial and one-sided degradation of native music. By linking dissonance and the often regarded simplistic and primal aspect of music – percussion to film music depicting ignoble and “Other” Indians, films are misrepresenting native music. They are also single-handedly dictating what “native music” is to a wide range of audience. Simply making native music give way to Romantic music when garnering sympathy and emotions, films are subtly but crudely marginalizing native music. That old aural stereotypes persist, even as we think we are ‘progressing’ in our depictions of Native Americans. This persistence is yet another example reflecting the sheer tyranny of entertainment in film industry.


Works Cited


A Man Called Horse. DVD. Directed by Elliot Silverstein. 1970; US: Paramount,

Apocalypto. BluRay. Directed by Mel Gibson. 2006; US: Touchstone Home            Entertainment, 2007.

Avatar (Original Theatrical Edition). DVD. Directed by James Cameron. 2009;      US: 20th Century Fox, 2010.

Black Robe. DVD. Directed by Bruce Beresford. 1991; US: MGM (Video &            DVD), 2001.

Brownrigg, Mark. “Film Music and Film Genre.” Diss. University of Stirling,       2003.

Brownrigg, Mark. “Hearing Place: Film Music, Geography and Ethnicity.”           International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics, 3.3 (2007): 307-323.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. DVD. Directed by Yves Simoneau. 2007; US:          HBO Home Video, 2011.

Cohen, Annabel J. “Music as a Source of Emotion in Film.” Music and emotion:

            Theory and research. Eds. Patrick N. Juslin and John A. Sloboda. Oxford:

Oxford University Press, 2001. 249-72.

Dances with Wolves (Director’s Cut). BluRay. Directed by Kevin Costner. 1990; US:             MGM Home Entertainment, 2010.

Fort Apache. DVD. Directed by John Ford. 1948; US: RKO Radio Pictures, 2007.

King, Thomas. “You’re Not the Indian I Had in Mind.” Thomas King, The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. 31-60.

Northwest Passage. DVD. Directed by King Vidor. 1940; US: Warner Archive, 2011.

Parthun, Paul. “Tribal Music in North America.” Music Educators Journal 62.5 (1976): 32-45.

Phillips, Tom. “Avatar Director James Cameron Joins Amazon Tribe’s Fight to

Halt Giant Dam.” The Guardian, 18 April. 2010.


Pocahontas. DVD. Directed by Mike Gabriel, Eric Goldberg. 1995; US: Walt           Disney Video, 2000.

Reel Injun. DVD. Directed by Neil Diamond. 2009; US: Lorber Films, 2011.

Soldier Blue. DVD. Directed by Ralph Nelson. 1970; US: Lionsgate, 2006.

The Missing. DVD. Directed by Ron Howard. 2003; US: Sony Pictures Home         Entertainment, 2004.

The Searchers. DVD. Directed by John Ford. 1956; US: Warner Home Video, 2007.

Ulzana’s Raid. DVD. Directed by Robert Aldrich. 1972; US: Good Times Home

Video, 1999.

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