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Native Americans in the Movies

Throughout the history of film, many ethnic groups have been misrepresented, under displayed, or superfluously glorified. Unfortunately for Native Americans, they, similar to Negroes, Asians, and Hispanics, took the short end of the stick and have had to overcome false portrayals and racially inaccurate depictions. Their former image of savage and blood thirsty “Indians” had only come to be replaced by a politer but still inaccurate characterization of weak. Fortunately, however, modern natives have come to understand the importance of representing their true peoples, not just the muddled pot of Indian people by Hollywood, and are releasing movies that depict the true nature of America’s original inhabitants. More recently, real Native Americans have been imbedded into film and are beginning to portray themselves – as opposed to white actors playing the parts of natives.

Since the inauguration of cinema, Native Americans have carried this stigma of malicious and uncaring for other peoples, especially the white man. All of the native groups have also been incorrectly fused together to create one master Indian race – broken off into sub groups like Cherokee and Sioux – that ultimately shares all of the same culture and menacing habits.

Back the 1890’s, before a formal film industry was even implemented, Thomas Edison shot a tribe of Native Americans in a Pueblo village. He used this documentary footage in a succession of short films shown on the primitive Kinetoscope, one of the first being “Sioux Ghost Dance” (1894). The twenty two second short shows a group doing the traditional dance while decked out in war paint and costumes. The “ghost dance” was at that time spreading around the country, and was performed as a way to promote clean living, an honest life, and cross-cultural cooperation. Viewers were turned off by the feature though, and thus began the negative stereotypes associated with America’s indigenous peoples. Ironically, in 1890 the same dance had sparked the Wounded Knee Massacre, in which U.S. Army forces killed over 150 Lakota Sioux. Americans seemed to sport ignorance regarding the bloodshed, and even four years later the makers of “Sioux Ghost Dance” edited the film in such a way as to demean the subjects who were doing nothing worse than trying to preach peace.

Into the twentieth century, downplay of Native American significance was not relinquished. Their culture and historical importance were found irrelevant, and they even earned the title of “Indian”. Such a name came to entail that they were all the same in regards to tradition, behavior, language, culture, and social structure. All types of Indians were simply part of a larger hodgepodge of sorts, which United States citizens were content with not delving farther into. Further exemplifying this carelessness to the correct reality of the natives was the fact that their title of “Indian” had not been changed since Christopher Columbus had called them that in the 1490’s, even though it was found out that they were only titled such because he thought he had landed in India. In the minds of the European immigrants though, their lives were still considered paramount to those of the Indians. Their portrayal in film would be diminished to that of antagonists, with white men then consequently rightly playing the opposing protagonists.
In 1920, with the first major full length feature about Native Americans, “The Last of the Mohicans” (based on the 1896 book written by James Fenimore Cooper), the Indians are represented as both virtuous and immoral. On one side there is evil and barbaric Huron Magua, and on the other you have Uncas, a kind hearted and simple man. While Uncas is portrayed as a “good” Indian, he only speaks mono-syllabically and seems to have an almost child-like innocence to him. Letting down the Native American appeal even more, Hawkeye, his adopted white brother, is the true hero of the story, not Uncas. Uncas merely plays the follower to Hawkeye, who is better than the Mohican Indians at everything they do. Another aspect of the story is the suggestion that an interracial relationship between an Indian and white is not realizable. Uncas falls in love with a white woman, but fate appears to intervene and disallows a relationship to form by killing both characters off.

Another silent era depiction of Indians was a trilogy of films called “The Vanishing American” (1925). The project seems to show that native eradication was necessary for the Euro-American to realize his full potential in the new land. While the struggle of the Native Americans is portrayed, their culture is disregarded and undervalued. In the end, the “smartest Indian” comes to discover his own traditions to be less important than the Christian values that the white people bring.

With the introduction of sound in films in the mid twenties came more native stereotypes. Whenever they spoke they uttered only white man hating lines or single syllable words. They were seen to be rather mean spirited and obtuse in most of their depictions. As well the “Indian war whoop” was developed (where one would hoot while covering and uncovering their mouth), which bestowed the Native American cultural with a rather offensive novelty characterization that was, in reality, not the way they actually acted.

The first big talkie that incorporated America’s indigenous peoples was John Fords 1939 western “Stagecoach”. It involves a group of strangers (one of them being actor John Wayne) riding together in a wagon, who are ambushed by the famous Native American 'Geronimo' and his savage followers. In the feature, you never see Geronimo himself until the very end, but he is portrayed as a very dark force throughout the story. Instead you witness multiple burnt down cabins and a number of other Indian crimes, painting them as cruel and thoughtless creatures. Near the draw of the picture, the passengers of the stage coach are seen attacked by Geronimo and other natives for no apparent reason, and they band together to heroically defend themselves from the intruders (although they are actually traveling through Indian territory). In the conclusion, the riders are saved by U.S. Cavalry and the evil Native Americans are driven off.

Stagecoach” (1939) set the precedence for many western films to come, for the Indians are viewed as an obstacle to American colonization. They are merely malicious peoples with bloodthirsty attitudes and aversions to the whites. Although there were some pictures that displayed the white man to be a vindictive breed as well. As is the case with “They Died with Their Boots On” (1941), a tale of George Armstrong Custer’s historic Last Stand. In the feature, Custer (Errol Flynn) attempts to keep peace between the Indians and the white men by forming a treaty. However, a group of infantry goes against Custer’s plan and starts a fight with the natives. At the close of the movie, even though Custer tried to help the Native Americans, they kill him and end up appearing in a negative light anyways.

Fort Apache” (1948) also follows the idea of making the white men out to be the true villains. The film follows Colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda) as he initiates a war against some natives because of his utter lack of respect for their culture and his invented superiority over them. The Indians in this picture are depicted as venerable and eloquent, which does differ from their typical “savage” stereotyping. However, white man also plays the hero of the movie, for Captain York (John Wayne) saves them and stops a massive slaughter of innocent lives. So while the natives are esteemed and smart, they are unable to fend for themselves and must rely on the valor of the white man to survive.

Into the 1950’s, with World War II not too far behind, Americans were hesitant to accept anything foreign, natives included. While 1950 brought the Indians a legal right to vote, racism was still strong, and their stereotyping suffered. Examples that exemplify the film industry bringing offense to the Native Americans are John Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956) and John Huston’s “The Unforgiven” (1960).

The Searchers” tells a story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a war veteran, who returns to his brother’s home and finds his family killed by Indians, and his two nieces kidnapped by them. He and his nephew (Jeffrey Hunter) embark on a five year journey to rescue their stolen kin from the savage Native American. They eventually locate the girls, who have been assimilated into the tribe. One of the girls gets killed (some claim by Edwards himself), while the other (played by Natalie Wood) remains corrupted by the Indians’ ways – an offense Edwards finds to be worse than death. As if the depiction of the natives to be murderous child abductors is not enough assault, the picture’s hero, Edwards, makes it clear that the Indians are the country’s prey – their enemies.

“The Unforgiven” has a similar storyline, only reversed: it tells of a Kiowan girl (Audrey Hepburn) who is secretly stolen from her tribe and raised by a wealthy frontier family (starring Burt Lancaster, Charles Bickford, Lillian Gish and Audie Murphy) . However, her color begins to unveil her true identity, and the town turns against her. When her blood-born family comes to get her, she refuses. A gruesome battle ensues, in which she murders her own Kiowan brother. This shows her learned feelings of supremacy over the Native Americans, and her longing to be aligned with the “greater” race – the white race. The fact that she would kill her own family gives the message that murder to maintain Euro-American classification is far more desirable than mere identification with a non-white race.

1950’s “Broken Arrow” attempted to break the social stereotypes placed on natives, although it turned out to be overly preachy and a bit unnatural. Still, the message overall was a positive one. It tells of a man (James Stewart) who encounters a wounded Indian boy and nurses him back to health. He ends up getting captured by the boy’s family, but is also let go unharmed. After he tells people in a town of his encounter and they question his loyalty, he decides to get to know the Apache leader, Cochise (portrayed by Jeff Chandler). They become extremely close – with Cochise acting as his wise and peaceful friend and cohort – and wind up terminating the long war between the whites and Apaches. Another positive aspect of the film is that a true Native American, Jay Silverheels, was given a role, whereas in the past you would be hard pressed to find any natives portraying their own race, or even appearing onscreen.

With television taking the place of western pictures around the sixties, Native Americans were now being displayed in different lights on the small screen. One of the earlier TV series, “The Lone Ranger” (1949-57) starring Clayton Moore was far advanced for its time. The Lone Ranger’s sidekick, Tonto, is actually a devoted and helpful Indian played by native Jay Silverheels (from 1950’s “Broken Arrow”). While he is technically represented in a positive way, it paved the way for many other works to portray the Native Americans as subservient and secondary characters. While they were not as often seen as savage beasts, they were still incorrectly depicted as the weaker race.

In the showCheyenne” (1955-63) starring Clint Walker, Indians are contrastingly seen as individuals that need to be removed and destroyed for their violent temperament. In the series, the star, Cheyenne, spends many of his episodes fighting off Indians so that the west can be cleared of “bad guys”.

Law of the Plainsman” (1959-60) follows a different approach than most westerns in its time in that it features a Native American as its lead character. It is based on the life of Sam Buckhart, who upon receiving money from a deceased U.S. Cavalry officer that he had previously saved the life of, goes to school and becomes a Deputy Marshal. Although the series is novel in that the main role belongs to a native, Buckhart is not even played by a real Indian, but by Michael Ansara, who is of Syrian descent.

Starting in the sixties, but not fully developing until the seventies, Native Americans were getting recognized as an oppressed minority in the United States. Now, however, instead of being cast as the villains, they were playing the victims. Audiences were seeing them through sympathetic eyes, still not fully understanding their real role in America. The country was changing alongside their depictions: the Civil Rights Act of 1968 extended to include natives, the American Indian Movement was born (AIM), and President Richard Nixon was striving to improve the U.S.’s relations with the Native Americans.

“Little Big Man” (1970) served as a major starting point in the era of pitying the Native Americans by giving audiences the view from the other side of Custer’s Last Stand. It conveys the story of Jack Crabb/Little Big Man (Dustin Hoffman), who was raised by a group of Cheyenne Indians after his parents were killed. In the story, he is constantly pulled into the white world to take on various jobs, but he always returns to who he considers his true family: the Native Americans that raised him. After some of his people are killed in a massacre by the U.S. Army, he exacts revenge and ends up saving all of the Indians. So in conclusion, the natives are the ones to feel sorry for, while the white man is still the hero. One redeeming point is that one of the main characters was played by a true native – Canadian Aboriginal Sqaumish Chief Dan George.

Another film that came out in the same year is “A Man Called Horse” (1970), featuring Richard Harris as a white man who is taken in by a tribe of Native Americans and eventually rises up to become their leader. Many thought the filmmakers were simply using the Indians in the picture to profit off of their glamorized demise, and the AIM even protested outside of theaters showing this movie. As well, the feature failed to respect the customs and traditions of the natives. The movie tribe’s language is Lakota, their tipi design Crow, and their hairstyles ranging from Comanche to Nez Perce to Assiniboin, although in the film they are referred to as Sioux.

Other films that the American Indian Movement felt had an utter lack of respect for the indigenous peoples were “Soldier Blue” (1970), which retells of a Cheyenne massacre by controversially using graphic scenes of brutal violence against Cheyenne children and women, and “Billy Jack” (1971), the story of “half-breed” American Cherokee Indian Vietnam War veteran (Tom Laughlin).

The most notable film about Native Americans has to be Kevin Costner’s “Dances with Wolves” (1990). The Oscar winning picture shows the journey that one white man takes when he chooses to envelop himself into Native American culture. While this Civil War veteran is stationed in the Mid-West, he comes across a tribe of Sioux and comes to learn of their customs, discovering they are not savages but real people. The film is also celebrated for its use of real natives, including the more famous Cherokee actor Wes Studi, instead of an all white cast. One of its more famous actors was Oneida Indian Graham Greene, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his role. However, some complaints are that the main character (Kevin Costner) falls in love with the only white woman living among the tribe and ends up abandoning her in the end, facts that make the Native Americans seem less important.

Fortunately, in 1995 Disney stepped in to shed the Native Americans in a positive light with “Pocahontas”. The story’s lead protagonist is Indian woman Pocahontas, and it shows how she tries to avoid savagery from white explorers as they plan an attack on her Powatan people.

Between 1990 and 2000, the desire for individual natives to create their own movies increased, and a Native American film movement was born. A large number of Indians began enrolling into film school, wanting to give American audiences a different perspective on the nation’s original inhabitants. It was their time to challenge the Native American stereotypes that Hollywood had placed on them so many years prior.

While “Black Robe” (1991) was filmed by a Canadian and Australian team, it gives us a significant look at the true culture and religion of various Native American tribes. The film offers accurate history and authentic speech in Mohawk, Cree, and Algonquin.

One of the first big time native film projects was “Smoke Signals” (1998), in which Chris Eyre and Sherman Alexis teamed up to create a picture about everyday contemporary Native American teens. The feature, made up of a mostly native cast, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and was consequently picked up by Miramax Films and released into mainstream theaters. Since then, Eyre has independently made “Skins” (2002), the story of two Lakota Siouxs and their lives upon return from the Vietnam War, and “Skinwalkers” (2002), a mystery imbedded with Navajo traditions, while Alexie has directed “The Business of Fancydancing” (2002), a musical drama about a gay Indian poet from Spokane.

Another well done portrayal of native culture is “The Fast Runner” (2001), about a legend from the Inuit tribe. In this film, there are no stereotypes or heroic white men, only real American Indians and their traditions. Furthermore, the picture is spoken in the Inuit language, with English taking the backseat and being offered only as the subtitles.

More recently, John Woo’s “Windtalkers” (2002) offers mainstream society a loose look at the Navajos and their language as a way for American soldiers to decode messages, so that the Japanese were unable to decipher their communications during World War II. Not exactly a historically correct account of their culture, but a positive portrayal of them as helping us when we need it.

Not long after, “The New World” (2005) came out and gave viewers the story of Pocahontas and John Smith, as Smith resides with her tribe and learns her way of life. It offers audiences a chance to look at (a rather dramatized) historical encounter between Native Americans and English settlers.

Disappointing however is the “Twilight” series, which has achieved illustrious praise. One of the main native characters, Jacob Black, is played by Taylor Lautner, who is only “distantly” related to an American Indian tribe (It must be noted he did not realize his Ottawa and Potawatomi roots until after being criticized for his portrayal of an Indian character without being one). One of the other native actors in the film, Rick Mora (who is Native American), disagrees that he should have received the largest native part in the film, for “there is plenty of Native talent in town (Hollywood) to play that role.”

Such seems to be the case for many of the films America has today that feature Native American roles; non-Indian actors still portray Indians in movies even though there are plenty of native actors ready and willing to be cast. Exceptions like Burt Reynolds (“Gunsmoke” (1962-65), “Gator” (1976) and Adam Beach (“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (2007-08), “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011) do exist, but Hollywood remains a primarily non-native dominated place. In time, more starring roles could be given to American Indian actors, just as the representation of the native culture has also changed.


2011       Yellow Rock
2009       Barking Water
2009       Given to Walk
2009       The Only Good Indian
2009       Kissing Lightning
2008       Frozen River
2008       Older Than America
2007       Law & Order: SVU
2007       Burn My Heart at Wounded Knee
2007       Rain in the Mountains
2007       The Stone Child
2007       Imprint
2007       Pathfinder
2006       The Emperor's New School
2006       Apocalypto
2006       The New World
2006       Flags of Our Fathers
2006       One Dead Indian
2006       Battle of the Little Bighorn
2006       The Trail of Tears: Cherokee Legacy
2006       Standing Silent Nation
2006       Skinwalkers
2005       Into the West
2005       Christmas in the Clouds
2005       Trudell
2005       Hanbleceya
2005       A Thousand Roads
2005       Miracle at Sage Creek
2005       Into the West
2005       The New World
2005       Shadow Hawk on Sacred Ground
2004       Wonderfalls
2004       A Thief of Time
2004       Black Cloud
2004       Edge of America
2004       Reservation Warparties
2004       Mystic Voices: The Story of the Pequot War
2003       Coyote Waits
2003       Dreamkeeper
2003       The Snow Walker
2003       Wind Walker
2003       American Indian Graffiti: This Thing Life
2002       Skins
2002       Lady Warriors
2002       The Business of Fancydancing
2002       Skinwalkers
2002       Windtalkers
2001       The Doe Boy
2001       Wolf Lake
2001       The Fast Runner
2001       Cry Blood - Apache
2001       The Homecoming of Jimmy Whitecloud
2000       Wind River
2000       The Patriot
1999       Grey Owl
1999       The Creator's Game
1999       The Song of Hiawatha
1999       Wind River
1998       Wind River
1998       Smoke Signals
1998       Naturally Native
1998       Big Bear
1998       Wind
1997       The Education of Little Tree
1997       Stolen Women, Captured Hearts
1996       Crazy Horse
1996       If Only I Were an Indian...
1996       Navajo Blues
1996       The Sunchaser
1996       White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Man
1996       Follow Me Home
1996       Grand Avenue
1995       Legends of the Fall
1995       500 Nations
1995       Last of the Dogmen
1995       Pocahontas
1995       Dead Man
1995       Tecumsch: The Last Warrior
1995       The Indian in the Cupboard
1994       Dance Me Outside
1994       Lakota Woman - Siege at Wounded Knee
1994       Cheyenne Warrior
1994       Warrior Spirit
1994       Sioux City
1994       Squanto: A Warrior's Tale
1994       Savage Land
1994       Walking Thunder
1993       Spirit Rider
1993       The Broken Chain
1993       Geronimo: An American Legend
1993       Shadow of the Wolf
1993       Medicine River
1993       Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman
1993       Walker, Texas Ranger
1992       Ishi: The Last Yahi
1992       Renegade
1992       Last of His Tribe
1992       1492: Conquest of Paradise
1992       The Last of the Mohicans
1992       The Last of His Tribe
1992       Thunderheart
1992       Incident at Oglala - The Leonard Peltier Story
1991       ClearCut
1991       Black Robe
1991       The Dark Wind
1991       Son of the Morning Star
1991       The Great Indian Wars 1840-1890
1991       At Play in the Fields of the Lord
1990       Dances With Wolves
1990       Northern Exposure
1990       Twin Peaks
1990       Crazy Horse and Custer: The Untold Story
1989       Powwow Highway
1989       Renegades
1988       War Party
1988       The Trial of Standing Bear
1988       Journey to Spirit Island
1988       Paradise
1987       Brave Starr
1986       The Mission
1986       Roanoak
1985       Contrary Warriors: A Film of the Crow Tribe
1985       Broken Rainbow
1985       Paw Paws
1984       Return of the Country
1984       The Mystic Warrior
1983       Mysterious Cities of Gold
1983       Sacred Ground
1982       Triumphs of a Man Called Horse
1981       They Died with Their Boots On
1980       Windwalker
1980       The Mountain Men
1980       The Legend of Walks Far Woman
1979       Fish Hawk
1979       Eagle's Wing
1978       Three Warriors
1977       Grayeagle
1977       The White Buffalo
1977       In MacArthur Park
1976       Winterhawk
1976       Return of a Man Called Horse
1976       Shadow of the Hawk
1976       Sitting Bull's History Lesson
1976       Buffalo Bill and The Indians
1975       I Will Fight No More Forever
1975       Against a Crooked Sky
1975       Johnny Firecloud
1975       Winterhawk
1974       Trial of Billy Jack
1974       Billy Jack Goes to Washington
1974       Blazing Saddles
1974       Nakia
1973       Apache
1973       The Rainbow Boys
1972       Journey Through Rosebud
1972       Jeremiah Johnson
1972       Cry for Me, Billy
1972       The New Land
1972       Ulzana's Raid
1971       Billy Jack
1971       Chato's Land
1971       Last of the Mohicans
1970       Soldier Blue
1970       Black Robe
1970       Little Big Man
1970       A Man Called Horse
1970       Run Simon Run
1970       The Animals
1969       Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here
1969       100 Rifles
1969       Taza, Son of Cochise
1968       Custer of the West
1968       White Comanche
1968       The Stalking Moon    
1967       Chingachgook, the Great Snake
1966       Paddle to the Sea
1966       Sons of the Great Bear
1966       Nevada Smith
1966       The Monroes
1966       Hawk
1966       Lone Ranger
1965       Apache Uprising
1965       F Troop
1965       Indian Paint
1964       Cheyenne Autumn
1964       Apache Rifles
1964       Daniel Boone
1963       Kings of the Sun
1962       Geronimo
1962       How the West Was Won
1962       Six Black Horses
1961       Two Rode Together
1961       The Comancheros
1960       The Unforgiven
1960       Flaming Star
1960       Sergeant Rutledge
1959       Yellowstone Kelly
1959       Last Train from Gun Hill
1959       Law of the Plainsman
1958       Apache Territory
1958       Northwest Passage
1958       Ambush at Cimarron Pass
1958       Yancy Derringer
1958       The Light in the Forest
1957       Run of the Arrow
1957       Pawnee
1957       Tomahawk Trail
1957       Apache Warrior
1956       The Searchers
1956       Broken Arrow
1956       The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin
1956       Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans
1956       Spotted Hand
1956       Daniel Boone, Trail Blazer
1956       The Lone Ranger
1956       Pillars of the Sky
1956       The Adventures of Pow Wow, the Indian Boy
1955       Chief Crazy Horse
1955       White Feather
1955       Gunsmoke
1955       The Far Horizons
1955       Cheyenne
1955       Brave Eagle
1954       Broken Lance
1954       Apache
1954       Sitting Bull
1954       Drum Beat
1953       War Arrow
1953       Arrowhead
1953       The Great Sioux Uprising
1953       Hondo
1953       Seminole
1953       Battles of Chief Pontiac
1952       The Big Sky
1952       Tomahawk Territory
1952       The Battle of Apache Pass
1952       Flaming Feather
1952       The Savage
1952       Pony Soldier
1951       Little Big Horn
1951       Distant Drums
1951       Across the Wide Missouri
1951       Apache Drums
1950       Rio Grande
1950       Annie Get Your Gun
1950       Cody of the Pony Express
1950       Broken Arrow
1949       Lone Ranger
1949       The Adventures of Pow Wow, the Indian Boy
1949       She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
1949       The Cowboy and the Indians
1949       The Devil's Doorway
1949       Frigid Hare
1949       Ma and Pa Kettle
1948       Fort Apache
1948       A Feather in His Hare
1948       The Paleface
1947       The Egg and I
1947       Unconquered
1946       Duel in the Sun
1944       Buffalo Bill
1942       Big Heel-Watha
1942       Dawn on the Great Divide
1942       Apache Trail
1941       They Died With Their Boots On
1941       Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt
1941       White Eagle
1940       Young Buffalo Bill
1939       Drums Along the Mohawk
1939       Stagecoach
1939       Susannah of the Mounties
1939       Rhythm on the Reservation
1939       Allegheny Uprising
1939       Overland With Kit Carson
1938       Flaming Frontiers
1937       Little Hiawatha
1937       Hills of Old Wyoming
1937       Sweet Sioux
1936       Rose-Marie
1936       Treachery Rides the Range
1936       The Phantom Rider
1935       Molly Moo-Cow and the Indians
1933       The Old Pioneer
1933       Buffalo Stampede
1934       Wagon Wheels
1930       Silent Enemy: An Epic of the American Indian
1930       The Indians Are Coming
1929       Redskin
1925       The Vanishing American
1921       Paleface
1920       The Deerslayer
1920       The Last of the Mohicans
1918       Out West
1914       Battle at Elderbush Gulch
1914       The Squaw Man
1914       In the Land of the War Canoes: Kwakiutl Indian Life on the Northwest Coast
1912       Burning Heart: An Indian Tale
1912       Romance of the Western Hills
1912       Early Westerns
1912       Heart of an Indian
1911       Heart of an Indian Maiden
1911       The Squaw's Love
1911       Little Dove's Romance
1910       Ramona: A Story of the White Man's Injustice to the Indian
1910       White Fawn's Devotion: A Play Acted by a Tribe of Red Indians in America
1909       The Redman's View
1909       The Mended Lute: A Stirring Romance of the Dakotas
1898       Buffalo Hunt Dance
1894       Sioux Ghost Dance   

Matinee Classics - Native Americans

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