While laying the groundwork in the 1970s for a proposed PBS series on the settlement of the West, author, lawyer and historian Rennard Strickland made some interesting discoveries.
By John Roark
TV is a visual medium, and as there was not authentic footage of events that shaped the American frontier, he turned to cinema to represent history.
“I was surprised to learn that because of decomposition, most of those early films, particularly the silents, had disappeared completely,” says Strickland. In many cases all that remained were posters and lobby cards, which can be exceedingly rare. Only a few hundred posters were printed for each film, and the promotional material traveled with the celluloid, becoming worn over the years. During World War II, paper drives depleted studio storage warehouses, further winnowing the supply.
His interest piqued, Strickland methodically amassed a colossal anthology of Western movie memorabilia, which now includes more than 5,000 pieces dating from the 1890s to the 1980s. “I never do anything in a mild way,” he laughs. Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West acquired the collection—valued at approximately $6 million—in 2016.
Designed to entice passersby into buying tickets, movie advertising was lurid and sensational but often portrayed Native Americans as a hostile presence in the West, an enemy to be conquered by settlers. “Posters mostly depicted Native Americans as savage beasts,” says Strickland, who is of Osage and Cherokee lineage. “Negative images were predominant and were instrumental in shaping the public’s perception. The reverberations of those stereotypes can still be felt today.”
The collection includes more than 5,000 examples of very rare, often one-of-a-kind Western movie posters.
It was not until the 1950 release of the movie “Broken Arrow” that Native Americans began to be depicted more humanely in movies. Another groundbreaking film from the same year, entitled “Devil’s Doorway,” is considered the first Western told from the American Indian’s point of view.
A senior scholar in residence at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, where he served as dean from 1997 to 2002, Strickland was instrumental in bringing American Indian law to the university’s curriculum. In addition to the collection’s graphic and pop culture entertainment value, he sees it as an important teaching tool to combat misconceptions about Native Americans.
The anthology has struck a chord with visitors, who are awed by the imagery, says Tricia Loscher, chief curator of Scottsdale’s Museum of the West. “Many of our senior visitors have commented that the exhibit takes them back to their childhood days, while
European millennials, including visitors from France and Japan, say that they grew up watching Westerns and feel as though they have returned home—even though it was their first time visiting this region.”
The Rennard Strickland Collection of Western Film History can be seen at Scottsdale’s Museum of the West through Sept. 16, 2018. (scottsdalemuseumwest.org)