Props as Legible Labor

Curator's Note

The 1970 Hollywood Western A Man Called Horse propped up its claims to historical accuracy by employing members of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe (Sicangu Lakota). Forty-five tribal members were cast as extras and flown to the film’s location shoot in Durango, Mexico, while others remained in South Dakota and manufactured props by hand. The production participated in a postwar trend toward shooting in foreign locations in order to take advantage of tax laws and evade Hollywood unions, who dubbed this practice “runaway production.” The producers of A Man Called Horse may have taken a cue from the biblical epic The Greatest Story Ever Told (1963), which skirted federal labor regulations by filming in the sovereign Navajo Nation (Fortmueller 2020). The Lakota laborers provided the filmmakers with a marketable veneer of authenticity that was actually reliant on the exploitation of their precarious, globalized labor.

A Man Called Horse follows the generic structure of the frontier captivity narrative, in which a settler colonist is kidnapped by Indigenous people, lives among them for a time, and eventually returns to white society. At the end of the film, as the white protagonist begins his journey back East, he pauses to place a flower on the raised funerary bier of his wife, an “Indian princess” who has died in childbirth, per generic convention. As he rides off over the horizon in the background, this platform remains in the foreground throughout the closing credits.

This produces an unsettling juxtaposition when the names of the Lakota extras appear on the screen. The screen credits attest to the material existence of Indigenous people in the present, refuting the image’s invocation of the “Vanishing American.” The material traces of the Lakotas’ labor in the “carcass hanger,” fashioned on the Rosebud Reservation and shipped to Durango, likewise contradict the Western’s endemic ideology of Indigenous disappearance, acting as evidence for otherwise illegible labor. Attending to the materiality of props and their specific histories can illuminate the key roles played by invisibilized labor in media industries.


Works Cited

Fortmueller, Kate. “Right Here in Hollywood: The Greatest Story Ever Told, the American West, and the American Film Worker.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 48, no. 2 (2020): 103–14.

Silverstein, Elliot. Papers. Margaret Herrick Library, Los Angeles.

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