Why sci-fi movie Prey moves the needle for Indigenous American visibility

A film saga that began with Arnold Schwarzenegger machine-gunning a jungle in search of an invisible enemy has a new instalment – and shines an insightful light on a long-marginalised culture.
Photograph by 20th Century Studios / Disney+
By Simon Ingram
Published 5 Aug 2022, 16:39 BST

Taken at face value Prey is a new thread on a conventional science fiction yarn. It’s the story of an alien humanoid brutally hunting an enemy-by-default that fights back on its own terms, all amidst the beguiling mists of 18th century rural America. But beneath this subversive, hunter-becomes-hunted storyline – which began with 1987’s Predator – the film’s depiction of North American Indigenous people, and their representation both onscreen and behind the camera, sets Prey apart. (The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of 20th Century Pictures and National Geographic).

The film’s stars, including lead actor Amber Midthunder, were cast in roles authentic to their Indigenous American heritage. Additionally, the film’s crew and production team were also largely made up of Indigenous peoples, including producer Jhane Myers. 

Midthunder plays Naru, a young Comanche warrior eager to prove her practised skill amongst the male hunters of her Great Plains tribe. An opportunity – and threat – arrives in the shape of a mysterious killer who leaves unfamiliar traces on the ground. The lead belligerents in the film pivot between the predatory alien, and a repulsive camp of French fur traders – who value the life they find on the plains even less than does the alien creature in their midst. Caught in the middle, the Comanche are forced to defend themselves against the two foes.

The resulting film plays like a gritty historical actioner wrapped in the vector of a science fiction film, and it holds its own as both: The Independent’s Clarisse Loughrey describes Prey as a ‘brutal, pulse-quickening, emotionally rich story about a Comanche woman fighting for survival’, adding: ‘There’s something deeply significant to be seen in an Indigenous-led narrative so proudly centred on a Hollywood project.’

When societies thrived

“Honesty was important to me,” Midthunder – who is Sahiya Nakoda, Hunkpapa Lakota, and Sisseton Dakota – told National Geographic UK. “To show the dark parts of history, but also to normalise Native society, pre-colonisation. To show the way that things were thriving, when communities were in charge of their own societies. ‘Oh look, they were innovative, and intelligent...’ Just day to day things. The hygiene even. People brushing their teeth.”

The snatches of Comanche life outside of this fight offer rich insight into a time and people rarely dramatised on films of any genre in the frequently ignoble history of Native American representation onscreen.

Sahiya Nakoda actor Amber Midthunder as Naru in Prey. 

Photograph by 20th Century Studios / Disney+

“When you’re represented by something you can’t relate to or feel represents you poorly… that does affect you,” says Midthunder, adding that few of the faces she saw on TV growing up were representative of her culture. “My Dad is an actor, but even still we would have a lot of conversations about how ‘that was really not the way to do it’, or ‘ha – this is what they gave us to wear,’” she says.

“Growing up, my parents handled it like an inside joke, rather than being constantly being hurt or offended by stuff.” Midthunder adds. “But getting older and looking at it I can see the importance of representing things accurately and respectfully [on film]. Especially because, to someone who doesn’t grow up in an indigenous community or really close to one, it’s maybe the only source of information.”

The fight for visibility

Producer Jhane Myers is Blackfeet and Comanche. “I think this film, when it comes to authenticity and representation, sets the bar – and it shifts a little bit against the paradigm that Hollywood has created for Native people,” she says. “Usually it’s just Native people in front of the camera. When I’m on a project I might be the only Native. [On Prey] you have a Native producer, but also you have people in every department that are Native. That’s different. I think only this project and maybe [Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s] Reservation Dogs are closest to having that full experience.”

“This film, when it comes to authenticity and representation, sets the bar – and it shifts a little bit against the paradigm that Hollywood has created for native people.”

Jhane Myers

Representation in cinema for North American Indigenous actors remains extremely low – with commentators identifying that influence of film media on the public, combined with such low visibility, can be damaging to the perception of an entire culture.

Writing in Variety in 2021, Pawnee columnist Crystal Echo Hawk described film as playing “a major role in how people understand and empathise with important social issues and diverse communities… impacting how our non-Native children see, think, and feel about Native Americans.” The column cited a report that analysed media content from 2018 and 2019 and found Native representation onscreen in film to be between 0.3% and 0.5%. The 2021 Hollywood Diversity Report found the figure to be 0.6%. “Representation matters,” wrote Echo Hawk, “but the quality of representation matters more.”

This statement is perhaps particularly resonant in a medium historically littered with misleading and harmful portrayals of Native societies that – in more ways than one – have found themselves erased from popular culture.  

An inglorious history

From the first European settlements in the 1600s, through casual brutality, war, disease, forced removal from ancestral lands and unsustainable changes in lifestyle, North American Indigenous people suffered a sustained cultural annihilation at the hands of white colonists.

By the time cinema started interpreting history to the masses in the late 19th century, it was immediately guilty of prejudice. Some, such as They Died With Their Boots On (1941) saw big stars – in this case Errol Flynn – romanticise violent figures such as George Custer. Events such as 1890’s Wounded Knee, which saw the massacre of hundreds of Lakota and Sioux – including women and children – and their mass burial, was for many years styled as a ‘battle’. Government-sanctioned films such as ‘Buffalo’ Bill Cody’s The Indian Wars Refought have been described as propaganda designed to ‘show the progress made by the Indian under the stewardship of the whites.’  

Actors John Wayne (left) and Martin Pawley (right) grasp Comanche character Look, played by Pee Posh actress Beulah Archuletta In The Searchers (1956). This acclaimed film has received both plaudits and criticism for its treatment of Indigenous Americans – with some claiming it depicts racist people and largely condemns them through the complexity of its lead character, and others suggesting it reinforced the cinematic stereotype of Native Americans as one-dimensional, brutal savages.  

Photograph by United Archives Gmbh / Alamy

Later Westerns took a view of Indigenous Americans that ranged from remote to hostile, depicting them either as wild aggressors for heroic cowboys to vanquish, or ‘good Indians’ virtuous only for their allegiance to whites. Films that enjoyed wide acclaim, such as John Ford’s Stagecoach and The Searchers – the latter of which featured a white actor, Henry Brandon, as a Comanche in a common casting habit – have been both praised for their gritty depictions of racism and slammed for the same reason, depicting Indigenous people as savages standing in the way of a righteous and civilised white culture. Countless others played down the persecution experienced by Natives at the hands of white settlers, all set against a largely (and fictitiously) white backdrop.

Misrepresentation of Indigenous Americans was not uniform. Amongst others, director James Young Deer (also known as James Young Johnson) who identified as Winnebago, made some 150 silent westerns between 1910 and 1913 for major French studio Pathe Frères. Young Deer’s protagonists were often heroic Natives who held the moral high ground in the movies, enjoyed interracial marriages, and lived authentic lives free of oppression. White Fawn's Devotion (1910), one of his few surviving films, was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Register in 2008.

Sacheen Littlefeather holds the 8-page speech written by Marlon Brando for his rejection of the 1973 Academy Award. She didn't get to read the speech, and was given only 60 seconds to articulate Brando's reasons for rejecting the Oscar for Best Actor. 

Photograph by PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy

Young Deer’s heritage was mysterious – it’s been suggested even bogus – and he would become embroiled in personal controversies in later life. But his work for Pathé bucked the trend of much of the output of major studios, which still frequently depicted Indigenous peoples as violent ‘Indians’ to be feared and suppressed.

Protest and progress

A watershed of sorts came in 1973, on the highest profile stage in the industry. Winning the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of mob boss Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Marlon Brando chose to snub the honour, sending an emissary to decline it on his behalf. That was Sacheen Littlefeather, a White Mountain Apache actor and the President of National Native American Affirmative Image Committee.

Dressed in traditional clothing, 26 year-old Littlefeather – who initially was thought to be merely accepting the award in Brando’s absence – held up a hand to refuse the statuette offered by Roger Moore and Liv Ullman. She then began a speech in which she expressed the actor’s wish to decline the award due to “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry… and on television, and movie reruns.” Littlefeather also namechecked ‘recent happenings’ at Wounded Knee, where Federal agents were in a standoff with activists who had occupied the town in protest over high level corruption and government mistreatment of Indigenous people’s civil rights.

Littlefeather’s brief speech was met with applause, but also audible boos from the crowd. Many believed it a prank; Clint Eastwood cracked a joke, and John Wayne was reportedly so enraged he had to be physically restrained. Littlefeather told The Guardian in 2021 she was later heckled with war cries, and hand gestures imitating a tomahawk. On August 15 2022, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced an apology to Littlefeather, with president David Rubin writing: “For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration.” Brando remains one of only three actors to decline the award in its 94-year history – and the only one in protest to events depicted onscreen.

As the decades progressed, productions like Little Big Man (1970), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Dances With Wolves (1990) offered a more perceptive portrayal of Indigenous Americans, addressing aspects of their experiences and marginalisation – though typically still through the lens of a white central character.  

More recent productions tell stories from the perspectives of modern Indigenous communities. The commercial and critical success of Smoke Signals (1998) and Skins (2002) – both directed by Cheyenne and Arapaho director Chris Eyre, and with a largely Indigenous cast and crew – raised the profile of Native representation on both sides of the camera.

“When you’re represented by something you can’t relate to or feel represents you poorly… that does affect you.”

Amber Midthunder

Indigenous Canadian actors D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Devery Jacobs and Paulina Alexis in the show Reservation Dogs, which has won acclaim for its irreverent depiction of modern life on a Muscogee Nation reservation. 

Photograph by Everett Collection Inc / Alamy

Authenticity, despite the alien

Prey moves the needle of representation into a new genre – but according to its makers, doesn’t compromise on authenticity despite the science fiction subject matter.

“Very little is written about that time,” says Jhane Myers. “If you go and research artefacts, hardly anything exists from the 1700s. Our history is handed down to us orally… but we have people within the Comanche nation that have that knowledge, so we were really able to hone in and really get everything really accurate for that time.” This ranged from the colour palate of the wardrobes being dependent on plant pigments that would have been found in the area in the 1700s, to the hairstyles and makeup, and fight tactics and weaponry.

“Even the hide-art [drawn on animal skins] that you see at the very end of the film… that’s the typical art of that time,” adds Myers. “They would draw pictures of events that happened on the hides.”

Crucially, an early draft of the Prey script stipulated all dialogue would be filmed in Comanche. While the film was eventually recorded in mixed English and French as well as the native language, which is Numic in origin, the finished film includes an alternate version dubbed in Comanche by the original cast – a first for a major release.

Costumes and makeup for Prey were designed based on the pigments and materials available in the region in the early 1700s.

Photograph by 20th Century Studios / Disney+

The movie was shot entirely outdoors in natural light on location outside of Calgary – and this too played into the producers' desire for authenticity. “We were shooting on Stoney Nakoda land. Amber is part Nakoda – even I am on my grandmother’s side,” says Myers. “Usually when we start a production, someone [from the Native community] comes in and does a cedar ceremony and blesses everything. But because we had so many Indigenous people on the cast, First Nation people too, and since we were on true plains land, they sent out two pipe carriers and two smudge people to have a pipe ceremony.”

This ceremonial smoking of a pipe is traditionally used when tribes of different nations hold negotiations or rituals – with ‘smudging’ the burning of a sacrament herb to purify a space of negative energy.

The ceremony was conducted outside Calgary by local Indigenous leaders and attended by Prey cast members including Midthunder, co-stars Dakota Beavers and Stormee Kip, Myers and director Dan Trachtenberg. “It was really amazing – a glorious thing, and for me a big honour.” Myers says. “Just to have someone wanting the way to be good for you… and laying that message with the Creator.”

Prey is streaming on Disney+ in English and Comanche

This story was updated on 16 August to include the apology issued to Sacheen Littlefeather by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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