YOU SHOULD SEE ‘REEL INJUN’
by Xavier Kataquapit
Recently, I viewed a documentary titled ‘Reel Injun’ a production by Cree film maker, Neil Diamond, who is originally from Waskaganish, Quebec on the James Bay coast. This was one of the most informative documentaries on First Nation people I have ever watched concerning myths about Natives. I have always been confused about my background in terms of image and promotion produced in the media in general. I never understood or identified with the ideas, myths and stereotypes the world has about Native North Americans. ‘Reel Injun’ really gave me the facts about how all these strange perceptions of Native people evolved.
I have had the opportunity to chat with Neil several times as he is associated with the Nation magazine, a publication produced for the Eeyou Istchee, the Cree of Northern Quebec. I easily identified with Neil’s narrative in ‘Reel Injun’, as he presented the documentary with a generous amount of Native good humour. He is quick to have fun and as a James Bay Cree, Neil understands that making someone laugh while you are teaching them is a Cree tradition that ensures that your story will be appreciated and remembered.
Identifying myself as an Indian has always been complicated and at times frustrating. I have travelled in other parts of the world and whenever people discover that I am Indian they immediately think that I am Asian and come from India. It gets even stranger for me when I explain to them what my background really is. It seems unreal for most people that they would meet a real Canadian Indian in their country. We don’t travel all that much. To demonstrate who I am, I have discovered that the easiest way to get my point across is by performing a Hollywood style war whoop and pretending to pull back an imaginary bow and arrow. No matter what language or culture I am dealing with I realized on my travels that any person who has ever watched television in their lives understands what a war whoop and bow and arrow means. It is the image of a half naked, brown skinned, long haired Indian, riding bare back on his pony across the prairies. The wild prairie Indian is an image that has created all sorts of myths and stereotypes over the years. We can thank television and the movies for those ideas. My Hollywood style Indian act always surprises and delights people from other cultures and then I have the task of telling them about First Nation life in Canada and our traditions and cultures. They are often very shocked that we don’t live in teepees, do not ride horses and we actually live very modern lives.
Neil Diamond’s ‘Reel Injun’ is a genuine and honest perspective of the history of the Hollywood Indian. The film features many prominent Aboriginal personalities such as Adam Beach, Graham Greene and Robbie Robertson. I was surprised to see Hollywood actor Clint Eastwood, who famously starred in many westerns and cowboy films, share his experiences in the movie industry and his work with Aboriginal actors. Native activists and advocates from the 60s and 70s were included in the mix to share their perspectives and sometimes their roles in the Hollywood film business. Filmmakers and historians balanced the narrative with Native comedians who poked fun at the strange and outrageous stereotypes and portrayals of the Hollywood Indian. The documentary has been featured in many festivals and is scheduled to be presented at many more across the country. Most notably it is being presented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this summer and at the Museum of London, UK in the fall. Scheduled listings can be found by visiting the film’s website at www.reelinjunthemovie.com
‘Reel Injun’ goes back to the very beginning of the movie making industry and to the invention of the moving picture. From that early beginning, many of the ideas and images of Native people have been shaped and cultivated by movies and television. Neil and his production staff did an excellent job of presenting the history of Native people on the big screen and how our popularity has ebbed and flowed with the changing social scene over the past century. In one hour, ‘Reel Injun’ gave me a healthy and informative perspective on the history of how my people are perceived in this world. I understood much of this already but ‘Reel Injun’ really pulled all the facts together to create a valuable perspective.
I got a good laugh at how early Hollywood film producers wanted real Indians but could not find them and what they had to do to put wild savages on the screen. There were flash backs of real Plains Indian Elders who took roles in cowboy westerns because they were able to speak their own language. It turns out that when their speaking parts were translated decades later, those old Elders had enjoyed some fun with the Hollywood cowboys they were working with and nobody knew.
Thanks to the fact that more and more Native people are becoming involved in the media there has been much development in terms of educating the world about my people. So a huge Meegwetch to Neil Diamond for producing ‘Reel Injun’ for the teaching it provides in a humorous and sensitive package. Put it on your list of great movies to see.
Xavier Kataquapit is an author and columnist of the popular Aboriginal news column is originally from Attawapiskat Ontario on the James Bay coast. He has been writing the column since 1997 and it is is published regularly in newspapers across Canada. In addition to working as a First Nation columnist, his writing has been featured on various Canadian radio broadcast programs. He has also written a book titled Stories of the Cree which features his writing on many different aspects of the Cree traditional life and reality. For more information check out his website at www.underthenorthernsky.com.
Here is our good friend the “Ojibway Smart Ass” Comedian Ryan McMahon with some thoughts on Reel Injun:
Based out of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Ryan McMahon is a comedian/actor/writer that is making a name for himself as one of the most dynamic Aboriginal/First Nations/Indigenous/Native American Comedians working in North America today. McMahon steers clear of tired, cultural stereotypes onstage, and instead, his live show combines standup, improv, and sketch comedy weaving stories and characters in an original style of comedy that he calls – Indian Vaudeville. Check out his Official Website: http://www.ryanmcmahoncomedy.com/ and follow him on twitter @rmcomedy
Reelism in Native American and Indigenous Portrayals
A recent re-run of “Knight Rider” played on a “classic” television cable channel brought forward from its 1982-1986 tenure to slam home an episode featuring a cold-hearted land baron that sought to take over the deed to land held by Native Americans. Of course, there were a couple of Native people who went along with the 3-piece-suited, limo-driving bully in the spirit of Dick Wilson. An indigenous man on horseback gave an impassioned speech about the necessity to hold ancestral land in the best interests of self-determination and self-respect. And, also of course, sadly, David Hasselhoff, who would later go on to “Baywatch” fame, would step in to quell the Natives’ concerns about their futures and resolve their noble tribulations, soothing their savage breasts.
Sadly again, the tribe’s ‘crazy shaman’ came forth to claim that the high-tech Knight Rider version of a Pontiac Trans Am was the manifestation of the tribe’s prophecy that a great warrior would come on horseback to usher the people into a new day. Hasselhoff looked upon the medicine man with pitying wonderment and disdain as he whooped and hey-yah-hey-yahhed his way around the machine-culture icon. It could only have been more pathetic if he had made some statement about the spiritual nature of vehicular horsepower.
It has been said many times that stereotypes may yet carry within them some wisp of truth, but they do more to obscure the clarity of the larger reality of Native American and indigenous culture as a diverse, powerful and important expression of human life.
This pseudo-shaman stereotype has been seen in different cultural and technical configurations, showing up as the babbling, Kiswahili-butchering Rafiki in disney’s “Lion King”, the disrespected Turkana of Kenya in “Exorcist: The Beginning”, Geoffrey Holder’s voodoo-ish Baron Samedi character in “Live and Let Die” and most recently, Mama Odie, another voodoo-esque practitioner in the mighty mouse’s “Princess and the Frog”. These characters, all representing figures of power and leadership in their respective indigenous or diasporan states, are assailed by their patent criminality, “demonic” practices or the deep idiosyncrasies (or outright madness) of their behavior. The deep insult of these false indigenous depictions is added to the injury of the disrespectfully unfunny portrayals of Turtle Islanders in movies/television programs such as “The Shakiest Gun in the West” (starring Don Knotts, 1968), “F Troop” (1965) and the animated “Go Go Gophers” (1966), reported by Wikipedia to be a parody of “F Troop” and an improvement on the formulaic “injun”.
Add the problematic Native portrayals in disney’s “Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale” (1994), “White Feather” (1955), “Tomahawk Trail” (1957) and television’s “Bonanza” (1959) to the assault on African indigeny (see the “Tarzan” franchise, 1976’s “King Kong” and Abbott and Costello’s “Africa Screams” for scintillating indigenous stereotypes) and we start to see the need for documentaries and discourse that can shed light not only on the racist, oppressive and distorted stereotypes of indigenous people in general, but on the particular struggles of Native characters in a pivotal time where many are turning to indigenous culture for solutions to spiritual alienation, social disconnection and environmental exploitation.
We may be in dire need of getting to know some “Reel Injuns”.
Ukumbwa Sauti, M.Ed. is a teacher of cultural media studies and video and television production at the New England Institute of Art and Franklin Pierce University. He authored a research paper entitled, “Cultural Bias in Prime Time Television and Teenage Viewers: A Cultural Media Literacy Program for High School and Higher Education” and is currently engaged in active research and writing towards books on subjects of media and nature and indigenous culture and spirituality. Some of his writing and commentary can be found on his blog at http://indigeny-energetics.blogspot.com and on his frequent facebook posts. Ukumbwa is an initiated Elder in the Dagara tradition of Burkina Faso.
My guest blog-
“First of all, My thoughts on the film, because, I watched it, finally.
I am from a younger generation than my friends Charlie Hill and Neil Diamond and most of the people in the documentary. So, I found this film to be very informative and inspirational. Yes, inspirational! It inspires me to want to be myself. And represent myself at the highest level I can possibly achieve. That would be as a member of my family, tribe,community, country and world. Treating all others with respect and dignity. So, this a very awesome film and all hippies and members of the ‘Wannabe Tribe’ need to watch, and try to understand why they believe the stereotypes of Indian people. And it is important for Indians to watch this film so they can also understand how the world views us and why.
A majority of my thinking, told me that the US Government were the only people who made life tough on Indians. But, after watching this film I realize, that Hollywood has really done a number on us. Just as bad as Uncle Sam did.
It’s interesting to watch how the past century of Indian depiction in film making has changed. Due to the “Battle of the Little Big Horn” or “Custer’s Last Stand!”, or the economy, world crisis, Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War, Alcatraz, and Wounded Knee Massacre, just to name a few, Indian people were treated as endangered species, not as human beings. This is flat out ignorance. And everybody is guilty. Everybody.
The problem here is, Indian Stereotypes. The solution is accurate depictions told from an Indian perspective without editing of the truth. And to keep telling our point of view over and over again. Not caring about what the general public thinks. Because the general public is stupid. They believe what ever flies across their t.v. screens, computer screens, and/or print. Whatever mass media puts out, they believe.
I used to think that if i went up on stage making jokes about ‘my’ reality, I was selling out. What is my reality? Well, I tell these stories in my comedy. That’s just what it is, comedy. And my stories are of what I experienced growing up on the ‘Rez.’ And if you had the privilege of growing up on the rez, then you know that it is very dysfunctional. We are taught to hate the white man, hate each other, and most disgustingly, hate ourselves. All of this behavior is learned from birth, but started even before then. It is all part of the systematic oppression and genocide against the Redman. It still exists today. Example, look on the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, where hundreds of Indian’s electrical power is being shut off in the dead of winter. I won’t elaborate further, but, if you are interested Just google, “Crow Creek Project” to learn more, you’ll find several videos about Crow Creek, or go to http://can-do.org to watch the videos. My point is that it is my experience from growing up on the rez, to hate myself and hate others. Our people are a defeated people, and we are slowly realizing that we have to help ourselves, and stop standing around waiting for a handout. So that is my point of view. One man. I’ve experienced my culture as well. And that is very beautiful and something to be proud of and respected. Something ‘Hollywood’ has a hard time explaining because they don’t live it like we do.
But, the simple fact that we are talking about Indians is awesome! Cause, there is a voice and it’s getting out there. And if history has taught us anything, “It’s cool to be Indian!” So, let’s represent ourselves at the highest level we possibly can, stop abusing our women, children, elders, alcohol, drugs, spirituality, and All other human beings. There is nothing greater than love.
Finally, this generation has changed in many ways, and our elders have struggled to get us here. Let’s remember where we come from and appreciate that. We are all human beings, and come from different backgrounds. We can all be looking at the same thing, but we all have a different point of view. So let’s tell our stories. Hatred is not an Indian virtue so let’s learn to forgive.
“The weak can never forgive, forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.” Mahatma Gandhi
JR Redwater “The Reservation Sensation!”
JR Redwater is a nationally recognized motivational speaker and comedian. Touring with the Pow-wow Comedy Jam, and Lone Worlf Comedy Tour to Iraq to perform for the troops, and most notably, being featured in the upcoming Showtime Comedy Special, “Goin’ Native, American Indian Comedy Slam, No Reservations!” which debuted on Showtime Cable Network in November, 2009. Visit his official website at http://www.reservationsensation.com/ for more info.
I want to thank you for taking time out of your lives to view this blog because it is one way we are able to show support for aboriginal awareness. One of the things I would like to mention is that right now we are getting exposure to the world with the Olympics.
I have never seen such a remarkable performance. Our inclusion shows that Canadians care about an aboriginal presence and our culture is one that people enjoy. It was so beautiful to see the drum and the dancers.What a highlight! Now I ask, are we going to collectively pursue the next step to come together and collaborate together to show the world and Canada our desire to create unity within our communities. Metis, Inuit, First Nations. The Olympics brought us together to show the world that it is possible. It was so beautiful! I for one am going to try to carry the same energy and pass the torch on to other events that celebrate aboriginal culture.
The movie Reel Injun is a remarkable archive that teaches about the impact of Hollywood and how they have translated the Hollywood Indian. We now are working toward creating the truth and a better perspective of aboriginal people. I hope you enjoy it cause I have always dreamed of being in the movies and will always try to do good movies that bring an honest interpretation of who we are. Now you will see why sometimes its so difficult for people to understand in changing the stereotype of the Reel Injun (hollywood indian)
Adam Beach is a Saulteaux actor from Manitoba. His credits include Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers, Windtalkers, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Smoke Signals, Dance me Outside, Skinwalkers, Big Love and Law & Order: SVU
The Hollywood Indian, a term I define as a complete false representation of the Indigenous people of this land.
I believe we have come along way in cinema but still there are those that refuse to look into the true representations of Native culture. I say refuse but perhaps that the film makers just do not want to take the time or spend funding on a consultant to add the true representation in their films. They choose to take the easy way out and continue to use the Hollywood Indian Tribes.
On a couple of my films, I was sent to “Makeup” to get “Dirtied up” to make me look like a filthy savage that never baths and teeth that looks like they are about to fall out of my head. I wondered if they were going to have me run around beating on my lips and raising my hand in greetings saying, “How White Man”.
In the back of my mind, I have wondered if I should have refused and just walked off the set. Instead, I stayed and considered it a great opportunity to teach them some of the truths about the Native culture. As I was being applied with make-up I informed them of the truths of hygiene and the Natives compared to the European culture and their hygiene habits. I took the time to educate others on set as well. I became an advisor on several issues regarding the “Costume”, accessories and hair while on set.
When I was cast for the role on the film Jonah Hex and Unearthed, the casting notice was for Native or “Native look”. On both films as extras, I believe I and maybe one other was of Native blood, the rest of the tribe was of Hispanic and Asian decent. Now, it’s not that they chose them over Native heritage; it’s that no other Natives came to audition for these roles. If we are to move forward in the film industry, I think it’s important for us to look into roles requiring Natives and to educate those on set about the true representation of the accuracy of the indigenous people of this land.
Alan Eaglewolf Bryant
My name is Alan Eaglewolf Bryant, I am Cherokee. I attend renaissance festivals, schools and scout troops teaching the ways of the indigenous people of this nation, misconceptions of the Hollywood Indians and focus mainly on the giving the gift of respect and in turn receiving the gifts of pride and honor. I am an actor as well as model appearing on Cassie Edwards historical romance novels. I was told that I was the first Native American to appear as a Native on the covers of this genre of Historical Romance Novels. Please visit this site to help those on Indian Reservations http://www.nrcprograms.org/site/PageServer?pagename=airc_index
It’s a great pleasure writing this blog for my friends behind Reel Injun as I think a documentary is the purest and most concise method of displaying the grotesque nature of Hollywood’s depiction of the indigenous peoples, cultures and nations of North America and the fact that historically they have so consistently been denied opportunities in Hollywood to the extreme of not even playing their own people with Caucasian actors taking the roles too often. Worse than just being disrespectful, Hollywood’s depiction has twisted the psyche of an entire Nation and helped spin and skew the history of a genocide into a triumphant march of progress and greatly helped build the racism that still perpetuates today.
The irony is that the Screen Actors Guild today have rules protecting against discrimination, bound by the equal opportunities laws of the land, that actually protects this discrimination. Now I would be breaking the law to maintain the authenticity I required when casting my movie Rez Bomb by asking the heritage of the actors and actresses submitting to the film and what nation they are from. But of course I received submissions from scores of actors and actresses who looked Native but weren’t. Should I audition them? All I can say is that I did the right thing.
Rez Bomb broke free of all the stereotypes with no leather, feathers or alcohol to be seen. Just people, Lakota and white negotiating a story of love and drama that was originally written for Scotland but rewritten for Pine Ridge. The decision to shoot on Pine Ridge was out of a love of the area and people and I wanted to prove that you can shoot a mainstream story there beyond Hollywood’s perceived necessity that it must be a “culturally Native story”.
But putting that all aside we are moving forward and I think that Hollywood’s despicable history with this has so impacted us that there are great arguments over where cinema in Indian Country should go. My answer is simple. That racism shall still exist until the point where all kinds of stories are being told in all communities and to get to that point we have to further expand the range of ideas being floated out there.
Where Hollywood isn’t so prejudice is towards making a profit and when films by American Indian film makers start to make money consistently then other production money shall start to flow. Ice Cube and Tyler Perry for example have been hugely successful playing in a larger cultural market that Hollywood was ignoring. Although the American Indian market is much smaller it is sustainable for low budget films in itself which can provide a safety net of revenue for investors hoping for something that will also break out and have international appeal.
What follows then is how to create a new distribution model to serve the audience out there waiting for quality American Indian stories. And this is where you all come in. If you’re reading this it is because you are engaged. But that is not enough if you want to see the expansion of American Indian cinema and artists. There are now some very powerful groupings of us on the social networks. We all have to take part in getting the word out about the work we like from these artists whether musicians, film makers, actors, photographers etc.
How many of you out there know about the Baker Twins? I imagine quite a few. Why? Because Shannon and Shauna have worked tirelessly not only on getting themselves established in the entertainment business but also building up their profiles hugely on social networks. I don’t live in Canada so can’t access APTN but could tell you when Tales of an Urban Indian premiered on that channel because of the social networks of the twins. We are all part of that chain but it is only a chain if we all link together and pass the word around.
I was having a debate with V. Blackhawk Aamodt the other night about this issue at a screening of his documentary The Ghost Riders about the Big Foot ride (I highly recommend checking it out) and he was listing a lot of the cultural problems of the depiction of natives in various films. I understand his sentiment. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is one where I imagine the producers were patting themselves on the back for their cultural sensitivity but all they did was create another version of Hollywood Indians. Where were the Lakota women? Their absence was culturally ridiculous. White women were oppressed in white culture in those days but Lakota women were not. And where was the laughter? No matter the hardships the Lakota know how to laugh. Because the film makers didn’t have a cultural understanding of the Lakota he well missed the mark.
Now for me I have a far greater problem with that because of the historical significance of the piece than say Shanghai Noon, which also wasn’t culturally accurate but the film didn’t pretend that anything was culturally accurate. The cowboys were goofballs, the Chinese were disciplined and obsessed with honor and the Indians were free and liberated in spirit while still caught in the action of the piece. So long as everyone is treated with the same broad brush for me that’s okay. Pathfinder is not by any means culturally accurate (the Vikings were nothing like that too) but it’s a comic book type movie and nothing in a comic book movie is real. I’ve been looking at a comic book called Scalped set in a mythical Rez and it is so over the top about reservation life it would be objectionable other than for the fact it’s a comic book. New York is nothing like the Gotham City of Batman. As we start to break down the storytelling barriers there will be some depictions where we will have to be a little less sensitive because they get lost in the drama of the mainstream.
I’ve had it said about why did I focus in on a lot of the negative side of reservation life in Rez Bomb? I didn’t. It was written originally to be done in a different country with the same level of drama. And at the end of the day most films are heightened realities to be entertaining. But no-one complained that there are a lot of great looking stars in my film and that’s not realistic to life either. What a world it would be if everyone wandering around looked like Tamara Feldman, Trent Ford, Tokala Clifford or Moses Brings Plenty or with the presence of Russell Means. But it’s a movie. My previous two movies were action films about hitmen in Scotland. That wasn’t realistic but made for exciting movies.
They great thing about creating these movies that are fundamentally entertaining is that we are providing something that is very valuable particularly on the poorer reservations where people have issues over self esteem. For them to watch entertaining movies with stars from their own culture starts to redress the remoteness of a lot of popular culture to their own world. But also powerful is that when these movies travel and are seen by other people it greatly alters their frame of reference to a culture and brings it much closer in wrapped in an empathy we build with our protagonists on screen. This is where popular culture can be more powerful than anything else in society. In a short time Bruce Lee did more to alter the perception of Chinese people in the west than anything else through creating characters people admired and empathized with. I fear that deep, culturally sensitive, more arty films for all their brilliance are too often just seen by like minded thinkers. Once we break through in our storytelling when we have American Indian actors and actresses filling leading roles in entertaining movies that reach out into the world then I think we’ll see a very powerful change in perceptions. It may take time but the most important thing is that we all link up and become parts of the chain to move it towards happening.
In fact with Rez Bomb almost all the film festivals we played internationally were not Native festivals but major mainstream ones and because our leads have mainstream followings we’re finding an audience with our film that are loving it because its an exciting love story and who know nothing about reservation life. So their introduction to it is one where they’re rooting for people who live there. A nice seed to plant.
On a final note, as a Scotsman, when I was young the typical depiction you saw of Scottish characters in mainstream British television was as a drunk or as a thug or invariably both, which was a bit tiresome. Now it was a fraction of the stereotype of the American Indian in media but I am pleased to say as the Scots controlled more of their storytelling and their media this depiction subsided. I say to storytellers be ambitious and bold with your storytelling and think out of the box. Where are the legal drama’s or the teen high school comedies or the love stories? Well they’re starting to happen. Imprint is a ghost story. Turquoise Rose a coming of age drama and Rez Bomb is a love story.
We have to be optimistic. But lets face it, it can’t get as bad as the bad old days of Hollywood.
Steven Lewis Simpson
Steven Lewis Simpson is director, producer, musician and editor who started his film career working for the legendary Roger Corman’s Concorde Pictures. He has directed the feature Ties (best film at the Cherbourg Festival of British Film), the documentary Timor Timor, the action feature The Ticking Man and its sequel Retribution. His latest feature, Rez Bomb, is the first universal story to be set on an American Indian reservation. His documentary, A Thunder-Being Nation, filmed over seven years on Pine Ridge Reservation, will be released soon.
I saw a working print of Reel Injun and felt that Neil Diamond made it truly “from the heart.” Many documentaries are little more than a series of talking heads and nifty sound bites spliced together, but Neil tells a story of his own journey from northern Canada and across the U.S. to Hollywood to understand the enduring image of Native people in motion pictures. While I don’t always agree with the artists’ comments, I found Neil’s approach genuine and refreshing. I believe audiences will be touched by Neil’s struggle to “recover” the identity of indigenous people in North America.
My only qualm about Reel Injun is that there’s no mention of the late Jay Silverheels, who earned a reputation playing the Lone Ranger’s sidekick Tonto but also appeared in close to 30 feature films. The Canadian Mohawk actor (born Harold J. Smith) was a middle-weight boxer and harness racer; he served on the Board of Directors for the Screen Actors Guild and founded the Indian Actors Workshop. Jay was a tireless supporter of Native American causes, yet too many overlook his contribution to the film industry. Perhaps Re[z]olution Pictures will someday develop his story.
On another note, I regret that during my interview for Reel Injun I did not mention the Native American roles in the Twilight series. The author of the books, Stephenie Meyer, is a Mormon, and the Quileute images of Twilight are closely tied to the Latter-day Saints’ belief that they share a common ancestral heritage with Indians (who, according to the Book of Mormon, are related to the ancient Hebrews). Few readers have picked up on that theme. But it is a topic of my current project on the Twilight books and movies. Stay tuned.
Angela Aleiss, Ph.D., Film Historian
The author of Making the White Man’s Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies (Praeger, 2005), Dr. Aleiss was a contributing writer for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Hollywood Reporter and Religion News Service, and has been interviewed by National Public Radio, Voice of America and E! News Daily. Dr. Aleiss is a former postdoctoral fellow at the American Indian Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Toronto. She is currently a visiting assistant professor at UCLA.
Avatar and Twilight: Native Representation on screen 2.0
One of the things I enjoyed most about my experience with Reel Injun, was the chance to look back at movies that I grew up watching, studied in university, but haven’t necessarily watched in a few years. Much like Reel Injun itself, it was a great reminder of just how far the representation of Native people on screen has come in the century or so of cinema.
However, some recent additions to the canon serve as reminders of just how far is left to travel. Watching James Cameron’s Avatar, as well as the last two movies in the “Twilight Saga” brought back some of the emotions I felt when revisiting films from decades past. In so many ways, these thoroughly modern blockbusters (modern in both design and intent) rely on many narrative tropes revealed in the Westerns exposed in Reel Injun. Both embrace a modern view of Native people that is indeed somewhat welcome; these are Native people of the present or future, not of the past, and this is something needed more in movies. However, while intending to be modern in their representation, both Twilight and Avatar are deeply rooted colonialist stories that may be inseparable from the dominant culture that crafted them.
“The Twilight Saga” features dynamic performances from some exciting young Native actors, including heartthrob Taylor Lautner. Lautner portrays Jacob Black, a member of the Quileute Nation in Washington State. In the first movie (and book), Jacob relates his people’s story to Bella (Kristen Stewart), the brooding love interest at the centre of the “Twilight” story. He tells her that his ancestors, including his great grandfather, made a treaty with “the cold ones” or vampires, the natural enemies of the werewolves from whom Jacob is descended. According to this legend in Twilight, the Quileute joined with the Cullens, a family of good vampires including Edward (Robert Pattison), to keep the bad (read: human eating) vampires away. Ultimately, this leads to conflict when some blood suckers intent on killing Bella arrive in town, leading both Jacob and Edward to fight over their right to protect her. Jacob’s transformation from teen to man comes in the second part of the series New Moon, where the newly buff Jacob not only turns into a werewolf for the first time, thus fulfilling his tribal legacy, but also cuts his once long hair and ceases wearing a shirt; a moment of objectification the film never truly explains but does acknowledge and exalt in.
However, more worrisome than a group of shirtless, flexing Native men is the original conceit of the treaty signed between the Quileute and the vampires. While the violation of the treaty is at the centre of the story the narrative never makes an allegorical connection with the history of treaty rights in North America. But one shouldn’t look to a vampire movie for this sort of affirmation of past wrongs. It’s actually in the very notion of the treaty that Twilight’s colonialist elements are exposed. In the simple act of equating vampires with the Quileute, Twilight suggests that Native people and their stories are the stuff of fantasy. Vampires after all, are fictitious creatures. The Quileute are not. In suggesting a treaty between the two, Twilight has the effect of fictionalizing Native people and their history. In doing so, Twilight absolves much of American history of its treatment of Native people – after all, they’re the same as vampires. Watching Twilight reminded me of a trip to a toy store I once made. On a shelf were small figurines depicting the characters from Lord of the Rings, including elves and orcs. On the same shelf were displayed figurines of Native people; part of the “Wild West Collection”, as if they too might have sprung from the mind of J.R.R. Tolkein. I bought one called “Medicine Man” and I keep it on my writing desk as a reminder that we are not fictional and that allowing others to portray us as such, even as toys or in movies, robs of us of our real history.
Twilight is a vampire movie, and that is not a point lost on me, nor is the fact that Avatar is a movie about blue people on another planet, far far away. However, more than any other recent Hollywood production, let alone a record setting 3D one, Avatar is steeped in Hollywood’s traditional and not so well worn representation of First Nations people. Rather overt in its allegorical intent, Avatar’s Na’vi, are clearly modeled after the indigenous people of the Americas, or at least how they have been historically portrayed in Hollywood. This is revealed in the Na’vi’s long braided hair, often adorned with feathers or a headband; their connection to the environment, which is made physical by their ability to plug into the land using their hair; their war whoop, a sound, that as Reel Injun points out, is a fabrication of Hollywood; even their language is based on Native languages. If you need more obvious connections, the Na’vi are referred to as “indigenous”, “natives”, “aboriginals” and “savages” throughout the film, all terms used to identify the First Nations of the Americas in the past.
Using the Hollywood Native as its allegorical tool, Avatar employs another worn Western narrative cliche; that of the colonizer, becoming one of the colonized in order to repel the attacks of the invaders. This same story is easily recognized in films such as Dances with Wolves. The story involves a futuristic soldier who adopts the appearance and ultimately the cultural beliefs of the more technologically primitive Na’vi, falls in love and ultimately saves them from destruction. This classic narrative has anti-colonial intentions, but in its very construction, undermines those values. By making the Na’vi’s salvation dependent on their acceptance of one of the colonizers, it reinforces the notion of a dominant culture. In Avatar, the Na’vi would have allowed their own destruction, mostly out of their own naivety and cultural innocence, if not for their adopted leader, who in this case, becomes their near deity in three months. The notion that one can move from one culture to the next and easily retain cultural knowledge and history, is a colonial one. The ability to choose which culture one belongs too is the creation of a dominant culture; that choice is simply not available to subcultures. So at its very narrative core, Avatar is a film that suggests cultural and racial superiority, while recreating a narrative well past its due date of cultural acceptability. It’s ironic of course, that a film of such technological advancement and wonderment, is undone by its reliance on outdated narrative and cultural tropes. And even as the film sails to new record box office numbers, perhaps it will serve as reminder of how much more progress is needed when it comes to representation of First Nations on screen.
Now, there have been many alternate readings of the portrayal of Native characters in both Twilight and Avatar, and certainly they have validity. Especially poignant is the observation that Avatar is really a comment on the current war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as being an environmental parable, as offered by its creator James Cameron. However, within entertainment such as this, it is still crucial to examine the choices made by filmmakers. I would argue that it’s even more important to interpret these choices in such populist entertainment. Ultimately, we are dealing with two films deeply rooted in fantasy, one populated by emo vampires, the other by large blue people with tails. In narrative worlds such as these, anything is truly possible. The vampires of Twilight didn’t have to make a treaty with the Quileute – they could have had a treaty with anyone, even aliens. The Na’vi of Avatar didn’t have to war whoop and wear braids – they’re blue, they could have done anything. But, that’s not what the filmmakers or storytellers chose to do. Instead, they used Native people, and once that choice is made it’s important to confront and understand it.
We have come out of a century where our stories were not being told by us, and where our representation on screen was out of our hands. That is not true anymore, and accepting a return to the storytelling of that era should be unacceptable, not just to First Nations people, but to everyone. More films like Twilight and Avatar may require their own Reel Injun to reclaim our screen image once again.
Jesse Wente has been the weekly film critic for CBC Radio in Toronto for nearly a decade. He also appears on Q, CBC Radio’s national arts and culture show and is seen regularly on TVOntario’s Saturday Night at the Movies. Jesse is a programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival as well as the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival. He is also president of Native Earth Performing Arts, Canada’s oldest Aboriginal theatre company.
What can I say what can I say!!
I read that the Vatican thinks Avatar flirts with the idea, “worship of nature can replace religion…”.
What an incredible statement on so many levels. I for one “hope so…”.
Didn’t their god create “nature?” why the fear of nature. After all, we all agree that nature will eventually either wipe us out or wipe us out.
Also, didn’t know these two things were mutually exclusive. Can’t I have nature Monday and Tuesday, religion on Wednesday night, and then nature again until Sunday???
Besides the congratulations to our own Wes Studi on this movie – I believe there is no higher honor for a NATIVE movie.
Re: some of my movies – SMOKE SIGNALS – is a movie about a boy trying to forgive his father; SKINS – is a movie about a non-sexual “bro-mance.” If you think either one of those movies is about drunk-indians “you can’t differentiate what you see from how you see it!”.
Best to all the young native filmmakers and those that advance the good of our experience with one other.
Chris Eyre -
Chris Eyre is a Cheyenne/Arapaho filmmaker. Smoke Signals, his first feature film, was one of the five highest-grossing independent films in 1998. A classic story of a man coming to terms with his father, Smoke Signals won the Audience Award and Eyre received the Filmmaker’s Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. His other films include A Thief of Time and Skinwalkers, based on the novels of Tony Hillerman, the award-winning Edge of America, and the short film A Thousand Roads for the Smithsonian’s National Museum for the American Indian. Eyre also directed several episodes of PBS’ acclaimed history series American Experience. His next feature, A Year in Mooring, will be released in 2011.