This last month has truly been a time of coming and going. I traveled across the Atlantic to Stuttgart, Germany for the Indianer Inuit: Das Nordamerika Filmfestival. The film festival featured videos and movies from all over Indian country, from full-length feature to short documentaries. Tantoo Cardinal a well-known actress from Canada appeared in several of the films. She was at the festival to introduce one of her films, Unnatural and Accidental, based on a true story of a series of deaths of Indian women on Vancouver’s east side in the 1980’s due to alcohol poisoning. The deaths weren’t taken seriously because the women lived on skid row, until a common acquaintance was found. He had killed them by pouring alcohol down their throats. The images still disturb me. Did the retelling of the story bring about a healing? Can testimony bring peace? Or did it unnecessarily recreate the destruction?
Years ago I was hired by the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona to write a one-hour drama that would incorporate the healing story of the Gaan, the mountain spirit dancers. I was taken in and told the story and the meaning of the story. There are as many versions as storytellers, though the core elements are the same. I witnessed a beautiful ceremony in which the Gaan appeared from the mountains and danced. In the screenplay the protagonist (lead character) was a teenage Apache boy at Indian school in Phoenix. He got caught up in a gang, began drinking, and started getting into trouble. The family brought him home. A ceremony was done for him. He literally and metaphorically became a part of the story; as he healed he became the boy who was the central character in the traditional story. And as in the traditional story, the Gaan appeared to teach the people in a time when they had forgotten their origins, a time when strange crimes were being committed, a time of unusual weather and natural disasters, when the people had forgotten to take care of each other.
(These times sound awfully familiar, don’t they?)
Each draft of the screenplay went to the tribal cultural board. One of the older women objected to a scene that depicted drinking and fighting. The images were disturbing, and thus the images had power to cause disturbance to the viewer. This was not something we need to see, she said. We need positive images for our people. The next meeting she had changed her mind. Her granddaughter read the script and convinced her that the drinking and fighting scene provided an important part of the story, though it was difficult to watch. The scene might help others in trouble see themselves, could act as a warning, and present the challenge faced by the young man. We included a scaled back version of the scene in the final screenplay. (I hear the video is still very popular there, and is copied and passed around the community.)
Since then I have carefully considered the power of images and how they affect us. I used to be a huge fan of all the various CSI and Law and Order shows. The stories are dramatic, well written and each hinges around the solving of a crime. I began to notice that in almost all in the shows the crimes were perpetrated against beautiful young women and children. And the crimes became more and more heinous and creative as the season went on, (just as the crimes we see and hear reported in the newspaper, television, and the Internet these days). The brutal images were haunting and were beginning to instill a fear, a distrust of life in me. I checked every corner and closet in my house before sleeping. I worried about the safety of my family. When I stopped for sleep, those terrible images would play about my mind. I quit watching.
Ratings go up commensurate with sensationalistic images, which usually involve fast sex, violence and drugs. And with ratings come sponsors who will pay more for their commercials, advertisements for food that isn’t really food, for more goofy or violent TV shows, happy drugs, or a myriad of clothes, cars and gadgets that we don’t really need. And we get hooked, because nothing is required from us but our complacent, exhausted minds, which are complacent and exhausted because we’re eating the food that isn’t really food, watching stupid shows, taking all those happy drugs, and working eight or more hours a day to buy all those things dancing across the television screen. This, I guess, is what they always meant by civilization, or progress.
Still I am opposed to censorship. If you don’t like these images, or the turn the story is taking, then turn off the television, make your own stories (even for television!), pull out your paints, your poems, get to work on those ribbon dresses you promised two years ago for your nieces, cook your own dinner and take some to your neighbor. Start visiting each other again. And take the kids with you. You’d be surprised at the gifts we are carrying in this nation. Share them.
Images of Indians, most of them not created by us, have defined us in the world. Germany has a great fascination with Indians. To understand this obsession you have to know about Karl May, a German writer who at the turn of the last century wrote a series of extremely popular Wild West stories inspired by the a stilted, stereotypical novel The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper. Winnetou, whose adventures are captured in the stories, makes his appearance in the first chapter with these words: “His bronze-coloured face bore the imprint of special nobility.” May vividly imagined fantasy Indians and the Wild West. He never met a real Indian. I guess everyone wanted and still wants that “imprint of special nobility”. Now there are over 200 Indian clubs in Germany. In these clubs people make authentic costumes, take on Indian names, dress up, dance and live as Indians for the weekend.
Once during a visit to Griefswald, a city on the North Sea, near Poland, I was taken to an “Indian Museum”. The first floor was framed images from magazines and books. The second floor was displays of exquisite, perfect Plains Indian beadwork made by Germans. This is why a real native man who looks Plains Indian, has long hair, wears lots of leather with fringes, a few feathers, and can pose stoic, can make a living being Indian in Germany, by making appearances and sharing “culture”. Run that by the next high school career day in Okmulgee. We do need ambassadors who can show that real Indians are all kinds of Indians: long, short, funny, sad, male, female, child, old man, skinny, fat, human being….some of us dress up for powwow, some of us dress down for life.
After the last film the organizers, who were some of the most thoughtful and organized organizers I’ve met on my travels, closed with a ceremony of thank you’s and acknowledgements. At the end, an elderly German gentleman who many of us had noticed on the front row of all the screenings jumped up and enthusiastically asked: “What about a thank-you for the audience”? We all smiled and clapped. Later over dinner I heard his story. The old man came to all the Indianer film festivals because when he was in the war, a Lakota man, who was part of the U.S. forces, captured him. That Lakota man took really looked after him and he was convinced that’s why he was still alive. He carried around an image of an Indian as a kind soldier.
It’s the small kindnesses that will be remembered.
Respectfully submitted, JH May 2, 2007