By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – July 9, 2017) — If you’re anything like me you grew up watching Western movies. John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper, and James Stewart were an ever-present presence on screen, epitomizing the budding growth of the west, a Euro-centric view of expansion. In these movies, Native Americans were sometimes portrayed with dignity and humanity (think of the Outlaw of Josey Wales), but most of the time Native Americans were portrayed as savages to be tamed, falling prey to stereotypes and misunderstanding of the various tribes.
But in all of these movies — either in a positive or negative portrayal — the white guy was the hero. As an example, think of the positive portrayal of Native Americans in Dances With Wolves. Even with an affirmative portrayal, Kevin Costner was still the main voice and character; Native Americans were a noble backdrop to his story. And if you were to look behind the screen to the directors, screenwriters, and producers of the films, Native voices were completely absent.
That is until Smoke Signals came out in 1998.
Smoke Signals was a game changer. Not only were the lead actors and actresses Native American, but the writer of the script (award-winning writer, Sherman Alexie) and director (Chris Eyre) were Native Americans. It was a Native film, representing Native Americans in a real and relevant way. The story was told from the vantage point of Native America, but carried a universal theme of friendship, family, loss, and love. It’s a marvelous movie, one of our family’s favorite.
And though Smoke Signals helped change the landscape, the movement towards a broader, multi-American worldview has been slow. True, there are more Native actors and directors, but a broader acceptance of Native American films, though making progress, still has many hurdles to overcome.
So it was with great anticipation that I attended Made In Native America film festival at the Albuquerque Museum of Art. With various movie showings, a panel discussion, and comments from host, James Lujan of the Institute of American Indian Arts, the day was one of growth in my understanding of the emergent movement within Native America to “tell their own stories” through film.
After a showing the movie Drunktown’s Finest (where we learned that the movie was inspired by a news story that portrayed Gallup, New Mexico — and the various Native cultures found within — as a drunken city), the panel of four directors shared insight into their short films. The films included:
Search for the World’s Best Indian Taco — Steven Judd, Writer/Director (Choctaw/Kiowa). The whimsical story of a Choctaw grandfather who regales his grandson with tall tales about his lifelong quest for true love.
The Blanket — Razelle Benally, Director (Oglala Lakota/Navajo). In 1863 New Mexico, a settler copes with the death of his wife amid skirmishes with a nearby Indian tribe. Winner of Best Narrative Film and Best Overall Film at the 2016 New Mexico Film Foundation Student Filmmaker Showcase.
Devil’s Throne — Echota Killsnight, Director (Northern Cheyenne/Cherokee). A land owner discovers a suspicious trespasser on his property who claims to have buried a dead dog, but is it really a dog in the grave? Winner of Best Cinematography and Best Editing at the 2016 New Mexico Film Foundation Student Filmmaker Showcase.
Big Sister Rug — Dwayne Joe, Director (Navajo/Hopi). This documentary looks at the history and future of the world’s largest hand-woven rug, the Big Sister Rug, housed on the Navajo reservation. Winner of a 2016 Student Production Award from the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
I was particularly impressed with comments made by Razelle Benally. In her short comments she stated that Native Americans have a right to tell their own stories, particularly those outside Native culture. Benally stated, “I feel I have the right to tell a story about a white male. So I did.” In her short movie — The Blanket, she tells the story of a white-man’s decision to give a Native tribe a blanket infected by smallpox. It’s a poignant movie, very thoughtful, though the ramifications are desolate.
The Blanket depicts the reality that Americans, and before them, Europeans, spread disease to various Native tribes who were unable to fight the disease. In the documentary, Guns, Germs and Steel, it states that “Within just a few generations, the continents of the Americas were virtually emptied of their native inhabitants – some academics estimate that approximately 20 million people may have died in the years following the European invasion – up to 95% of the population of the Americas.” Benally’s movie show the effects of the spread of disease humanly.
The Blanket is a story—as part of history—that must be told.
If there’s one thing Made in Native America did was demonstrate that our Native American friends and neighbors have artful and engaging stories to tell; my hope is that the larger movie industry will encourage, support, and listen. And though groups like Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute does support Native directors, actors, and producers, we need more than just Redford: it takes a community to encompass the call.
To learn more about Native American films, click here: http://www.aifisf.com/, http://www.sundance.org/programs/native-program, and http://newsdesk.si.edu/releases/national-museum-american-indian-s-native-cinema-showcase-2016-opens-new-mexico.
Photo captions: 1) Scene from The Blanket. 2) Smoke Signals. 3) Drunktown’s Finest. 4) Search for the World’s Best Indian Taco. 5) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, artist, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA), and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon
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