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Westerman's speech was rambling and repetitive at times, but his songs were superb. Besides, there was something rather marvelous about the idea of this old man standing onstage in Scottsdale and spouting radical and often blisteringly funny invective against Christianity (Eighty percent of the Bible is made up"), Mormons, liposuction, the government, the military, stereotypical sports logos, and Mexicans (neutralized" Indians, he said). Best of all, he called Walt Disney "a cocaine-sniffing racist."
Westerman was, as I've heard sports reporters call Charles Barkley, a walking sound bite. He remarked that there were "three [whites] that used to come to all the powwows . . . the anthropologist, the missionary and the FBI agent. Now it's four--those three and the New Ager. There's probably a couple of them crystal-packin' New Agers here tonight." He wasn't wrong.
Many of the whites who attended the events seemed rather affronted by this level of anger and resentment. A young man approached Westerman after his talk, eager to defend Christianity. A foreign-accented woman spoke up during the Q&A sessions at more than one of the seminars, aggrieved by the feeling that the natives wanted to leave her out of their discourse. Before the Saturday-night bus ride to the Gila River reservation, one woman told me she wasn't going, because "to me, it's like death, riding out to Gila River with these people who've been hating us all day." During the ride, I heard another woman behind me remark, "I'm getting a little tired of hearing what an asshole the white man was."
What do you mean was, Kemosabe?
Aside from the fact that these well-intentioned people were taking what was said too personally, the irony of their taking offense at a sense of exclusion was, as far as I could tell, entirely lost on them. What did they expect to hear?
The bravest non-native at the festival (and he was more or less acknowledged as such by the native participants) was Tony Huston, son of the late, great filmmaker John Huston and himself a screenwriter. He appeared as a sort of token white--and as a representative of the Hollywood establishment--at a panel discussion titled "Can a White Man Make a Film About an Indian?"
His participation was not purely academic--he has written an adaptation of the well-known novel about Navajos, Laughing Boy, a project once dear to, but unrealized by, his father. The younger Huston is looking for $4 million to fund the production, and he was there in part to suggest that if native people wanted creative control in movies about themselves, the hard fact was that they would need to contribute to the funding of those movies.
Huston did, however, piquantly make the opposition point with an elegant little joke: "What about Gandhi? Here was a film about an Indian made by non-Indians. Storytelling is not ethnography or anthropology; it transcends certain limited boundaries. A great storyteller is great because he's universal, Shakespeare being the obvious example."
But while many of us might agree with these sentiments, they don't remotely justify the obscene distortion with which native people have been depicted on film by non-natives. Nor do they make the frustration of native film artists, and of those of us who would wish to see their work, any less justified.
As it turned out, my friend who excused herself from the Gila River excursion missed the most cordial and lighthearted part of the weekend. Before it was dark enough to watch the silly Sioux City, the visitors were given a tasty, traditional meal at the performance space behind the museum, and entertained with a variety of enchanting performances by native song and dance groups.
At dusk, while beautiful, smiling children moved to stirring chants, an enormous heron flew over the stage. To my urban eyes, it looked like it must be a beneficent spirit. Not long after that, I saw what was, for me, the most encouraging sight of the weekend: a native kid of about 12 years, in tee shirt, baggy pants and Adidas, shooting everything in sight with a camcorder.
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