Shedding the feathers

, by Alfred

About two weeks ago, the American Indian Center of Chicago proposed its ninth First Nations Film Festival. Survey of the activities and an interview with the director Ernest Whiteman III.

All those long, long notes... what’re they up to, all that time to do something inside of ? is it an Indian spirit plot ?

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

Feathers and beads

Just about two weeks ago, our friend Frenchie-who’s french only by name-told us about a movie screening at a local university. The school was showing a series of Native American movies. Those shown that night were Sherman Alexie’s The Business of Fancydancing and Once upon a time in Skokie, a short movie by Ernest Whiteman III. Alexie occupies a unique spot on the American literary scene. He’s more or less the only Native American writer to have crossed over community barriers and become an “ethnic star” of American letters. Alexie is a member of the Spokane tribe. He was born in a reservation in the state of Washington. A poet, novelist and short-story writer, it is the success met by Chris Eyre’s movie Smoke Signals—whose scenario was written by Alexie based on one of his short stories— that made him the most visible Native American writer around. His first incursion into film-making is a success. This story with autobiographical overtones takes up the major themes present throughout his writings. Alexie tells of the painful anecdotes of reservation life, the many surprises of the native condition in America. Alexie tirelessly questions his position, torn between his ethnic identity and the compromises of life within white society. Alexie has always talked about the rez, but he now does it for overwhelmingly white audiences.

The main character in the movie, Seymour, is also a successful indian poet. He left his reservation to go to college, where he started his artistic career. When one of his childhood friends dies on the rez, he goes back for the first time in years. He is confronted with his other friend Aristotle, with whom he once was very intimate. They grew apart when Aristotle chose the rez rather than the outside world. The movie jumps from the funeral to older episodes in the life of the characters, torn between indian reproach and white stupidity. The narrative is interlaced with scenes showing Seymour, clad in a traditional outfit, fancydancing. Seymour is often framed in the unenviable position of the sellout making money off of his people’s suffering. At the end of the movie, Seymour leaves the rez yet again, but not without symbolically shedding the beads and feathers of yore, as an angry and drunken Aristotle is seen fancydancing in Seymour’s rearview mirror.

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Ernest drives on, an eye in the rearview mirror

The imaginary museum

“The Litmus test for me is asking: what character did you really empathize with, Seymour or Aristotle ? A lot of people will say Aristotle, he’s right, he’s gung-ho... People don’t realize that he’s their conception of what Indians should act like, a dirt-poor rez guy, that’s why they empathize.” Take that in your pale face. This is Ernest Whiteman III talking. The Northern Arapaho director was presenting his short movie to an audience mainly composed of students and old ladies dressed to kill, don’t ask whom. He was also answering questions, and what questions... Standing in front of the audience in his Superman t-shirt, Ernest makes great efforts to hide his annoyance at the steady bombardment of stupidities coming out of our self-righteous grandmas. They came because they like Indians, you see. They wear indian jewelry, possibly moccasins. They apparently did not take it personally when Ernest was making fun of white suburban New Beetles adorned with $15 dreamcatchers. One of them wants to know if contemporary Indians have lost their connection to mother Earth, because she’s just reread chief Seattle’s book and, well, you gotta admit it’s pretty deep stuff and all, so? Another wonders if the low life expectancy among Native Americans is due to their shift from a buffalo-meat-based diet to one based on ‘American’ food. Yet another asks if high suicide rates are not related to Indians feeling ‘defeated’, you know, I mean you guys lost everything, yes ma’am, and they all nod like, indeed, they know.
The room is part of the Native American museum of Aurora University. It is filled with archeological artifacts. Whiteman points at a reconstituted teepee, and calmly explains that everything we see here is indeed history, that a contemporary Indian is, paraphrasing Sherman Alexie, more a ponytailed redneck that a movie redskin. Waste of effort. The scene is a perfect illustration of the paradox 21st century Indian artists are regularly faced with: they are doomed to fight the timewarp in which it has been relegated by western culture (“western”, in more ways than one). In this constant show of a struggle, they regularly have to shed feathers and beads they don’t even wear anymore.

Whether they like it or not, Indian artists, and more specifically here Indian filmmakers, are forced to address time and again one of the oldest and most enduring racist stereotypes of cinema. Before contemporary Indians can even be discussed, the Great Plains braves have to be buried and re-buried. The old Indian cemetery bit... From the wooden tobacco chief to the countless team mascots (among which the U of I Fighting Illini and their Chief Illiniwek, the Chicago Blackhawks, and the oh so sensibly named Washington Redskins), or the French traffic control mascot Bison Futé (Smart Buffalo), the Indian image seems to belong to everybody but the Indians. But times they are a-changin’.
The movie presented by Whiteman is also part of more than twenty movies selected for the ninth First Nations Film Festival. The event was organized by the American Indian Center of Chicago, the main extension of the local Native American population, and it displayed movies made by members of numerous different nations.

Well over a 100 [tribes are represented in Chicago].” The diversity of the Chicagoan Indian community is one result of the tactfully named Termination and Relocation Act of 1954. The law started a program meant to get Native Americans out of their reservations, in order to integrate them, willy-nilly, into post-war urban American society. “What they were trying to do was terminate the link that American Indians had to their own past and identity, and try to incorporate them into white society. To do that you have to get them away from their environment, language, culture.” A great number of Native Americans left their reservations (most of which are located in the western part of the country) for big urban centers such as Chicago, Oakland, San Francisco or Minneapolis. The hope for a change did not last long. The urban environment is not an easy one to adapt to, and the federal government is all about laissez-faire. Let them integrate. Many having sacrificed all they had to make the trip could not go back to the rez, and had to settle for life in the urban ghettoes instead. In some cases, relocation will even be directly responsible for stripping away what little government benefits had been granted: “Every tribe has a roll, a list, and when relocation occurred a lot of people left. When the roll call came, they asked whose family was there that we can tell is Indian. Those who weren’t there were kept off the lists.

For your information, the federal government keeps tabs on what exactly is an Indian supposed to be. “Blood quantum. It’s the way the government keeps track of Indians. If you’re more than ¼ indian blood, you’re considered part of an Indian tribe. There are movements out there that say you don’t really need that to be considered Indian ; if you have the cultural connection, you should be able to say you’re Indian. But it ties you to the rights and privileges Indians are granted. ” A Black Code (the French book of laws concerning African slaves in their colonies, defining among other things the “degrees of blackness”) for the Red-skinned. Nice.

The efforts to organize the displaced communities often resulted in the birth of associations, the likes of which Chicago’s AIC is the oldest example. The Center is about 50 years-old. It provides a space for the local Indian community to get together. Pow-wows and other cultural meetings take place regularly, such as last month’s Film Festival.

It’s the ninth annual festival. Actually it’s been going on since about the early nineties, but then it took a break up until 1999. Back then that was the sixth annual. I don’t know why they keep calling it annual!.” Now working as a grant writer and developer at the AIC, Ernest was born on the Wind River reservation in Wyoming. “[Reservations] are not the greatest place in the world. Sioux reservations in South Dakota are Third World level. The government can wash their hands of it, they provide houses and health care and that’s it.” Life expectancy is a grim 52, and suicide and alcoholism rates are very high. “Being forced to live in squalor conditions, a lot of people give up hope.” As early as high school, Ernest decides to be a filmmaker. A dream triggered by... Phil Jonah’s Rattle and Hum, the movie on U2. “I wanted to be the guitarist the Edge. I loved the band, I idolized them, I had the look down...everybody was into heavy metal then and i was the only guy into U2 [...]. When I saw the movie Rattle and Hum, I journeyed at least 100 miles to see it in the next town where it was playing. I thought that would be a cool way to meet U2, to make a movie about them. So I started to research it and I found out that the director had all the control on the movie set. He started out as an editor so i thought i will start out as an editor and i will become a director,. and that was the way it was all my high schools years.

Who controls the controlmen ?

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It takes Billy Jack just about 1/16th of Indian blood to become brother with a snake...

Cinema is not a big business in Wyoming. Forced to leave school for a while and work, Ernest did not let the cinema dream go. He went back to college to study TV broadcasting, the closest thing to cinema he could find in the state. After his mother’s death. Ernest decided it was time to move on. Refusing a job offer from NASA, he chose to follow his brother’s advice and register at Chicago’s Columbia University to study filmmaking.

The first months in Chicago prove a little puzzling, to say the least. “It seemed like I was the only Indian in the world!” Ernest first read about the AIC and the film Festival in a Chicago Reader article. Ernest soon met the AIC people and started working with them. Dave Spencer, the man in charge of the Film Festival Committee, asked him to make the webpage for the festival, and to enter the selection committee. Similar festival are organized in most of the urban centers where sizeable Indian communities reside: “There is one every year in San Francisco, Arizona and New Mexico. I know the Cherokee tribe have their own Cherokee Film Festival. And there’s one in Toronto about the First Nations. They’re not highly visible as they should be but they’re out there. They’re starting to gain in popularity.

It is an arduous task, and for Ernest, beyond its artistic implications, this festival is also a display of power. It is about taking back the image of the Indian that has been taken away through time, along with the colonial advances into the American West. When Fenimore Cooper lay the foundation for the pioneer novel, there were still a limited number of United States, most of them on the East Coast. With the westernward waves of colonization would come the mythologization of the frontiermen. Indian tribes were slowly reduced to the Indian, the backward, befeathered savage, the arch-enemy, the negative image of the so-called civilized, modern Western man. The wheels of the colonial image-machine turn fast: soon enough all Indians are wearing feathers, ride horses, look alike. In newspapers, in Congress, whenever excuses are needed to break treaties and open Indian land to white settlers, it is suggested that the movement west is the victory of technology over barbarism. In order to justify the way Indians are treated, one has to suggest they are less than human, a method as old as colonial war.

When Indian wars reach an end after the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, Indians are already more characters in Buffalo Bill’s western shows than human beings of flesh and blood. With the beginnings of cinema, colonization seems overwhelming: Indian image has been taken over. It has become a crucial part of the western myth, and it is controlled by those who make this myth. In order to make the cowboy a greater figure, the Indian has to remain a character of the past, his face irremediably impassive, feather bobbing in the wind, standing on a hill in the setting sun, ready to sneak up on a cowboy or two...
In the 1960s, Hollywood suddenly realizes that not all Americans are white, and that even ethnic minorities have some money, that they are ready to spend in order to see people who look like them kicking ass on screen. The truly commercial “blaxploitation” wave rumbled through theaters across the nation. At the same period, Soldier Blue and Little Big Man are among the first westerns to show atrocities perpetrated by whites against Indians. Later, the Billy Jack series introduces a former Green Beret half-breed, kung-fu fighting pacifist with a little shaman in him of course, who despite his hatred of violence will not hesitate kicking bad guys in the face and generally going berserk in order to help out children women and other living things. Hm.
Westerns like Soldier Blue and Little Big Man tried to portray Indians differently, but they’re still portraying Indians of the 1800s. If you think of a movie like Billy Jack, it’s a contemporary view of Indians, but it’s still controlled by a non-Indian person, it says: “this is what I think Indians should be”. And when misrepresentation comes out— because all of the ceremonies weren’t really tribal ceremonies; people think that it’s real, that it’s real indian life— well in the case of Billy Jack, he took all these ingredients from a lot of Indian cultures and said: “this speaks for all Indians”. There are still well over 300 tribes alive today, each with their own seperate ceremonies and cultures. It’s modernized, it’s not what it was 100 yrs ago, but it’s individual to each tribe.

From Blaxploitation, it is the example set by Melvin Van Peebles that Whiteman would like to emulate: “When you look at black cinema, up until the 60s it’s about all these racist inaccuracies : they’re all pimps, they’re all drugdealers and criminals. When Van Peebles came around, he made his heroes pimps and dealers and criminals. He took control of these stereotypes and thereby took the power out of it. “Yeah we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna use it, and wonder what you think about this power of ours”. And they went on to make great black action cinema. That’s what American Indians have to do. You have to take the stereotype of the Plains Indian and do something with it, do something that hasn’t been done.

Smoke Signals, if not the foundation of Native American cinema, has proven its biggest success so far. The first movie directed, produced and written by Native Americans did well in theaters, and has won awards across the globe. Whiteman would like to go a little further. “As much as I like movies like Smoke Signals or Skins, The Business of Fancydancing, I always thought they were overstepping it in the fact that they’re trying to make an art, rather than take control of the stereotype. I remember Chris Eyre saying that making a movie is like a ceremony, with the proper tenets of a ceremony. Well to me that’s crap. If you’re going to film somebody taking a football to the groin, how much of a ceremony is that ? I mean it’s funny, it gets your point across, it makes the audience laugh and guys cringe, it gets an emotional response, and to have that control as a director you shouldn’t be afraid to go out and make a goofy movie. My first feature project, I hope, is an action movie. It’s an Indian plugged into a Hollywood movie.

At the core of the issue, as Ernest relentlessly points out, is image and who controls it. it is not just about changing stereotypes or expressing an elusive Indian voice onscreen. This voice is also expressed backstage, in production, on the set. In order to let indian voices be heard, you have to control all aspects of moviemaking. For Ernest and Kansan filmmaker Rod Pocowatchit, the example to follow in this regard is Robert Rodriguez. “Just because he has this punky attitude about Hollywood, about doing it yourself, which is what I hope filmmaking becomes more and more about. A lot of it is self-produced, he does everything from running the camera and sometimes lighting the sets. He writes his own stuff, he edits, lately he’s gotten to scoring his own music on his movies. Plus he makes those really fun, goofy movies that he wants to make. He doesn’t really care...” He has his own style, and that is how he expresses his own voice. For Ernest, American Indian cinema will only grow if individual indian voices assert themselves, and avoid the obstacle of the ONE Indian voice, the temptation to always speak in the name of oppressed cultures, to make every movie into a manifesto.

With this in mind, Ernest shot the movie formerly known as The Matrix Sucks, a hilarious short movie shown on the opening night of the Festival. The story is quite simple: the main character admits to not having seen The Matrix. Faced with his friends’ incredulity, despair and soon anger, what will our hero do?

Ernest’s movie is also the only movie in the festival with no Indian in it. “A movie that doesn’t involve Indians. That’s another form of self-representation because I’m representing myself as a director, rather than as an image. The person in control behind the scenes so to speak....” In making too much high art, Ernest fears that indian filmmakers end up alienating their own community. If this is really about speaking for all Indians, they’re going to have to cast their net wide. “The Indian kid sitting at home watching XXX with Vin Diesel thinks: “I wanna make a movie like that !” but he looks out there and sees there’s nothing but The Business of Fancy Dancing etc., I don’t want to be like that. You got to be open to all avenues, to let all avenues of Indians in.

Dancing on the Moon

It seems the selection was made along those lines of thought. On opening night, at the AIC, about 100 people are gathering in the room, young and old, brown, red, white and black... That night a collection of short movies are followed by Rod Pocowatchit’s Dancing on the Moon. The most striking short movie is without a doubt Randy Redroad’s Moccasin Flats. The Cherokee director from Canada located his movie in the Moccasin Flats Indian ghetto of Regina, Saskatchewan.

Young Justin has been accepted in a college, and is about to leave the dreary Moccasin Flats ghetto. But Jonathan, a small-time thug who once was pimp to Justin’s girlfriend Kristin, gets out of jail to disturb the picture. Though relatively classical, the plot is powerfully delivered. Jonathan threatens Justin about Kristin, and soon enough the situation goes from bad to worse. Justin’s best friend is stabbed by Jonathan and his buddies. Justin considers killing Jonathan. The movie’s leitmotiv is familiar. It is the image of the traditional dancer again, which we’ll also find in Dancing on the Moon. The symbolism is different each time, though. Justin confronts Jonathan in public by performing a dance, at the end of which he shoves the knife into Jonathan’s table. Jonathan will later die, stabbed to death by one of his girls with the same knife he had once used to kill Justin’s friend. A full circle, a kind of dance? Redroad has also directed videos for the candian indian rap group the Rez Crew.

Pocowatchit’s Dancing on the Moon is a feature film shot on elbow grease, between friends and family, for free, between rainstorms and workdays. The result is positively impressing, from image quality (I forgot how he managed to soften the usually pretty bad DV grain, but he did a great job) to acting. The amateur actors succeed in making you forget that after all, they got involved to help their friend Rod.
Dean, Joey and Mark, “three Native American friends who are more like brothers”, embark on a road trip to a pow-wow in Kansas. Dean (played by Guy Ray Pocowatchit, the director’s brother) is a dancer, but he has refused to dance since his mother died. Joey is a kid in a grown-up’s body, multiplying blunders his brother Dean always ends up sweeping up after. Their brother/friend Mark is the “hothead”, who deals with his own identity issues with aggressivity and smartass repartee. In their many adventures on the way to the pow-wow, their car will get stolen and later be recovered, only to find a girl sleeping in the backseat. They follow their journey with her for a time, and all characters start confronting their own limitations. When after yet another blunder Joey ends up in the hospital, Dean decides to go to the pow-wow alone. Along the movie, in daydream sequences, Dean is regularly drawn to visions of himself dancing in the traditional costume he promised not to ever wear again. He will don it at the very end of the movie, when he finally gets to the pow-wow.

The attitude of the Kansan director is as enjoyable as his movie. It has also won quite a reputation for itself in independent movie festivals. From what we saw in the festival, thd DIY spirit seems to be shared by many Indian directors. Not that they really have a choice. Sovereign nations within the United States, Indian tribes can only count on themselves in all matters. For some of them, the improvement in conditions of living was the result of involuntary magnanimity on the part of the federal government. The barren Southeastern territories given to Indians eventually proved to be full of oil and, among other goodies, uranium. Bingo. “We have the right to govern ourselves. We’re on the level of states when it comes to legislation, but we’re still subject to government stipulations. Say, if the state passes a law, it doesn’t really extend to reservations.” The power is changing hands, little by little. Tribes being sovereign on their soil, recent years have seen casinos burgeoning on reservations, much to the despair of states in which gambling is sometimes illegal. Indian casinos are a very interesting source of income, when they actually make money, that is.
According to Ernest, more than the dangers of gambling, it is the idea of independent indians that states cannot cope with. “People say that it’s a filthy habit, that it’s mob run, it’s easy for organized crime to get in there, but you don’t hear them say it when Chicago is trying to open a casino. All of a sudden it’s not a bad habit, it’s an opportunity for the city ! Well that’s all we’re doing, we’re building an opportunity for ourselves, we’re trying to gain monetary power, a monetary voice, because all the state government understands is the power of the dollar bill.” Urban Indian communities have paved the way for intertribal organizations that would put old feuds to the side in order to work together. Forced cohabitation might have been crucial in the united movements that have sprouted since the 1950s.

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Jonathan in Randy Redroad’s ’Moccasin Flats’

The American Indian Movement, the main Native American political group, was born in Minneapolis after the Relocation Act. The association is intertribal. “Indians in America have pretty much settled in the rez and you know, there’s the world of the rez and the outside world. AIM was the first to say we’re all in this together, in the same boat.” They nevertheless have a tainted reputation among Indians themselves. “There was a lot of gun violence. From AIM and tribal members. It was after Wounded Knee when a lot of leaders from AIM were taken to court, it was considered a civil war, because it was internally, within the tribes, and AIM got this reputation for being gun-toting political activists.” These days, AIM has come out against racist team mascots such as University of Illinois’ Chief Illiniwek. The popularity of such teams provides Indian movements with a useful audience. They can then use the publicity to address other issues their community has to face. “We can start large campaigns to get the candidates we want elected, electing more Democrats, appointing more Indians for Congress...
I see it happening if we can get some kind of coordinated effort between all tribes, there’s segregation that’s gone on for a long time between tribes... It’ll happen slowly.

This edition of the festival was the most succesful yet.The rise of Native American cinema is an important part of this movement towards visibility. The movement is multifaceted, just as Ernest’s production. He is also a writer, thus following in his mother’s footsteps: she was a storyteller. The follow-up to Once Upon a Time in Skokie, will focus on his mother’s influence, tell us more about his father’s history, and record the first encounter of his two families, on the rez, back in Wyoming. Married to Bonnie, an American of German/Irish descent, Ernest is also the stepfather of two young girls of Chinese descent. Ernest is still shooting the already entitled Once Upon a Time on the Rez, and hopes to begin editing soon. It will be the second part of a four-part project; "it has to be four, it represents my people better. Four is a sacred number for the Arapaho." Ernest never stops to rest. He has written a crime novel that he’s trying to get published. He was also presenting "sketchbook pictures of a non-Indian nature" in the Dissipating Indians exhibition this month at the Beacon Street Gallery. He has also finished a scenario for a feature film: “It’s an action movie, “the invincible Indian hitman”. I have this idea that if you can plug Indians into mainstream Hollywood movies, like Willis in Armageddon, what if he were played by Graham Greene? Would that matter? It shouldn’t.” And Ernest adds with a smile: “I’m trying to be the first Indian sellout.” Godspeed, Ernest. I’m hoping this is a clever scheme to spread the Indian spirit plot, but who knows anymore. It seems Indians aren’t what they used to be...