Films to books and back to film

When I began my adventure in my “major project” for Contemporary Indigenous Rhetoric I was at a bit of a loss. If my very first post is any indication, I like having clear demarcations in my life and this class and its work treading closely to the “territory” that I had determined was my mother’s. To her credit, she has remained comfortably distant when it comes to this class, though I can sense her wanted to discuss some of my reading with me.

I lent her the Moonshot graphic novel to sate her for the time being.

Mother issues aside, my first thought for my project would be a film blog, looking critically at indigenous film and hopefully, highlighting work that flies so far under the radar that perhaps sonar would be a better way to pick up the signals. Yet as I started thinking clearly about the work, I understood that it wasn’t the right project for me. I have little training in film studies, not that being steeped in film theory is a prerequisite for a film blog. The other nagging doubt was less easy to admit, I did not feel it was my place to be critical of indigenous work. Perhaps I was limiting myself to film reviews that I’ve read, leaning heavily on the quality of the story, acting, directing–all the pieces of a film, taken apart and examined. I could not see myself deconstructing films that were basically invisible, that needed exposure. I did not want to write a bad film review.

Working on this problem, I found myself staring at my mother’s bookshelf that housed her Native American books. The next idea hit immediately. Having known a bit about her journey in discovering Native American spiritualism as connected to the New Age movement, I could take some of her more “suspect” books and discuss the rhetoric used to appropriate that spiritualism for a largely middle-class white audience. I was excited about the project, not only did I have a ready source of material, but the natural skeptic in me could have a field day parsing out the language of appropriation that had to be inside.

Thanks to my mother it all went to hell.

Apparently I had misjudged her, and found not a collection of “red spirit” empowerment books or guides to creating a sweat lodge in your own bathroom, instead I found Bury My Heart at Wounded KneeNative American Folk Tales and historical books detailing the less-often told history of the United States. My mother took the mickey out of my idea but her determination to be sophisticated in her book choices.

I still think there was a secret purge of material when she got wind of my project.

I still liked the New Age angle and when I began doing research, found the appropriate target to inject the buckets of snark that I had been building up from the beginning: Dances With freakin’ Wolves. The rest, as they say, is revisionist history and I thoroughly enjoyed the presenting the material in class. I hope the subsequent articles contain the same spirit. As for my mother’s book collection, I will continue to examine it with a critical eye, waiting for the day some of those “empowerment” books make their triumphant return.

An Early Ambassador

After hearing the story of three Japanese fisherman who washed up on the shores of Northwest Washington, their subsequent round-the-world adventure–via England and China–in the hopes of returning to their homeland, Ranald MacDonald decided to partake in an adventure of his own. Part Chinook and part Scottish, the young man set out from New York on a whaling ship, eventually ending up–by his own design–adrift near Japan’s northern island Hokkaido, determined to visit the isolationist nation on his own.

He was 24 years old.

“The other crew members were reluctant to let him go, and some even wept as he took off. Like most sailors at the time, they were well aware that unauthorized foreigners who set foot on Japanese soil— even shipwrecked sailors— risked execution. To them, it must have seemed as though MacDonald was sailing into the jaws of death. In fact, when a rudder from his boat was later found floating in the area by a different ship, and reported in North America, he was believed by many— including his own father— to have died.” (source)

Fredrick L. Schodt discovered this story while doing research in other areas. A translator and historian, Schodt became so interested in MacDonald’s adventure that he eventually wrote  Native American in the Land of the Shogun: Ranald MacDonald and the Opening of JapanLess interesting than Ranald’s story is the way in which I discovered Schodt’s book. I have been interested in Japanese literature, extending into Japanese history for a deeper understanding of texts, when I came across Schodt’s web site. It was particularly fortuitous that these two subjects intersected in such a unique way. When Japan was closed off to most of the world–and where curious intruders could well face execution–MacDonald was able to befriend his Japanese captors/hosts, even acting as an English translator. Unfortunately, before Schodt, MacDonald’s story remained ensconced in the local history in Eastern Washington. Many have been actively involved in trying to get MacDonald’s story out to the public, and, as Schodt writes, a “Friends of MacDonald” society was formed in the late 1980s.

While the focus of our course is Contemporary Indigenous Rhetoric, I believe it is still important to revisit out historical record and to include narratives that have been silenced for too long. Until our collective American conscious fully realizes Native Americans as a contemporary people, we can, in some ways, fill in the missing part of the past where their words and deeds were suppressed, in an attempt to erase the contributions of thinkers, adventurers and ambassadors like Ranald MacDonald.

Eyewitness to History

NAA MS 2367-a
Red Horse pictographic account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, 1881.

Not long after my live tweeting of Dances With Wolves, a friend of mine from Montreal sent me a link to an interesting exhibition. Red Horse: Drawings from the Battle of Little Big Horn was on display this past January at Stanford University. For the first time in 40 years, many of the Minneconjou Lakota Sioux’s drawings were collected and displayed together. The collection represents an eyewitness account of the battle and its aftermath, captured in pencil and pen in ledger books. (The entire series can be found online at the Smithsonian).

Red Horse’s drawings, commissioned by Army doctor Charles E. McChesney in 1881, methodically recall the events of the battle, with the blood spurting from casualties on both sides, and the Lakota eventually leading away the captured cavalry horses. And absent from each page is Custer. (source)

The importance of this archive–and the importance of having continuous public displays of these drawings–is that it is the telling of Little Big Horn from a Native American who was present. Gone are the romantic ideals of Custer and his men’s “sacrifice” in the land of the savage. The collection not only depicts the chaos of battle, but the horrific aftermath, some pictures featuring the scalped cavalry soldiers and others showing a field of fallen horses, blood flowing from arrow and bullet holes. The lack of an American narrative is apparent, the drawings–simple and stark in form–are a graphic illustration of the realities of battle. “The Red Horse drawings let us see the battle through Lakota eyes. They are the Little Bighorn without Custer,” said Scott D. Sagan, professor of political science at Stanford.

This collection fills in part of the gap in Native American voices in the history the United States. Too often the stories of battle are written by the victors, yet in this case, the victors has been and continue to be so suppressed by an occupying force that their small victories are depicted as acts of savagery and treachery. For centuries the colonization of North America has been visually romanticized in art, movies and television with an agenda that forces the indigenous population into the role of “ungracious hosts.” Red Horse’s depiction of one of the most “storied” battles between the occupied and occupiers are an indispensable addition to our national narrative and worthy of more exhibition and study.



Channel 1354

Earlier in the semester we watched an episode of “Blackstone,” an original Canadian series airing on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN). The show held the same tension and drama as most American network series, yet with one glaring difference: the setting was a Canadian reserve, what we call a reservation here in the states. We found it refreshing to be exposed to this narrative and many of us continued to watch the series as it is streaming online. Yet, I found two things troubling: 1) it was difficult for me to watch the show critically out of fear of diminishing its representative importance, and 2) that we found it refreshing at all because the stories of Native Americans are non-existent here at home.

In February, the APTN announced that it was gearing up to launch a similar channel in the United States. An article on the web site Jezebel quotes CEO Jean La Rose saying “We think the time is right for Native Americans to have their own channel.” The idea of Native Americans creating, acting in, and producing their own stories is long overdue. Too often the stories of Native Americans are told by white historians, anthropologists, politicians—when those stories are told at all.

The introduction of a channel devoted the Native American stories has one large obstacle—the reality that it will be relegated to the upper reaches of the cable or satellite channel guide and be relatively undiscoverable to the average viewer. That Native Americans will be interested in a channel that streams their own stories does not appear to be in dispute, but the real challenge will be branching out to a more general audience, giving the American public a chance to have contemporary indigenous people and stories begin to overwrite the “Hollywood Indian” that is so much a part of American culture. I have has the same concerns about other networks devoted to one demographic—allowing people to create an echo chamber of their own thoughts or identity, but not necessarily reaching out to a broader audience.

I hope that the creation of this new channel not only creates huge opportunities for Native Americans to tell their own stories in their own way, but what I really hope is that the providers assign the channel a “remote friendly” number, so that the average viewer, switching between the Kardashians and ESPN will stumble upon something entertaining, engaging and unlike anything they have every seen.


Dear Warriors,

I graduated from Wilson Area High School in Easton, Pennsylvania years ago. More importantly, I am a proud alumnus of the Wilson Area High School Warrior Marching Band. I can remember clearly hearing our named announced over loud speakers at football games and band competitions. There is a special inflection between “Warrior” and “Marching” that emphasized that we were pretty amazing.

And we were/are.

Yet, I would like to ask my fellow alumni, if they think it is time for a change. For all my years at Wilson and many of the years after, “Warrior” was nothing more than a word, a mascot, a combination of syllables that created a brand with which I have been (and still am) proud to identify. But perhaps it is time for a re-branding, time to disconnect the easy association between high school and mascot and re-establish the connection between “warrior” and “history.” If this argument is beginning to sound familiar, you may be a Redskins fan.

I want my Alma Mater to be on the right side of history, to make a statement with its students, faculty, alumni and community that the Wilson Area School District recognize when it is time to evolve its brand and take steps forward.

It is time to open a dialogue about our long time mascot.

This is not some politically correct notions, or a knee-jerk response to outside pressure. I am not making any demands, but I would like to start a discussion about what the “Warrior” has meant to fellow alumni, and what the representation means in the larger, American landscape. Dr. Adrienne Keene has an interesting blog about the appropriation of Native American imagery that should be the first stop for anyone wondering why this type of dialogue is important. It is imperative that the reasoning does not come from myself, or other non-Native people, but from those whose cultural identity is being used as a mascot. Let’s not get distracted by ideas of “honoring” Native Americans as “warriors”, this only perpetuates the image that Native Americans exists only in some magical, past America and not part of our contemporary world.

This is an opportunity to talk, to talk about why this could be a good step forward without forgoing the wonderful legacy of Wilson High. Remember, that legacy is not embodied in the form of a mascot, but in the current and former students that passed through its doors.