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'Reel Injun' kicks off Community Cinema Series

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 6, 2010 - This year's Community Cinema Series kicks off Thursday at the Missouri History Museum with "Reel Injun," a documentary by Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond who explores Hollywood's skewed image of North American Indians.

There are clips galore from well-known Westerns -- Hollywood has made thousands of films about Indians -- as well as interviews with activist Russell Means, actor/director Clint Eastwood and Native American actors Adam Beach and Graham Greene, who admits that "the only language I speak is English, and not very well."

Diamond narrates the film, describing his search for the fearless, stoic warriors and wise spiritual elders as defined by Hollywood.

"Where I come from, we never rode horses or wore feathers, but there was a time as a kid when I wished we did," Diamond says.

The film is informative but far from preachy, its tone perhaps best captured in this 1977 clip of standup comedian Charlie Hill from the "Richard Pryor Show": "For so long you probably thought that Indians never had a sense of humor," says Hill. "We never thought you were too funny, either."

The film offers a highlight reel of famous actors -- make that WHITE actors -- playing Indians: Burt Lancaster, Charles Bronson, William Shatner, Anthony Quinn. Is that really Chuck "The Rifleman" Connors playing Geronimo?

"Reel Injun" will air on KETC-Channel 9 on Nov. 7, but local viewers can get a free sneak preview at Thursday's screening. Kathy Dickerson, a St. Louisan who is a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, will participate in a panel discussion afterward.

Dickerson, who prefers the description American Indian rather than Native American, said she hopes that films such as "Reel Injun" will help counter stereotypes that have been perpetuated by Hollywood for more than a century.

If you want to learn about Indians, she suggests you ask a "real" one, not someone who is portraying Native Americans or offering "tributes" to their customs.

"We're still here," she says.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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