Texas Book Festival — San Antonio Edition
Interview with Glenn Frankel
Published: April 10, 2013
As I watched the John Ford films, and the way Indians are depicted in his films over time, I began to wonder what Ford’s feelings were about Native Americans, and our relationship and legacy with them. Then I read in your book about how he was presented with a sacred deerskin by the Navajo on the set of The Searchers, and he considered that to be a higher honor than even winning his four Oscars, and that was really telling, I think.
Yeah, I agree, and he really meant it. I talked to Harry Carey, Jr., who was a supporting actor in the movie, and I said, “Did this mean a lot to Ford?” and he said “Oh yeah, this was real.” Ford was really smitten by this. He treated the Navajo in Monument Valley, where he shot these films, very paternalistically. He made sure they got paid, and they got fed. They were happy to have him come out there, because it meant work, of course, but it was very much a paternalistic relationship, of almost the Great White Father handing gifts to his native subjects. Ford was a man of his time. It’s pointless to say that there wasn’t some racism involved, that there wasn’t paternalism. That’s just the way that people were. But he had this beautiful way of being able to sort of give you that, and at the same time, he knew there was more to it. He killed a lot of Native Americans in his Westerns. They’re not treated so well in The Searchers. The Comanche are largely killers and rapists, for that matter. Eventually he makes his final Monument Valley western, Cheyenne Autumn, which is much more of a mea culpa if you will. It’s much more told form the Native American point of view, and it’s fascinating to see. I would not put The Searchers in that category. The Searchers is much rougher on Native Americans. Ford both appreciated who they were, he had a great respect and admiration for the Navajo who worked with him...at the same time, he used Indians as the sort of evil ‘other’ at times, in order to fit the stories that he was telling.
Finally, I think that it’s pretty amazing that this horrible event happened in 1836, and as you write in the book, just before The Searchers was written as a novel and released as a film, after all these years of history had gone by, there was a meeting between the Parker families and the Comanche descendants of Cynthia Ann’s son, Quanah Parker. Now over the years, they’ve come to where they have family reunions, and they even attend each other’s family events as your write in the book. That’s really pretty amazing.
It’s a great American story. Early on I got to go to one of the Comanche family reunions in 2008, and they were so generous and welcoming, and they held pow-wows, they did various things at a place called the Star House, which was Quanah Parker’s home, and is still standing in Cash, Okla. Right away you could see form their point of view how much they venerated their ancestors, both Quanah and Cynthia Ann. And then they go to the Texas reunion a couple of weeks later, and you’re right, there were emissaries back and forth. They trade a silver bowl every year... They share these ancestors, and they share this story, and they tell it slightly differently, but nonetheless they know that this is what grounds them and their family in American history. I’ve gone back three times to reunions since then. It really becomes a contemporary event with meaning to this day, because how was America built after all? Out of this terrible war, out of these terrible struggles, and yet today we are one nation. We have a president who comes from two different backgrounds in the same way the Parkers have one foot in the Comanche world and one foot in the Texan or the white world. That kind of blend is what America is all about, and I find it to be very resonant about who we are, and how we got here.