“It reflects a life that is not true for all Indians, but typical of many.”
So begins the narrative voice-over in The Exiles (Kent Mackenzie, 1961), which presents a refreshingly original portrait of American Indians, situating them in a Californian urban milieu, away from their parents and grandparents on the reservations. Over the course of this semester, I’ve looked at a variety of movies concerning peoples historically underrepresented in film art. Constructions of ethnic minorities consistently have as much to do with previous media portrayals and stereotypes as they do the real people. In that sense, films with minority characters share certain conventions of the genre picture (and indeed, many genres incorporate ethnic tropes, including the Italian of the Gangster, or the African-American servant or performer in classic Hollywood or melodrama).
It is interesting to note that 50 years after the release of The Exiles, its particular image of the urban Indian remains radical. The level of realism is startling: I appreciate its authenticity, and its dedication to a particular subculture rarely explored by the camera lens. According to the 1990 census, 63 percent of Native Americans lived in urban regions. Yet, the construct of Indian as “noble savage” or frontier warrior persists in the nation’s cultural mindset, reinforced by the canon of Western films and America’s collective foundation myth. For most of white America, the Indian is of the continent — and yet, crucially, only particular parts of the continent are recognized as his domain.
The reservation is understood as the Indian’s arena. Even if it is somewhat marred by the history of forced migration and prejudice, there is a resurgence of pride in the reservation as emanation of the Indian self. The magazine section of the Times frequently runs ads for Native American Universities: “If I stay on the Res, I’m more likely to graduate.” The reservation provides a convenient domain for historians and anthropologists to think about the Indian, for there, he is identifiable by tribe, costume, language and rituals. The “res” simplifies Native culture, segmenting it from the mainstream, in a sense controlling for interference and cultural mingling. But once the American Indian enters the city, abandons “authentic” costume, and internalizes Euro-American constructions of private ownership and anonymity, he becomes indistinguishable, almost invisible to the untrained eye.
The transition into the dominant culture is probably partial (no one can disavow an entire life experience), and certainly gradual. Ultimately, though, urban life presents a dilemma for the American Indian, who experiences ethnic misclassification, and a sense of disconnect from his heritage. The Exiles is extraordinarily compelling in its ability to communicate the ambivalence of the urban Indian experience. Such is the sentiment expressed by Homer in The Exiles: “My people roamed all over the place…I would rather be in that time than now.” It is important that Homer distinguishes between the two systems of Indian life in terms of time and not space.
Over a decade after the making of The Exiles, the American West Center at the University of Utah asserted the dilemma faced by the urban Indian in these terms: “The city is an alien place…[It] demands of the individual to disavow his heritage to become a truly urban citizen.”
Donald Fixico frames the problem as an issue of insufficient information: “People who know very little about American Indians…have very little to base a viewpoint on about urban Indians. They have to rely on stereotypes,” which have been overwhelmingly negative. I am cognizant of the fact that there is a level to Yvonne’s attitudes and desires that I will never fully grasp. For instance, what future does she envision for her unborn child in Los Angeles? Why does she subject herself to Homer, a husband who rarely acknowledges her presence, or leaves her to live vicariously through solitary excursions to the movies? What are her motivations and aspirations as she watches her husband and Tommy walk through the alleyway after a night on Hill X with the women they picked up in a bar? There is no way to read the expression on her face with the system of equivalencies exploited by Hollywood.
In trying to qualify my response to the film, I repeatedly came back to The Wire. As I watched Season 1 this week, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of fondness for the characters from West Baltimore. True, I don’t belong to this particular subculture, enmeshed in urban warfare, drug addiction and drug trafficking, bombed-out low-rises, imposing high-rises, poverty and slick Roc-A-Wear and Baby Phat wardrobes, but these characters speak a dialect that’s ubiquitous in the Baltimore's schools. It’s fascinating to hear it spoken on the screen: the show’s creators captured the spontaneity, the diction, the wisdom hidden beneath the layers of archaic-sounding syntax. These actors speak the cadence I heard from the moment I entered Baltimore’s school system in August 2001. Coming from New York, I remember thinking this the strangest place. What language were these people speaking? Baltimore seemed like an island, severed from the realities I had taken for granted on 207th Street in Manhattan: the subway, Dominicans, Asians, the populated playground, and people in general.
The general absence of human bodies in the street and the alien nature of the speech I did hear presented a weird environment for an outsider. But I guess I became accustomed to it eventually, because watching The Wire today, I felt solidarity with the West Baltimore speakers captured on film and projected on screen — however violent their language, however amoral and degenerate their behaviors. I think this supports the universally validating power of cinema: the recording of real Indians, their accents uncensored and uncorrected, lends an authentic quality and asserts the urban Indian’s realness. It recognizes a distinctive presence in the world.
“It’s cool up there, you sing your own tribal songs….you know… anything you want to do… you know”
One of the most interesting scenes in The Exiles follows Homer and Tommy to Hill X, the spot overlooking the LA skyline where the city’s Indians gather and reenact their cultural rites and rituals, modified to fit the urban environment, the particular demographic shift of the Indian populace, and the physical remoteness of the reservation. The modified powwows serve a younger generation of reservation "exiles," integrated into the metropolis. While not particularly young in years, these men and women resemble adolescents. They enter the semi-spiritual peak of Hill X as rambunctious American teens, blasting horns and revving engines. They convalesce, chant, dance, beat the drum as Indians by night, and in the morning, abandon the Hill, returning to the mainstream. The scene they leave behind is once more ambivalent: the land is dusty and beaten flat by tires; empty bottles and refuse clutter the clearing. It becomes clear from the image of the Hill that the urban Indian presents a unique and challenging blend of identities. His values with respect to ownership, environment, and family are an ambiguous mix of two cultures that our media has, for so long, presented as irreconcilable.
 Fixico, D. Lee. (2000). The Urban Indian Experience in America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
 “Seattle Indian Center Plan,” February 3, 1972, in Mary Ellen Sloan, “Indians in an Urban Setting, Salt Lake County, Utah (1972),” Occupational Paper No. 2, American West Center, University of Utah, 1973, 6.