Indians in the movies go back about as far as movies themselves. While there's been enough consciousness-raising in recent decades that only the most naive audience members could still believe that the movie Indians--both noble and savage--we've all been brought up on are accurate reflections of real Native Americans, the ugly, real-life effects of those images remain.
Last weekend, a fledgling effort to redress this problem was made at "Imagining Indians: A Native American Film Festival." A co-production of Scottsdale Center for the Arts (the venue for most of the events), Native American Producers Alliance, and Atlatl (a service organization for Native American artists), it was promoted as the first festival in this country to centrally feature films and videos actually produced by indigenous people.
The title for the event was taken from the film Imagining Indians, directed by festival artistic director Victor Masayesva Jr. (Hollywood's Warp Path," January 20, 1993). Guests included the likes of American Indian Movement activist turned actor Russell Means, actor Gary Farmer and actresses Tantoo Cardinal and Sheila Tousey, among many lesser-known artists.
Because of the focus on native-produced works, "Imagining Indians" was, for a film festival, singularly sparse both in film screenings and in festivity. The tone at many of the panel discussions was poignantly somber, leavened at times with grim, gallows humor.
As Chris Eyre, an Arapaho/Cheyenne board member of NAPA and a grad student in film at New York University (his short film Tenacity was screened), puts it: "As far as native cinema's gone, it hasn't existed. Even when [non-native filmmakers] plug native people in, or use original costumes and artifacts, that doesn't make a native film." The rarity of authentically native cinema necessitated the padding of the program with films like Dances With Wolves, The Last of the Mohicans and Thunderheart, all of which were received much more enthusiastically on their initial release by non-native "Indian buffs" than by natives themselves. Also shown, at an outdoor screening Saturday night at the Gila River Indian Community, was a prerelease cut of Sioux City, a routine and rather clich murder mystery set on a Nebraska reservation, directed by and starring Lou Diamond Phillips.
There were, however, a number of films, and even more videos, screened at "Imagining Indians" which seemed (to me, admittedly no expert) truly representative of native life and interests in this country. These included Masayesva's own Imagining Indians, a combination of documentary and satirical footage on the popular image of Indians in media; and PowWow Highway (1989), a sometimes gripping, sometimes comic road movie featuring terrific performances by Gary Farmer and A Martinez. Also screened was last year's Where the Rivers Flow North, which, though principally concerned with a non-native character (the great Rip Torn as an obdurate Vermont logger), justified its screening because of the sublime performance by Tantoo Cardinal as the logger's housekeeper and companion.
The videos I saw included documentaries such as Ava Hamilton's Children of Wind River, a half-hour piece about day-care issues on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, made for Wyoming Public Television. In general, the videos were informative but negligible (and not intended) as cinematic art, although Phil Lucas' Healing the Hurt had astoundingly powerful footage of a therapy session for adults who had been abused as children at non-native residential schools.
Two of the most cinematically interesting films shown were about the concerns of oppressed tribal people in another part of the world--New Zealand. Barry Barclay's Te Rua, about the attempt by a group of Maori to recover the native art of its ancestors from a Berlin museum, suffered from scattershot editing but had several dazzling, tense sequences and a star performance by the excellent Wai Kuki Kaa (of Geoff Murphy's Utu). Merata Mita's Mauri, about a man's struggle to come to terms with his native identity, suffered from overwrought acting, but was rich in haunting images.
Whatever their flaws, these two films were well-enough produced, viable enough as cinema, to serve as a model for native filmmakers on this continent. Eyre notes that for Native American film to become vital, ". . . it has to be done by auteurs, by writers and directors. That's the effort we're trying to make. It's going to take that one film that breaks through as a commercial theatrical release . . . that's going to open the gate for native filmmakers. There was always black cinema, but Spike Lee created a renaissance."
A young Cherokee filmmaker named Randy Redroad, whose short comedy Cow Tipping: The Militant Indian Waiter was screened at "Imagining Indians," shows the same kind of acidic yet accessible wit, with the potential for crossover commercial appeal, for which Spike Lee became celebrated.
Much of what was liveliest at the festival came not from the films, but from the panel discussions and other live presentations. On opening night, for instance, after a sweet invocation and performance by native flutist Robert Tree Cody (grandson of the familiar actor Iron Eyes Cody), came the keynote address by Floyd Red Crow Westerman, a Lakota actor and folk singer best known to non-Indians for appearances in movies such as Dances With Wolves and The Doors.
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.
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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.