Voiceless Natives in 1950s Hollywood: An Interrogation of Broken Arrow

June 18, 2022 by Essay Writer

The Indian woman in Broken Arrow (1950) represents a key example of dominant culture failing to show the Other with agency. When talking about race and women in Hollywood movies, one must always ask whose side is being advanced and who has the agency. Even if a depiction of a woman seems positive, she may be a symbol of the male viewpoint. The movie Suckerpunch supposedly depicted strong female characters; however, the heroines in the movie were simply male fantasies. They fought, yet they weren’t interesting beyond the images that they provided for the male gaze.

In Broken Arrow, the depiction of the Indian woman Sonseeahray is silent. She is merely a function in the overall story of white and Indian relations. The movie received praises for the sympathetic portrayal of Apache Indians in a particular storyline that usually involves battles. It was such a popular movie that it received awards and was spun out into a television series. This paper will explore the character of Sonseeahray as an Other who exists merely for the main character to fall in love with and die tragically in the last act. This paper will discuss Sonseeahray as both an Indian and a woman in popular depictions.

Sonseeahray the Indian

One of the first things that is obvious in watching Broken Arrow is just how many of the actors are white people with make-up. This is especially true for the main characters like Cochise and Sonseeahray who are obviously played by white actors with Midwestern accents. Regardless of their actors, the Indians are not given their due as characters with needs and desires that do not service the journey of the white protagonist. Of course, the Indians as enforcers of white man’s journey continues with movies like Geronimo and Dances with Wolves, in which the white characters are able to get away with silly statements like the army is the best friend to the Apache or use the Indian culture as a method of getting in touch with nature. The fact that Dances with Wolves was so highly praised in its time when it depicted Sioux as saints whose main function was to make Kevin Costner into a better person only shows the blatant Otherness of Indians in Hollywood movies. The fact that Dances with Wolves used actual Indian actors, Indian language and Indian customs in order to tell the story of a white man finding his soul was a major step up. In very rare circumstances, Indians are depicted as having cultures and personalities after 1900. Offhand, I can remember Pow Wow Highway and Dance Me Outside. The Indians are based in the white perspective in which their purity is emphasized. “We are meant to see that Indian as if with new eyes – the aboriginal soul untainted by the conqueror’s perspective. Gone, certainly, are the solid stares, the menacing grimaces, and the grunts of ungrammatical English.” (Prats, 1996, p.10) Certainly, it was singled out for praise in its kind depiction of Indians trying to talk with the white men who threaten their culture. “The California Parent-Teachers Association named it picture of the month, as did the Christian Herald in conjunction with the Protestant Motion Picture Council. The Film Committee of the Association of American Indian Affairs called it “one of the first movies since The Vanishing American [Paramount, 1925] to attempt a serious portrayal of the Indian side of American history and to show the Indian as a real human being, the same as a white man.” (Ceplair, 1991) However, this depiction is still limited. Frequently in the movie, the Indians become depicted as spiritual guides who know the ways of the land. The fact that there are land disputes that allow Jimmy Stewart’s hero to preach on the role of violence in the creation of the West does not mitigate the fact that the major force for change is a white man who has only recently encountered the Indians on their own turf.

The story itself is based on a true story of Tom Jeffords, a white scout who learned to speak Apache and became a close friend of Cochise, the chief of the Apaches and yet one knows that the relationship between Jeffords and Cochise was much more complicated than the movie. Furthermore, the screenwriter openly “appreciated the dramatic possibilities inherent in the refusal of a white man and a Native American to bow before the racist currents and mistrust swirling through their respective cultures, to choose to rise above the years of hate and ethnocentrism, and to become friends, then blood brothers, then peacemakers.” (Ceplair, 1991) Certainly, Broken Arrow does represent a move away from the normal representation of Indian characters which is usually broad stereotypes and a confused array of cultural signs. Shortly after Broken Arrow was released, an “I Love Lucy” episode depicted Lucy attempting to get into Ricky’s band by donning a head dress and making “Indian” sounds in order to be accepted as an Apache dancer. “Since the early 1950s non-Native sitcom characters have donned headdresses, carried tomahawks, spoken broken English, played Squanto at Thanksgiving gatherings, received “Indian” names, danced wildly, and exhibited other examples of representations of redface. In conversation with cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s definition of representation (“the production of meaning through language”), representations of redface entail those specific images of and discourses about Indigenous Peoples as enacted and spoken primarily by non-Native characters that play ‘Indian.’” (Tahmahkera, 2008)

Yet, the way that Indians are depicted in Broken Arrow involves playing to the expectations of the audience. The Apaches depicted in Broken Arrow are considered strong and brave; however, they are very simple in many cases and frequently their religious life is depicted as something simple and pure. Robert Berkhofer noted this process of playing to expectations and described the Indian characters as the “White man’s Indian.” (Berkhofer, 1979) In Broken Arrow, the audience sees the reinvented Indian who falls easily into the Noble Savage depiction so popular in Western literature. “The reinvented Indian, despite his impeccable ethnological splendor and his unimpeachable moral character, can never give so convincing an account of his genius as when the white man does so on his behalf.” (Prats, 1996). Jeffords is the only voice that needs to be heard in every scene. Everything in the movie is from his view and the voiceover only adds another layer to the power. The voiceover opens the film by stating that the movie is true but the Indians are talking in English, as if this movie was filmed in 1880.

The voiceover carries on throughout the movie as Jeffords is constantly commenting on the action and interpreting it for a white audience. When Jeffords in the voiceover states that an Apache boy is more dangerous than a snake, he is telling us the white perspective. As soon the boy says that his mother is crying over him, Jeffords gives a patronizing line about how he never thought that “an Apache woman would cry over her son like any other woman.” (Broken Arrow, 1950) The main concern is “Jefford’s assumption – bold, even peremptory – that he can so abruptly produce, out of the age-old image of the savage fiend, a humanized Indian, an Indian who is no longer the Other.” (Prats, 1996) This kind of speaking for the Indian just changing the Indian from one bland stereotype (the snake) to another bland stereotype (the saintly savage) is all from the white perspective. Roy Harry Pearce in talking about the role of helping the Indian stated that the Indian was not so much a person or culture but “an image which the civilized conscience had created just for the protecting, which the civilized intellect and the civilized imagination had earlier created just for the destroying.” (Pearce, 1988, p.242)

As Edward Said states: “Orientalism depends for its strategy on a flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand.” (Said, 1978, p.7) There are points in the movie when Cochise argues with Jeffords and states his way, but he usually yields. The only time when Cochise gets his way is at the end when he convinces Jeffords not to seek revenge against the white men who killed Sonseeahray.

Sonseeahray the Woman

When Elliot Arnold wrote the source material for the movie (Blood Brother), he traveled to Arizona and researched the history in order to intersperse ethnological detail in the conversation. “He also invented an Apache bride for Jeffords.” (Ceplair, 1991) The fact that Cochise and Jeffords were real people while Arnold scrupulously researched Apache culture makes the way that Sonseeahray is tacked on as a love interest even more interesting. Sonseeahray never gets her own agency. She simply exists for Jeffords to fall in love with.

Based on a comic strip by Alison Bechdel, the Bechdel Test was put forth in order to note how little Hollywood respects women. In order to “pass” the Bechdel Test a movie must have two distinct women characters, they must have a conversation. It can’t be about men. In Broken Arrow, the first qualification for the test is not even met. Sonseeahray is introduced in a very brief scene and then Tom Jeffords tells the audience through the voiceover that he’s falling in love with her. The movie forgets Sonseeahray for a long time until the disputes between the Apaches and the white men are settled in a peace treaty that splits the Indian tribes. A historically inaccurate Geronimo leads braves away from Cochise which is the only place in which the internal strife of the Indians is noted.

The discussion of whether or not Tom Jeffords can marry Sonseeahray takes up more screen time than any scenes with the actress playing Sonseeahray. These are fairly intricate scenes and presumably they were researched well. The wedding takes place, but there are no scenes of the marriage itself. The audience does not know how Jeffords and Sonseeahray make a home or what kind of tensions they must have faced when they were ‘falling in love’. Often, movies have a hard time depicting characters falling love. Kiera Knightley standing on a cliff looking pretty in Pride & Prejudice and admiring Mr. Darcy’s artwork are supposed to tell us that she’s smitten with him. One wonders what kind of marriage these two will have since they have absolutely no screen chemistry and there’s only so much tea a couple can drink. Even in romantic comedies, the love portions are often pushed to the side for terrible jokes. The romantic comedy formula has the couple falling in love in a montage of various scenes makes up for the inability of the screenwriter and director to make believable characters who can fall in love.

With Broken Arrow there’s not even a montage. Jeffords meets Sonseeahray and tells us that he’s in love with her. Most of the movie scenes that concern him being in love involve his discussions with Cochise. Less than five minutes after they are married, she’s dead. This is a movie that is still praised for progressive political statements and so apparently the fact that the white man marries the Indian woman is enough to make for a progressive movie.

By the conventions of the narrative, Sonseeahray is not a woman so much as a symbol for Jeffords’ progressive political stance. Jeffords tells us that he’s in love with her but he does not convincingly act like he’s in love with Sonseeahray. In fact, if he’s in love with anyone in the movie it would seem like Cochise is his lover. He definitely has more chemistry and interaction with Cochise. Sonseeahray spends most of her time off screen. Once she marries Jeffords, she dies. This is the most acceptable form of mixed race marriage for a 20th century audience apparently. The woman is a noble savage who gives her heart to a white man and then dies. Everything is wrapped up nicely without too much consternation. Jeffords even allows Cochise to talk him out of getting revenge for her. The movie ends with a smug conclusion: “from that day on wherever I went – in the cities, among the Apaches, in the mountains – I always remembered my wife was with me.” (Broken Arrow)


The character of Sonseeahray is a cipher in which other characters can write their heritage. As an Indian woman, she is doubly silenced by the white male perspective which uses her as a symbol of Noble Savage romanticism and a fulfillment of his desires. The seemingly progressive white man/Indian woman marriage is constantly diminished by the narrative that does not allow Sonseeahray any agency. Her death in the last scene only serves to solidify her status as a silent Other created solely to symbolize white man angst.


Berkhofer, Robert. (1979). The white man’s Indian. New York: Vintage.

Broken Arrow. Dir. Delmer Daves. 20th Century Fox. 1950.

Ceplair, Larry. (Jan 1, 1991) Who wrote what??? A tale of a blacklisted screenwriter and his front. Cineaste. 18:2

Pearce, Roy Harvey (1988). Savagism and civilization: A study of the Indian and the American mind. Berkeley: U of California Press. Revised from The Savages of America. 1953.

Prats, Armando Jose (Summer 1996). His master’s voice(over): Revisionist ethos and narrative dependence from Broken Arrow (1950) to Geronimo: An American Legend (1993). ANQ. 9(3). Said, Edward. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books. Tahmahkera, Dustin (2008). Custer’s last sitcom: Decolonized viewing of the sitcom’s ‘Indian’. American Indian Quarterly. 32(3).

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