The Long Riders' Guild

On the Road to “Hidalgo”:

Native American Representation and Performance

in Contemporary Film



Elizabeth A. Roetman

Department of Society & Anthropology

University of Nebraska-Omaha


Paper Presented at: 

Annual Meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology, Dallas, Texas, April 2, 2004



“If a white man didn’t tell the story, then the story wouldn’t have been made.”   Indian actor Rodney Grant observed when he explained his reasons for participating in Kevin Costner’s 1990 film, Dances With Wolves (Pack 2001)Non-Indians are again attempting to tell the Indian story through the Disney/Touchstone 2004 film, Hidalgo.   Disney’s Hidalgo is allegedly the true story of a mixed-blood Lakota, Frank T. Hopkins, who claimed he was an Army Dispatch/American Pony Express rider and the first American to win the Ocean of Fire (a 3,000-mile 1,000 year old equestrian survival race across the Arabian Desert). 

The film opens with a brief re-creation of the Lakota Ghost Dance and the Wounded Knee Massacre in December, 1890. Hopkins was purportedly the dispatch rider who delivered the orders to General Miles to disarm the Lakotas before that fateful day.   In the film he delivers the orders, leaves, and returns to the scene when he hears gunfire.  The film traces Hopkins guilt ridden despair from Wounded Knee to his drunken showmanship days in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. It was here that he was purportedly approached by “Arabs” to prove his horsemanship in the Ocean of Fire equestrian race. 

The screenplay was written by a non-Indian, John Fusco.   Fusco, who also wrote the 1992 film, “Thunderheart” and the recent ABC (a Disney owned Company) mini-series, “The Dreamkeeper” has a connection to the Lakota Community from his “adopted” Pine Ridge family, Stephen and Maisy Redbow (Noel 2003).  He has expressed a profound interest in bringing Native American history to film in a manner he believes is more historically accurate than others have done in the past (Noel 2003). 

According to Viggo Mortensen (of Lord of the Rings fame), who plays Frank T. Hopkins, “Hidalgo corrects historical misinformation, particularly, with regard to the Lakota people” (Cowboys and Indians 2003).  However, nearly ever historical aspect of this project has been questioned; from Hopkins identity as a mixed-blood Lakota to the very existence of the race.

Sonny Richards, a purported Lakota medicine man and the Ceremonial advisor for Hidalgo worked closely with Mr. Fusco (Noel 2003).  Mr. Richards was responsible for staging the re-creation of the Ghost Dance.  Mr. Fusco was also present on the set by request of the non-Indian director, Joe Johnston.  Mr. Johnston wanted to have Fusco on the set because he believed the writer knew the material better than anyone else, despite the fact that numerous Natives worked on the project.     

The apparent cultural appropriation in the film work of the non-Indians working on these projects raises several questions.  Should the movie-making machine of Hollywood have the right to interpret Native culture and re-tell their history?  Should this artistic license extend to the sacred ceremonial rituals of a group?  Are there historical and/or sacred events that should never be “re-created” because of the possible consequences of such “re-creations” to the original group?  What are the responsibilities of the artists, screenwriters, directors, and studios toward Native Americans when they enter into sacred ceremonial space and time?  Is the movie-going audience aware of the “re-creation” from a performance viewpoint, and how does the audience interpret such “re-creations”? And, finally, does Anthropology have a role in this process, and how far should we go?


The Walt Disney Company began filming Fusco’s true story of Frank T. Hopkins and his horse, Hidalgo on August 5, 2002 with a projected release date of August 2003.  The release date was delayed to avoid competition with the film Seabiscuit and due to the growing voice of discontent over historical accuracy relating to Frank T. Hopkins from The Long Riders’ Guild, “the worlds’ first international association of equestrian explorers”.  The film opened March 5, 2004.  The Long Riders Guild, assisted by more than seventy scholars, alleges that Hopkins was nothing but a hoax (2003).  John Fusco has vigorously disputed their charge but has declined to release the names of the historians he claims to have worked with (O’Reilly 2003).

Nina Heyn, Disney’s Executive Director of International Publicity, defended the $80 million dollar movie saying, “No one here really cares about the historical aspects. Once a picture has been shot, people move on to others. We’re like a factory. It is like making dolls. Once the latest doll is out, we go onto the next one. If it transpires that the historical aspects are in question, I do not think people would care that much. Hidalgo is a family film.  It has little to do with reality” (O’Reilly 2003).

The problem is this has everything to do with reality, with how the present day audience will view this latest Disney version of history, and what bit of history has been distorted to sell movie tickets.  The studio has waffled on their initial claim that Hidalgo was a true story (Bommersbach 2004).  The official movie site now reads “the unbelievable true story of Frank T. Hopkins” and the theatrical trailers are still incorporating the phrase “true story”.


Disney movies and Imagineering have always been synonymous.  The Walt Disney Company is known for its abilities to imagineer history to fit the purposes of the studio (including serving the American government’s need for World War II propaganda).  Uncle Walt is an American icon along with Mickey, Minnie, and Tinker Bell, however, beneath this innocent façade lurks a multi-billion dollar corporation that has the ability to present its media as “the” educational and cultural apparatus of our society (Fromm 1994).  Disney routinely co-opts local histories, with little concern for the corresponding social, political, geographical contexts, and turns the history into the Disney version, which it sells to the consumer as American truth, culture, and fact (Schaffer 1996).  With Hidalgo, the Disney Educators have gone one step further by directly providing educational materials on the Hidalgo website for teachers to download to incorporate into grades 8 through 12 critical writing and thinking skills curriculum.


According to Frank T. Hopkins’ biography, he was descended from a white father (who, coincidentally, was the only white survivor of Little Big Horn massacre) and a Lakota mother (who, coincidentally, was the chief’s daughter and a real Indian princess) (O’Reilly 2003).  These two “facts” should have caused Fusco to stop and double check the historical record on Hopkins; however, it appears Fusco chose to believe Hopkins’ claims about his glorious past.  When Vine Deloria Jr., noted Lakota scholar, was contacted by the Long Riders Guild about Hopkins’ claim of Lakota descent, he responded with the following: “Hopkins’ claims are so outrageously false that one wonders why the Disney people were attracted to this material at all….The problem is that these distortions of  Indian history, the slandering of famous chiefs and leaders, and the presentation of these lies as history cannot be easily erased once they are promulgated as fact……But Hollywood in all its fictional ventures of the past has never treated history with just such a dismissive attitude” (O’Reilly 2003).  

According to Viggo Mortensen, tampering and tinkering are “what we do, it is what it means to be alive” (2003).   Anthropologists are perhaps more aware of the costs and consequences of this tinkering than most.  Performance, whether in film or in still photographs, serves the purpose of fostering a sense of collective identity and communal feelings among the viewers (Sponsler 1992). 

So, what happens when Lakota history and culture is distorted and presented as a true story about a mixed-blood who likely was not Lakota (or even Native) at all?  Not only is the Native American viewer damaged by this mis-representation, so is the non-Native whose perception of Native history has also been “tinkered” with.  Ultimately, the complex truth of Wounded Knee is lost because, according to Disney, one mixed-blood Lakota dispatch rider unknowingly caused the Wounded Knee massacre.   The audience and those on the screen have become victims of the camera. This same victimization happens when one mixed-blood Lakota, who was likely never present at these events, is given the stage to tell the story. The audience has become a tourist in an historical drive by event.

Rodney Grant stated eleven years ago if the white man did not tell the story, it would not be told.  Mr. Grant is somewhat correct because, despite the growth of the Native film industry since Dances with Wolves, the non-Indian film industry still has superior means to create and tell “the Indian story.”   This means to create should not give non-Indians the artistic license to shape-shift Native history to make it more commercially successful. 

Who should hold these movie makers/artists accountable for presenting these versions of history as the real thing?  Is there a deeper agenda that perpetuates the domination and oppression of Native people or is it as harmless as producing dolls in a factory?  To what degree are other “minority” cultures affected by this cultural appropriation?    

Vine Deloria states that each generation faces these kinds of frauds and each generation needs to stand up and howl and scream until this appropriation of Indian culture and history stops (O’Reilly, 2003). Several of the Native actors were purportedly aware of the problems with this project, but to be working actors they chose to say nothing (O’Reilly 2003).  It has also been alleged that several Lakota scholars were approached about the representations of their leaders and history, but they apparently refused to comment on the materials (O’Reilly2003).  Clearly, appropriation of sacred ceremonial rituals, history and culture will continue when those with the knowledge to correct a falsified story, do nothing to correct it.  

In the end, what are Hollywood, Disney, and John Fusco really packaging up for the American public to view?  Does this high-powered group of individuals really have the right to step into the sacred space of a time not so long ago, and rewrite the vision to fit their needs?  Are there some things that are too sacred to film, too sacred to “re-create,” and too sacred to reconstruct to fit the manuscript for others to see?  In the end, who truly has the right to speak for each group that was present that day?  These hard questions need to be answered before a project of this nature begins.  Disney did not simply entertain, they likely misrepresented, and distorted history, and in so doing they have miseducated a mass audience (Giroux 2003).  


How is the history and practice of anthropology relevant to this issue?  Certainly, if John Fusco was an anthropologist, he would have been banished from Indian Country along with his story of the mixed-blood Frank T. Hopkins.  In his defense, Fusco has created more Native American jobs in the entertainment industry than any one.  However, this also says something about Hollywood’s apparent lack of interest in authentic Native American art and artists. 

Is there a place for applied anthropologists in the entertainment world?  Could that sensibility help build job opportunities for Native actors, directors, screenwriters, and producers?   Clearly, the dominant society is interested in Native life ways; it seems a natural extension for applied anthropologists to extend their expertise to help develop a Native-controlled entertainment industry. 

One possible role for anthropologists would be to act as mediators to help bring the ideas of non-Natives to the appropriate Native leaders.  Similarly, anthropologists familiar with the film industry might have the ability to connect Native People to Hollywood so they could tell their own stories.  Greater use of anthropologists and historians could also strengthen historical accuracy and cultural portrayals—giving screenwriters and directors reliable sources they could turn to for greater accuracy.  In particular, anthropologists have the skills and training to help reveal important ethnographic details of historical accounts. 

Dramaturgical work is certainly an area applied anthropologist could assist with.  If the film industry had to present their ideas to a Tribal Council or Council of Elders before filming could begin (the equivalent of a tribal “IRB”), how many problems would be prevented?  Anthropologists have been held accountable for their actions when they enter the space of others.  Why does that accountability apparently stop at the door of academics? One could argue that far greater harm has and will be done to Native history and culture by the film industry than anthropologists.  Would it be appropriate to lobby the film industry to adopt a “code of ethics” when dealing with Native topics?   Currently, there exists no formal mechanism for Native people to collectively say “no” to projects that step over the line.  


In closing, I would like to repeat a story by James C. Faris, who described a conversation between Sol Worth and John Adair with Sam Yazzie, a Navajo elder, prior to their experiments in Navajo film-making in the 1960s.  Many of you are probably familiar with the story, but it bears repeating:

“Although Sam was old, tired, and still coughing a great deal, there was no mistaking the authority in his manner.  Finally, Adair felt that it was the time to bring up the subject of our visit.  Adair explained that we wanted to teach some Navajo to make movies and mentioned Worth’s part in the process several times.  By the time Adair had finished, Yazzie (Sam) was looking at Worth frequently, seeming for the first time to acknowledge his presence as legitimate.  When Adair finished, Sam thought for a while, and then turned to Worth and asked a lengthy question which was interpreted as, “Will making movies do the sheep any harm?”

Worth was happy to explain that as far as he knew, there was no chance that making movies would harm the sheep.

Sam thought this over and then asked, “Will making movies do the sheep good?” Worth was forced to reply that as far as he knew making movies would not do the sheep any good.

Sam thought this over, then, looking around us, said, “Then why make movies?”

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